By William Fisher Truthout 2/9/07

The Bush administration’s penchant for privatizing virtually all government operations has combined with the current furor over border security to create another perfect storm – this time for suspected illegal immigrants.

These thousands of people held in detention under the aegis of the US Department of Homeland Security – increasingly in privately-owned jails – are failing to receive timely medical treatment and adequate food, being subjected to frequent sexual harassment, and having their access to lawyers, relatives and immigration authorities improperly limited.

These are among the findings of the DHS inspector general, based on an audit of the US-owned and operated Krome Service Processing Center in Miami, a facility in San Diego operated by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), and local jails and prisons in Berks County, Pennsylvania, and Hudson and Passaic counties, New Jersey.

But critics of the agency called the report disappointing, contending that it watered down recommendations and ignored the most serious allegations of abuse collected since June 2004, which they said included physical beatings, medical neglect, food shortages and mixing of illegal immigrants in administrative custody with criminals.

Mark Dow, author of “American Gulag: Inside America’s Immigration Prisons,” a scathing expose of detention facilities, goes further. He says the Inspector General’s report “has helped ensure that, for now, the mistreatment will continue.”

The reason, he says, is the IG’s recommendation that the DHS agency responsible for the detention of immigrants, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), police itself.

“That is telling the agency responsible for the mistreatment of its prisoners, and whose own inspections are deficient, ‘ensure that periodic oversight and inspection procedures are in place to address compliance with the Detention Standards.’ The [IG’s] report neglects to mention that ICE has refused to promulgate its detention standards as regulations because they would then be, at least theoretically, legally enforceable,” he says.

He adds: “The bottom line is that ‘auditing’ without truly independent enforcement is meaningless.”

In response to the IG’s report, more than a dozen national organizations have filed a petition with the DHS to create enforceable regulations governing detention standards. If the federal government agrees to the request, DHS will promulgate binding standards for the safety, health, and conditions for thousands of detainees around the country.

These advocates, who include the American Friends Service Committee Immigrant Rights Program, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the Seton Hall University Law Center for Social Justice, believe DHS regulations governing detention standards will ensure effective protection of detainees’ human rights. Their petition “highlights our unconscionable detention system. The reality is that county governments vie for lucrative contracts with the federal government to warehouse non-citizens without any binding standards of care.”

Among the most significant issues raised in the IG’s report was that detainees face significant hurdles when attempting to make complaints about their conditions of confinement. It further points to the current ineffectiveness of ICE’s own annual inspections of detention facilities. “The report exposes gaping holes in the protection of detainee rights. We cannot trust the jail officials to address detainees’ concerns, and we cannot trust ICE to effectively review the jails’ practices.”

Since 9/11, many of the detention centers for immigrants have been privatized and are being run by such companies as CCA and Florida-based Wackenhut. According to Corporate Watch, in 1999 the feds farmed out less than three percent of beds – but seven years later, the number had reached almost one in five.

The boom in privatized prisons began shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks, when the Department of Justice rounded up thousands of “Middle Eastern-looking” immigrants and detained many of them for months, abusing many, treating them as criminals, and denying them access to lawyers.

A 2003 report by the DHS Inspector General forcefully condemned the treatment of immigrants inside various jails in its report, “The September 11 Detainees: A Review of the Treatment of Aliens Held on Immigration Charges in Connection With the Investigation of the September 11 Attacks.” Infractions included routine abuse of basic prisoner rights, mental and physical abuse, denial of health care and medical treatment, prison overcrowding, and a lack of working showers and toilets.

None of those held were ever charged with a terror-related crime. Some were deported for immigration violations.

Privatized detention facilities have grown apace amid the clamor for a crackdown on alleged undocumented immigrants. Contracts for these new jails flowed to the private prison industry despite many previous allegations of mismanagement and scandal.

Detainee advocates accuse prison companies of cutting corners in training guards and in providing basic services. The government has done little to regulate prison administration, but has sanctioned exploitive labor practices and rip-off telephone costs for inmates.

For example, a former detainee in a CCA facility in San Diego testified that “The guards would scream and shout at us as if we were little kids. If we would ask them to stop, they would threaten to lock us down for a few days, which would happen constantly. Three people being locked in a two-man cell, in a 12 x 7 room. This happened a lot; sometimes as punishment for the actions of one or two inmates, the other 105-115 detainees would suffer.”

Often, he added, “detainees would be missing money on their accounts, which I was recently told by a detainee who keeps in contact with me was being stolen by the staff, according to [an] OIG investigation. We would get underserved during meal times. When we complained to the unit manager she would say that we were given the right amounts, which in my opinion was the appropriate portion for a ten or eleven year old. Some of the guards and staff would curse at us. They would purposely lower the televisions so we couldn’t hear them, just to mess with us. During our free time, they would take their time turning on the phones so we wouldn’t be able to call our families. Just to be cruel.”

CCA’s revenues have increased substantially since 9/11. The company calculates that its expenditure of $28.89 per inmate per day allows it to make a daily profit of $50.26 per inmate.

The Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) continues to award lucrative contracts to CCA and its competitors. CCA runs the 300-bed Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey and the 1,216-bed San Diego Correctional Facility, as well as having landed new prison contracts with the Kentucky Department of Corrections, the state of Kansas, and the Florida Department of Management Services.

Wackenhut has also shared in the private prison boom. Before 2001, Wackenhut, like CCA, had been at the center of serious inmate-abuse scandals: Guards were caught having sex with underage inmates, there were routine reports of extreme mistreatment of inmates, and there was even a disproportionately high level of deaths in their facilities.

After a CBS Television report exposed the repeated rape of a 14-year-old girl at a Wackenhut juvenile jail and two guards were found guilty, its CEO said, “It’s a tough business. The people in prison are not Sunday-school children.” Still more worrying was Wackenhut’s record with inmate-on-inmate killings. In 1998-1999 alone, Wackenhut’s New Mexico facilities had a death rate of one murder for every 400 prisoners. For the same period in all US prisons, the rate was about one in 22,000.

Wackenhut’s most public response was to change its name to the GEO Group. It continues to win lucrative government contracts.

The corrections industry has routinely argued that privatizing prisons dramatically lowers costs. But a 1996 US General Accounting Office report concluded there was no clear evidence supporting this contention.

Prison companies do have certain advantages over other corporations: They are able to save large amounts of money on labor practices that would be illegal under any other circumstances. Inmate jobs in all prisons pay a pittance, but immigrant prisons are even worse. Because DHS guidelines mandate that non-citizen prisoners cannot earn more than $1 per day, the company gets janitors, maintenance workers, cleaners, launderers, kitchen staff, sewers and grounds keepers at almost no cost.

Author Mark Dow says, “It isn’t politically popular to speak up for alien inmates, but Congress has a responsibility to establish independent oversight of the ICE detention system. Congress should hold hearings on ICE detention – with meaningful follow-up.” It should “Create a statutory-based ombudsman’s office or independent oversight body outside the Department of Homeland Security. It must have subpoena power as well as authorization to make unannounced inspections of all facilities holding ICE detainees.”

“Eventually, the very nature of our immigration detention system must be reexamined. We take it as a given that a visa violator, or an asylum seeker, or a thirty-year lawful resident who has paid taxes but committed a non-violent misdemeanor decades ago, should be strip-searched, dressed in a prison jumpsuit, and denied contact with her children.”

Or, as summed up by Mary Shaw of Amnesty International USA, “While the US immigration system has always had its faults, it has become much worse since the attacks of 9/11. Many of the people who enter this country are fleeing persecution in other countries. They come here to seek asylum. We must not confuse these victims seeking refuge with those who would enter this country to do us harm. The US has every right to protect its borders. However, immigration policies must not make it harder for victims of human rights violations to find protection in the United States. We need to honor our country’s commitment to protecting the persecuted.”

The toxic brew here is a smorgasbord of a prison system without regulations or meaningful oversight, a Congress that has been AWOL on its abuses, a mainstream press that, with a few exceptions, has been silent, a multi-million dollar private prison industry, an administration eager to use it, and a prisoner population with no votes.

With those ingredients, don’t expect to hear much about America’s most secretive prison system any time soon.

William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and in many other parts of the world for the US State Department and USAID for the past thirty years. He began his work life as a journalist for newspapers and for the Associated Press in Florida. Go to The World According to Bill Fisher for more.