Detainees Equal Dollars

The Rise in Immigrant Incarcerations drives a prison boom

Under the first CAR contract, CCA turned an albatross into a cash cow as the feds signed up its prison in California City, which CCA had built on spec for $106 million in 1998—and which then sat empty as California's prison population stalled and local prison guard unions campaigned against it. Most astonishing, the FBOP promised CCA a 95 percent occupancy rate—meaning the federal government would pay for 95 percent of the bed capacity at all times, no matter how many were actually in use.

But late in 2001, the FBOP put its new solicitations on hold, awarding only one of five promised CAR contracts this year. Greene suggests that the feds pulled back as they began to consider that the growth in their own populations could slow down. The dust will have to settle on the reorganization of agencies into a Department of Homeland Security before the government can shape its future detention priorities.

For their part, private prison execs are watching the reorganization debates with heady anticipation; they have reported government insiders encouraging them to hang onto the sites they made ready for the CAR solicitations—especially those in border states.

After all, in a February conference call, Wackenhut's Zoley declared it "almost an oddity" that "given the size of our country and the number of illegal immigrants entering into our country that we have such a small number of beds for detention purposes." He added, "This has become an issue under the homeland security theme, and I think it's likely we are going to see an increase in that area." Indeed, the government recently centralized all immigrant detention functions into the new post of detention trustee—and hired a former Bureau of Prisons procurement officer, Craig Unger, to fill it. The proposed budget tosses Unger $615 million for contracting out immigrant detention beds.

Bidding Wars

Advocates are watching uneasily as the government increasingly courts the private prison operators. They worry about bidding wars among potential jailers, who might be willing to further cut services to detainees in exchange for contracts. Many state and local providers, the advocates charge, already fail to meet the INS's own weak detention standards.

"We have already seen how destructively the profit motive can undermine justice," says Matt Wilch, director of asylum and immigration concerns at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. "We've seen that trying to keep costs low means setting up in isolated, rural areas, far from attorneys and support networks; avoiding expenses for special medical or dietary needs; attracting low-wage employees who aren't sufficiently professional."

But jailers who have seen a steady rise in their immigrant populations in recent years are confident the flow will continue to increase—so confident that they've already shrugged off demands to offer bargain rates.

In York, Pennsylvania, for instance, where the county correctional facility holds the country's largest INS population—some 750 to 800 on any given day—the government has already demanded a price-slashing. A report last year by the Office of the Inspector General alleged that York was overestimating its costs and challenged its charge of $60 per detainee per day. The IG thinks $39 a day would be fair. "Let them put it all out to a bid," says warden Tom Hogan. "Nobody can compete with us."

York caught the immigrant detention wave back in 1993, when hundreds of undocumented Chinese men and women washed ashore in the Golden Venture, and the INS wanted to keep them all in close proximity, since they all had similar cases. York had just completed an expansion and happily took them in—along with the INS's lucre, which, county officials boasted, helped keep property taxes down. Since then, it has deliberately enlarged its capacity for INS detainees, completing a new $20 million wing in 1999 for the purpose.

"The IG is of the opinion that we should provide this service for free," chides Hogan. He'd like to work things out, but is willing to call the agency's bluff. "We'll get out of the business if we have to," he says. "The INS can find someplace else to put our 800 detainees."

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