BY MAKSIM WYNN
Rising out of the South Texas brush country, 50 acres of stadium lighting dominate the night sky. Directly to the east of those 50 acres is a small town fairly typical of this part of the state—low-slung buildings; a number of good Mexican restaurants; and a lot of corrugated steel, limestone, and wood paneling. During summertime, the ubiquitous red clay dirt dries out. In town, it cakes to the cabs of air-conditioned pickup trucks. On the 50 acres, it clogs the lungs of the women and young children who are being marched, under armed guard and barbed-wire fencing, between the “neighborhoods” of “Red Parrot” and “Yellow Frog.”
The women and children are asylum seekers. They are officially known as either “residents”—or, slightly more accurately, “detainees”—of the South Texas Family Residential Center (STFRC) in Dilley, Texas. Like nearly every naming convention in the “immigrant detention” system, the name “Family Residential Center” cloaks brutality in euphemism. These residents are prisoners, and the STFRC is for all intents and purposes a prison.
The migrant prison in Dilley is just one of many around the country. Together they constitute an unjust, inhumane system—one that is heavily privatized and inefficient. Using the STFRC as a lens to examine that system, this report will first describe the conditions in the Dilley prison before comparing these conditions to those in other facilities. The report will then examine the role of the private prison industry in creating, operating, and maintaining the system. Finally, it will map the contours of a better system and provide policy recommendations for achieving it.
Life in the STFRC
Before 2014, it was rare that a mother and child seeking asylum would be detained for any amount of time. Currently, there are three prisons in the United States—with a combined capacity of 3,326 beds—whose sole purpose is family incarceration. Two thousand four hundred of these beds are located in the STFRC.
Advocates granted access to the STFRC have described hellish conditions within the prison. According to one, the day begins at 5:30 a.m. when guards wake the prisoners with bright lights and loud noises. Prisoners, a hundred of them under two-and-a-half years old, are counted three times a day. During one such count, a young child was witnessed peeing her pants when guards prevented her from leaving to use the restroom.
In town, many residents believe that the water supply has been compromised and few will drink tap water if they can avoid it. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has repeatedly found dangerous levels of E. coli in the water supply and has fined the municipal government multiple times, citing double-digit violations. Aside from prisons, Dilley’s other major industry is oil, and that oil is being extracted using hydraulic fracturing, or as it is more commonly known, fracking. This practice has deepened concerns about the potability of the town’s water supply. Yet, in the STFRC, prisoners are expected to drink tap water.
Eleni Bakst, an attorney volunteering with the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, reported that illnesses—including rashes, conjunctivitis, diarrhea, vomiting, and fever—were rampant in the STFRC. Prisoners told her that they were often prescribed tap water instead of medicine when seeking medical care related to these illnesses—illnesses that the tap water may have caused in the first place.
The health care problems in the STFRC extend well beyond issues with the water. The STFRC’s overall standard of medical care appears to be dismal. Bakst reported that mothers she spoke with had “numerous complaints [about] the medical clinic in the detention center, including failure to conduct physical examinations, lack of communication about symptoms and diagnoses, . . . and illogical and incorrect diagnoses of patients.”
Systemic Abuse in the Immigrant Prison System
The STFRC is not an outlier. The harsh conditions there are found throughout a sprawling immigrant prison system that held, for varying lengths of time, more than 323,500 people in 2017.
Inadequate medical care is a systemic problem in immigrant prisons. In 2013, researchers at the University of Arizona interviewed 1,113 recent deportees and found that 37 percent of the respondents who requested medical attention had their requests denied. Meanwhile, in 2015, the US Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) found that a number of detention facilities were not fully complying with contractually binding medical care standards.
There have also been repeated reports of detainees receiving insufficient food, spoiled food, or both. According to the University of Arizona survey, 45 percent of respondents reported not receiving “sufficient food” while being detained. Another report found that detainees at one facility lost an average of 10 pounds while in custody. Hunger strikes were initiated in at least two other facilities to protest insufficient, spoiled, and maggot-filled food.
These issues have led to instability and violence within immigrant prisons. Inadequate medical care, contaminated food, and the prisoner populations’ general dissatisfaction with conditions led to large-scale riots at the Reeves County Complex in Pecos, Texas, and at the Willacy County Regional Detention Facility in Raymondville, Texas.
Access to legal counsel is another persistent problem in the immigrant prison system. Undocumented immigrants have no legal right to counsel, and whether they are imprisoned is a key determining factor in their ability to access representation. Only 14 percent of imprisoned migrants have legal representation when appearing in immigration court, while 66 percent of non-imprisoned migrants secure representation. Detained migrants who do have access to counsel are much more likely to be released from detention than are those who do not.
Considering these harsh conditions, one might think that the immigrant imprisonment system was designed to deter undocumented migration or to punish criminals, but according to US Homeland Security officials, the system is not supposed to be a punitive one. Instead, they say it is only a mechanism for ensuring that migrants appear in immigration court.
In addition, neither imprisoned asylum seekers nor imprisoned undocumented economic migrants are accused of having committed a crime. Undocumented economic migrants who are imprisoned after being picked up by immigration enforcement authorities for being in the United States without authorization are accused of a civil violation, not a criminal offense. And subjecting asylum seekers to the harrowing reality of imprisonment is especially confounding since they are accused of neither a civil violation nor a criminal offense. They are being imprisoned while attempting to go through the asylum process as it is laid out in US law.
The dissonance between the stated purpose of the immigrant imprisonment system and the harsh conditions that migrants face within it makes the existence of this system all the more unacceptable.
Private Prison Firms Turn Pain to Profit
While immigrant prisons are a miserable ordeal for those incarcerated in them, they are a wellspring of profit for firms like CoreCivic, the private firm that runs the STFRC and that has managed to successfully monetize the misery of that place and many like it.
In fact, CoreCivic and the rest of the private prison industry have been monetizing misery for a long time, first through their role in mass incarceration and now increasingly through immigrant incarceration. The history of CoreCivic, which was known as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) until it rebranded in 2016, began in 1983. The firm, and the private prison industry as a whole, emerged in lockstep with mass incarceration. The industry rose to prominence as the increasingly punitive criminal justice policies of the 1980s and 1990s swelled the ranks of the incarcerated population. As a result of these policies and the private prison industry’s political influence, the number of people imprisoned in private facilities increased steadily until the mid-2000s. However, by that point the US prison population was falling for the first time in nearly three decades, and the private prison industry needed new revenue streams. To address this need, the industry pivoted toward immigration imprisonment. It was an incredibly lucrative choice.
Despite being a major player in the “prison boom” of the 1980s and 1990s, CoreCivic saw record profits in 2015—the year that the STFRC opened. That year, STRFC alone generated $71.6 million in revenue for CoreCivic, or 14 percent of the firm’s total revenue.
Immigrant prisons are overwhelmingly private institutions regardless of whether they house asylum seekers, who are more often women and children, or undocumented economic migrants, who are more often men. According to the Washington Post, as of late 2016, “[CoreCivic] and its only major competitor, the GEO Group, operate nine of the ten largest immigration detention centers.” In total, 65 percent of all people in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody are imprisoned in a private facility.
To understand why private immigration prisons have generated enormous revenues for the firms that operate them, it is instructive to look at the cost of immigrant imprisonment. As of 2013, the cost to imprison one migrant for one day was between $122 and $164. That year, the average daily population of detained migrants was 33,788. Therefore, immigrant detention cost US taxpayers between $1.5 billion and $2 billion for the year—or between $4.1 million and $5.5 million per day. The majority of those taxpayer dollars were pocketed by the private prison industry.
An Alternative: What It Looks Like and Why We Don’t Have It
The immigrant imprisonment system is not only costly to taxpayers and extremely inhumane, it is also unnecessary. Much cheaper policy alternatives exist, but the wholesale transition to these alternatives is inhibited by the private prison industry’s vested interest in the system and the political influence it can exert to expand and protect it.
Imprisoning migrants is at least 20 times more expensive than available “alternatives to detention” (ATDs). According to the ACLU, ATD programs involve using “electronic ankle monitors, biometric voice recognition software, unannounced home visits, employer verification, and in-person reporting to supervise participants.”
ATDs represent a low-cost and effective mechanism for monitoring apprehended migrants and ensuring that they appear in immigration court. ATDs cost an average of $5.16 per person per day. They are also nearly as effective as imprisonment. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found that migrants placed into a full-service ATD program appeared for 99 percent of their court dates. ATDs have also been shown to improve integration outcomes when apprehended immigrants are allowed to stay in the migrant-receiving country.
So why do so many apprehended migrants end up in prison?
A major contributing factor is a provision in the annual appropriations bill that has come to be known in congressional circles as the “bed mandate.” First implemented in 2009 and renewed every year since, the bed mandate has been interpreted as requiring not only that immigration enforcement officials supply a specific number of beds for immigrant imprisonment but also that they ensure that those beds are filled. This policy is unprecedented. No other law enforcement agency is required to detain a predetermined number of people.
The bed mandate incentivized the arbitrary expansion of immigrant imprisonment. The share of apprehended migrants who are imprisoned has risen sharply even as total apprehensions have declined. In 2001, ICE and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) apprehended 1,387,486 undocumented migrants; by 2015, that number had dropped to 406,595. ICE recorded placing 204,459 migrants in detention facilities in 2001, while there were 307,342 detention intakes in 2015. In 2001, 14.7 percent of apprehended migrants were detained, while 75.6 percent of apprehended migrants were detained in 2015.
The bed mandate has also generated significant revenues for private detention firms. By 2011, CoreCivic, which had been on the verge of bankruptcy in 2000, was operating with a profit margin of roughly $90 million a year. On 6 March 2009, five days before the bed mandate was signed into law, CoreCivic’s stock price was $9.82—close to an all-time low. Later that month, the stock shot upward and finished the year hovering around $25.
These figures demonstrate how the profitability of the private detention firms is linked to the implementation and maintenance of punitive immigration policies. Despite their insistence that they are only responding to market forces, private prison firms have made it explicitly clear that they have an active interest in the implementation of punitive immigration enforcement policies like the bed mandate.
According to a report released by Detention Watch, in a 2007 Security and Exchange Commission filing CoreCivic 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.”
And during all of 2008, the year before the bed mandate was implemented, the lobbying disclosure forms filed by one of the lobbying firms CoreCivic had retained—Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld—stated that they were lobbying for “issues pertaining to the construction and management of private prisons and detention facilities . . . [and] immigration reform legislation.”
Policy Recommendations: Decisive Change Is a Moral and Fiscal Imperative
Policy makers must recognize the human and fiscal costs of the immigrant detention system and decisively dismantle it. The ultimate policy goal should be eliminating immigrant imprisonment altogether while using ATDs when necessary to ensure that apprehended migrants appear in immigration court.
The first step toward achieving this policy goal is eliminating the bed mandate. The bed mandate is nothing short of a subsidy to the private prison industry. It provides no material benefit to any other party, and it imposes enormous suffering on the men, women, and children who fill those beds. It also prevents a transition to more cost-effective and humane policies. Getting rid of the bed mandate will also help break the private prison industry’s stranglehold on immigration enforcement policy.
Once Congress repeals the bed mandate, policy makers can go about creating a better system. This system should hinge on prohibiting the imprisonment of immigrants who have not been charged with a criminal offense. All currently imprisoned migrants, and all those apprehended in the future, should be evaluated to determine the likelihood that they will not appear for their immigrant court proceeding. Those who are deemed unlikely to appear can be placed in an ATD program and monitored throughout the legal process. Most asylum seekers are extremely likely to appear since they cannot receive asylum without doing so. As such, many of these migrants can likely be released without having to be enrolled in an ATD program. This will generate additional savings for US taxpayers.
The end result of these reforms would be an efficient and fiscally responsible system that treats immigrants humanely while their immigration cases are being processed.
Closing a Shameful Chapter
The tight grip that private prison firms hold on immigration policy and the enormous profits that punitive immigration policies generate for private prison firms have made it difficult for there to be a wholesale transition to a more humane system that relies on cost-effective ATD programs.
The result is that instead of moving toward the adoption of more humane programs, immigration policy has, under the sway of private prison firms’ political influence, become more punishing. For evidence of the increasing level of brutality in immigration policy, one need look no further than those stadium lights in Dilley, Texas, and the children imprisoned under them.
The private prison industry represents the prosperous hub in a wheel of suffering. The spokes of that wheel connect private prison firms to federal immigration enforcement agencies, municipalities, and imprisoned migrants. In the center, CoreCivic and firms like them reap tremendous profits. But the spokes, like the tentacles of a parasite, are the conduit through which the private prison industry siphons revenue from federal coffers and drains migrants of their health, their dignity, and their freedom.
Policy makers must stand up and break this wheel. They must eliminate the bed mandate. They must close down the STFRC and every facility like it. This may seem extreme, but these facilities serve little purpose, and whatever purpose they may serve is vastly outweighed by the immense human costs they impose. Policy makers cannot hide behind political expediency in the face of such clear injustice. They must move to a system the relies solely on the judicious use of ATDs, and they must take steps to ensure that the current system is never recreated. The rise of immigrant prisons is a shameful chapter in US history; it is a chapter that cannot come to a close soon enough.
A native Texan, Maksim Wynn graduated from UCLA with a bachelor of arts in history. Since graduating, he has worked as a researcher at the UCLA North American Integration and Development (NAID) Center and then as a researcher and research team supervisor at the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (IRLE). Maksim has spent his professional life advocating for economic equity as well as immigrant and worker rights while conducting immigration and labor policy research.
 Immigration officials and private prison firms use the euphemisms “detention” and “detained,” but since “detention” facilities are nearly indecipherable from traditional prisons, I will use the terms “prison” and “imprisoned” throughout this article.
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