Detainees Equal Dollars

The Rise in Immigrant Incarcerations drives a prison boom

Among the 500 cases she defended each year, Matheson had many repeat clients—one of them tried his luck 42 times. The Justice Department gets fed up with the scofflaws, she says, and imposes increasingly harsh sentences for "felony re-entry"—which can amount to as much as 10 years. Someone who re-enters illegally who once committed a crime in the U.S.—no matter how many years before, no matter how minor, no matter that he or she completed a sentence for it—can also be looking at a hugely enhanced sentence.

The security fervor that has swept over the country since September has only accelerated the upward arc in the numbers. The general lack of public outcry against the post-9-11 sweeps, along with Attorney General Ashcroft's promise to hunt down and deport hundreds of thousands of "absconders"—people who have not responded to final orders of deportation—and to prosecute millions of immigrants and visitors who fail to report address changes to the INS, could send the numbers of arrests into the stratosphere.

Longtime anti-prison activists see some scary writing on the wall. "The lesson of the drug war was that it didn't make sense to lock people up for everything—it wasn't necessarily good for them or for society," says Kevin Pranis, an organizer with Not With Our Money, the national network resisting prison profiteering. "But a policy argument didn't get through to anyone as long as you had prison capacity and pressure to keep it filled. Immigrant activists have to start organizing not just around the injustice of detention, but also to reduce capacity." Otherwise, as one incarceration boom trails off, another will be in line to take its place.

Private Prison Bonanza

That's certainly how executives in the for-profit prison business are reading the situation. Take Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, which has touted itself as "the global leader in privatized corrections" (one of its subsidiaries runs the notorious detention camp in Woomera, Australia, where asylum seekers have staged hunger strikes, and suicide attempts are frequent). In a public quarterly conference call between executives and investment analysts earlier this month, CEO George Zoley enthused about opportunities for growth in the U.S., citing the government's plans "to build up the country's capacity for detaining illegal immigration at a number of locations throughout the country."

Steve Logan, CEO of Cornell Companies, which operates the country's largest private prison (a 2454-bed complex in Texas), was just as blunt when speaking with his colleagues last winter. "The federal business is the best business for us," he said, and the events of September 11 are "increasing that level of business." He exulted over the high numbers of Middle Easterners in the U.S. and their "being targeted."

Executives in the industry are also quick to point out—as Zoley boasts—"that it was really the INS that started privatized corrections in this country." Wackenhut established its first facility in the mid '80s—a minimum-security undocumented-alien detention center in Colorado. The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the U.S.'s most aggressive pioneer in the field, got its start the same way, housing undocumented Latin Americans in a similar center in Texas.

Presenting themselves as a solution to overcrowding in jails bulging with drug offenders serving increasingly strict sentences, CCA, Wackenhut, and others promised to build prisons faster and to run them more cheaply than the state could. Contracts poured in. CCA's revenues leaped from $14 million in 1986 to $120 million in 1994, while Wackenhut's climbed from $19 million in 1989 to $84 million in 1994. But by the late '90s, the flaws that anti-privatization activists had long decried began to glare. In 1996 a General Accounting Office survey concluded that private prisons were no more economical than public ones.

Meanwhile, scandals such as prisoner escapes, abuses by guards, inmate riots over substandard conditions (including an infamous 1995 tear-up at an INS facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey, then under contract to Esmor) further tainted the industry. By the turn of the new century, states began to cancel some contracts. In September 2000, Business Week proclaimed that "the industry's heyday may already be history." CCA stock lost 93 percent of its value that year.

But in what criminal-justice policy analyst Judith Greene calls "an astonishing bailout" the feds stepped in, seeking more beds for their own growing inmate population—which hit 127,000 last year. As in the states, the majority of federal prisoners are drug offenders; but more than 35,000 of the total are "criminal aliens"—that is, noncitizens who have been convicted of crimes (including immigration crimes). In a comprehensive article published in The American Prospect early last September, Greene detailed Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) calls for contractors to build facilities specifically to meet its "criminal alien requirements" (CAR). The FBOP put out a series of requests for proposals between 1999 and 2000, soliciting up to 10,000 beds in CAR contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. For CCA and the like, the opportunity was a godsend.

As Greene explains, FBOP officials figured that despite their checkered history, for-profit companies could handle special noncitizen facilities—after all, most immigrant inmates are nonviolent and can be housed in low-security, dorm-like settings. Besides, the officials reason, as inmates on their way to deportation after doing their time, they don't need rehab and other special programs. Greene calls this logic "not far from acknowledging that they think they can get away with providing second-class prisons for these second-class prisoners." It also didn't hurt that the industry is filled with executives who once served high up in the FBOP—or that between 1995 and 2000, according to the Center for Responsible Politics, private prison companies made more than $528,000 in federal campaign contributions, much of it in soft money.

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