Last Thursday, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a report admonishing government officials over the treatment of immigrants held at private prisons that contract with federal immigration authorities. Detailed in the report were a litany of alleged abuses at those detention centers, many of which are in Texas, from denying immigrants proper medical care to retaliation from prison staff and possible constitutional rights violations.
Yet on that very same day, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced a new multimillion-dollar contract with one of the companies accused of holding immigrants in “inhumane” conditions that are “inconsistent with American values.” Advocates and immigration attorneys say they fear the new contract, for a pilot program to test a probation-like system for immigrant families released from lockup, only further expands the private prison industry's reach in the U.S. immigration system.
On its face, ICE's $11 million-per-year contract with Geo Care LLC, a subsidiary of one of the largest private prison companies in the world, gives immigrant rights advocates exactly what they've been demanding for years. As immigration enforcement and detention have boomed in the past decade, groups like the ACLU, MALDEF, the American Bar Association and many others have argued that way too many immigrants are being detained in prison-like conditions and for long periods of time while they wait for their day in immigration court. ICE even resorted to putting asylum-seeking women and children, many of them refugees fleeing violence in Central America and Mexico, in multimillion-dollar "family detention centers" built by private prison companies Corrections Corporation of America and the Geo Group in the isolated South Texas towns of Dilley and Karnes. (The federal civil rights commission last week urged government officials to immediately release all families detained in such facilities.)
But as private prison companies saw their profits rise along with increased immigration enforcement, advocates pushed for ICE to consider options that are both cheaper and more humane than a widespread system of immigrant detention — like ankle bracelet monitoring. In 2011, Geo paid $415 million in cash to acquire B.I. Incorporated, an electronic monitoring company already under contract with ICE. Just last year, ICE awarded Geo, via B.I., a five-year contract to provide "supervision services," which is expected to earn the company $47 million in revenue each year.
Advocates had also asked that ICE set up some sort of community supervision program for immigrants if the agency is truly worried most won't show up in court if released from detention. ICE's new contract with Geo Care appears to do just that, establishing pilot programs in five cities (Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Chicago and the Baltimore-Washington metro area) to monitor some 1,500 families released from detention centers or at the border.
It's certainly possible the new case management system will help immigrant families connect with local nonprofits that provide legal services or housing assistance. But the primary goal, ICE says, is to make sure these immigrant families show up in court and abide by the terms of their release. "ICE is not a health and human services organization," Andrew Lorenzen-Strait, ICE's deputy assistant director for custody programs, told the San Antonio Express-News last week. (An ICE representative did not respond to questions from the Houston Press.)
Still, immigration attorneys like Barbara Hines, who has represented mothers and children detained at Geo's family detention center in Karnes, bristle that a private prison subsidiary would be awarded such a contract. "I am extremely disappointed and shocked that ICE would award a case management contract to GEO, which has an abysmal record of caring for families at the Karnes family detention center," Hines told the Press in an email. "Since working with detained families at Karnes for more than one year, we have learned of threats by guards, substandard medical care, rotten food, inappropriate use of medical unit for punitive isolation against women who exercised first amendment rights, and so much more." (
The company has not responded to questions from the Press *See statement below).
In fact, it was complaints like Hines's that ultimately led to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights' report. In January, the commission held an all-day hearing to take testimony from attorneys, advocates and immigrants who have been detained by private prison companies. "I'm shocked to hear the consistency among different facilities — the kind of abuse, sexual and otherwise, that seems to be occurring," Commission Chair Martin Castro said at the time. "There's clearly a culture of this going on."
In its report, the commission highlights a number of alarming cases, some of which have surfaced at Geo-run facilities in recent years. Like that of Raul Ernesto Morales Ramos, a 44-year-old Salvadoran immigrant detained in one of Geo's California centers. Morales Ramos, according to the report, had been suffering ongoing diarrhea and severe abdominal pain, but Geo staff wouldn't provide him medical treatment. Weeks later, he got so bad that staff transferred him to a local hospital, where he was immediately diagnosed with intestinal cancer, something that is usually survivable if caught early. Morales Ramos died three days later.
This past May, the civil rights commission toured Geo's Karnes Family Detention Center, situated some 50 miles southeast of San Antonio, where asylum-seeking mothers had launched hunger strikes to protest the conditions of their prolonged detention. According to the commission's report, the women claim they were "threatened by detention staff with having their children taken from them if they did not break the hunger strike."
"In addition," the report states, "some female detainees with their children approached the Chair during a tour of the grounds at Karnes and told him that a child attempted suicide by jumping from a second floor balcony because he could not stand being in detention any longer."
Hines says she's troubled by ICE's new contract with Geo not just because of the company's track record. Geo, she says, has no expertise in immigration case management. Many have wondered why the contract didn't go to nonprofit groups like the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services or the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which have worked with ICE for years. "This is another boondoggle waste of taxpayers’ money," Hines said. "There are many community and faith-based organizations that have expertise in case management who are willing to take on this project."
Perhaps the Geo contract, while troubling to advocates, shouldn't be entirely unexpected. Federal immigration officials have before ignored calls for ICE to wean itself off private prison companies. For instance, this 2009 report, commissioned by the Department of Homeland Security and written by a former director of the federal Office of Detention Policy and Planning, concluded that immigrant detainees — many of whom have never committed a crime (immigration violations are civil, not criminal, cases) — shouldn't be treated like criminals and that ICE, not private prison companies, should operate its own detention centers to safeguard against abuses and ensure greater oversight.
Yet six years later, private prison corporations now house nearly half of the nation's immigrant detainees.
"It speaks to the power of this industry," says Bob Libal with the Austin-based civil rights group Grassroots Leadership. "Now, ICE is just giving these companies another way to profit off immigrants."
Companies like Geo have already detailed plans to expand their role in the criminal justice system. In a presentation earlier this year, Geo's chairman told investors the company would spend millions in 2015 expanding its "Geo Continuum of Care" platform in certain state correctional facilities — essentially becoming warden and probation officer in jurisdictions across the country.
With the announcement of ICE's new contract with Geo, advocates like Libal fear the company is carrying its "Continuum of Care" over to the immigration system, too.
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You can read the entire U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report, along with rebuttals from two commissioners who rejected its findings, below:
*Update 4:30 p.m.: Geo Group vice president for corporate relations Pablo Paez sent us this statement this afternoon:
"The GEO Group has had a long-standing public-private partnership with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and its predecessor agency that dates back to the mid-1980s. GEO’s facilities provide high quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments, and our company strongly refutes allegations to the contrary. Our facilities adhere to strict contractual requirements and standards set by ICE, and the agency employs several full-time, on-site contract monitors who have a physical presence at each of GEO’s facilities. All of GEO’s residential facilities are audited and inspected by the agency on a routine and unannounced basis. GEO’s facilities are also independently accredited by the American Correctional Association (ACA) and achieved an average score in excess of 99% during the most recent accreditation audits conducted by ACA, with four facilities achieving a perfect score of 100%.
"GEO Care, a subsidiary of GEO, will be the umbrella provider under the new alternatives to detention pilot program. GEO Care is the leading provider of community based and case management programs in the United States through a comprehensive ‘GEO Continuum of Care’ that delivers evidenced based programs and case management services in residential and community based settings."