One of the advantages of white privilege is that it allows us to "not see" that which we don't wish to know about. This is especially true in regard to those who have entered our country without the proper documentation. We don't really want to know what happens to the men and women who are swept up in our deportation efforts. They have become the disposable litter of our American life.
José, having lived most of his life here, was totally unprepared for what faced him at the Willacy County Correctional Institution in Raymondville, Texas, some 1,500 miles from his home. Most federal prisoners, by the way, are incarcerated within 500 miles of their home. But not immigrants. Since they are to be deported, it is felt there is no need to incarcerate them near their families.
Frontline profiled Willacy, run by Management & Training Corporation (MTC) on behalf of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), in a 2011 episode titled Lost in Detention, after a year-long investigation by Frontline and the American University Investigative Reporting Workshop. The video is available online at the link above.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) issued a 100-page report on the conditions last summer: Warehoused and Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped in Our Shadow Private Prison System
. From that multi-year study, involving interviews with over 250 prisoners:
Willacy County Correctional Institution (nicknamed “Tent City” or “Ritmo,” and originally named Willacy County Processing Center) earned a terrible reputation from 2006 to 2011, when MTC operated it as an immigration detention facility under a contract with ICE. In May 2011, ICE announced it was transferring its detainees out of Willacy. But MTC quickly obtained a new contract to hold prisoners for BOP—the same contract that keeps Tent City operating today.
What the ACLU found during their investigation of Willacy was "overwhelming despair." They found overcrowded conditions, bunk beds stacked within three feet of each other, 200 inmates to a 200-foot-long Kevlar tent, with five bathrooms with toilets that did not always work. There was no privacy in these crowded, filthy units that the inmates could not keep clean with the two ounces of cleaning solution that was all that was provided for each tent. Insect infestations were common, as scorpions and spiders made their way through the holes in the Kevlar tents. Prisoners' uniforms were washed with cleaning rags and mop heads, but without detergent. Toilets frequently overflowed, and lacking adequate ventilation, filled the tents with the odor of human waste. Racial epithets were commonly used by the guards, and prisoners suffered physical abuse at their hands.
At one point, when the water turned yellow-green, it took the prison staff two days to provide bottled water and portable toilets. Prisoners could purchase water from the commissary. If they could afford it.
The lack of medical care was unconscionable. At Willacy, according to the ACLU, a Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN) was making medical diagnoses. Appropriate maintenance medications for serious conditions were difficult to obtain; prescriptions were often changed with no explanation. The only dental care provided was extraction, which federal courts have ruled violates the 8th Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
Willacy also lacked drug treatment programs, and adequate occupational, or educational opportunities, all of which are programs proven to reduce recidivism. Private prison contractors are not required to be concerned with recidivism because these prisoners are not expected to be released back into the American population. We completely ignore the fact that they will be released into the Mexican population.
Because, really, who cares? Who cares if we export these ill-treated detainees into the cities and towns of our next-door neighbor, where they will find no work, but plenty of idleness and a flourishing drug trade? But why should that concern us? Why should we worry?
The ACLU reports that:
Prisoners reportedly earn between 12 and 40 cents an hour for their work, money they spend on medical co-pays, additional food from the commissary, phone calls home, and court fees. The pay is usually not enough to cover what they need, and there are far fewer jobs than there are prisoners.
The cost of the co-pays, commissary prices, and phone rates are all set by the private prison contractors. Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) doesn't just charge the prisoners medical co-pays, it also charges them a $2 fee to request
a medical appointment, even if that request is denied. Oh, did I mention that the CEO of CCA, Damon T. Hininger, made $2,772,435
in 2012? If you keep denying requests for medical appointments, those $2 fees add up.
Before being assigned a bunk in one of the Kevlar tents pictured above, José likely spent some time in the Segregated Housing Unit (SHU), or solitary confinement. New arrivals at Willacy have been routinely sent to the SHU since April 2013, because there were no beds in the general population area. How long José would have been kept there would have depended, apparently, on either the availability of another bed, or the whims of the prison guards who could send inmates to solitary for just about any reason or no reason. Men have been sent to the SHU for complaining about medical care or food, asking for a new pair of shoes, speaking Spanish, or helping another inmate with a legal filing. The capricious, arbitrary use of the SHU would never be allowed under the BOP procedures.
But Criminal Alien Requirement (CAR) facilities are not subject to most of the regulations of the BOP. Run by private contractors, these CAR facilities were designed to hold immigrants convicted of simple immigration violations, or minor drug crimes, prior to deportation. So why do they fill their SHU units, which represent 10 percent of their total beds, when BOP's rate for medium and maximum security facilities is closer to 3-5 percent?
Because it is in their contracts. (And I am willing to go out on a limb here and speculate that there is a financial incentive somewhere along the line.) Almost all prison contracts specify a 90 percent or higher occupancy rate. Since the government pays per bed occupied, it behoves the contractor to accept prisoners who stretch its capacity. And that means that the SHU beds are regularly filled.
According to Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership:
Increasingly, the people who are held in these facilities are people who have been criminally prosecuted for re-entering the country after being deported. The two most prosecuted crimes in the federal judiciary now are entering the country without authorization, which is a misdemeanor, and then re-entering the country after being deported, which is a felony.
It was no surprise to many when the prisoners at Willacy refused to work or to eat breakfast on February 20, 2015.
Nor was it any surprise that the peaceful protest at the lack of medical care led to rioting, and included fires in three of the hated Kevlar tents. Within two days, the BOP negotiated an end to the dispute, declared the facility uninhabitable, and transferred the inmates to other prisons within the BOP network.
During the week of the riot and the transfer, there was no information available to the families of the prisoners. No one knew if a loved one was involved in the protest, injured, or transferred. And if transferred, to where?
Not that private prisons did much to assist communication between an inmate and the outside world under ordinary circumstances. Isolated by distance, with no email and expensive telephone rates, a weekly phone call was all many could expect. Letters that were read by the staff before mailing were the main form of communication for most of the rest.
How did we get to this point?
In the summer of 1993, the Clinton administration proposed a hot new idea that was meant to deliver on two campaign promises: putting more criminals behind bars and slashing the number of employees on the federal payroll to save money.
In 1996, Congress set aside funding for privatization and the BOP, for some unknown reason, decided that the new for-profit prisons would house non-citizens.
The use of private contractors for immigration violations took off in a big way after Operation Streamline was introduced in 2005. As a result of that law, we have changed our handling of these violations from an administrative action to a criminal one. Today, over 60 percent of all federal convictions are for unlawfully crossing the border, an action that a decade ago would have resulted in a bus trip back to Mexico. The average sentence is 18 months.
Interestingly, lobbying by two leaders of the mercenary prison industry reached all-time highs just before Operation Streamline was implemented.
I found even more interesting the fact that Harley G. Lappin, the director of the Bureau of Prisons between 2004 and 2011, when contracts were being awarded under Operation Streamline (five to GEO, three to CCA and one to another mercenary), retired in 2011, after being arrested for drunk driving. Well, that wasn't as interesting as the fact that within two months, he was hired by CCA as an executive vice president and chief corrections officer at an annual salary of $1,514,706. His salary as director of BOP was around $180,000 a year, according to Fusion's report: Shadow Prisons, a Private and Profitable Corner of the Federal Prison System Thrives After a Long-Ignored Offense is Prosecuted.
Using the trade secrets provision of the FOIA, for-profit prisons are able to shield their operations from public view. And it is not just from public view that the for-profit prisons shield their operations. When the GAO tried to determine if contractors were providing a cheaper alternative to BOP facilities, they found that the private prisons did not keep any equivalent data that would make a comparison possible. When questioned
, Harley Lappin responded that:
his agency did not "see the value" in making companies provide more data because it could "increase current contract costs."
However, as the GAO noted in its report
BOP’s Senior Deputy Assistant Director stated that private contractors might charge higher contract prices as a result of having to collect and provide this information but that BOP has not determined what these additional costs would be.
This refusal to provide any data on their operation makes this comment
from MTC regarding the comprehensive ACLU report practically priceless:
"We completely disagree with and dispute" the ACLU allegations, [Issa] Arnita, the MTC spokesman said, adding that they were merely anecdotal.
They are only anecdotal because you refuse to tell us how you are spending our tax dollars.
Do I need to add that GEO, CCA and MTC, the three largest mercenary prison operators, all belong to ALEC? Or that, in 2014, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, 79 percent of CCA's political contributions and 67 percent of the political contributions of GEO and MTC went to Republican candidates?
My brother and his granddaughter.
Before the riot, my niece and José spoke on the phone once a week. He would never tell her anything about the conditions at Willacy, and every time she asked how he was doing, his only answer was "okay." She told me that often his voice sounded strange, as if he had an allergy or a cold. But he would never admit that anything was wrong. They both suspected that the telephone calls were monitored, so he couldn't say anything even if he wanted to.
And he knew that from 1,500 miles away, there was little she could do to help.
Because he is still in custody, I have not used his real name, nor have I used the true name of his 10-year-old daughter, at the request of my niece.
Our family spent the week after the riot at Willacy in a state of excruciating suspense. No information about José's location or well-being, was available. Seven days later, my niece learned that he had been sent to a federal medium security prison in the Midwest. And that meant that she finally had a full night's sleep.
But the problems she took to bed with her were still there the next morning. Suffering from systemic lupus, she is making plans to move with her daughter to Mexico when José is released in a couple of months. She is quite frightened at the prospect of the violence in the province of Oaxaca, but she sees no other way to keep her small family together. If José returns to the United States and is caught, he will face felony charges.
My brother and sister-in-law are devastated by the thought of losing their daughter and granddaughter to a foreign land. They don't have the kind of money that will allow visits to Mexico.
This is an American family that is being torn apart by our nation's refusal to come to grips with our broken immigration system.
Did you know this?
In February 2015, the U.S. government was processing some family-related visas applications filed as far back as August 1991, and was still processing some employment-related visa applications from December 2003.
Whether or not José was involved in drug trafficking or was in the country illegally, the conditions that he faced at Willacy County Correctional Institution were inexcusable. I don't care if he had committed murder, he deserved a non-punitive manner of incarceration. He didn't get it because he is not a citizen. As a non-citizen he has no one to fight for him. And the private prison pirates know that.
They know that the American public doesn't give a damn about the least among us. "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me," only applies on Sundays, in a church. The rest of the week, in shadow prisons fueled by greed, the least of us are treated with less care than are the dogs at your local pound.
And that is simply wrong.