Jailing the Poor and Powerless for Profit: Stopping Prison Privatization
November 22, 2014
Quaker Action / American Friends Service Committee
Current US 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.
Stopping Prison Privatization
Quaker Action / American Friends Service Committee
(September 4, 2014) -- Current US 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, US 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, DC, and millions of dollars spent on public relations campaigns, prison profiteers have built the perception that not only does the US 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.
Countering the "Prisons Improve Communities" Narrative
(September 19, 2014) -- Matthew Lowen has been pushing back against prison expansion in Arizona for nearly a decade, joining a tradition of American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) staff dating back to 1981. Working with program director Caroline Isaacs, a national expert on the private prison industry, Matthew is practiced at dispelling the disinformation that for-profit prisons spread in communities.
"CCA or GEO Group will go into an economically depressed community where there's a high unemployment rate -- in old mining towns -- and say, 'What would really be great for your community is a prison!'"
Promising construction and guard jobs -- "they have a whole spiel about how great it is," says Matthew -- and citing increasing incarceration rates, the company often convinces the community to finance the facility's construction. If no contract is secured to keep the beds filled, the town is stuck with the construction debt. If the beds are filled, the corporation keeps the profits.
"Historically, we have fought back by keeping our ear to the ground about potential inroads that companies like CCA and GEO Group are trying to make," says Matthew, describing how AFSC has mobilized resistance to proposed prison sites. "We really quickly go and talk to the people making the decisions, and see if we can change their minds. We often run around to different small towns in Arizona and speak at public hearings."
Becoming a prison town is no way to feed and pay families. While a prison can bring in some new capital, families feel the effect of a parent or sibling working in a violent, painful, suffering environment. "It's not uncommon for rates of drug abuse and domestic violence to go up when you introduce a prison economy to a town," Matthew says. "The fact that the primary economic development that Arizona has been offering rural towns for years are working in prisons or working in the Border Patrol is terrible -- it's often the only work available to people who want to work hard."
In rural areas outside of the Phoenix-Flagstaff-Tucson corridor that cuts down the middle of Arizona, getting people to show up to hearings has always been a challenge. Matthew remembers one public hearing where CCA filled the room with 100 of their staff, all in uniform.
"Maybe five or ten of our volunteers, friends, and colleagues were there to speak out against it, and CCA had other community members lined up to speak in favor of the prison," he says. "They had a point -- in that town, CCA is so embedded in the infrastructure and economy. If they were to leave, the economy would be devastated."
Disentangling State Policies
And Prison Profiteering
For-profit prison privatization is not only deeply entrenched in Arizona's economy, it has also achieved great influence on the government.
The state spent 11 percent of its 2013 operating budget on prisons, making the Arizona Department of Corrections one of the biggest state agencies, ahead of higher education. Thirteen percent of the state's prison population is housed in private facilities.
Privatization continues despite dramatic evidence that it is costly in both dollars and human lives. Private prisons operating in Arizona are not saving taxpayers money, Caroline Isaacs demonstrated in AFSC's 2012 report "Private Prisons: The Public's Problem."
And in "Death Yards: Continuing Problems with Arizona's Correctional Health Care," released in 2013, she showed that privatization of medical and mental health services is one factor contributing to an alarming increase in inmate deaths and to deteriorating healthcare in the state's prisons.
Research on privatized corrections nationwide shows that medical neglect, staff mistreatment, and higher rates of assault and violence are consistent across the board.
Not all of the 12 private prisons in Arizona house state prisoners (some have contracts with federal agencies like ICE and US Marshals), but once the beds are built, it's in the shareholders' best interest to secure contracts that turn into profit.
Anti-immigrant policies mean more people to put in those beds.
The many connections between the for-profit prison industry and the governor's office raised eyebrows in 2010 when Gov. Jan Brewer supported Arizona's controversial immigrant profiling and detention law SB1070. Citing public records and investigative reports on political campaign donations, AFSC has shown that both the governor's office and legislators are connected with the for-profit prison industry.
Despite the odds, grassroots advocates have had success. By forcing the issue into the spotlight, AFSC succeeded in stalling a plan to contract 5,000 new private prison beds and ultimately reduced the number to only 1,000 in 2012. This year, AFSC stopped a $900,000 prison handout that a state representative tried to sneak into the state budget.
Through an urgent action network of people ready to call their legislators and respond to opinion pieces in the news, AFSC and our allies have been able to counter the industry's influence on state policy. They argue that Arizona doesn't need more prisons, can't afford the added costs of privatizing prisons, and can't believe the claims of companies that run them.
These tactics from Arizona came into play in New Hampshire in 2013, when the New Hampshire Prison Watch Coalition invited Caroline to speak at locations around the state that had been floated as private-prison sites. The coalition, organized by AFSC's Arnie Alpert and allies from several partner organizations, was eventually able to shift public opinion so dramatically that state lawmakers decided to freeze plans to privatize corrections in the state.
But stopping new prison construction is not enough. "There are also public monies to be made in the alternatives to incarceration," explains Matthew. "Some states are moving toward increased parole, treatment facilities, halfway houses. The industry is now looking at these as a growth opportunity." Another profitable alternative on the rise is electronic surveillance.
And immigrant detention continues to offer money-making opportunities. Unlike prisons, which in theory have a rehabilitative mission, detention centers are mostly intended to hold people for short periods of time. "The high turnover means they can offer less programming and have less issues of medical care to deal with -- it means there is less likelihood that they'll have to incur those costs," says Matthew. "It's one more reason why these companies can make a lot of money."
The Fundamental Right to Fair Treatment
(September 22, 2014) -- Money talks in politics. But when does the immorality of imprisoning people for profit reach a breaking point?
The dehumanization of people caught in the immigration and criminal justice systems is at the root of the problem, says Gabriela Flora, an organizer with AFSC in Denver who supports Jeanette and Felipe in their personal immigration cases and in their advocacy for changes to the system. The path to prison is riddled with racial and ethnic disparities, and immigrants can be detained for committing only a civil offense of entering the country without papers.
Questions of legal infractions aside, labels like "convict," "inmate," "prisoner," "detainee," and "illegal alien" enable popular discourse to forget that we are talking about fellow human beings.
Racial injustice undergirds the system, but it's not evident from just looking at the surface.
"It's very fear-based," says Lia Lindsey, a policy analyst with AFSC's Office of Public Policy and Advocacy in Washington, DC, about common anti-immigrant narratives that blame newcomers for fueling or causing larger social issues like drug abuse and the economic downturn.
"We view [the criminalization of people for crossing the border] as fundamentally racist because it's targeting people of color who are fleeing violence in their communities and are looking for a way to make a living. They are being targeted and locked up."
Lia draws a parallel with the "War on Drugs" in the 1980s, when the fear-mongering story was "people of color are selling crack to children and robbing old ladies in alleyways." Racial profiling and "more insidious assumptions that people of color are constantly engaging in criminal activity" continue, and they mean that more people of color than whites are charged. (Studies consistently show racial bias in arrest patterns.
A recent ACLU report on 2010 marijuana arrests nationally found that despite roughly equal usage rates across races, blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.) With today's mandatory minimums and disparate sentencing laws, racial disparity in mass incarceration is on the rise.
National attention on immigration reform in the past year has brought up questions about the whole private-prison industry, thrusting prison profiteers into the spotlight and giving organizations like AFSC an opportunity to change the narrative around mass incarceration and immigrant detention.
AFSC has a long history of accompanying immigrant communities, working to end racism, and advocating for fundamental changes to the US criminal justice system. Prison privatization is where those issues intersect. In Colorado and elsewhere, immigrant-rights advocates are reaching out to prison activists to connect their issues around the criminalization of people of color.
Lia Lindsey represents AFSC in several coalitions that meet with members of Congress to discuss these issues. Often, AFSC and the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) are the only faith-based groups in the room. Secular groups in their coalitions often turn to them to speak from a moral ground. "We are able to rise above the tensions and bring people to a common narrative," she says. "We can say, 'How are we treating our fellow human beings?'"
"Once you get past cost analysis and policy goals, it comes down to how we treat each other," she says. "Everyone has a fundamental right to fair, humane treatment regardless of whether they're currently incarcerated or are undocumented immigrants."
AFSC also has credibility in those conversations because Lia can point to the advocacy and experiences of Jeanette, Felipe, and Gabriela in Colorado; Caroline and Matthew's watchdogging in Arizona; and Arnie's public education success in New Hampshire. "We can speak from direct experience. It gives us great credibility to say we have a footing in the affected communities," she explains.
The challenge comes back to money. In state legislatures and community hearings, corporations vie for contracts by lobbying, but in Washington, it plays out on a massive scale. "They have hundreds of lobbyists that do this every day," says Lia, citing research reported by Salon. "It makes sense -- this is the livelihood of these companies. For them, engaging in relationship-building is a good investment. The payout is so great."
Focusing on educating policymakers and their staff, Lia and AFSC partners Justice Strategies, Detention Watch Network, ACLU, Federal Prison Privatization Working Group, Grassroots Leadership, and The Sentencing Project are working to counter the narrative that private prison companies have promoted for years. With only a handful of people lobbying against privatization on the federal level -- and none focused on it full-time -- it's "very much a David and Goliath fight," says Lia.
Striving for Security
Working together, people committed to change are making a difference.
Felipe [read more about his case in part I] and his family spent the summer in limbo, waiting for a decision on his application for a U-Visa, a special visa for victims of crime. While waiting, he couldn't work, and didn't know what would happen if his application was denied.
"I want to work and work. I want to do countertops, marble, and granite like I did before -- and open a little shop, hire three or four guys," he says. "I came to the US to work, to support my family. I don't want to get rich. I just want to have enough for food and stuff like that."
One night in August, Felipe called Gabriela to let her know his good news -- that his application had finally been approved.
Amid the celebration, Gabriela said, "It has been a very long, hard road for him and his family, but because they kept organizing and fighting with support from AFSC and the community, they won in the end."
Resources: Private Prisons
• The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) spent $1.2 million on lobbying in 2013. Source: "Corrections Corp of America," Open Secrets, accessed July 1, 2014, https://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/clientsum.php?id=D000021940&year=2013.
• GEO spent $460,000 on lobbying in 2013. Source: "GEO Group," Open Secrets, accessed July 1, 2014, https://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/clientsum.php?id=D000022003&year=2013.
• CCA and GEO have spent over $31 million on lobbying since 2002. Independently and through their participation in the American Legislative Exchange Council, GEO and CCA successfully engage members of Congress on issues that increase their bottom line, such as enacting mandatory minimum sentencing and three-strikes policies. Source: "Lobbying," Prison Divestment Campaign, accessed July 15, 2014, http://prisondivestment.wordpress.com/private-prison-industry-industria-de-prisiones-privadas/lobbying/.
• GEO and CCA operate over 130 private prisons. Source: "Suevon Lee, By the Numbers: The US's Growing For-Profit Detention Industry," ProPublica, June 20, 2012, accessed July 15, 2014, http://www.propublica.org/article/by-the-numbers-the-USs-growing-for-profit-detention-industry.
• The number of privately operated prison has gone up by 1600 percent from 1990 to 2010. Source: Dina Rasor, "America's Top Prison Corporation: A Study in Predatory Capitalism and Cronyism," Truthout, May 3, 2012, accessed July 15, 2014, http://truth-out.org/news/item/8875-corrections-corporation-of-america-a-study-in-predatory-capitalism-and-cronyism.
• Because of the federal "immigrant bed mandate," the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) is required to detain 34,000 immigrants on any given day. Source: "AILA's Take on the Detention Bed Quota," American Immigration Lawyers Association, accessed July 24, 2014, http://www.aila.org/content/default.aspx?docid=47205.
• In 2010, CCA reported $1.17 billion in revenue, 43% of which was generated through contracts with the federal government. Many of these contracts are for detaining people charged with immigration violations. Source: "The Influence of the Private Prison Industry in Immigration Detention," Detention Watch Network, accessed July 24, 2014, http://www.detentionwatchnetwork.org/privateprisons.
• Together, CCA and GEO had revenue of $3.3 billion in 2012. Source: Claudio, "5 Disturbing Facts About American Prisons," The Richest, March 12, 2014, accessed July 15, 2014, http://www.therichest.com/rich-list/most-shocking/5-disturbing-facts-about-american-prisons/.
• For-profit prison corporations run nearly half of the beds in immigration detention centers. Source: "End the Immigration Detention Bed Quota," Detention Watch Network, accessed July 15, 2014, http://www.detentionwatchnetwork.org/EndTheQuotaNarrative.
• The federal government spends almost $2 billion annually on detaining immigrants, many of whom are housed in facilities operated by CCA and GEO. Source: "About the US Detention and Deportation System," Detention Watch Network, accessed July 15, 2014, http://www.detentionwatchnetwork.org/resources.
• The Federal Bureau of Prisons spends over $6 billion annually to keep people behind bars. Source: "US Department of Justice FY 2014 Budget Request," United States Department of Justice, accessed July 15, 2014, http://www.justice.gov/jmd/2014factsheets/prisons-detention.pdf.
• This is just a small portion of the approximately $70 billion spent annually on incarceration in the US Source: "Criminal Justice Fact Sheet," NAACP, accessed July 15, 2014, http://www.naacp.org/pages/criminal-justice-fact-sheet.
• Harsh sentencing policies and immigration laws mean the US holds over 2.4 million people behind bars -- more than any other country in the world. Source: Peter Wagner and Leah Sakala, "Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie," Prison Policy Initiative, March 12, 2014, accessed July 15, 2014, http://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie.html.
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