Every year, the federal Bureau of Prisons subjects tens of thousands of immigrants to lengthy prison sentences simply for unlawfully crossing the border. A new report from the ACLU and ACLU of Texas exposes an outrageous level of abuse, neglect and discrimination in these "Criminal Alien Requirement" (CAR) Prisons. Even worse, over-crowding and overuse of solitary confinement are actually built into the CAR system. And if you're wondering if CAR prisons are for-profit, private prisons raking in millions of dollars in federal contracts — well, they are. The names of the companies that own these prisons are familiar to readers of our blog — the GEO Group, Correction Corporation of American (CCA) and Management and Training Corporation (MTC).
The degree to which people in CAR prisons are over-crowded, indeed "warehoused and forgotten" as the report's title suggests, is shocking. From the report:
“They have a lot of people in here. Sometimes it smells. It’s too many people. Some people even talk about burning down this place,” a prisoner at Willacy told us. He added: “They just don’t have enough space for all of us here. Sometimes it makes me go crazy.” At Willacy, 200 prisoners are packed into each of the 200-foot-long Kevlar tents. They are reportedly housed so tightly that when they lie in their bunks, their feet can touch the bunk next to them. Prisoners told us the overcrowding and lack of constructive activity drives many of them mad. Fights frequently break out. One prisoner told us it was like “walking on minefields.
It's no wonder that the prisons are so overcrowded. In fiscal year 2013, 97,384 people were prosecuted for federal immigration offenses, an increase of 367% from 2003. These are the results of Operation Streamline, the program that turned border crossers into criminals and mandated sentencing them to CAR prisons.
What's more shocking, though, is that the overcrowding is by design and it's for profit. All of the BOP contracts reviewed in the report contain occupancy quotas — a familiar trick by for-profit private prisons to insure the facilities stay in the black. The contracts stipulate that the facilities must remain at or above 90% capacity.
The contracts further provide “Incremental Unit Price” payments for each additional prisoner above the 90% occupancy quota, up to 115% capacity. So the companies actually make more money by admitting more prisoners from BOP than their facilities were designed to hold.
As if that wasn't bad enough, overcrowding-by-design leads to one of the most disturbing things about CAR prisons: the arbitrary overuse of solitary confinement. Because they must keep CAR prisons so full, solitary confinement is used for almost any reason at all. People interviewed in CAR prisons reported to the ACLU that solitary confinement was used as an arbitrary punishment for things like complaining about food or medical care, helping others draft grievances or file lawsuits, and failing to “speak English in America." Solitary confinement is not only used inappropriately as punishment, but also as a place to send new arrivals because the prisons are so full.
At Willacy, Dalby, and Eden, staff have reportedly been sending new arrivals to solitary confinement for days or weeks. At Dalby, many prisoners said that they spent several weeks in solitary confinement when they first arrived. At Eden, nearly everyone interviewed reported that they were immediately locked in an isolation cell when they arrived.
Solitary confinement is also the result of another dangerous quota:
Indeed, all of the BOP contracts [ACLU and ACLU of Texas] reviewed encourage the private prison companies to place excessive numbers of prisoners in isolation. CCA’s contract for Eden, MTC’s contract for Dalby, and GEO Group’s contracts for Reeves and Big Spring each require at least 10% of the “contract beds” to be SHU isolation cells — in effect, setting an arbitrary 10% quota for putting prisoners in extreme isolation whenever the prison is filled to capacity. In fact, during the solicitation process for the CAR contract that was ultimately awarded to MTC for Willacy, BOP insisted on a 10% SHU quota even though a potential bidder asked if BOP would consider reducing the SHU requirement “[d]ue to the low security nature of the intended population.”
In addition to being pointlessly cruel, such extended periods of isolation upon intake appear inconsistent with BOP intake policies. However, private prisons are not required to abide by those policies. That's not the only rule private prisons don't have to follow. By statute, most of their records are exempt from the open records laws that apply to other federal prisons.
For too long, CAR prisons have operated in the shadows, effectively free from public scrutiny. That ends now.