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A Death in Texas Casts Cold Light on America's Privatized Immigration Prisons

The speculative public-private detention center represents the new face of imprisonment in America.
 
 
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County Clerk Dianne Florez noticed it first. Plumes of smoke were rising outside the small West Texas town of Pecos. “The prison is burning again,” she announced.

About a month and a half before, on December 12, 2008, inmates had rioted to protest the death of one of their own, Jesus Manuel Galindo, 32. When Galindo’s body was removed from the prison in what looked to them like a large black trash bag, they set fire to the recreational center and occupied the exercise yard overnight. Using smuggled cell phones, they told worried family members and the media about poor medical care in the prison and described the treatment of Galindo, who had been in solitary confinement since mid-November. During that time, fellow inmates and his mother, who called the prison nearly every day, had warned authorities that Galindo needed daily medication for epilepsy and was suffering from severe seizures in the “security housing unit,” which the inmates call the “hole.”

I arrived in Pecos on February 2, shortly after the second riot broke out. I had driven 200 miles east from El Paso through the northern reaches of the Chihuahuan desert.

Pecos is the seat of Reeves County in “far west” Texas and home to what the prison giant GEO Group calls “the largest detention/correctional facility under private management in the world.” The prison, a sprawling complex surrounded by forbidding perimeter fences on the town’s deserted southwest edge, holds up to 3,700 prisoners. Almost all are serving time in federal lockup before being deported and are what the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security (DHS) call “criminal aliens.”

Although the term “criminal aliens” has no precise definition, its broadening use reflects a trend in dealing with immigrants. With the post-9/11 creation of DHS and its two agencies—Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP)—a wide sector of aliens increasingly became the focus of joint efforts by immigration and law enforcement officers. ICE’s Criminal Alien Program, working with local police, began targeting for deportation both legal and illegal immigrants with criminal records. And CBP’s Border Patrol began to turn over illegal border crossers to the justice system for criminal prosecution, instead of, as in the past, simply deporting them. Many criminal aliens are long-term legal residents of the United States and are also the parents, children, or siblings of U.S. citizens and lawful residents.

When the prison started burning again I was in the county clerk’s office tracking down the agreements, contracts, and subcontracts that establish the paper foundation of the Reeves County Detention Complex, the oldest county-owned immigrant prison, constructed as a speculative venture and opened in 1988. Over the past eight years, immigration prisons such as Reeves have boomed along the border in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Some hold ICE detainees, some U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) detainees, and others, like the one in Reeves, prisoners of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). But in the nine months I traveled along the Southwest border visiting eleven prison towns, all the prisons I saw had two common features: they were managed and operated by private-prison corporations—including two of the world’s largest, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO—and they were located in remote, rural areas, invariably described by locals as being “in the middle of nowhere.”

These immigration prisons constitute the new face of imprisonment in America: the speculative public-private prison, publicly owned by local governments, privately operated by corporations, publicly financed by tax-exempt bonds, and located in depressed communities. Because they rely on project revenue instead of tax revenue, these prisons do not need voter approval. Instead they are marketed by prison consultants to municipal and county governments as economic-development tools promising job creation and new revenue without new taxes. The possibility of riots usually goes unmentioned.

 
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