For-Profit Immigration Detention Centers

Imagine a prison: where more than half of the people held are infants or children (average age nine); where everyone there is being held for committing a civil violation, not a criminal offense; where almost no one there has access to a lawyer; and where almost everyone is denied bond, not because of posing any sort of threat, but because the government wants to make an example of them and because there are profits to be made, and the government has committed to filling a 34,000 person quota in the detention facilities each day. It’s hard to reconcile such a disturbing picture with any notion of justice, and yet, this describes the appalling state of our country’s immigration detention system. The immigration detention centers in our country now warehouse hundreds of thousands of people, both documented and undocumented immigrants, many of whom are torture survivors or asylum seekers, and the companies running the detention centers are making a fortune off it.


In a previous post, I wrote about how the nation’s mass incarceration problem is linked to the profit and greed motives of the Corrections Corporation of America (“CCA”), the company buying up prisons around the country and allowing anarchy to descend while CCA stock prices rise astronomically (see the ACLU-Ohio’s 2015 short documentary “Prisons for Profit” for a chronicle of the squalor, violence, medical neglect, and deaths that come with a CCA run facility). Well, it turns out that immigrant detention is similarly a multi-billion dollar industry, and the same villain, CCA, also uses its same profit motive model to operate some of the worst immigration detention centers around the country. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) has contracted with CCA and other, similar for-profit prison companies to provide immigration detention, guaranteeing payment for 34,000 detainees per day, at a cost of over $2 billion per year, while generating tremendous profits for the prison companies.

As was the case with prisons, the for-profit immigration detention centers are unconscionable hellholes. For instance, CCA operates Stewart Detention Center, a 1500 bed detention center in Georgia that has been the subject of complaints of: inadequate food; maggots in food; sweltering, unhygienic living conditions where detainees are unable to bathe, wash their hands or flush the toilet; and a dangerous lack of medical and mental health care. Stewart reportedly also has a “forced labor program” with compensation of $1-$3 a day. In summer 2014, when some detainees staged a hunger strike to protest the horrible detention conditions, CCA responded by pepper spraying the hunger strikers. CCA also operates the nation’s largest detention center for undocumented women and children, a 2400 person jail-like facility in Dilley, Texas.

The irony of this deplorable situation is that – profit motives aside – detaining immigrants in such shamefully squalid conditions makes no economic sense. According to a Detention Watch Network’s report, the average cost of detaining an immigrant is approximately $164 per person/per day, as opposed to the $12 per person/per day price tag of some community-based alternative programs. Such community programs still have an estimated 93% appearance rate before immigration courts, so little would be sacrificed by switching models.

But even setting aside the cost issue, it is just plain morally wrong for our country to take men, women and children alike who are fleeing violence in their home countries and imprison them in jail-like conditions while they wait for consideration. Wherever people stand on the underlying issues of immigration and when amnesty in this country should be granted, taking asylum seekers who have fled violence and atrocities to get here and imprisoning them while they wait for an amnesty hearing is abhorrent. Doing so to fill a quota, in despicable, for-profit facilities that lack adequate food, medical care, and legal assistance, is beyond abhorrent.


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