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Immigration Law

Who Profits From Plans to Lock Up More Immigrant Families? Private Prison Companies

"Last week, the federal government announced that it will detain as many as 2,400 women and children on property in Dilley, Texas, that is currently used as a “man camp” for oilfield workers. The new facility will be the largest family detention center in the country, and the third to open since the number of children and families crossing the US-Mexico border shot up early in the summer. Since then, the number of minors caught at the border has fallen back below last year’s levels.

Human rights groups are alarmed that the administration is nevertheless planning to double the number of people in family detention. The controversial practice of locking up women and their children, many of whom are awaiting asylum hearings, had been all but abandoned before this year. Calls for closing the two other centers opened this summer in Texas and New Mexico have intensified in recent weeks due to reports of “deplorable” conditions.

“The Obama administration is playing with the lives of these women and children in order to earn political points. What it comes down to is the administration being tough on immigration,” said Silky Shah of the Detention Watch Network. Shah’s organization joined more than 160 civil and immigrant rights, faith-based, and criminal justice organizations signing a letter to the Obama administration on Thursday criticizing the proposed Dilley facility and calling for the closure of the other family detention centers.

Another cause for concern is the company that the government chose to operate the new detention center, Corrections Corporation of America. CCA got its start in Texas three decades ago when it scored a contract for a federal immigration detention center in Houston. It’s now the largest private prison operator in the country. CCA has been sued a number of times for negligence, abuse and other mistreatment. The company is currently under investigation for allegations of fraud and corruption at the Idaho Correction Center.

CCA has profited handsomely from the criminalization of noncitizens, but its record on immigration detention is particularly poor. The government stopped holding families at a CCA-run detention center in Taylor, Texas, in 2009 after the company was sued for mistreating women and children, some of whom reported that they were forced to wear prison uniforms. In 2011, the American Civil Liberties Union released records of 185 allegations of sexual abuse at CCA detention centers over four years; fifty-six of the reports came from facilities in Texas.

Even before the government’s contract with CCA for the Dilley center was announced last Tuesday there were questions about the deal. According to a Texas nonprofit, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency did not take public bids before it signed up CCA. That the government and the company are tight is not particularly surprising, as CCA has vastly outspentother private prison companies on lobbying.

CCA was profiting from the refugee crisis at the border before the Dilley deal, too. Investors anticipated that the surge in migrants would necessitate new detention services; CCA’s stocks went up by 8.5 percent in August, compared to a 1.5 percent rise in the S&P. "Investors see this as an opportunity. This is a potentially untapped market that will have very strong demand," Alex Friedmann, an activist investor who holds CCA stocks, told CNN Money." - Zoë Carpenter, The Nation, Sept. 30, 2014.