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Stopping prison privatization

Stopping prison privatization

Published: September 4, 2014
group marches holding signs about ending immigration policies that harm families

Jeanette Vizguerra and her daughter Luna lead chants at AFSC’s monthly vigil at the for-profit GEO detention facility in Aurora, Colorado.

Photo: AFSC / Photo: AFSC/Gabriela Flora

Current U.S. prison and immigrant detention practices violate basic human rights and dignity. Private companies that profit from incarceration are working to expand the detention and surveillance industries, but people with experience behind bars are helping AFSC expose the realities of privatizing these already inhumane systems.

It was five in the morning, or maybe four, when the guard woke up Jeanette Vizguerra and the other women—screaming at them, calling them pigs, and accusing them of lazily lying in bed as if they were in a hotel. The early wakeup was business as usual at the for-profit South Texas Detention Complex, but the guard’s actions that morning upset Jeanette. “It made me indignant,” she says, “because I didn’t think we as human beings should be treated that way.”

Jeanette reported the incident to the lieutenant in charge, saying that the women needed respect. He listened, and suggested she not take it personally. She filed a report, for which the repercussion was the guard threatening her with solitary confinement.

The lieutenant stepped in, knowing that Jeanette had a community on the outside organizing to support her, and changed the guard’s assignment. Jeanette was released a few weeks later, but the mistreatment inside hadn’t changed for any of the women. It wasn’t Jeanette’s first time in a for-profit immigrant detention center, and until conditions change, she will keep demanding an end to the abuse.

Like Jeanette, Felipe Alaniz has spent time in the for-profit Aurora GEO Detention Center in Colorado. In his case, a false plea to a drug charge came back to haunt him. (While he was at a bar in 1992, someone discarded a cocaine stash when police walked in. The police claimed it was his, and his lawyer advised him to plead guilty, so he did.) Twenty years later, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) considers him a criminal. The charges kept him locked up in the GEO detention center for 16 months, away from his family and unable to make a living.

Inside GEO, the food makes people sick. “Sometimes they gave us boiled eggs that they didn’t boil,” says Felipe. “When you crack the egg, the yolk and everything comes out.” Jeanette says it took several weeks after her release for her stomach to recover from the food. She says, “I’ve even asked myself, ‘Do they put something bad in the food that causes people to be sick?’” When someone is sick, crying, and asking for a doctor, the guards just give out ibuprofen.

For about $1 a day, people can choose to work—staffing the cafeteria and cleaning the showers. People use that dollar a day to call their families and legal representatives—at 10 cents per minute plus surcharges up to $1.50 per minute—or to purchase basic personal care items to supplement the small supplies of soap and shampoo issued each week. Four days’ wages will buy one tube of toothpaste for $3.50.

“The private facility is making money off of us, and the conditions should be better,” says Jeanette. She decided early on that she would not contribute to their profits—that she wouldn’t buy anything from the store.

She’s talked to other women about this. “I explain to them that we should not be doing voluntary work and not be buying things inside,” she says. “I explain how it all works, and how these corporations work and how they’re making all this money.

“Some people say, ‘I have to do this because I don’t have anyone putting money in my account, and I have to talk to my family and be able to buy things so I can function.’”

An industry built to incarcerate

Detaining immigrants is the most profitable form of incarceration in the United States—the world’s leader in imprisonment, where $60.3 billion is spent annually to keep 2.4 million people behind bars in prisons, jails, and detention centers.

In 2013, U.S. taxpayers paid an average of $5.34 million each day to run 250 immigrant detention centers like Colorado’s GEO Center and the South Texas Detention Complex. Business stands to increase as federal and state laws further criminalize aspects of immigration.

There are three major private players in the business of immigrant detention: GEO Group, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), and the Management and Training Corporation (MTC). Each one reports revenues well over $1 billion, with a significant portion coming from ICE. In 2013, ICE contracts brought in $240 million for GEO. Other corporations profit by providing food, medical care, transportation, and telephone services inside prisons and detention centers. As Jeanette’s story shows, some of their profit comes directly from the pockets of the people they are imprisoning.

Through years of lobbying in Washington, D.C., and millions of dollars spent on public relations campaigns, prison profiteers have built the perception that not only does the U.S. need more space to house so-called “criminals,” but also that privately run facilities are safer and more cost effective than public facilities.

Creating this narrative is good business sense, as CCA stated in its 2012 annual report to shareholders: “Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities.”

Immigrant detention is a growth opportunity for for-profit prison companies, expanding their business model from state and federal prisons.

Read part II: Countering the "prisons improve communities" narrative