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Fighting the Corporate Prison Industry: Citizens of One Illinois Town Fight CCA Immigration Detention Facility

Will CCA seal a deal to build a civil detention facility in Crete, Ill., before the legislature votes to bar it?

The fight over a proposed privately run federal immigration detention center in Illinois is raising thorny questions about the benefits and drawbacks of these facilities.

Since late last year, the Corrections Corporation of America has been embroiled in a stand-off over the proposed center, slated for construction just outside of Chicago in the small, relatively affluent village of Crete. Bolstered by state and congressional lawmakers, local activists aim to beat back the proposed facility, citing CCA's less-than-sterling track record on alleged prisoner abuses and its role in helping carry out what they perceive as the government's anti-immigrant policies.

CCA has long cast its eye on Crete, securing a first-purchase option on the proposed detention center site roughly seven years ago, according to CCA spokesman Steve Owen. This means that the owner of the property -- a private citizen who no longer lives in Crete -- is barred from selling it to another party until the option expires.

In late 2010, CCA informed the town that it was the ideal place for a new federal immigration detention center. Town administrator Tom Durkin and his colleagues agreed to explore the idea without fully committing to the plan. Durkin says he and his colleagues were "interested in seeing what it would entail, what it would mean," and what "some of the drawbacks" might be.

Though CCA had already offered its services to Crete, the town had yet to actually secure a contract with the U.S. Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- meaning that CCA functioned as its own middleman, actively seeking out Crete and encouraging it to apply to host the federal facility.

Which is exactly what it did in November of 2010, firing off a white paper to Washington outlining how it planned to comply with ICE's revised detention standards. The Obama administration laid out those new requirements in 2009 in response to complaints from human rights and civil liberties groups about the treatment of undocumented immigrants.

Crete's 780-bed facility would, according to the white paper, be built to meet ICE's requirements for "a wholly new generation of detention facilities uniquely suited to ICE's civil detention authority" with "innovative and cost-effective designs … easy access to legal services, abundant natural light, ample outdoor recreation," as well as "freedom of movement."

Seven months later, Crete received a letter from ICE saying that the town had been "tentatively selected" to host the new facility.

As part of the deal, Crete would receive part of a per-diem fee CCA would collect for each detainee. And since the detainees would count as village residents for tax purposes, Crete would collect roughly $60,000 in additional revenue per year from the state, the Chicago Tribune reported in January . According to Crete Mayor Michael Einhorn, wages for detention center employees would be set by the Department of Labor and not by CCA.

Under CCA management, the facility is supposed to inject life into a stagnant economic bloodstream, creating some 250 new jobs, generating fresh tax revenue , and staving off potential cuts to police and municipal services.

Private corrections companies frequently seek out small towns angling for an economic shot in the arm. Doling out promises to "grow hair on bald heads and make money rain from the skies," they present a lucrative pitch, according to Frank Smith, a private prisons expert with the Private Corrections Institute.

As part of its effort to court Crete, CCA took Einhorn and other Crete officials on a fact-finding tour of a pair of its facilities, one of which is a US Marshals detention center in Leavenworth, Kansas. Einhorn insists that the facility did not appear to be a blight on the community. The unit houses some 1100 federal inmates and is not marred by a troubled track record. Since the 1850s, Leavenworth has hosted a number of state and federal prisons; by the time CCA opened the Leavenworth Detention Facility in 1992, prison business had long-since become Leavenworth's business.

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