Payoff: How Congress Ensures Private Prison Profit with an Immigrant Detention Quota

Bethany Carson and Eleana Diaz / April 2015

Executive Summary

In 2009, in the midst of a multi-year decline in the undocumented immigrant population,[1] Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), then Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, inserted the following language regarding Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) detention budget into the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act of 2010: “…funding made available under this heading shall maintain a level of not less than 33,400 detention beds.”[2] This directive established what would become a controversial policy interpreted by ICE as a mandate to contract for and fill 33,400 (increased in 2013 to 34,000)[3] detention beds on a daily basis. The directive would come to be known as the “immigrant detention quota” or “bed mandate.” The immigration detention quota is unprecedented; no other law enforcement agency operates under a detention quota mandated by Congress.

Since its implementation, the quota has become a driver of an increasingly aggressive immigration enforcement strategy. The immigrant detention system has expanded significantly since the implementation of the quota, and the percent of the detained population held in private facilities has increased even more dramatically. Two major private prison corporations have emerged as the main corporate beneficiaries of immigrant detention policies: Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group.

This report provides an in-depth assessment of the inception and implementation of the quota, with a specific focus on the role played by for-profit, private prison corporations. These companies have profited handsomely from the artificial stability provided by the quota while contributing millions of dollars in federal lobbying expenditures and in campaign contributions to ensure their interests are met. This report also features testimony from people directly impacted by detention and deportation, revealing the momentous human cost of the quota.

Key Findings:

  1. Private prison corporations have increased their share of the immigrant detention industry. Since just before the onset of the quota, the private prison industry has increased its share of immigrant detention beds by 13 percent. Sixty-two percent[4] of all ICE immigration detention beds in the United States are now operated by for-profit prison corporations, up from 49 percent in 2009[5]. Nine of the ten largest ICE detention centers are private[6]. This is particularly noteworthy in light of the expansion of the entire ICE detention system by nearly 47 percent in the last decade[7].
  2. Private prison corporations lobby on immigration and immigrant detention issues that affect their bottom line. Contrary to private prison corporation claims that they do not lobby on issues related to immigration policy, between 2008 and 2014, CCA spent $10,560,000 in quarters where they lobbied on issues related to immigrant detention and immigration reform.[8],[9] Of that amount, CCA spent $9,760,000, — 61 percent of total private prison lobbying expenditures — in quarters where they directly lobbied the DHS Appropriations Subcommittee,[10],[11] which maintains the immigrant detention quota language and shapes the way in which it is interpreted. Lobbying disclosure forms reveal spending on: “Issues related to comprehensive immigration reform” (GEO Group, 2013), and “FY 2014 and FY 2015 Department of Homeland Security appropriations - provisions related to privately-operated ICE detention facilities” (CCA, 2014).[12] Since 2010, CCA has spent at least 75 percent of its lobbying expenditures in quarters where it has lobbied directly on the DHS Appropriations Subcommittee.[13] Though GEO Group has not directly lobbied the DHS Appropriations Subcommittee, the company recently began lobbying on immigration and immigrant detention issues, spending $460,000 between 2011 and 2014 in quarters when they lobbied on these issues.[14]
  3. Two private prison corporations — CCA and GEO Group — dominate the immigration detention industry. Together, they operate eight of the ten largest immigrant detention centers. GEO and CCA combined operate 72 percent of the privately contracted ICE immigrant detention beds.[15] In the years following the implementation of the immigrant detention quota, CCA and GEO expanded their share of the total ICE immigrant detention system from 37 percent in 2010 to 45 percent in 2014.[16] GEO Group in particular has increased its share of the total ICE immigrant detention system to 25 percent in FY14 from 15 percent in FY10.[17] Both companies have significantly augmented their profits since the implementation of the quota, CCA from $133,373,000[18] in 2007 to $195,022,000 in 2014.[19] GEO experienced an even more dramatic profit increase from $41,845,000[20] in 2007 to $143,840,000 in 2014, a 244 percent increase.[21]
  4. CCA and GEO have recently expanded their immigrant detention capacity, including new contracts for detaining asylum-seeking families. Since FY2014, the most recent numbers released by ICE, both CCA and GEO have both expanded their capacity for detaining women and children in new family detention centers[22] in South Texas.[23] The CCA-operated South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley opened in December 2014 and currently holds about 480 women and children. It is under expansion to grow to an expected capacity of 2,400 by May 2015. If this expansion proceeds, Dilley will be the largest immigrant detention center in the U.S.[24] The GEO-run Karnes County Residential Center opened in June 2014 and now holds around 600 women and children, but will expand to a capacity of 1,200.[25] Additionally, in January 2015, GEO acquired LCS Corrections, which owns several large immigrant detention facilities in Texas and Louisiana, further increasing its share of the immigrant detention business.[26]

Recommendations:

  1. Congress should eliminate the immigrant detention quota from its 2016 appropriations request.
  2. ICE should reduce reliance on for-profit prison contractors. Congress should increase oversight within the contracting system and launch a system-wide review of the contracted prisons and their related intergovernmental service agreements.
  3. ICE should end contracts at facilities with a record of abuse and penalize contractors found to have multiple incidents of abuse or mismanagement in their facilities.
  4. Congress and the Administration should prioritize policies that expand the use of non-punitive, community-supported alternative to detention (ATD) programs. However, these measures must be used in place of current detention capacity, not in addition to it. The intent of any ATD program should be to reduce the population in immigration detention, with the ultimate goal of eliminating the immigration detention system entirely.
  1. U.S. Unauthorized Immigration Population Trends, 1990-2012. (2013, September 23). Pew Research Centers Hispanic Trends Project.
  2. Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, 2010. (2009, October 28). Government Printing Office.
  3. Immigrant detention bed quota timeline. (2014, March 20). National Immigrant Justice Center.
  4. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ERO Custody Management Division. List of facilities analyzed by Grassroots Leadership from documents titled “DMCP Authorized Facilities” and “ICE Authorized Facilities Matrix.” March 5, 2015.
  5. Expose & Close: Executive Summary. (n.d.). Detention Watch Network.
  6. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ERO Custody Management Division. List of facilities analyzed by Grassroots Leadership from documents titled “DMCP Authorized Facilities” and “ICE Authorized Facilities Matrix.” March 5, 2015.
  7. Grassroots Leadership calculation from http://www.ice.gov/doclib/foia/reports/ero-facts-and-statistics.pdf (2007) and analysis of “ICE Authorized Facilities Matrix” document (2014). March 5, 2015.
  8. Grassroots Leadership analysis of LDA Reports (n.d.). U.S. Senate: Legislation & Records.
  9. Immigration issues lobbying calculations include the amount lobbied in quarters when issues related to immigration were among the issues listed in the corporation’s disclosure form. A significant but unknown portion of lobbying expenditures in these quarters was spent on immigration issues. Lobbying directed at alternatives to detention (ankle bracelet monitoring and regular check-ins with law enforcement) has been excluded from all calculations of immigration lobbying for the purposes of more accurately tracking detention, although GEO does have a direct profit incentive in alternatives to detention through its subsidiary BI Technologies. Additionally, vaguely defined lobbying issues referencing detention (ex. Issues pertaining to the construction and management of privately-operated prisons and detention facilities) have been excluded.
  10. Grassroots Leadership analysis of LDA Reports (n.d.). U.S. Senate: Legislation & Records.
  11. DHS appropriations lobbying calculations include the amount lobbied in quarters when DHS appropriations was among the issues the corporation listed in their lobbying disclosure form. A significant but unknown portion of lobbying expenditures in these quarters was spent on DHS appropriations.
  12. LDA Reports (n.d.). U.S. Senate: Legislation & Records.
  13. Grassroots Leadership analysis of LDA Reports (n.d.). U.S. Senate: Legislation & Records.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ERO Custody Management Division. List of facilities analyzed by Grassroots Leadership from document titled “ICE Authorized Facilities Matrix.” March 5, 2015.
  16. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ERO Custody Management Division. List of facilities analyzed by Grassroots Leadership from documents titled “DMCP Authorized Facilities” and “ICE Authorized Facilities Matrix.” March 5, 2015.
  17. Ibid.
  18. CCA 10-K SEC filing, February 2008.
  19. CCA 10-K SEC filing, February 2015
  20. GEO 10-K SEC filing February 2008.
  21. GEO 10-K SEC filing, February 2015.
  22. Detention facilities for asylum-seeking mothers with children apprehended crossing the southern border
  23. GEO’s Karnes County Residential Center is included in FY14 data, but has an ADP of only 84, a fraction of the women and children detained at Karnes today. CCA’s South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, TX did not yet exist at the close of FY14. Instead, FY14 statistics reflect family detention at Artesia Family Residential Center in New Mexico, an ICE-run facility that was closed in December 2014.
  24. Will Weissert, “Texas immigration family lockup will be nation’s largest,” The Associated Press, December 15, 2014.
  25. Jessie Degollado, “Karnes County approves family detention expansion,” KSAT, December 16, 2014
  26. Emma Randles. The GEO Group acquires LCS Corrections, expanding their reach in Texas. Texas Prison Bid’ness. January 27, 2015.

Origins of the Immigrant Detention Quota

The inclusion of the immigrant detention quota in the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act of 2010 did not arise from an evident and pressing public need, but rather from political efforts aimed at increasing the number of immigrant detention beds. From 2000 to 2006, the average daily population (ADP) of immigrants in detention was relatively stable remaining around 20,000.[27] (This was still a dramatic increase from the mid-90’s when the immigrant detention population was around 7,000.[28]) In 2004, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act directed ICE to increase the number of beds by at least 8,000 each year from fiscal years 2006 to 2010,[29] though few of those beds were ever allocated.[30] Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee Rep. Harold Rogers said in a 2006 meeting that he wanted “no empty beds,”[31] and in the following year, the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act provided funding for an additional 6,700 beds, bringing the total to 27,500.[32], [33] Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security Sen. Robert Byrd — whose political career began when he was appointed Exalted Cyclops within the Ku Klux Klan[34] — was a longtime supporter of detention for undocumented immigrants and had often linked immigration to terrorism and even the destruction of the environment in his speeches.[35] However, not much is known of Byrd’s exact thought process around the creation of the immigrant detention quota. He died shortly after it was established, and because it was quietly slipped into the DHS Appropriations Act of 2010 and not introduced as a piece of legislation, no public debate on the issue was held. Despite this, a former aide of Byrd’s divulged that the Senator was intent on using the quota to ensure that cost increases would not lead ICE to decrease the number of detention beds.[36]

Since 2010, the immigrant detention quota has become a driver of an increasingly aggressive immigration enforcement strategy. Unrelated to any change in immigration trends, the quota was raised from 33,400 to 34,000 in February of 2012.[37] Additionally, under the Obama Administration the number of arrests and deportations has climbed to a record high averaging more than 380,000 per year[38] and more than 2 million total since he took office.[39] Subsequent efforts to strike the quota have proved unfruitful.[40] Though the immigrant detention quota was bracketed in the Administration’s 2015 budget, indicating that it was recommended for removal, Congress did not eliminate the quota or reduce funding for bed space.[41] While the Obama Administration remains opposed to the mechanism of the quota, its recently-released 2016 budget requests an increase of bed space to 34,040.

  1. http://www.immigrationforum.org/images/uploads/mathofimmigrationdetention.pdf"
  2. FY 1994 through FY2005 CRS presentation of published DHS data.
  3. Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. (2004, December 17). Government Printing Office.
  4. Congressional Record, V. 151, Pt. 12, July 14 to July 22, 2005. Government Printing Office. pg 16048-16049. July 14, 2005.
  5. Document on file with author.
  6. President Bush Signs Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act. The White House. October 4, 2006.
  7. Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, 2007. (2006, January 3). Government Printing Office.
  8. Pianin, E. (2005, June 19). A senator’s shame. The Washington Post.
  9. Congressional Record, Volume 147 Issue 115 (Thursday, September 6, 2001). p. 16581 - 16584. Google Books.
  10. Taylor, L. (2014, March 12). Rights groups want to end mandate that keeps immigration detention beds full. Imagine 2050.
  11. Immigrant detention bed quota timeline. (2014, March 20). National Immigrant Justice Center.
  12. FY 2013 ICE Immigration Removals. (n.d.). Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
  13. Vicens, A. (2014, April 4). The Obama administration's 2 million deportations, explained. Mother Jones.
  14. Deutch, T. (2013, June 5). H.R. 2217, Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, 2014. Congressional Record.
  15. Taylor, L. (2014, March 12). Rights groups want to end mandate that keeps immigration detention beds full. Imagine 2050.

Increasing Privatization in a Growing Immigrant Detention Industry

As the number of detained immigrants increases, the share of immigrant detention beds granted to private prison corporations is also growing rapidly. In 2004, the ADP in ICE authorized immigrant detention facilities (both publicly and privately run) was 21,928.[42] In the last decade, the immigrant detention system has grown by 47 percent to detain 32,163 immigrants per day in fiscal year 2014.[43] The percentage of immigrants detained in private prisons has risen even more dramatically. In 2009, just 49 percent[44] of beds were privately run; today 62 percent of immigrant detention bed space is in private facilities — a 13 percentage point increase in just 5 years.[45] Chart 1-A shows the growth of the overall number of immigrants detained in ICE-authorized facilities. Chart 1-AA displays the even steeper increase in privatization.

Chart 1-A

Pop growth scatter w trend line.png

Chart 1-AA

Private growth scatter w trend line.png

Both ADP and privatization are divided unevenly between states. Chart 1-B shows the percentage of 2014 ICE ADP in each of the 10 states with the greatest ADP.[46] Thirty percent of the ICE ADP is located in one state alone: Texas.[47] Chart 1-C shows states with high levels of privatization among those with the 10 highest ADP’s.[48] It’s worth noting that while Texas is about 20 percent less privatized than Washington or Georgia, it has the highest absolute number of private detention beds in the nation. At 7,602 private beds for immigrant detainees, Texas has 39 percent of all private detention beds in the country.[49]

Chart 1-B

2014 ADP by State.gif

Chart 1-C

Percent Privatization - State.gif

Currently, the cost of detention is roughly $160 per day per detainee, $5 million per day total, and $2 billion per year.[50] Private prison corporations market their services on a platform of reducing these government costs. CCA, the nation’s largest private prison company, claims in a recent investor presentation, that it saves the government 12 percent compared to government-run facilities.[51] However, the company’s own footnote acknowledges that this statistic comes from a Temple University Center for Competitive Government study that “received funding by the private correctional industry.”[52] Despite private prison claims, former ICE Executive Associate Director for Enforcement and Removal Operations, Gary Mead, admitted in 2012 that the government has not conducted internal research to determine the validity of private prison claims of running cheaper facilities. He added that, “…[private detention centers] are not our most expensive, they are not our cheapest [facilities].”[53] Recent studies have cast doubt on the cost effectiveness of private prisons,[54] along with the revelation that savings are often artificially augmented by delegating labor to detainees who are paid $1 per day, rather than the minimum hourly wage that would be required for any other worker to complete the same task.[55] Privately run detention centers also regularly implement cost-cutting measures on food, medical care, labor (in the form of wages, benefits, and training), and facilities. These bottom-line focused tactics result in inhumane and sometimes lethal conditions.[56]

Even though corporate claims of cost savings have not been corroborated, private prison corporations have enjoyed a 13 percentage point increase in their market share of immigrant detention from 2009 to 2014.[57] This is particularly striking as the size of the industry has increased by 47 percent from 2004 to 2014.[58] Chart 1-D below illustrates the ratio of beds held by the private prison industry as of fiscal year 2014.[59]

Chart 1-D[60][61]

Public-Private Comparison.gif

Chart 1-E shows the top 10 largest immigrant detention facilities in the nation, and the corporations that run them.[62] Nine of the 10 are privately run, and all but two of these 10 detention centers are run by one of the two largest private prison corporations: Corrections Corporation of America or GEO Group.[63]

Chart 1-E

Facility Location Company FY14 ADP
1 South Texas Detention Complex Pearsall, TX GEO 1722
2 Stewart Detention Center Lumpkin, GA CCA 1619
3 Eloy Federal Contract Facility Eloy, AZ CCA 1483
4 Northwest Detention Center Tacoma, WA GEO 1400
5 Adelanto Correctional Facility Adelanto, CA GEO 1209
6 Jena/LaSalle Detention Facility Jena, LA GEO 1033
7 Port Isabel Los Fresnos, TX Public 992
8 Joe Corley Detention Facilty Conroe, TX GEO 958
9 Houston Contract Detention Facility Houston, TX CCA 942
10 Otero County Processing Center Chaparral, NM MTC[64] 845

In total, CCA and GEO each currently run 12 ICE-contracted facilities.[65] The pie chart below (1-F) shows the market share of the immigrant detention industry operated by each private prison company.[66] CCA and GEO together operate 72 percent of the private immigrant detention industry.[67] This means that CCA and GEO combined detain 14,149 immigrants per day, or 45 percent of the entire ICE immigrant detention capacity in FY14, increased from 37 percent in FY10.[68] GEO Group in particular has increased its share of the total immigrant detention system to 25 percent in FY14 from 15 percent in FY10.[69] In January 2015, GEO acquired LCS Corrections, which operates several large immigrant detention facilities in Texas and Louisiana, further increasing its share of the immigrant detention business.[70]

Additionally, both CCA and GEO have won contracts for, or expanded, new family detention centers in South Texas recently opened by the Obama Administration in response to the arrival of Central American families seeking asylum at our southern border in summer 2014. The CCA-operated South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley opened December 2014 and currently holds about 480 people and is under expansion to an expected capacity of 2,400 by May 2015.[71] If this expansion proceeds, Dilley will be the largest immigrant detention center in the nation.[72] The GEO-run Karnes County Residential Center opened in June 2014 now holds around 600 women and children, and the county voted in December 2014 to allow the facility to expand to a capacity of 1,200.[73] GEO’s acquisition of LCS and the new CCA and expanded GEO family detention facilities are not reflected in the charts below or average daily population calculations in this report as they are not included in the fiscal year 2014 data reported by ICE. Therefore, the numbers in this report actually understate the current percentage of privatization, as well as the percent of GEO and CCA expansion, in the immigrant detention system.

Chart 1-F

Corporate shares.gif

This expansion of private prison corporations further into immigrant detention has led to record profits. Both companies have significantly augmented their net revenue since the implementation of the quota, CCA from $133,373,000[74] in 2007 to $195,022,000 in 2014.[75] GEO experienced an even more dramatic profit increase from $41,845,000[76] in 2007 to $143,840,000 in 2014, a 244 percent increase.[77] Furthermore, private prison corporations have an incentive to push for every bed to be full; according to a 2014 CCA investor presentation, “filling vacant beds would add ≈ $1.00 to [Earnings Per Share] & [Adjusted Funds From Operations] per share.”[78]

CCA Stock Prices
CCA stock prices.png

GEO Stock Prices
GEO stock.png

Above are graphs of CCA and GEO stock prices from 2010 through February 2015. CCA stock is up 21.56 percent in the past year and GEO stock is up 36.95 percent.[79] The industry is confident in its further growth despite recent criminal justice reforms — largely due to increasing demand for immigrant detention. As the President and CEO of CCA explained in a call for investors, “I think… there’s always going to be a demand for [immigration detention] beds. There is always going to be a strong demand regardless of what is being done at the national level as far as immigration reform.”[80] In the case of GEO, their positive outlook is so strong that they expect to fill the new facilities they recently acquired through their acquisition of LCS, which have an average occupancy rate of 50 percent.[81] George C. Zoley, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of GEO, said about the acquisition: “The recently announced reactivation of a significant portion of our beds in inventory is indicative of the growing need for beds around the country, and this important strategic transaction will further position GEO to meet the demand for correctional and detention bed space in the United States.”[82] Though some might call such confidence in a dramatic increase of population foolhardy, private estimates suggest that the private prison industry will acquire 80 percent of any future immigrant detention bed increases.[83]

  1. ICE FOIA Report, ERO Facts and Statistics.
  2. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ERO Custody Management Division. List of facilities analyzed by Grassroots Leadership from document titled “ICE Authorized Facilities Matrix.” March 5, 2015.
  3. Expose & Close: Executive Summary. (n.d.). Detention Watch Network.
  4. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ERO Custody Management Division. List of facilities analyzed by Grassroots Leadership from document titled “ICE Authorized Facilities Matrix.” March 5, 2015.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. The math of immigrant detention: The runaway costs for immigration detention do not add up to sensible policies. (n.d.). National Immigration Forum.
  10. CCA Investor Presentation. February 2014.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Private prison companies making big bucks on locking up undocumented immigrants. (2012, August 2). NY Daily News.
  13. Kish, R., & Lipton, A. (2013, February 6). Do private prisons really offer savings compared to their public counterparts?. Economic Affairs.
  14. Kunichoff, Y. (2012, July 27). "Voluntary" work program run in private detention centers pays detained immigrants $1 a day. Truthout.
  15. Venters, H., Dasch-Goldberg, D., Rasmussen, A., & Keller, A. (2009, May 1). Into the abyss: mortality and morbidity among detained immigrants. Human Rights Quarterly.
  16. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ERO Custody Management Division. List of facilities analyzed by Grassroots Leadership from documents titled “DMCP Authorized Facilities” and “ICE Authorized Facilities Matrix.” March 5, 2015.
  17. ICE FOIA Report, ERO Facts and Statistics. & Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ERO Custody Management Division. List of facilities analyzed by Grassroots Leadership from document titled “ICE Authorized Facilities Matrix.” March 5, 2015.
  18. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ERO Custody Management Division. List of facilities analyzed by Grassroots Leadership from document titled “ICE Authorized Facilities Matrix.” March 5, 2015.
  19. Private companies in legend from left to right: Corrections Corporation of America, GEO Group, Management and Training Corporation, Emerald Corrections, LCS Corrections, Community Education Centers, LaSalle Corrections, Immigration Centers of America
  20. LCS was purchased by GEO in January 2015. These statistics are from fiscal year 2014, so reflect the two companies as separate entities.
  21. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ERO Custody Management Division. List of facilities analyzed by Grassroots Leadership from document titled “ICE Authorized Facilities Matrix.” March 5, 2015.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Management and Training Corporation
  24. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ERO Custody Management Division. List of facilities analyzed by Grassroots Leadership from document titled “ICE Authorized Facilities Matrix.” March 5, 2015. Includes new family detention facilities not listed in FY2014 data.
  25. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ERO Custody Management Division. List of facilities analyzed by Grassroots Leadership from document titled “ICE Authorized Facilities Matrix.” March 5, 2015.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ERO Custody Management Division. List of facilities analyzed by Grassroots Leadership from documents titled “DMCP Authorized Facilities” and “ICE Authorized Facilities Matrix.” March 5, 2015.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Emma Randles. The GEO Group acquires LCS Corrections, expanding their reach in Texas. Texas Prison Bid’ness. January 27, 2015.
  30. Will Weissert, “Texas immigration family lockup will be nation’s largest,” The Associated Press, December 15, 2014.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Jessie Degollado, “Karnes County approves family detention expansion,” KSAT, December 16, 2014.
  33. CCA 10-K SEC filing, February 2008.
  34. CCA 10-K SEC filing, February 2015.
  35. GEO 10-K SEC filing February 2008.
  36. GEO 10-K SEC filing, February 2015.
  37. CCA Investor Presentation. February 2014.
  38. http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/business/companies/corrections-corporation-of-america/index.html
  39. Wessler, S. (2013, February 14). CEO of largest private prison company: No worries about immigration reform. Colorlines.
  40. The GEO Group Announces Acquisition of Eight Correctional and Detention Facilities Totalling More Than 6,500 Beds. Business Wire. January 26, 2015.
  41. Ibid.
  42. The math of immigrant detention: The runaway costs for immigration detention do not add up to sensible policies. (n.d.). National Immigration Forum.

Meet the two Largest Private Prison Corporations: CCA and GEO Group

The two largest (and publicly traded) private prison corporations, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, have a long-standing stake in the detention of immigrants. According to Tom Beasley, who founded CCA, the nation’s oldest and largest for-profit prison corporation, in 1983 alongside T. Don Hutto and Doctor Robert Crants, CCA was established on the idea that prisons could be sold “just like you were selling cars, or real estate, or hamburgers.”[84] In fact, CCA’s first venture upon its establishment was an immigrant detention center in Houston called the Houston Processing Center (HPC). According to a CCA spokesperson interviewed by Deportation Nation, the first iteration of the HPC was in the remains of a shuttered local motel, where CCA held immigrants in detention while it built a new facility.[85] The company has since grown into a billion-dollar, publicly traded corporation that uses its profits to lobby and contribute to campaigns that would benefit its business.[86] GEO Group has employed similar strategies since its inception in 1984. The company, then called Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, secured its first prison contract to detain 150 immigrants for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now Immigration and Customs Enforcement) at what is now the Aurora Processing Center in Colorado.[87]

Between 2008 — just prior to the quota’s creation and right as new government regulations began to require lobbyists to divulge specific issue areas[88] — and 2014, private prison companies spent $16,789,000 on federal lobbying.[89] Of this, CCA and GEO spent the lion’s share with a combined total of $16,055,000.[90] In this time the industry also supplied over $132,000 in campaign contributions to members of Congress on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, the birthplace and point of control for the immigrant detention quota.[91] The shrewdly targeted campaign contributions have been documented and analyzed at length by multiple sources[92],[93] and indicate that private prison companies are focusing efforts on swaying Congress members with clout on immigration issues and in the Appropriations Committee.

A prime example of the close relationship between legislators and the private prison industry is illustrated by the drafting of Arizona’s controversial S.B. 1070 bill. S.B. 1070 was an attempt to create new classes of state crimes related to immigration and immigration status, including state felonies.[94] By the time S.B. 1070 made it to the floor, 30 out of the bill’s 36 co-sponsors had received campaign contributions from private prison companies as well as private prison lobbyists.[95] When Governor Jan Brewer signed it into law she did so after receiving substantial campaign contributions from CCA executives and hiring former CCA lobbyists as her top aides.[96] Lawmakers also inserted this concession to the prison industry: “[S.B. 1070] stipulates that a person is not eligible for suspension or commutation of sentence or release on any basis until the sentence imposed is served.”[97] An S.B. 1070 fact sheet created by the Arizona state Senate admitted, “The fiscal impact is unknown; however, there may be additional costs associated with criminal prosecution and detention of persons who are accused and convicted of the crimes established in this legislation.”[98] Evidently, CCA felt that these “additional costs” presented an opportunity well worth pursuing.

  1. The Dirty Thirty: Nothing to Celebrate About 30 Years of Corrections Corporation of America. (n.d.). Grassroots Leadership.
  2. “Houston Processing Center”
  3. Our History. (n.d.). Corrections Corporation of America.
  4. About Us. (n.d.). GEO Group.
  5. Lobbying Disclosure. (2008, January 1). Office of the Clerk: U.S. House of Representatives.
  6. Grassroots Leadership analysis of LDA Reports. (n.d.). U.S. Senate: Legislation & Records.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Selway, W., & Newkirk, M. (2013, September 23). Congress Mandates Jail Beds for 34,000 Immigrants as Private Prisons Profit. Bloomberg.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Flatow, N. (2013, February 21). Republicans With Influence On Immigration Debate Are Top Recipients Of Private Prison Contributions. Think Progress.
  11. Arizona Senate Research. (2010, January 15). Arizona State Senate, Forty-ninth Legislature, Second Regular Session, Fact Sheet on S.B. 1070.
  12. Gaming the system: How the political strategies of private prison companies promote ineffective incarceration policies. (2011, June 1). Justice Policy Institute.
  13. Cervantes-Gautschi, P. (n.d.). Wall Street & Our Campaign to Decriminalize Immigrants. Social Policy.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.

Lobbying: Private Prison Corporations’ Shady but Lucrative “Investments”

Private prison corporations have long claimed that they do not lobby on immigration policy that affects their business. GEO states in its annual 10-K report required by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that it “has never taken a position on incarceration or immigrant detention policies”[99] and tells the public that it “has never directly or indirectly lobbied to influence immigration policy,” has “not discussed any immigration reform related matters with any members of Congress,” and “will not participate in the current immigration reform debate.”[100] CCA asserts that “our policy prohibits us from engaging in lobbying or advocacy efforts that would influence enforcement efforts, parole standards, criminal laws, and sentencing policies.”[101] However, these same corporations have spent over $13 million on federal lobbying between 2008 and 2014. In the words of immigrant advocate Peter Cervantes-Gautschi, “that’s a lot of money to listen quietly.”[102] Private prison corporations’ own documents undermine their argument that they do not lobby or otherwise advocate for increased numbers of people in their detention centers. In 2011, a lobbyist for Immigration Centers of America-Farmville, a private prison corporation, wrote in a lobbying disclosure report that they “assisted Immigration Centers of America-Farmville to reach maximum inmate capacity.”

Furthermore, both CCA and GEO Group list immigration reform and other liberalization efforts as threats to their business outlooks in documents filed with the SEC. In its annual 10-K report released in February 2015, CCA admits that “We depend on a limited number of governmental customers for a significant portion of our revenues. We currently derive, and expect to continue to derive, a significant portion of our revenues from a limited number of governmental agencies. The loss of, or a significant decrease in, business from the [Bureau of Prisons (BOP)], ICE, [U.S. Marshals Service (USMS)], or various state agencies could seriously harm our financial condition and results of operations. The three primary federal governmental agencies with correctional and detention responsibilities, the BOP, ICE, and USMS, accounted for 44% of our total revenues for the fiscal year ended December 31, 2014 ($724.2 million).”[103]

GEO also stated in their 10-K report that “Immigration reform laws which are currently a focus for legislators and politicians at the federal, state and local level also could materially adversely impact us.”[104] This reveals a substantial profit motive to lobby not only for an increase in privatization, but also for the maintenance and increase in size of the overall immigrant detention system — including the immigrant detention quota. In fact, the quota creates artificial stability for these companies at taxpayer expense, a particularly attractive “insurance policy” against the risks posed to their business by the prospect of federal immigration reform. This could explain why since the quota’s implementation, the industry has spent 61 percent of its total lobbying expenses in quarters when it lobbied on the DHS Appropriations Subcommittee, the birthplace and point of control for the quota.[105]

Substantiating these speculations on private prison industry profit incentives for lobbying, CCA and GEO Group have filed lobbying disclosure documents indicating that they lobby directly on issues related to immigration detention appropriations and immigration reform legislation. Between 2008 and 2014, the following phrases appear repeatedly in CCA and GEO lobbying documents: “Issues related to comprehensive immigration reform” (GEO Group, 2013), “Issues relating to housing of ICE prison inmates[106] and transportation of federal prisoners to be deported along the border region of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California” (GEO Group, 2014), “Issues and funding related to the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement” (CCA, 2009), “FY 2014 and FY 2015 Department of Homeland Security appropriations — provisions related to privately-operated ICE detention facilities” (CCA, 2014).[107] These documents reveal considerable expenditures on the DHS Appropriations Subcommittee as well as on immigrant detention and immigration issues as a whole.

Below are charts illustrating the extent of this lobbying. Chart 2-A examines the lobbying practices of CCA, the largest private prison company and the one that has historically been most active in lobbying and in directing funds specifically toward lobbying the DHS Appropriations Subcommittee. The first line series documents the total amount of money spent on lobbying by CCA each year ($13,635,000 total from 2008 to 2014).[108] The second line series demonstrates the amount of money spent in quarters where CCA specifically lobbied the DHS Appropriations Subcommittee ($9,760,000 from 2008 to 2014).[109] The third line series illustrates the total amount spent in quarters where CCA lobbied on immigration or immigrant detention issues, including but not limited to lobbying the DHS Appropriations Subcommittee ($10,560,000 from 2008 to 2014).[110] Lobbying directed at alternatives to detention (ankle bracelet monitoring and regular check-ins with law enforcement) has been excluded from all calculations of immigration lobbying for the purposes of more accurately tracking detention, although GEO does have a direct profit incentive in alternatives to detention through its subsidiary BI Technologies. Additionally, vaguely defined lobbying issues referencing detention (ex. Issues pertaining to the construction and management of privately-operated prisons and detention facilities) have been excluded. Lobbying is disclosed quarterly and spending is not broken out by issue, though specific issues are listed on each disclosure form. Therefore, for both the second line series (DHS appropriations lobbying) and third line series (immigration issues lobbying), a substantial but unknown portion of CCA’s lobbying expenditures were used for DHS appropriations and immigration lobbying, respectively.

Additionally, Chart 2-B shows that CCA spent an incredible percentage of its overall lobbying resources on immigration-related issues, including specifically targeting the DHS appropriations process. Since 2010, CCA has spent at least 75 percent of its lobbying expenditures in quarters where it has directly lobbied the DHS Appropriations Subcommittee.[111] Overall, from 2008-2014, the corporation has spent 77 percent of its lobbying resources in quarters when it lobbied on immigration issues.[112] In 2011 alone, CCA spent $1,940,000 — 97 percent of its total lobbying — in quarters when it lobbied on immigration issues, including $1,660,000 in quarters where it lobbied on DHS appropriations.[113]

Chart 2-A*[114]

CCA Lobbying Line Graph.png

Chart 2-B*

CCA Percent Total Lobbying on Immigration.gif

Chart 2-C documents the total amount of money spent by CCA and GEO Group in quarters when they lobbied on immigration issues between 2008 and 2014 and in quarters when they lobbied the DHS Appropriations Subcommittee. Together, these corporations have spent $11,020,000 in quarters when they lobbied on immigration issues from 2008-2014, 98 percent of all private prison corporations’ lobbying on immigration.[115] Additionally, they have spent 69 percent of their total lobbying resources in quarters when they lobbied on immigration issues, and 61 percent in quarters where they lobbied on DHS appropriations.[116] In fact, an incredible 58 percent of the $16,789,000 private prison lobbying from 2008-2014 occurred in quarters when they lobbied on the DHS Appropriations Subcommittee.[117]

Chart 2-C*

CCA & GEO Lobbying on Immigration Issues.gif

Chart 2-D shows the top lobbyists paid by private prison corporations by the total dollar amount lobbied between 2007-2014.

Top 10 Private Prison Lobbyists 2007-2014[118]

Lobbying Corporation Private Prison Corporation Total Amount Paid (2007-2014)
CCA - Bart VerHulst & Jeremy Wiley CCA $9,840,000
McBee Strategic Consulting, LLC CCA $2,270,000
Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLP CCA $2,130,000
Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen Bingel & Thomas Inc. CCA $1,240,000
Lionel "Leo" Aguirre GEO Group $1,200,000
Podesta Group, Inc.*[119] CCA & GEO $680,000
Sisco Consulting, LLC* CCA $670,000
Navigators Global LLC GEO $610,000
Ridge Policy Group GEO $200,000
Public Policy Partners* GEO $160,000

Both CCA and GEO Group have employed an impressive and bipartisan array of lobbyists. CCA has relied most heavily on in-house lobbying team Bart VerHulst & Jeremy Wiley. The company also employs high-powered firms including McBee Strategic Consulting, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, and Mehlman Castaganetti Rosen Bingel & Thomas.

GEO’s current lobbyists include Lionel "Leo" Aguirre, Navigators Global LLC, and the Ridge Policy Group, named for and headed by former DHS Secretary Tom Ridge. These choices reflect a practice of hiring people with influence in federal agencies related to immigrant detention. GEO’s most consistent lobbyist is Aguirre, a Texan who has been on the company’s payroll since at least 2008 and also lobbies on behalf of GEO in his home state. He is the widower of Lena Guerrero, a three-term Texas state representative and the first Latina chair of the Texas Railroad Commission, the powerful agency in charge of regulating the oil and gas industry. Lionel himself was an executive in the state comptroller’s office before moving into the private sector.[120]

The Ridge Policy Group is headed by Tom Ridge, the first head of the Department of Homeland Security, the agency responsible for the contract with GEO to detain families in Karnes City, as well as its 11 other immigrant detention facilities. [121]

Taken as a whole, lobbying data from private prison corporations along with their own statements about profits and risk factors demonstrate a clear intent to maintain the immigrant detention quota and avoid any policies that would cause a significant decrease in immigrant detention. Immigrants in detention have become one of the fastest growing segments of the incarcerated population.[122] Immigrant detention in ICE facilities alone accounts for 12.4 percent of total revenue for CCA and 15.6 percent of revenue for GEO.[123],[124] The role the quota has played in artificially stabilizing these corporations’ revenue from federal immigration enforcement has helped them to double in value since 2010, at the expense of taxpayers, detained immigrants, their families, and communities.[125] Undoubtedly, the existence of the quota plays a large part in the corporations’ confidence expressed to shareholders that profits from immigrant detention facilities will continue. As the CCA President and CEO put it: “There is always going to be a strong demand [for immigrant detention beds] regardless of what is being done at the national level as far as immigration reform.”[126] The exorbitant expenses private prison corporations feel obligated to spend to convince lawmakers to maintain such high levels of immigrant detention, the overt racism of the legislators who first dreamed up the quota, and the unprecedented nature of a congressionally mandated law enforcement quota seriously call into question both its necessity and morality.

  1. William Selway and Margaret Newkirk. Congress Mandates Private Jail Beds for 34,000 Immigrants. Bloomberg Business.
  2. Pablo Paez, Vice President of GEO Group’s corporate relations (Fang, L., 2013)
  3. CCA 10-K SEC filing, February 2015
  4. Private prison companies making big bucks on locking up undocumented immigrants. Associated Press. August 2, 2012.
  5. CCA 10-K SEC filing, February 2015
  6. GEO 10-K SEC filing, February 2015.
  7. Grassroots Leadership analysis of LDA Reports (n.d.). U.S. Senate: Legislation & Records.
  8. Tellingly, this GEO Group lobbyist refers to individuals in civil immigration detention custody as “prison inmates” though people in civil detention are not incarcerated.
  9. LDA Reports. (n.d.). U.S. Senate: Legislation & Records.
  10. Grassroots Leadership analysis of LDA Reports (n.d.). U.S. Senate: Legislation & Records.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. In all lobbying expenditure charts, DHS appropriations lobbying means the amount lobbied in quarters when DHS appropriations was among the issues the corporation listed in their lobbying disclosure form. Immigration issues lobbying means the amount lobbied in quarters when issues related to immigration, such as immigration reform legislation, were among the issues listed in the corporation’s disclosure form. Lobbying directed at alternatives to detention (ankle bracelet monitoring and regular check-ins with law enforcement) has been excluded from all calculations of immigration lobbying for the purposes of more accurately tracking detention, although GEO does have a direct profit incentive in alternatives to detention through its subsidiary BI Technologies. Additionally, vaguely defined lobbying issues referencing detention (ex. Issues pertaining to the construction and management of privately-operated prisons and detention facilities) have been excluded. For both DHS appropriations and immigration lobbying line series, a significant but unknown portion of lobbying expenditures in the quarters included went towards these issues. Due to the way the data is collected, it is impossible to calculate expenditures on these issues more specifically.
  17. Grassroots Leadership analysis of LDA Reports (n.d.). U.S. Senate: Legislation & Records.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Grassroots Leadership analysis of LDA Reports (n.d.). U.S. Senate: Legislation & Records.
  21. Companies with an * after name are not currently lobbying for either GEO or CCA
  22. Matt Pulle, “The GEO Group’s team of all-star lobbyists” Texas Watchdog, June 15, 2009
  23. United States Securities and Exchange Commission. Accessed July 2, 2014
  24. Mark Hugo Lopez and Michael T. Light. A Rising Share: Hispanics and Federal Crime. Pew Research Center.
  25. CCA Investor Presentation. February 2014
  26. GEO 10-K SEC filing, February 2015.
  27. Selway, W., & Newkirk, M. (2013, September 23). Congress Mandates Jail Beds for 34,000 Immigrants as Private Prisons Profit. Bloomberg.
  28. Wessler, S. (2013, February 14). CEO of largest private prison company: No worries about immigration reform. Colorlines.

Human Cost

While the non-monetary effects of the quota may be mere externalities to private prison corporations, this policy has concrete human costs to people who don’t have the power or resources to buy the ears of legislators. Since its implementation, this arbitrary quota has created headaches and heartaches for those detained, their families and communities, and even DHS and ICE (by their own admission).[127] Each day thousands of families are separated by ICE.[128] The following testimonies from people who have experienced detention first-hand show the harm that is done by the immigrant detention quota, and the system of immigrant detention as a whole.[129]

Marichuy Leal

Detained 9 months in CCA-run Eloy Detention Center in Arizona

Marichuy was brought to the U.S. from Sinaloa, Mexico when she was 6 years old and grew up in Phoenix, Arizona. In her youth, she was sentenced to a year in Arizona State Prison in Yuma for drug charges. “I was going through a lot of problems with my family because they wouldn’t accept me for who I am, a trans woman,” Marichuy said. After serving a year in prison, she was deported to Mexico because of her immigration status.

After being deported, Marichuy was tortured in Nogales, Mexico because of her identity as a transgender woman. She was stabbed and has a scar on her head where she was attacked. She fled to Agua Prieta, Mexico but her attackers were following her so she presented herself at the Douglas, Arizona border to seek asylum in the U.S. Rather than encountering safety, she was immediately sent to the CCA-operated Eloy Detention Center in May 2013 where she was placed in a unit with 250 men. She was repeatedly called “faggot” by the men she was detained with, which the guards ignored. There was no privacy for showers, and Marichuy recounts that the guards and other detained men would watch the trans women while they showered. She and other transgender women would try to put up a curtain when they showered so the guards and other men wouldn’t be able to see them, but they were written up for doing so.

Marichuy says that she was repeatedly sexually harassed by the man who was her “cell mate.” She remembers that when she told her unit manager about the harassment, he said that she would just have to deal with it because they didn’t have any open cells. When she talked back to the unit manager, resisting this decision, they put her in segregation for two days as punishment. After she was released from segregation, she was returned to her cell with the same man who she had complained had harassed her. The night she returned to the cell, she says, the man raped and beat her in retaliation for her complaining to the guards. The guards took her to the hospital, then returned her to segregation for a week. Afterwards, Marichuy faced bullying from the guards and other detainees, who would tease her about her rape, saying “you know you liked it.” “The hardest part was…the bullying,” Marichuy said. “It was simply horrible. Every time they would tell me I would run to my room and cry.”

“They put me in segregation punishing me,” Marichuy said. She said that what ICE officials call “protective custody” is really solitary confinement. She describes segregation as a place “where they keep you 24/7 locked up in a cell. They only take you out for an hour to shower and when they pull you out to shower they handcuff you. When you walk out of the cell there’s a little window, you put your hand up there before they open the door and they handcuff you and they take you to the shower. There are some cages, you put your hand out, they take the handcuffs, you shower...again handcuffs, and then back to your cell.”

There was a time during detention when she attempted to commit suicide. “[There are] a lot of psychological problems you suffer like depression for all the punishment they do in there. When you’re being punished and discriminated in there you can’t do nothing about it,” Marichuy said. “There’s a certain point that you just give up on everything.” She said there were also other trans women who tried to kill themselves while she was there because they couldn’t deal with how they were treated at the detention center.

“My torture in Mexico didn’t finish. My torture in Mexico kept going in the detention center where supposedly I was going to be safe,” Marichuy said. “Supposedly ICE has a policy that no discrimination and no abuse is tolerated in the detention centers and that’s not true. Trans women and the LGBT community aren’t safe in detention centers. I wasn’t safe. We’re asking for help…but ICE and CCA…just punish us.”

Comparing the Arizona State Prison with the CCA-managed Eloy ICE detention center, Marichuy says that even though it’s still a jail, she “always wanted to be in [Arizona State] prison where I [had been] rather than suffering all that discrimination and abuse that’s going on inside the [Eloy] detention center.” Even though she has heard reports of abuses against trans women in the Arizona State Prison, she felt like there was more respect from the guards. She also had more privacy there, as she had her own cell and showers had curtains. In contrast, Marichuy could only describe the conditions at Eloy as “something terrible.”

Marichuy was released from Eloy in January 2015 after paying a $7500 bond and continues to fight her asylum case. She is now part of the Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project (QUIP) as the coordinator of visitation for trans and LGBTQ immigrants in Eloy. The organization provides support letters, visitation, and counseling to trans and LGBTQ people detained at Eloy. They also participate in organizing marches and to put pressure on ICE to release trans women from detention centers.

“Releasing transgender [people] from detention centers is going to give us more power,” Marichuy said. “My goal is to close the detention centers…or at least change the policies they have. I don’t want other trans or LGBTQ people to have the same experience I had in the detention centers…That’s why I’m here fighting for justice.”

Solomon

Detained 5 months in Port Isabel, South Texas Detention Complex (GEO) and Stewart Detention Center (CCA) in Georgia

Solomon came to the United States in March 2014 fleeing political persecution in his home country of Ethiopia. He was imprisoned by the Ethiopian government for 9 months for supporting his brother, a political activist, who was garnering votes as an opposition party leader. A month after he got out of prison in Ethiopia, they sent him a court paper. He knew that he would not be released again if he returned, so he fled to Sudan with his wife and daughter and stayed in hiding there for nearly a month. Solomon then paid smuggler $20,000 from his business that he sold to get him and his family to Mexico. They drove to the Mexican border city of Reynosa and were put in the immigration detention center at the border. Solomon said that he was one of the lucky ones who the taxi driver took straight to the border checkpoint. He recounted hearing of others taken to the “mafia” with the collusion of local police and held for ransom until their families could pay for their release to the border. “The police and mafia are the same,” he said.

“Immigration is terrifying,” Solomon said. He said that it was cold and they provided only a plastic blanket. The day after they arrived at the immigration center, they took his wife and young daughter to another wing and transferred him to Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas. He was held in a large room with 80 or 90 people with 3 toilets and 2 showers in view of everyone. “The worst part is Africans don’t like to see somebody using the bathroom,” Solomon said. “We spent 4 days without using it.”

He spent 4 or 5 days in Port Isabel, was transferred to South Texas Detention Complex in Frio, Texas for 2 weeks, and then was transferred to Stewart Detention Center in Atlanta for nearly 5 months. In total, he was detained for 5 months and 15 days. “The worst part is we were handcuffed, from the top to the [bottom],” Solomon said. When being transferred from South Texas to Atlanta, Georgia, they spent 3 or 4 hours on the bus, and then a plane flight, continuously handcuffed. Solomon recalled that when they were transferred between each location, they were put in a smaller room with only a cement floor and no bed for a day or two. “You are stuck for 24 hours in one room...that makes you sick,” he said.

Speaking of the regimented prison schedules, being told when to go to sleep and being called for breakfast and lunch at the same time each day, Solomon said, “they treat you like a baby.” Still, he said that the Stewart Detention Center was an improvement over the Texas detention centers because at least there you could go outside for an hour, and were allowed to walk outside to the “chow hall” in another building rather than having food brought to your cell. He also observed that the Georgia facility guards were more friendly and accommodating of the needs of those detained. He said that in the South Texas Detention Complex, there were procedures that treated detained immigrants like criminals. For example, a guard would walk behind each handcuffed detainee whenever they were transferred between different holding areas within the facility.

“The suffering starts from immigration,” Solomon said, emphasizing how frequently the immigrants were searched at the border detention center. He said that he never expected to be detained when he came to the U.S. “They treat you like a criminal,” he said. “Even in my country when I go to prison I’m never cuffed like that.”

Solomon has now won his asylum case and is living in a transitional shelter. He is working to support his wife and 2-year-old daughter, and hopes to find a better paying job and begin saving towards a house for his family.

Muhammad Nazry (Naz) Mustakim, detained 10 months in South Texas Detention Complex in Pearsall, Texas

Hope Mustakim, Naz’s wife and advocate

Naz was brought to the U.S. from Singapore as a child, and was a long-time green card holder. In 2005 he was arrested for possession with intent to deliver, successfully completed rehabilitation, and in 2007 accepted a plea bargain for 10 years probation. He was never advised by an immigration attorney in court, so never told that by accepting the plea bargain his green card would be revoked. Naz got married in 2010, had a steady job as a supervisor at a call center, and even renewed his green card — apparently with no problem — the same year.

In March 2011, immigration officers showed up at newlyweds Naz and Hope’s doorstep at 7 a.m. “We thought it was his probation officer,” Hope said. “He went to the door… and it was 4 fully-armed ICE officers, so he was like, ‘can I help you?’” They then told him that he was being put in removal proceedings due to his felony drug charge. Naz asked if he could get his coat and tell his wife, and ICE sent a female agent into the room with the couple. “So he woke me up and told me that immigration police were here and I said ‘who are they looking for?’” Hope said. “And he was like, well, it’s me.”

The couple had no idea what it meant to be put in removal proceedings, and had only recently began watching documentaries on the border and immigration issues. “It was just so far off our radar,” Hope said. She recalls that she started crying when she figured out they were taking Naz, and the ICE officer in the room told her not to worry, that she could bail him out, he would have a hearing in a year, and you can ask the judge to lower the bond — none of which turned out to be true. “They were just feeding us stuff so they didn’t have to deal with the emotions,” Hope said.

At that time, Naz was a supervisor at a call center who had just built his own team for a project that started the week he was detained. “When I got picked up on the way to the Waco office I text my supervisor saying that hey, I’m going to be late. Immigration officers came knocking at my door, and it’ll be straightened out but I’m going to be late,” Naz said. “That day I had a big meeting with our clients. As things unraveled more and more, I was like, I might have to miss today; I have to go down to San Antonio to take care of something.” He called his wife and told her that he couldn’t bond out at the Waco office and had to go to Pearsall, a town they had never heard of, 4 hours south. He still expected to take a bus home that day.

When Hope didn’t hear anything from Naz for 24 hours, she searched online for a number for “Pearsall immigration” and found the number for the South Texas Detention Center. She called and said she thought they had her husband there and they asked for his A number.”[130] Hope recalled that she didn’t even know what an A-number was. “They were just so rushed and disinterested.” They told her Naz would call when he got out of holding.

When Naz first arrived at the South Texas Detention Center, he was confused because “what they told him was, you’re going to a court hearing for a bond,” Hope said. “He shows up and he’s like, where’s the court? He thought he was going to an office building.” Naz said that “whenever they brought us to STDC, there were hundreds of us being herded in.” He was put in a holding tank with about 50 other people. “It’s like a jail,” Naz said. “It was filthy and there were people sleeping just waiting to be called up.” He didn’t speak Spanish, so was disoriented by commands given by the guards. “It was like ‘something camisa something your shirt,” Naz remembers. “They wanted us to take everything off except for your pants and your shirt and put it in the bin. They were screaming at us telling us that.”

The people being processed into STDC were asked if they were going to fight their case. If they said yes, as did Naz, they stayed in holding to wait for space in the dorms to open up. If they said no they were taken to sign their voluntary departure papers, without consulting with an attorney. Naz waited 24 hours there and then lined up “and they gave us a mattress and 3 sets of clothes, a blanket and toothbrush...and that was when I was like, I guess I’m going to be here more than a day.”

It wasn’t until two weeks in detention that he got to meet with an ICE officer and found out that he didn’t get a bond. “That’s two weeks where you’re like, did you go to court, did you get a bond, are you coming home?” Hope said. “The first [time Hope came to visit] was very, very sad,” Naz said. “We haven’t seen each other for 2 or 3 weeks and we were newlyweds…we just sat down and looked at each other and then we just cried.” There are no contact visits allowed at STDC, so they touched their hands together through the glass. They couldn’t feel each other, so they would knock on the glass to feel the vibration. “It’s like we are worse criminals than the people in prison,” Naz said.

In detention, the day started at 4:30 in the morning, when they were sometimes rudely awakened by guards banging on the bunks and shouting at them to wake up for breakfast. “The whole place is run by the detainees themselves,” Naz said. He worked in the kitchen and cleaning the holding tank. “Just in the kitchen, there are 20 people each shift and there are 4 shifts, so that’s 80 detainees working.” They also invent competitions so the detainees will clean their dorms. Detainees who work get paid $3 per day. “It’s weird how we get to work in the detention facility when we can’t work out in public,” Naz said.

“Even though it’s a civil immigrant detention center it’s run more like a prison / homeless shelter. We get screamed at, we get yelled at, we get threats...if you don’t listen you’ll go into the hole,” Naz said. “There’s always the count every so often. Once I was on the phone and I was actually praying with my wife and I was trying to finish up. I was running late and so they called the sergeant and made a big deal out of it and said, I’m gonna throw you in the hole.” There was nothing to do, but even the little rings they would make out of bottle caps to pass the time were considered contraband. Naz also missed seeing the grass, as even the recreation area is bricked up to the sky with bars on top. He remembers cleaning the holding tank with a door to the outside “and I can see far in the distance there’s trees out there and I’m like, okay I’m still on Earth.”

Getting adequate medical care was nearly impossible. Ibuprofen is prescribed for everything, whether a cold or if you fell of your bunk. Naz was told to put in a request for a band-aid for an open burn wound, even though processing a request takes at least two days. He was also told to put in a request when he fell on his back playing basketball and was in severe pain. He did, but then went to the doctor that night and said he had to see a doctor now. But when he told the guard that his level of pain was 8 (“because I wasn’t dying”) he didn’t hear anything. At morning, he was required to work but because he was up and walking around, he was again told to simply put in a request.

For Hope, “It was the most surreal thing. Just totally, completely unexpected,” she said. “Some people live in fear, which is terrible, and I feel like, is it worse to live in fear and have it happen, or to be so totally ignorant and shocked by it. I was disoriented the whole time — 10 months. I felt like it was a bad dream, a nightmare.” She spent $400 a month to talk to him on the phone, and a fortune in legal fees. She was in college at Baylor and almost had to quit because she didn’t know how they would pay for it. People paid for their mortgage and churches would open their doors when she came to visit Naz twice a month.

One court case, where they expected to bail out Naz, was postponed when the prosecutors for DHS advised their attorney to go in a different direction with their case, and they agreed it was best in the long term. Hope remembers, “the judge was flipping through his calendar and he was like, ‘November, no, no. How about December, hmm maybe January… Naz turned around and looked at me and his face was just, he was so upset and shocked and I knew I had to be strong for him in that moment because if not we would have both lost it.”

“That’s the hard thing,” Naz said. “In criminal court, if you go to jail you know how long you’re going to serve. In the immigration detention center you’re just waiting.” “You’re at the mercy of everyone else...and their backlog,” Hope said. “It’s like cruel and unusual punishment...there’s no end in sight. Your families don’t know when it’s going to end… It’s like daily you’re just staring down a black hole and you don’t feel like you’re anyone to anyone. Even as a U.S. citizen, I felt so betrayed.”

Hope was Naz’s biggest advocate, communicating with their attorney and fighting for better offers. At one point she was told by the D.A. that the best deal she could give Naz was to serve 5 years in prison and then go back to ICE custody and then fight his immigration case all over again. “It was an election season, and she said ‘I can’t appear soft on crime,’” Hope said. “She had her own motives. When Naz’s attorney told me that, I was crying… does she even know that he’s married, does she even know that we want to have kids, and that 5 years is a long time?” Eventually, the case was dropped because there had never been enough evidence in Naz’s original drug case, which the couple found out second-hand from talking to a reporter. Still, ICE wouldn’t release Naz until an Al-Jazeera reporter brought cameras into the facility to talk to him. “I don’t know why they were trying so hard to keep him there,” Hope said.

Naz was finally released in February 2012 after being detained for 10 months — longer than he and Hope had been married before he was detained. The couple now live in Waco with their baby son. They regularly speak about their experience at events around the country and organize against detention in their own community. “I don’t think private prisons like us very much,” Naz said. “We’re done with this, but it’s not over for millions of other people,” Hope said. “Anytime you have a quota that you have to meet, you’re automatically going to lean toward incarcerating someone as opposed to freeing them, because then you have to go and find someone else… I don’t think we’re ever going to see a real big bipartisan push [for reform] whenever money is incentivizing detention.”

Henry Taracena

Detained 5 months at the GEO-run Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, WA

Henry came to the U.S. from Tabasco, Mexico when he was 19, and has now lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years. In 2009, he was unjustly deported because of a suspended license. He was detained for only a few days, without ever being told that he was eligible to apply for bond. The same year, he returned to the U.S. and continued working without incident.

In 2014, ICE raided his workplace looking for him, specifically. “They were going around looking for me as if I were a criminal,” Henry said. “Everyone at my work thought that I was a criminal… but in reality it was nothing.” Henry spent 5 months inside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington. “When I entered the detention center my life changed,” Henry said. “I never went back to being the same person I was before.”

Henry described the severely lacking conditions in the GEO-run detention center. While detained, he saw people with cancer and other serious illnesses not cared for properly, and people in pain who had to wait long stretches of time for medical care. “It really scared me,” he said. He also said that recreation was dangerous due to the nature of the space. “They have a small room that according to them is the recreation area… but it’s so small that someone was always hurting themselves… because it was a square with cement walls.”

The air conditioning was extremely cold, and smelled of chemicals, to the point that people developed sores on their skin from prolonged exposure. He also described unsanitary conditions full of dirt and mold. The facility was cleaned with only mild soap, and all the clothes were washed together interchangeably, causing illnesses to spread easily. Food was not nutritious, and given in small portions. “[People] entered healthy and came out sick,” Henry said.

The detained immigrants worked for $1 per day to run the facility. Henry said he didn’t mind working to occupy himself, but that the guards would treat them as if they were obligated to work all the time. “Inside there is a [guard] that shouts at the workers horribly,” he said. “They make you feel like you are a criminal, not a detained person. [The guards] think that they’re superior to us… they didn’t respect us as if we were people.” He also described how in the kitchen, where he worked, detainees were forced to sign many forms related to using knives and cooking equipment without adequate time to read what they were signing.

Knowing that he was unable to leave his room, or even see outside was the most difficult part of being detained for Henry, who suffers from PTSD. “There are no windows in the detention center. You’re enclosed,” he said. “I explained perfectly to the director of the detention center that I was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and that I had to be in a place [with windows], and he told me no,” Henry said. “My psychologist was telling me that yes, I should be in a room where at least there were windows and I could see outside.” The majority of rooms were large with no windows that allowed people to see outside, which Henry said makes people become more depressed. “The detention centers aren’t set up well to care for people,” Henry said. “They need to be closed.”

While in detention, Henry helped to organize a hunger strike, the second at the facility, by sending messages from the kitchen to other “pods” of detainees who were meeting with religious groups from the outside. They sent them notes on slips of paper, asking if they would help support them in a hunger strike to expose the injustices that were occurring inside the facility. Those who worked in the kitchen or laundry room sent notes to other leaders, arranging a time to meet in the library to plan their demands and what action they would take. For three days, Henry said around 900 detainees refused to eat, himself among them. “I chose to [participate in the hunger strike] because [I saw] other people suffering, people not receiving medical care, minors arriving at the detention center without anyone having checked that they’re under age… there were many calamities… we had to do something. One person by himself can’t do anything but together we can do a great deal.”

After the third day of the hunger strike, the ICE field office director met with some of the detainees to ask what they wanted. They described the problems with conditions at the facility, the high bonds ($7,500 was common), and that people without criminal records were being placed in detention. They promised changes, but Henry reflected that they should have gotten them in writing because “they ignored us and many things have not changed.”

After being released from detention, Henry continued to communicate with leaders inside the detention center to organize a third hunger strike at the facility. He helped coordinate with other advocates to amplify the voices of the people inside the facility by protesting outside, and connecting with advocates for hunger strikers at GEO immigrant detention facilities in the U.K. “The treatment of undocumented people is unjust,” Henry said. “We did the hunger strike… principally because they are breaking up families.”

Thinking of the children separated from one or both of their parents, and the trauma it causes them gives him strength to continue fighting for meaningful reform to the immigration system. “Not only in detention centers, but in the entire U.S. the system is bad,” Henry said. “Private prisons are causing harm.”

Henry now lives with his brother near Seattle and has received a human rights award for his continued advocacy for immigrants detained at the Northwest Detention Center.

  1. Figueroa, I. (2014, January 31). The Bed Quota: Mandatory Detention and the Denial of Justice. UNC School of Law: Conference on Race, Class, Gender and Ethnicity.
  2. ICE Total Removals. (n.d.). Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
  3. The following testimonies are based on interviews with formerly detained immigrants. Though everything contained in these testimonies is consistent with reports we hear regularly, Grassroots Leadership did not independently fact check their stories. Testimonies are based on how each perceived their experience, and told from their unique perspective.
  4. Alien numbers, also called A-numbers are identification numbers issued to noncitizens by the U.S. government.

Conclusions

The immigrant detention quota must be eliminated. The quota enriches private prison corporations at taxpayer expense, and further entrenches a system that punishes immigrants and tears apart families. It is telling that such a quota mandated by Congress does not exist in any other law enforcement agency, and that its development was not in response to any change in immigration patterns, but was highly influenced by political gain and personal biases. The immigrant detention quota continues to be a prime example of how money and political gain can drive policy decisions. It serves as an “insurance policy” for private companies, artificially stabilizing the immigrant detention industry at taxpayer expense. It also provides political cover for congressional anti-immigrant politicians who wish to bind the hands of any future administration with a more lenient immigration enforcement policy. Those harmed by the immigrant detention quota have far less power and money: immigrants, their families, and the average American taxpayer.

To fully honor the rights and dignity of the immigrant community, DHS and ICE must stop contracting with private prison companies. The industry will always be bound by the cardinal rule of corporate survival: profit. CCA and GEO Group, as publicly traded entities are obligated to act in the best interest of their shareholders, rather than in the interest of those they hold in their facilities or the families they leave behind. The private prison industry has shown their willingness to spend exorbitant sums lobbying legislators and contributing to campaigns in order to control their “risk factors” and ensure the profitability of their business. This system encourages legislators to follow the money rather than the best interest of those they govern, or any moral compass, when making policy decisions on immigrant detention.

Ultimately, the practice of immigration detention must be wholly eliminated. The directives that subject immigrants to detention and deportation are deeply flawed, as shown by the stories of detained immigrants featured in this report. These guidelines must be reexamined and alternatives to detention should be implemented with the purpose of decreasing the number of immigrants in detention. Asylum seekers such as Marichuy and Solomon, as well as asylum-seeking families, should be immediately released to non-punitive community support programs while their cases are evaluated. For immigrants who have grown up in the U.S. and have committed a crime, subjecting them to an additional layer of incarceration based solely on their immigration status unjustly punishes them due to their identity, as does denying them a chance at the redemption afforded all other individuals in society.