Immigrants got both the federal government and corporate America started in prisoner outsourcing business. That was in the early 1980s during the first Reagan administration when the Immigration & Naturalization Service started farming out immigrants for corporate detention. Today, the business of imprisoning immigrants is central to the booming private prison industry. But associated problems – inmate deaths, lack of transparency, rioting, patterns of abuses, and medical care deficiencies – are raising new questions about the advisability of making imprisonment profitable in America. Two companies with close ties to the Republican Party – Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and Wackenhut (now GEO Group) – received the first INS contracts. Over the past quarter century those companies have developed into the world’s two largest private prison corporations. Immigrants remain central to the booming private prison industry, but the fate of these outsourced immigrants has become the center of a new public debate about private prisons. In particular, the mounting number of deaths of immigrants at prisons owned or operated by private prison firms has focused new attention on what critics call the private prison complex. In mid-December 2008 immigrants imprisoned at a prison in Pecos, Texas rioted after the body of a prisoner was removed from a solitary confinement cell. Rioting inmates took two guards hostage and burned part of the prison to raise attention to their charges that the prison wasn’t providing adequate medical care. The Reeves County Detention Center, which is owned by the county, is managed and operated by GEO Group. Most of the inmates are Mexican nationals who are serving time for minor criminal offenses, mostly drug possession and immigration violations. Many are legal immigrants who are designated “criminal aliens” and will be subject to deportation upon completing their sentences. On Jan. 31 inmates rioted again after another sick inmate was placed in solitary detention. Although the county and GEO released statements after two days claiming they had regained control of the prison, inmates confined to the prison yard set fire to another building the morning of Feb. 5. By the end of the day prison officials were once again asserting that they had the prison under control. While claiming that the issues leading to the riot were being addressed, the county provided no access by reporters or lawyers to the prisoners. County Judge Sam Contreras, the county’s top official, didn’t appear in his office at the county building the entire week of the riot. The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) was mum (and still is). Ditto for the GEO Group’s management team at the prison, while GEO corporate headquarters has issued a couple of brief and vague statements. The only detailed information about conditions inside the prison and the issues that sparked the rioting has come from calls by inmates to relatives and the media from contraband cellphones. As smoke billowed from the 3,700 inmate prison that lay on the outskirts of this downtrodden West Texas town, the hunt began for information about the Pecos detention complex. Even though the prison is the county’s largest employer – by a wide margin – and its main source of revenue (and debt), there is little public information readily available. Asked to see a copy of the contract with the Bureau of Prisons that has made Pecos the prison capital of West Texas, a spokesman for the county judge’s office said that they were trying to locate it but they and wasn’t certain that it could be released in its entirety. Despite repeated requests by reporters covering the riot, the county kept stalling, although promising that the state’s public records act would, eventually, be respected. Meanwhile, County Clerk Dianne Florez, who has since being elected in 1994 served as the country official in charge of public records, said that neither the current judge nor the previous judge gave her office the Bureau of Prisons contract. “I am trying to do my job,” she said, “but I can’t make public records available to the public if I don’t have them.” “If you ever get hold of that contract, please let me make a copy of it,” Florez said.
Photo by Tom Barry