A scathing new report says the private prison industry is getting fat off profits from detaining undocumented immigrants in subpar conditions – and Boca Raton-based GEO Group is one of the main culprits.
In the report, titled Payoff: How Congress Ensures Private Prison Profit With an Immigration Detention Quota, Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit opposed to mass incarceration, says GEO Group and Correction Corporation of America (CCA) has successfully lobbied an acquiescent Congress for laws that increase the number of immigrants in its detention centers, leading to sharp increases in profits.
According to the report, it all started back in 2009, when Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) made sure the Immigration and Customs Enforcement's budget included language that would become known as the “immigrant detention quota.” This made funding available to ensure ICE “shall maintain a level of not less than 33,400 detention beds” in 2010 and 34,000 in 2013.
As the federal government fulfilled its quota, more detention contracts were awarded to private companies such as GEO Group and CCA. The private prison industry today owns 62 percent of the immigrant facilities, up from 49 percent in 2009 before the quota was created. Since that quota was implemented, it has been roundly criticized.
Nine of the ten largest immigrant detention facilities are privately owned – and GEO Group owns five of those, including the largest: the South Texas Detention Complex in Pearsall, Texas, where there have been numerous complaints of sexual assault by male guards on female inmates.
GEO Group and CCA combine for half of the immigration facilities. And GEO Group increased its share from 15 percent in 2010 to 25 percent in 2014. The report says GEO's bottom line has benefited tremendously: “...from $41,845,000 in 2007 to $143,840,000 in 2014, a 244 percent increase.”
These profits have come at a human cost, according to the report. Immigration law is complicated, and not everybody who gets sent to the detention facilities simply crossed a border without papers. Muhammad Nazry Mustakim came to the U.S. from Singapore as a child and had a green card. But he was arrested for drug possession with intent to deliver. After taking a plea bargain for ten years' probation, he was entered into deportation proceedings, which he had no idea about until five years later. After he got married and was holding down a regular job, ICE came to his home and took him away.
Mustakim ended up spending ten months in immigration limbo, much of it spent at GEO's facility in Pearsall.
And then there's Henry Taracena, an immigrant from Mexico who had been living and working in the U.S. for 20 years when he was illegally deported for a suspended license. Taracena spent five months at a GEO Group-run facility in Tacoma, Washington, which he described this way:
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While detained, he saw people with cancer and other serious illnesses not cared for properly, and people in pain who had to wait long stretches of time for medical care. “It really scared me,” he said. He also said that recreation was dangerous due to the nature of the space. “They have a small room that according to them is the recreation area… but it’s so small that someone was always hurting themselves… because it was a square with cement walls.”
The air conditioning was extremely cold, and smelled of chemicals, to the point that people developed sores on their skin from prolonged exposure. He also described unsanitary conditions full of dirt and mold. The facility was cleaned with only mild soap, and all the clothes were washed together interchangeably, causing illnesses to spread easily. Food was not nutritious, and given in small portions.
“[People] entered healthy and came out sick,” Henry said.
The authors of the report recommend that the immigrant quota be eliminated, private facilities be decreased, and "non-punitive, community-supported alternative to detention (ATD) programs" be used in placed of the current incarceration-until-deportation model.
The full report can be read below: