News Law and Policy

Report: Taxpayers Responsible for Helping Keep For-Profit Prison Operators Financially Afloat

Andrea Grimes

A new report on for-profit private prisons shows how correctional corporations make money whether cells are empty or occupied, depending on citizens to pay "low-crime taxes" when occupancy is down in order to cushion corporations' bottom lines.

A new report on for-profit private prisons shows how correctional corporations make money whether cells are empty or occupied, depending on citizens to pay “low-crime taxes” when occupancy is down in order to cushion corporations’ bottom lines. According to In the Public Interest’s (ITPI) report, which analyzed 62 contracts between state and local governments and private prison operators, “lockup quotas” serve to “incentivize keeping prison beds filled, which runs counter to many states’ public policy goals of reducing the prison population and increasing efforts for inmate rehabilitation.”

The majority—65 percent—of contracts that ITPI obtained either obligate the state to maintain prison occupancy rates above 80 percent and up to 100 percent, or put the cost of empty beds on taxpayers. The states with the highest quotas are Arizona, Louisiana, Virginia, and Oklahoma.

“What corrections should not be is a turnkey, for-profit machine,” said the former director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, Justin Jones, on an ITPI press call last week. Jones left his position earlier this summer, he said, in part because he disagreed with the state’s increasing privatization of incarceration.

And in Colorado, despite a one-third reduction in the crime rate, ITPI reports that the state has opted to house more than 3,000 prisoners in facilities operated by the major private prison operator, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), rather than in state-run prisons “to ensure they met the occupancy requirement.” The estimated cost to taxpayers, who are paying doubly for unoccupied state prison beds and a per-diem for each inmate to the CCA, is $2 million since the contract was negotiated in 2012.

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The ITPI recommends that state and local governments reject mandated occupancy quotas and protect taxpayers from being penalized when crime rates drop, in part because “bed guarantee clauses can also tie the hands of lawmakers,” who might want to seek more effective alternatives than imprisonment as punishment for certain crimes, but who could be restricted by adherence to contract language that serves only to minimize risk to private corporations.

“Why would we promise a corporation they’d be paid with taxpayer funds even for the prisoners they don’t house?” asked Alex Friedman, managing editor of Prison Legal News, on the press call. The answer, he said, is simple: to “safely and effectively guarantee CCA’s profit margin.”

News Human Rights

The DOJ Cuts Ties With Private Prisons, But Will ICE Follow Suit?

Tina Vasquez

“This is the first time that a federal agency issued a sweeping—and long overdue—rebuke to the private prison industry. It is time to take a hard look at the outsized role of incarceration in American society, which has shattered lives and communities across the country,” said Silky Shah, co-director of Detention Watch Network.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced yesterday that it will end its use of for-profit prisons.

The department cited a decline in the prison population and private prisons’ failure to maintain the same level of safety and security as the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

BOP will amend solicitation for prison contracts of 10,800 beds to no more than 3,600 beds. By May 2017, the total BOP private prison population will be less than 14,200, a 50 percent reduction from its high in 2013 of 220,000. All of the Bureau’s contracts with private prison companies are term-limited and subject to renewal or termination.

The DOJ is recommending the BOP work to reduce and eliminate more private prison facilities as contracts come up for renewal over the next five years.

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The nation’s private prison system has been called a “national disgrace,” synonymous with “violence, abuse, and death.”

In a 2013 ACLU lawsuit against privately-run East Mississippi Correctional Facility (EMCF), for example, the ACLU described the prison as “an extremely dangerous facility operating in a perpetual state of crisis, where prisoners live in barbaric and horrific conditions and their basic human rights are violated daily.”

The DOJ’s Thursday announcement will not affect immigrant detention centers run by ICE and contracted to private prison companies like GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), both of which have long histories of human rights abuses in their detention centers, including dozens of cases of in-custody deaths.

It remains unknown if ICE will continue to contract with private prison companies. Most privately-operated prisons within the BOP are Criminal Alien Requirement (CAR) prisons, which hold noncitizens who have been criminally prosecuted for crossing the border, according to a press release from Grassroots Leadership.

“This announcement will likely mark the end of segregated federal prisons for non-citizens, though it remains to be seen how the BOP will carry out this change,” the organization said in its statement.

Silky Shah, co-director of Detention Watch Network, a coalition challenging the injustices of the U.S. immigration detention and deportation system, said in a statement that the DOJ’s announcement is “a major turning point” in the struggle against mass incarceration.

“This is the first time that a federal agency issued a sweeping—and long overdue—rebuke to the private prison industry. It is time to take a hard look at the outsized role of incarceration in American society, which has shattered lives and communities across the country,” Shah said. “With this news, we call on the Department of Homeland Security to follow suit and break their ties with private prison companies that operate more than half of ICE immigrant detention facilities as a step towards ending detention completely.”

CAR prisons were the focus of a recent Nation investigation about the poor medical care provided in these privately-run, immigrant-only prisons. The CCA-run prison featured in the Nation investigation, New Mexico’s Cibola County Correctional Center, will be shut down as a result of the DOJ announcement. CCA ran Cibola for 16 years and was notified by the BOP of its impending closure in July.

In a book released last month by Grassroots Leadership, the organization revealed that many immigrants incarcerated in CAR prisons are sentenced for one of two federal charges: misdemeanor improper entry or felony improper re-entry.

“These two charges account for half of all federal prosecutions although they are merely status offenses for crossing the border without proper documentation, and do not fall under DOJ priorities,” Grassroots Leadership reported.

“This decision will take the profit motive out of the BOP’s incarceration of non-citizens prosecuted for crossing the border,” Bethany Carson, researcher and organizer at Grassroots Leadership, said in a press release. “We hope that this decision will be a stepping stone for the DOJ to end the use of segregated prisons for non-citizens and de-prioritize improper entry and re-entry prosecutions.”

Policy center In The Public Interest (ITPI) reported in February that private prison companies “collect thousands of tax dollars in profit for every incarcerated person in their facilities.”

CCA, the country’s largest private prison operator, made $3,356 in profit per prisoner in 2015. GEO Group, the second largest private prison operator, made $2,135 in profit per prisoner. ITPI has found that private prison companies encouraged mass incarceration by owning and marketing facilities.

“If our criminal justice system stopped sending people to private jails and prisons, these tax dollars could be spent on programs that prevent incarceration and support prisoner rehabilitation,” ITPI reported.

Private prison companies were already taking a sizable financial hit in the hours after the DOJ’s announcement. MarketWatch reported that “shares of for-profit prison operators plummeted.” CCA’s shares dropped 35 percent and GEO Group’s fell 40 percent.

A report last year revealed that private prisons increased their share of the immigrant detention industry after the detention bed quota was implemented, guaranteeing 34,000 immigrants are detained each day. Grassroots Leadership reports that private prison corporations now operate two-thirds of ICE detention centers, with CCA and GEO operating nine out of ten of the largest detention centers.

“This [the DOJ announcement] is a major victory for those of us who have fought for years to expose the innumerable abuses and indignities in our Criminal Alien Requirement prisons and we’re overjoyed the Department of Justice has finally listened, however belatedly,” Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas, said in a press release about the DOJ’s announcement. “Lives have been lost to this broken system. Good riddance.”

Analysis Human Rights

ICE Releases Reports for 18 Migrants Who Died in Detention, Medical Neglect Is Suspected

Tina Vasquez

Though the death reviews released by ICE provide further insight into the conditions inside detention centers, the bigger concern among researchers and advocates is what they don't know.

A new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) documents the deaths of 18 migrants in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody from mid-2012 to mid-2015. In some cases, the deaths were likely preventable and the result of “substandard medical care and violations of applicable detention standards.”

These are not the only deaths that occurred, however. ICE acknowledges on its website that 31 deaths have occurred between May 2012 and mid-June of this year. It is unclear whether ICE intends to release information about the additional 13 deaths that have occurred.

Even so, these new findings add to a growing body of evidence showing what HRW calls “egregious violations” of medical care standards in detention centers. A February report found such violations contributed to at least eight in-custody deaths over a two-year period.

The public is just beginning to learn more about the deeply rooted problem, Clara Long, a researcher with Human Rights Watch and the lead researcher on the report, explained to Rewire. Long referenced an ongoing investigation by reporter Seth Freed Wessler at the Nation, which explores the numerous deaths that have occurred inside immigrant-only prisons.

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Though the death reviews released by ICE provide further insight into the conditions inside detention centers, the bigger concern among researchers and advocates is what they don’t know. For example, HRW worked with two independent medical experts to review the 18 death reviews released by ICE. The experts concluded that substandard medical care “probably contributed to the deaths of seven of the 18 detainees, while potentially putting many other detainees in danger as well.” Long told Rewire that the information provided by ICE simply wasn’t enough for their independent medical experts to determine that all 18 deaths were related to inadequate medical care, but that it was “likely.”

So there is the larger, systemic issue of inadequate medical care. Researchers at HRW also don’t know exactly how ICE collects information or why the agency releases information when it does. There’s also the core of the issue, as Long noted to Rewire: that the United States “unnecessarily” detains undocumented immigrants in “disturbing conditions” for prolonged periods of time.

Major Failures Lead to Death

The new HRW report identified two of the most dangerous ways ICE is failing migrants in detention: not following up on symptoms that require assistance and not responding quickly to emergencies. Both failures are illustrated by the case of 34-year-old Manuel Cota-Domingo, who died of heart disease, untreated diabetes, and pneumonia after being detained at the Eloy Detention Center in Eloy, Arizona.

ICE’s death review for Cota-Domingo suggests there was a language barrier and that Cota-Domingo was worried about having to pay for health care, which isn’t surprising given that detention centers make migrants pay for things like phone calls to their attorneys and family members. HRW asked Corrections Corporation of America, the company that runs the Eloy Detention Center, about potential fees for medical care, and it said there are no fees for such services at Eloy. For whatever reason, Cota-Domingo was not aware he had a legal right to access the medical care he needed.

When it became clear to his cellmate that Cota-Domingo was in serious need of medical attention and was having trouble breathing, the cellmate “banged on a wall to get a guard’s attention. His cellmate said he did that for three hours before anyone came to help,” Long said. The researcher told Rewire the death report outlines how investigators checked to see if the banging would have been audible to correctional officers.  It was. “Once [the cellmate] got their attention, our medical experts said this was something that should have been followed up on immediately, but the nurse decided to wait several hours before doing anything. All of these sluggish responses went on for eight hours. This is not how you treat an emergency,” Long said.

As Human Rights Watch noted in the report, “When officers finally notified medical providers of his condition, they delayed evaluating him and finally sent him to the hospital in a van instead of an ambulance. Both medical experts concluded that the combination of these delays likely contributed to a potentially treatable condition becoming fatal.”

In other death reviews by ICE, the agency’s own records show “evidence of the misuse of isolation for people with mental disabilities, inadequate mental health evaluation and treatment, and broader medical care failures.” Tiombe Kimana Carlos, Clemente Mponda, and Jose de Jesus Deniz-Sahagun all committed suicide in ICE detention after showing signs of “serious mental health conditions.” HRW’s independent experts determined that “inadequate mental health care or the misuse of isolation may have significantly exacerbated their mental health problems.”

It’s important to note that none of the death reviews released by ICE admit any wrongdoing, and that’s primarily because they don’t seek to examine whether medical negligence was at play. The reports simply present information about the deaths.

“There is no conclusion drawn, really,” Long told Rewire. “There’s one [report] in particular that even goes beyond that; it doesn’t even take into account the quality of care that led to the death, even though it’s clearly an issue of quality of care. That raises the question: What is the report for? ICE doesn’t conclude the cause. If you read [the death reviews], you can see there’s a lot of detailed information included in them that allows someone with expertise in correctional health care and who is familiar with how these systems should work, to make an assessment about whether care contributed to death, but that’s not something ICE doesat least not in the information we are able to access.”

ICE’s Murky Death-Review Process 

In a statement to Rewire, ICE explained that when a person dies while in the agency’s custody, their “death triggers an immediate internal inquiry into the circumstances.” The summary document ICE releases to the public is “the result of exhaustive case reviews conducted by ICE’s own Office of Detention Oversight (ODO), which was established in 2009 as part of the agency’s comprehensive detention reforms,” Lori K. Haley, a spokesperson with ICE, told Rewire in a prepared statement.

In fact, the ODO was created as a direct result of a series of reforms from the Obama administration after reports of human rights abuses and deaths in detention centers. The death review it produces includes a mix of findings from ICE’s own investigators and from a Beaumont, Texas-based company called Creative Corrections.

According to its website, Creative Corrections serves “local, state and federal government agencies,” offering “training, advising, professional management and consulting services” in “correctional, law enforcement, rule of law, and judicial systems.” The company contracts include the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

“From what we can see from the documents, both ICE and Creative Corrections interview various people involved, check records, do what seems to be a pretty robust investigation for the death review,” Long said. “Unfortunately, in the set of death reviews that we used for this investigation, [the public doesn’t] have access to the Creative Corrections reports or any of the exhibits that go along with them.”

As the ICE spokesperson noted, the summary documents are typically written by ICE staff. The documents released to the public do not include medical records, full reports from Creative Corrections, or any exhibits that would provide more insight into the apparent medical neglect resulting in an estimated 161 people dying in ICE custody since October 2003. Six migrants have died in ICE custody since March 2016, two of whom died at two different detention centers in the same week. The causes of these most recent deathsand whether they can be attributed to medical neglect—is still unknown.

“If we had access to all of the information gathered during these investigations, including the reports from Creative Corrections, they would be very rich sources of information,” Long said.

Long and other researchers are also hoping for more information regarding the deaths that happen just after migrants are released from ICE custody. Teka Gulema, an Ethiopian asylum seeker detained at Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama, was released from ICE custody in November 2015 while in the hospital after becoming paralyzed from a bacterial infection acquired in detention. He died in January.

“One concern we have, and it’s a very big fear, is that there are multiple reports of folks who are released from ICE custody while in critical condition,” Long said. “When they die, they are no longer counted as in-custody deaths [by ICE]. We’re worried that’s a loophole being exploitedand for obvious reasons, we don’t have a number in terms of how often this is happening.”

The researcher said she has “no idea” when or why ICE decides to release information, including death reviews.

ICE did not respond to Rewire‘s request for information about its schedule or process for releasing such information.

“Maybe they released the 18 reports because they were cleared for release. Maybe a congressional office asked for them. Maybe they decided to be transparent. It could have been a [Freedom of Information Act] request from the ACLU. I wish I knew, but we really have no idea who decides—or why they decide—to release information, especially without making anyone aware that it’s been released,” the researcher told Rewire.

In April, ICE posted a series of spreadsheets about the inner workings of the detention system on their website that Long said provided a lot of information about how detention operates. The spreadsheets were removed from the site in a matter of days, too soon for many researchers—including HRW—to download them all.

“It’s a big system. We still don’t totally know how it works, which in itself is a major problem,” Long said. “One of the biggest lessons we’ve learned is to always check the ICE website. You never know what you’ll find.”

Rethinking Detention

DHS secretary Jeh Johnson is engaging in what some advocates are calling an “enforcement overdrive,” by funneling more undocumented immigrants into an already overcrowded detention system thanks to the detention bed quota established in 2009. This quota requires 34,000 undocumented migrants be locked up each day. It is in place to ensure more people get deported, though it’s costing taxpayers $2 billion a year while also creating “a profitable market for both private prison corporations and local governments,” the National Immigration Forum has said.

Reporting for the Nation, Michelle Chen recently noted that “migrants are warehoused under convoluted partnerships involving private vendors and state, local, and federal agencies. Homeland Security may contract out security duties to, or use facilities owned by, private vendors—dominated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group—with preordained headcount distributions ranging from 285 in Newark to more than 2,000 in San Antonio.”

Long told Rewire that 80 percent of migrants currently in detention are in what is considered “mandatory detention,” which, according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, means that “non-citizens with certain criminal convictions must be detained by ICE. People who are subject to mandatory detention are not entitled to a bond hearing and must remain in detention while removal proceedings are pending against them.” This also means that those in mandatory detention aren’t allowed to have an individual assessment by ICE of their case, “so they just sit in immigration detention indefinitely,” Long said.

“This system doesn’t work. We’re detaining far too many people for far too long and not determining on an individual level if they should be detained in the first place, taking into account all of the options available,” Long said. Options include being monitored by ICE using telephonic and in-person reporting, curfews, and home visits.

Long joins a long list of undocumented community members, researchers, organizers, activists, and other advocates pushing for the Obama administration—and whoever comes after it—to see detention as a last resort, rather than the only resort.

“We spend a lot of time talking about the disturbing conditions in detention centersthat’s what our report is about. But step one requires taking a step back and rethinking this system and how it’s unnecessary and also abuses vulnerable peoples’ rights,” Long said. “In terms of the legality of treating people this way, under U.S. and international law, people who are detained are entitled to medical treatment. The state has an obligation to provide care to this population. They are failing, and people are dying.”

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