A Brief History of Private Prisons in Immigration Detention

Although the number of privately managed immigration detention beds has grown drastically since 1996, corporations have actually dominated the field for more than two decades. In fact a contract between the INS and the newly formed Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) gave birth to the private prison industry itself in 1983. Since then, dozens of other companies have emerged to compete for government contracts not only in detention operations, but in peripheral industries such as prison construction and correctional officer services.

Companies that run private prisons are responsible to their shareholders, not to the public. The incentive to maximize profit leads private corrections groups to cut expenses by, among other things, keeping facilities chronically understaffed, leading to higher rates of human rights violations and violence (1), and paying significantly less than their public counterparts. Private correctional officers are paid $28,790 in comparison with a median salary of $38,380 for government workers (2). Low wages lead to high staff turnover rates, which in turn lead to poorer overall quality in facility management. In 2000, the private prison turnover rate was 53% while the public prison turnover rate was 16% (3). In Texas, a state report found that private prison guards had a 90% annual turnover rate compared to 24% in public facilities (4). Private contractors are also exempt from the requirement to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests, and are protected in litigation by complex contractor immunity doctrines, all of which leads to a glaring lack of transparency and accountability. CCA and GEO have a long track record of abuse and mismanagement at their facilities. A few recent cases include:

  • Allegations first brought to light in 2010 that CCA allowed its Idaho Correctional Center to become so violent that it was dubbed a “Gladiator School.” After the Associated Press released a video of a violent prisoner beating as guards watched, the FBI opened an investigation into the facility. The ACLU of Idaho has sued the company over conditions at the facility(5).
  • In November 2010, GEO was sued by civil rights organizations after Mississippi youth, between the ages of 13 and 22, claimed “barbaric, unconstitutional conditions” at the company’s Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility (WGYCF) in Walnut Grove, Mississippi. The lawsuit alleges the prison is “dangerously understaffed” and creates a situation where “corruption and violence is rampant(6).”
  • Immigrant prisoners at GEO Group’s Reeves County Detention Center lead two major uprisings in 2009 and 2010 after multiple deaths at the facility that were reportedly caused by a lack of proper medical care. The ACLU later sued on behalf of the family of Jesus Manuel Galindo, an epileptic who died after being placed in solitary confinement as punishment for complaining about his medical conditions(7).

Although the most publicized problems with the privatization of detention have occurred in the context of criminal incarceration, mismanagement and scandals have occurred in private immigrant detention facilities as well. Examples include:

  • In 2010, a CCA supervisor at the company’s T. Don Hutto detention center was arrested and convicted after several women accused him of sexually groping them while he drove them to the airport. According to ICE protocol, the male officer should not have been alone with the women during transportation. In May 2007, a different CCA guard was fired from Hutto after reports of sexual assault of a woman detained at the facility. The T. Don Hutto facility is considered one of ICE’s flagship detention centers.
  • In 2008, widespread allegations appeared in the media alleging that guards at GEO Group’s South Texas Detention Center were sexually assaulting detainees at the facility(8).
  • Detained men at LCS Corrections’ South Louisiana Correctional Center reported that contract staff retaliated against them by placing those who raised human rights complaints in solitary confinement and threatening criminal prosecution(9).

The percentage of detention beds managed by private corporations is significantly higher in the immigration context. Private companies currently manage approximately 8% of all state and federal prison beds, as compared with approximately 49% of all immigration detention beds. The private prison industry has been very explicit about the connection between its profit margin and the political landscape.

In its 2007 Security and Exchange Commission filing, CCA acknowledged: “We are dependent on government appropriations… The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws.” In the current political climate, however, the projections about the viability of immigration detention as a business investment are relatively sanguine. As James Hyman, president of Cornell Companies (a company purchased in 2010 by GEO Group), told a prospective investor curious about a possible downtick in enforcement and detention: “We do not believe we will see a decline in the need for detention beds particularly in an economy with rising unemployment among American workers.”

On a Third Quarter 2001 conference call with analysts, Steven Logan, CEO of Cornell Industries, spoke openly about his intention to capitalize on post-9/11 enforcement fever: “It's clear that since Sept. 11 there's a heightened focus on detention ... more people are gonna get caught. So I would say that's positive ... with the focus on people that are illegal and also from Middle Eastern descent in the United States there are over 900,000 undocumented individuals from Middle Eastern descent ... that is a population, for lots of reasons that is being targeted... The Federal business is the best business for us and ... Sept. 11 is increasing that business."

As corporations become more reliant on immigration detention to line shareholder pockets, concerns about transparency and accountability become more and more heightened and the need for systematic information gathering about the contracting and management of these facilities becomes more and more urgent.

(1)A 2001 Bureau of Justice Assistance report found that private prisons had 50% more inmate-on-inmate assaults and almost 50% more inmate-on-staff assaults than in public prisons with comparable security levels.
(2)According to May 2008 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
(3)According to the last self-reported industry statistics from 2000.
(4)The interim report to the 81st Texas Legislature can be found online at http://www.senate.state.tx.us/75r/Senate/commit/c590/c590.InterimReport80.pdf
(5)Rebecca Boone, “FBI investigates as private-prison guards are taped ignoring beating,” Associated Press, December 1, 2010.
(6)C.B, et. al. vs. Walnut Grove Correctional Authority, et. al. November 16, 2010. Pg 2.
(7)For a copy of the suit, see http://www.aclutx.org/2010/12/08/aclu-of-texas-sues-on-behalf-of-immigrant-inmate-who-died-in-solitary-confinement-in-pecos-prison.
(8)A letter from civil rights organizations to Secretary Napolitano can be found at http://www.aclu.org/files/assets/DHS_letter_re_sex_assault__6-29-10_.pdf.
(9)Reports were collected by the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice at http://www.nowcrj.org/publications/reports.

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