More than 300,000 immigrants languish in detention centers around the country. Why are they there – and who is profiting from their imprisonment?
Pedro Guzman Perez speaks to his wife, Emily Guzman, by phone every evening. They speak around 8 PM, a talk filled with stories about their days, shared projects and love. Sometimes their three-year-old son, Logan, wants to get on the phone too, but usually Logan will be watching a show in another room. They have a great relationship, Emily says, and the conversations are often the highlight of her day.
There are, however, some logistical difficulties. Pedro, a Guatemalan native who was in the country on a work visa, can only speak to his American-citizen wife on the phone for 20 minutes at a time – precious little for a couple sharing the tumult of raising a three-year-old. Each phone card costs $5, and the already staticky connection is easily broken.
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This is because Pedro is calling from the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, an immigration detention facility where he has been detained for nearly ten months. Many aspects of Pedro’s case led him to the detention center – two ten-year-old charges of marijuana possession, one of which has since been dropped; an administrative mistake by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), to which they have admitted; the harsh record of his immigration court judge and even the patchy memory of an older woman whose answers in an immigration interview led the federal government to look into Pedro’s status.
But neither Emily, Pedro’s lawyer nor the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) thinks these are enough to warrant keeping Pedro under lock and key, away from his family and with tax payers bearing the cost of his prolonged detention.
Pedro is one of the 383,524 individuals detained by ICE while they await court dates, deportation or bail. Detention is a key aspect of the federal government’s push to deport immigrants, both documented and undocumented, who have committed any crimes or misdemeanors.
More than 3.7 million immigrants have been deported since 1994, and in the past decade, immigration detention has tripled. In 2001, the US detained about 95,000 individuals, compared to the 380,000 detained in 2009.
Detention Watch, a national coalition of organizations working to educate the public about the US immigration detention system, called these measures extremely punitive for individuals going through a civil administrative process.
“US policymakers see detention and deportation as a politically salient ‘quick fix’ to broken immigration policies and to the complex issues of global and regional poverty and instability,” Detention Watch noted in a policy report. “Instead of recognizing and addressing larger economic and political structures that cause people to immigrate, politicians focus on interior and border enforcement as a way to repel people from migrating.”
It has been an administration policy across the aisle, with more people being deported per year under President Barack Obama than under his predecessor George Bush.
To the tune of strategies such as Operation Endgame, the March 2004 Department of Homeland Security’s ten-year-goal to “remove all removable aliens,” the nation now has 270 immigrant detention centers in which individuals picked up for immigration offenses are held.
The rise in immigration detention also has many critics pointing to a more sinister reason than political expedience or security fears – the profit that private prison corporations make from the detention of immigrants like Pedro.
Private Immigration Detention and CCA
One of the most notorious players is the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private immigration detainer. It runs Stewart Detention Center, where Pedro now languishes, and is the sixth-largest correction system in the country, behind only the federal government and four states.
At any one time, CCA houses about 75,000 offenders in more than 65 facilities in 20 states, about half of all immigrants currently detained in private facilities. It shares its business with Geo Group, Cornell Company and Avalon Correction Services, as well as several smaller companies.
In addition to detaining adults, CCA also detains children whose parents are being picked up for immigration offenses, housing them in centers such as the infamous T. Don Hutto Center in Taylor, Texas. In 2007, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against the Hutto Center on behalf of ten juvenile plaintiffs, arguing that they were receiving substandard education, medical care and little privacy.
CCA also runs a slew of other private prisons – in fact, immigration detention makes up for only 40 percent of CCA’s revenue, according to its quarterly report.
ICE deals with its $140 million budget deficit by routinely farming out its immigration detention operations to private companies like CCA or state and county prisons. According to Detention Watch, only 13 percent of immigration facilities are ICE-owned and operated. The majority of detainees, 67 percent, are housed in local and county jail facilities, with another 17 percent in contract detention facilities and 3 percent in others such as the Bureau of Prisons.
That 17 percent housed in contract facilities is telling: it’s yet another statistic in the story of how US corrections operations are being farmed out to private companies. According to Alex Friedmann, associate editor of Prison Legal News, president of the Private Corrections Institute and a former CCA prisoner, ten states have 20 percent or more of their prisoners in for-profit facilities. These states include New Mexico, with 45.8 percent of immigrants housed in private centers; Hawaii, with 35 percent; and Arizona, with 23.1 percent.
Earnings of Immigration Detention
For the 273 days Pedro has been detained, CCA gets paid approximately $140, according to figures from the American Civil Liberties Union. In some of their facilities, such as the Hutto facility in Texas, the average rate ICE is contracted to pay the CCA an average rate of $200 per detained immigrant, per day.
The ICE budget allocated $250 million in 2008-2009 to raise the total number of detention beds to 32,000, while allocating only $10 million in funding to less expensive alternatives to detention, such as electronic monitors and regular visits with case managers.
Five of the most lucrative contracts CCA has with the federal government have no end dates, and several contain clauses that guarantee a certain amount of revenue regardless of the occupancy rates of the jails, the investigate online publication Business of Detention found. The rate of contract renewal is almost 95 percent.
These steady successes have reaped their benefits: CCA has managed to make a record profit every year since 2003. Their revenue in 2009 was $1.67 billion, the company has been estimated to bill $11 million a month, and between 2004 and 2008 the company’s stock more than doubled, from $12.15 to $26.86 a share.
However, the profit from immigration detention does not end with CCA. Over 300 city and county governments across the country also have contracts with ICE and house the majority of detained immigrants. This acts as an incentive for local law enforcement to enforce immigration law, usually a national-level enforcement duty. This practice is already in place in some cities and states under the 287(g) Homeland Security program.
In addition, Friedmann notes, other industries that benefit from the boom in detention are prison food corporations, medical care, probation supervision, prisoner transportation services and financial firms that provide bond financing for new prisons.
Telephone access inside the prisons, as the frustrating reality of Pedro and Emily attests, has grown into a lucrative business. Companies such as EverCom run a virtual monopoly, leading to price hikes, in some areas as high as $17.34 for a 15-minute phone call. There have also been reports of county government’s receiving kickbacks from phone companies, such as the 44 percent commission Davis County, Utah, makes from inmate phone calls.
Even when immigrants who have been picked up are released on bond, the price is steep: immigration bond can run up to $5,000.
Trimming the Fat
A central part of CCA’s continuing profit stream is its ability to cut costs in immigration detention.
The ACLU has sued CCA for overcrowding and substandard medical treatment, and accused CCA of scrimping on the minimal services it is federally required to provide in order to cut costs.
Through his work, Friedmann has found that less training, lower benefits, lower wages and chronic understaffing of private detention facilities not only cuts costs, but also leads to instability in detention centers.
In addition to this, Human Rights Watch noted that ICE detention standards, most recently revised in 2009, are merely internal agency guidelines and do not have the binding authority of federal regulations or statutory law.
In a 2008 interview with a former CCA senior quality assurance manager, Business of Detention was told that, when CCA conducts its own internal audits of its facilities, it often downplays violent incidents or attacks on detainees. The source said he was told to make the incidents appear less serious (an act which could have led to the nonrenewal of the center’s contract.)
Recently introduced legislation, the Private Prison Information Act of 2009, seeks to require private correctional facilities and other institutions housing federal prisoners to make the same information available to the public that federal prisons and correctional facilities are required to make available. However, it has yet to pass the House.
What Is It Actually Like?
Azadeh N. Shahshahani, the National Security and Immigrant Rights Project Director for the ACLU of Georgia and chairwoman of Georgia Detention Watch, said the lack of transparency regarding immigration deaths is a serious problem.
“We expressed really great concerns about the treatment of the detainees that failed even ICE’s own non-binding standards,” Shahshahani said. In particular, she has found it difficult to access information regarding the death of Roberto Martinez Medina at Stewart Detention Center, where Pedro is currently being held.
Medina, a Mexican national, died in ICE custody in 2008. “The attorney representing his widow pressed for some records from ICE showing that he complained of chest pain three days before he collapsed,” Shahshahani said, but these attempts have so far been unsuccessful.
Since 2003, there have been 111 reported deaths in immigration detention. According to Detention Watch, the majority of these deaths were caused by a lack of timely and thorough medical care. Detainees must request medical services through CCA staff, and as Business of Detention notes, detainees have said that staff members often deny medical care to both reduce costs and push detainees into voluntary deportation.
The psychological toll of detention is also great. Speaking over the crackling connection from Stewart Detention Center, Pedro detailed his difficulty in dealing with his indefinite detention.
Day to day, Pedro says, he deals with both the physical reality of CCA staff who “scream at you, they yell at you; They threaten you; They take your lunch away” and the ever-present threats of being put in solitary confinement for a month. This punishment is meted out for acts such as not being in bed when told three times in a row, says Pedro, who has so far avoided the experience.
But Pedro, who was a stay-at-home dad to Logan while Emily practiced as a mental health therapist, finds missing his family most devastating. “Every day that goes by there is something that he [Logan] does, that he says, that I cannot watch, something I cannot do with him.”
Though he has been in the United States since the age of eight and has no memory of, or contacts in, his native Guatemala, Pedro says that it is a constant struggle to continue fighting his case when “Emily could already be with me in South America.”
For Emily and Pedro, helping other detainees, many of whom are not bilingual like Pedro, provides a brief respite. During some of their limited phone time, Pedro passes along information to Emily regarding family members or lawyers of detained individuals for her to contact. This action helps them feel less helpless at a time when the only advice they are given is to wait.
Pedro’s mother arrived in the United States from Guatemala with her young son in tow in 1988, seeking asylum she was never granted from the turbulent political situation following the overthrow of the country’s president in 1982.
According to Emily, Pedro’s mother’s “memory is not great,” which proved to be a serious problem when she was called into immigration services for a permanent residency interview. Her responses led to the denial of her request for permanent residence. Because he entered the country with her, Pedro’s immigration status was connected with hers, and he was sent a notice to appear in court.
However, as Emily and Pedro’s attorney, Glenn Fogle, confirmed, the letter was sent to the wrong address. Yet, Pedro’s failure to appear at the court date resulted in the issuance of an order of deportation. The order came to the correct address, and on Monday, September 28, 2009, two black SUVs pulled up to the couple’s home in Durham, North Carolina.
Two men handcuffed Pedro and, after allowing Logan to kiss his father goodbye, took Pedro to the first of three jails or detention centers in which he has lived over the past ten months. Immigration authorities have since admitted their initial mistake in sending information to the wrong address and stayed his deportation. Due to entering the detention center with two marijuana convictions, Pedro was not eligible for bail, but after one misdemeanor charge was dropped, the BIA recommended that Pedro be released on bail.
Meanwhile, his immigration judge, a notoriously tough one with an asylum case denial rate of 87 percent, has rejected Pedro’s pleas for bond and residency under an asylum program known as the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA), under which two of Pedro’s siblings have gained residency. Pedro is now appealing with the BIA for both these issues, continuing to fight his case from the inside.
The average length of stay in detention is 37 days, according to ICE, but the ACLU says these numbers are significantly skewed by Mexican nationals, who are often subject to expedited removal.
An Associated Press system snapshot found that, on the evening of March 15, 2009, at least 4,170 people had been detained for six months or longer. Of these, 2,362 were still fighting removal cases before immigration courts.
Pedro is lucky to be among the 16 percent of immigrants, according to the ACLU, who are represented by attorneys.
Fannin Anello, an attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrant Rights Project, said another issue with prolonged detention is the trampling of prisoners’ due process rights.
“Under the government’s interpretation of the mandatory detention law, many people with viable legal challenges to deportation continue to be deprived of their liberty for many months or years,” Anello said, adding, “even though they have never had a bond hearing to determine whether detention is necessary in their individual cases.”
Laying Down the Law
Federal laws such as those surrounding the penalties for drug crimes also contribute to prolonged detention. Due to his two marijuana convictions, received in 1998 and 1999, Pedro was not eligible for bail.
Three-strikes and truth-in-sentencing laws also contribute to a more punitive system. These pieces of legislation and their desired policy outcomes began their life at ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council.
ALEC is the nation’s largest public-private legislative partnership, which counts among its members more than 2,000 state lawmakers, about one-third of the nation’s legislators and more than 200 corporations and special interest groups. Included in this list is the Corrections Corporation of America.
Central components of ALEC include ten task forces that work to develop model legislation in different areas, one of which is the Civil Justice task force.
“I am aware personally that CCA executives have been on the board of ALEC,” said Friedmann. “The argument there is that CCA is being actively involved in an organization that pushes policy and legislation and therefore benefits the private prison industry.”
Though federal law forbids corporations from helping form legislation, any ALEC bill must be approved by both its public and private sector members. Of the group’s $6.9 million in annual revenue, about $5.6 million come from its corporate members.
According to an article by Beau Hodai of In These Times, Arizona’s recent anti-immigrant bill, SB1070, is very similar to model legislation crafted by ALEC.
Furthermore, CCA retains the federal contract to house detainees in Arizona and would benefit greatly from heavier immigration enforcement in the state. During the bill’s formation, Hodai reports, CCA enlisted Highground Consulting to represent it in Arizona.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s spokesman, Paul Senseman, was employed with an organization which lobbied for CCA, and his wife works with the Policy Development Group, which also lobbies for CCA. Brewer’s chief policy adviser also lobbies for an organization of which the CCA is a “board level” member.
But CCA’s ties with legislators do not end on the state level. According to Hodai, CCA spent nearly $3.5 million in 2005 for lobbying on immigration and national security, $3.25 million in 2007, $4.4 million between 2008 and 2010 lobbying the Department of Homeland Security and more than $175,000 during the 2010 election cycle. Of 43 CCA lobbying disclosure reports acquired by Hodai, only five do not express the intention to monitor immigration reform.
CCA has targeted its lobbying at both Republican and Democratic legislators. It has donated money to the Democratic Congressional and Senatorial Committees, the GOP, senators on the appropriations committee and the subcommittee on Homeland Security.
The path from the legislature to the CCA is also well trod. CCA’s Senior Vice President, Mike Quinlan, served as the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons from 1987 to 1992; Kim Porter joined CCA after nearly 25 years with the Immigration and Naturalization Service; and CCA’s general counsel, Gustavus Puryear IV, was nominated by Bush for a federal judge seat in the Middle District of Tennessee, CCA’s headquarters.
The ACLU notes the paradox in which immigration law and the detention industry have placed people. Forcing them to choose between waiting out their cases in jail indefinitely and giving up their immigration claims means that only the individuals with the strongest cases are most likely to continue to fight – and therefore face lengthy detention.
Pedro continues to wait for the BIA to rule on his eligibility for bond and residency under NACARA, so that he can come home and stay home. But it is a struggle – every day Emily and Logan lose with Pedro while he is detained, the Corrections Corporation of America profits.