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Disturbing Conditions in Private Immigrant Prisons

Overcrowded prisons. Excessive and arbitrary use of solitary confinement. Sexual and physical abuse by guards. No access to healthcare. Overflowing toilets that never get fixed. Spoiled food. Little communication to the outside world. Retaliation against prisoners who protest the deplorable conditions. These are some of the many abuses American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) details in a report released yesterday titled “Warehoused and Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped in Our Shadow Private Prison System”. Over the last four years, the ACLU interviewed 270 prisoners and documented the abuse, mistreatment, and horrendous conditions in five privately run immigrant prisons in Texas.

As the ACLU points out, these immigrant prisoners unfortunately find themselves at the “intersection of three disturbing trends: the national over-incarceration crisis, prison privatization, and the criminalization of immigration” . Yet, the private prison industry makes a profit off of this massively unjust bureaucracy while inmates languish in the system.

Inmates in these prisons are non-citizens and most have been convicted of illegal entry, although some are legal permanent residents convicted of drug related or other crimes. Not too long ago immigration offenses were considered civil violations, but in 2005 the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice implemented Operation Streamline with a “zero-tolerance” policy toward unlawful border crossers. Now, ICE and US Customs and Border Patrol refer more cases for federal prosecution than the FBI and since 1998, there has been a 145% increase in the number of people entering federal prisons for immigration offenses. As a result, the incarceration rates for immigrants has grown exponentially.

Private prison companies have incentives to keep up with this status quo. In the contracts that these private prison companies make with the BOP, there is a requirement to keep the facilities at least 90% occupied and the prisons are paid for each prisoner over the 90% quota, up to 115% occupancy. So these companies are actually paid for overcrowding their prisons.

Furthermore, as stipulated in their contracts with the BOP, at least 10% of the bed space must be designated for solitary confinement, twice the rate of federally run prisons. This means that when the prisons fill up, which they inevitably do, some inmates will be put in solitary confinement for no reason. Some new inmates are even put in solitary when they first arrive because there are no available beds. At a time when many states are trying to reduce the use of solitary confinement, these private prisons are arbitrarily placing inmates in solitary for no good reason.

Moreover, these facilities are often hundreds of miles from inmates’ families, making communication and visits nearly impossible. This geographic isolation also makes it difficult to find and retain legal counsel, which is not guaranteed to these prisoners.

The prisons are not managed by the BOP, rather they are run by private corporations who have won government contracts. Privately run prisons are not subject to the same oversight and accountability measures as federally run institutions. Requests to make information publically available is often met with rebuffs and denied on the basis of “trade secrets”.

The US immigration and prison systems systematically strips these immigrants of their basic rights to liberty and due process while private prison companies make billions of dollars in profits. Yesterday on this blog we wrote about an immigrant family living in the shadows in Oklahoma. Today it’s clear that tens of thousands of immigrants are suffering the shadows of our nation’s prison industrial complex because of unjust laws, misguided priorities, and profit margins.

Read the full ACLU report here.