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Editors’ Note: In 2010, this story was a finalist for the National Magazine Award in public-interest reporting. The article is now included a BR Book! Tom Barry's Border Wars.
The Reeves County Detention Complex burns on the morning of February 2, 2009.
County Clerk Dianne Florez noticed it first. Plumes of smoke were rising outside the small West Texas town of Pecos. “The prison is burning again,” she announced.
About a month and a half before, on December 12, 2008, inmates had rioted to protest the death of one of their own, Jesus Manuel Galindo, 32. When Galindo’s body was removed from the prison in what looked to them like a large black trash bag, they set fire to the recreational center and occupied the exercise yard overnight. Using smuggled cell phones, they told worried family members and the media about poor medical care in the prison and described the treatment of Galindo, who had been in solitary confinement since mid-November. During that time, fellow inmates and his mother, who called the prison nearly every day, had warned authorities that Galindo needed daily medication for epilepsy and was suffering from severe seizures in the “security housing unit,” which the inmates call the “hole.”
I arrived in Pecos on February 2, shortly after the second riot broke out. I had driven 200 miles east from El Paso through the northern reaches of the Chihuahuan desert.
Pecos is the seat of Reeves County in “far west” Texas and home to what the prison giant GEO Group calls “the largest detention/correctional facility under private management in the world.” The prison, a sprawling complex surrounded by forbidding perimeter fences on the town’s deserted southwest edge, holds up to 3,700 prisoners. Almost all are serving time in federal lockup before being deported and are what the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security (DHS) call “criminal aliens.”
Although the term “criminal aliens” has no precise definition, its broadening use reflects a trend in dealing with immigrants. With the post-9/11 creation of DHS and its two agencies—Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP)—a wide sector of aliens increasingly became the focus of joint efforts by immigration and law enforcement officers. ICE’s Criminal Alien Program, working with local police, began targeting for deportation both legal and illegal immigrants with criminal records. And CBP’s Border Patrol began to turn over illegal border crossers to the justice system for criminal prosecution, instead of, as in the past, simply deporting them. Many criminal aliens are long-term legal residents of the United States and are also the parents, children, or siblings of U.S. citizens and lawful residents.
Jesus Manuel Galindo and his son.
When the prison started burning again I was in the county clerk’s office tracking down the agreements, contracts, and subcontracts that establish the paper foundation of the Reeves County Detention Complex, the oldest county-owned immigrant prison, constructed as a speculative venture and opened in 1988. Over the past eight years, immigration prisons such as Reeves have boomed along the border in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Some hold ICE detainees, some U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) detainees, and others, like the one in Reeves, prisoners of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). But in the nine months I traveled along the Southwest border visiting eleven prison towns, all the prisons I saw had two common features: they were managed and operated by private-prison corporations—including two of the world’s largest, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO—and they were located in remote, rural areas, invariably described by locals as being “in the middle of nowhere.”
These immigration prisons constitute the new face of imprisonment in America: the speculative public-private prison, publicly owned by local governments, privately operated by corporations, publicly financed by tax-exempt bonds, and located in depressed communities. Because they rely on project revenue instead of tax revenue, these prisons do not need voter approval. Instead they are marketed by prison consultants to municipal and county governments as economic-development tools promising job creation and new revenue without new taxes. The possibility of riots usually goes unmentioned.
Sirens blared outside the Complex as an array of law enforcement forces—county deputies, city police, Border Patrol agents, state police, and GEO’s own security guards—rushed toward it. Inmates had set fire to a housing unit this time. David Galindo, Jesus’s brother, told a reporter, “They’re afraid somebody might die there again.” According to one inmate, jailors placed a detainee, 25-year-old Ramon Garcia, in solitary confinement after he complained of dizziness and feeling ill. “All we wanted was for them to give him medical care and because they didn’t, things got out of control and people started fires in several offices,” said the inmate, who declined to give his name for fear of reprisals by officials.
‘Money for nothing’ is a common refrain when county officers are asked about the advisability of prison deals. This answer, however, is as naïve as it sounds.
As smoke billowed up from the prison on that early February morning, officials and staff at the county building expressed more resentment than concern. Florez complained that the inmates can count on three meals a day and a television to watch while they idle their time away. Not to mention that their rent and electricity bills get paid, while Pecos residents have to work every day to make ends meet. (In September 2009 the unemployment rate in Reeves County—whose 13,300 residents have a per capita income of $10,800 a year—topped 14 percent.) Others worried for the jobs of more than 400 county residents who worked at the prison and the cost of repairing the damaged buildings.
“You can be sure that we will be paying for it,” lamented one county employee.
• • •
The Pecos of the mythical Pecos Bill and the “Home of the World’s First Rodeo” was a famous cowboy crossroads where the Pecos River met the Butterfield Route, Chisholm Trail, and Loving-Goodnight Trail. In the late 1800s, rowdy saloons began giving way to more wholesome establishments and hotels, and Pecos became a major transportation hub with the arrival of the Texas and Pacific Railroad. For almost a century, a progression of railway men, cotton farmers, ranchers, oil riggers, wildcatters, and B-1 pilots filled the streets.
But the oil riggers and wildcatters began leaving town in the early 1980s. Except for the county courthouse, the sheriff ’s office, and a few remaining retail stores, downtown Pecos is now dead. The old railway depots are shut down; the Santa Fe depot was sold off for its aged bricks and timber to a steakhouse in Odessa, an hour down the interstate. With the railroad companies long since gone and ranching, cotton, and oil booms collapsing, Pecos is valued today not as a transportation and distribution center but rather for its isolation and economic desperation.
Debbie Thomas, curator of the West of the Pecos Museum (commonly known as the cowboy museum), sighs when asked about the town’s only steady business over the past two decades. “Well, we don’t want to be known as a prison town, but it’s better than being a ghost town,” she says.
Pecos was once a busy crossroads and hub of industry. Today, the downtown is dead.
In 1985 Reeves County became the first of a few dozen Texas counties to get into the speculative prison business, when Judge Jimmy Galindo (no relation to Jesus Manuel Galindo) persuaded the County Commissioners Court to take a bold step for Pecos’s economic future. At the time, Judge Galindo and other county leaders argued that Pecos could cash in on the surge in incarceration rates that accompanied the war on drugs. Years later, for the prison’s two expansions, the county and the private operators would rely on the federal government to send them immigrant inmates.
Indeed, immigrant detention has been central to the growth of the “privates” for more than two decades. The Immigration and Naturalization Service’s (INS) 1983 decision to outsource immigrant detention to the newly established Corrections Corporation of America gave birth to the private-prison industry; GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut) got its start imprisoning immigrants in the late 1980s.
While the nation’s nonimmigrant prison population has recently leveled off, the number of immigrants in ICE (formerly INS) detention has increased fivefold since the mid-1990s, and continues year after year to reach record highs. Assuming current trends hold, ICE will detain more than 400,000 immigrants in 2009.
The federal government’s escalating demand for immigrant prison beds saved CCA and other privates that had overbuilt speculative prisons. Over the past eight years, the prison giants CCA ($1.6 billion in annual revenue) and GEO Group ($1.1 billion) have racked up record profits, with jumps in revenue and profits roughly paralleling the rising numbers of detained immigrants.
Initially, most speculative prisons were privately owned, a case of the federal government outsourcing its responsibilities. But prison outsourcing is rarely that simple anymore. The private-prison industry increasingly works with local governments to establish and operate speculative prisons. Prison-town officials have a mantra: “If you build a prison the prisoners will come.”
Most of the time, these public-private prisons are speculative ventures only for bondholders and local governments, because agreements signed with federal agencies do not guarantee prisoners. For the privates, risks are low and the rewards large. Usually paid a set fee by local governments to operate prisons, management companies have no capital investment and lose little, other than hefty monthly fees, if inmate flows from the federal government decline or stop.
Prisons are owned by local governments, but local oversight of finances is rare, and the condition of prisoners is often ignored. Inmates such as those in Pecos are technically in the custody of the federal government, but they are in fact in the custody of corporations with little or no federal supervision. So labyrinthine are the contracting and financing arrangements that there are no clear pathways to determine responsibility and accountability. Yet every contract provides an obvious and unimpeded flow of money to the private industry and consultants.
In the case of immigration prisons, BOP, USMS, and ICE sign intergovernmental agreements and contracts with local governments, generally in remote, economically deprived communities. A prison consultancy such as Innovative Government Strategies (IGS), a Texas-based firm that specializes in selling private-prison projects to rural governments, coordinates the deal.
Most often, a team of private-prison intermediaries—bond brokers, design and construction firms, law firms—are brought together by the consultancy, which is fronting for a prison-management consultancy. The consultant and these private clients plant the idea of prison-led development with one or two key community officials, and then wine, dine, and fly them around to other prisons to sell and seal the deal. The lead official promotes the project in the community as his or her brainchild.
Over the past eight years, prison giants have racked up record profits, with increases roughly paralleling the rising numbers of detained immigrants.
Once other county commissioners are also persuaded by the grand promises of prison-led development, the county commission sets up a paper “public facility corporation” for the sole purpose of issuing so-called project revenue bonds—secured not by the general revenues of the issuing government but by those from the bond-financed project—to fund the prison. This corporation then leases the project back to the county government, which signs an agreement with a federal agency that authorizes it to hold federal prisoners. The county, in turn, subcontracts the responsibility for managing and operating to the private-prison firm represented by the consultant. In many cases the rural government also subcontracts responsibility for medical services to a provider specializing in “correctional health services.”
Project revenues are the per diems paid by the feds—BOP, USMS, or ICE—or by the corrections departments of the state governments. In the case of ICE, these per diems now average $87 for every “man day.” But since the bondholders own the prison, the payments go not to the county but to a trustee established to manage the payments to the bondholders and all other parties in the prison project—county, consultants, builders, and prison operator.
County governments see a new revenue stream from the federal per diem—usually a mere $1-2 a day per inmate, depending on the terms of the agreement with the prison operator—but only after the bondholders and private operator have been paid. The privates receive hefty operating fees (normally $500,000-$750,000 a month) and salaries for their administrative team of wardens and assistants, while assuming none of the capital, operating, or maintenance costs. Because the prisons are public facilities, communities receive no property or sales tax revenue (from construction and maintenance) but are expected to provide the water and sewage services.
In Hudspeth County, Texas Judge Becky Dean-Walker signs the agreements and contracts that have, since 2003, made Sierra Blanca an immigrant prison-town. Situated 90 miles from El Paso, Sierra Blanca, population 650, hosts the West Texas Detention Facility, a 500-bed immigrant prison with another 500 still-unoccupied beds in three adjoining structures awaiting overflow. The prison, a public-private complex, is owned by bondholders until 2025.
In establishing the prison on the edge of town, Hudspeth, where one in three families survives under the poverty line, incurred a $23.5 million debt in revenue bonds. Six years after the prison opened for business, the county still has a debt of $21.8 million. According to the Texas Bond Review Board, the remaining principal on the prison bonds translates into a per capita debt ratio—debt divided by population—higher than the county’s annual per capita income of $9,549, which is one of the lowest in the nation.
Emerald Corrections, a Shreveport, Louisiana-based corrections management company, and its intermediaries promoted the prison as an economic-development project, promising jobs and income growth. But only a few locals work at the facility, with most employees bused every morning from El Paso.
When the bonds mature in 2025, the facility will be a badly depreciated investment, a community eyesore, and a reminder of the delusional dreams of prison-based economic development. This is true in many parts of Texas, such as Encinal, a town even poorer than Sierra Blanca, with its very own Emerald-operated prison thanks to an identical arrangement of consultancies, bond brokers, contractors, and county officials. IGS walked away with a reported $700,000 in consultancy fees.
Bill Addington, who lives within easy sight of the prison in Sierra Blanca and who opposed the prison proposal, said the prison was approved by the county without any involvement in or specific knowledge of the bond agreement or operating agreements. In fact, no one in county government could find the agreement with USMS or the bond-issuing statement, or even remember their details.
Hudspeth is hardly alone in this regard. Local governments typically do not have anyone to keep track of the complex prison business—a high-finance enterprise involving tens of millions of dollars in bonds (more than $130 million in Reeves County) and millions of dollars in annual federal payments. Not only had contracts seemingly disappeared in the counties I visited, none could locate a full accounting of prison-related expenses and income.
New anti-immigrant laws and practices subject immigrants, legal or illegal, to double jeopardy, punishing them twice for the same offense.
At a public meeting to consider the proposal for the first immigrant prison in Otero County, New Mexico, county resident George Bussing captured the confusion. “I’m smarter than most average bears,” he said, “but I honestly don’t understand what I’m reading here.”
Despite dubious benefits to local economies, new prisons continue to spring up. District chairman Austin Nuñez of the Tohono O’odham Nation is planning to use tax-exempt project revenue bonds to finance a prison for immigrants on tribal land south of Tucson, in the district of San Xavier. He describes it as an “economic-development project” that will bring jobs and revenue to this poor Native American community that spans the U.S.-Mexico border.
IGS is making the necessary arrangements. All the San Xavier District has to do is sign a contract agreeing to subcontract its imprisonment authority to a private-prison company.
The same team of private-prison intermediaries that interested the Tohono O’odham community in prison-based economic development also enticed a poor community in Montana. Two years after construction—with most of the bond fund depleted from payouts to the prison consultants, design and construction firms, and bond underwriters—the prison in Hardin, Montana stands empty, and the local development authority that issued the bonds has defaulted and is pleading with the Obama administration to consider holding Guantánamo Bay detainees there.
There is no paper trail that explains how these speculative prisons secure federal contracts. But like most scenarios in which public governance meets private business, the partnerships are usually the product of connections and influence, highly paid friends in the right places.
That was the case in 2004 when Judge Galindo overrode the objections of a Reeves County auditor in his bid to hire Public-Private Strategies Consulting to represent the interests of the Reeves County Detention Center to the BOP. The firm’s president, Randy DeLay, charged $120,000 a year plus expenses, but hiring him may have made good political sense. Randy’s famous last name is no coincidence—his brother Tom, the Texas Republican, was the House majority leader at the time. Reeves County secured one of four BOP prison contracts for detaining criminal aliens the following year. Judge Galindo was unequivocal about Randy DeLay’s usefulness, arguing that he was able to get meetings with people in Washington: “I think it’s vital that we have a direct line into the inner workings,” Galindo told the Commissioners Court.
• • •
Though speculative prisons come with no guarantees, all along the Southwest border—from Florence, Arizona to Raymondville, Texas—business is good. Since early 2003, the criminal justice and immigration enforcement systems have merged, breaking the longstanding tradition of treating immigration violations as administrative offenses and creating hundreds of thousands of new criminal aliens.
While the growth in immigrant detention is in part due to the country’s increased immigrant population, the shift in immigration policy away from regulation and toward enforcement, punishment, and deterrence is more significant. Unwilling to pass a reform bill that would effectively regulate immigration, Congress and the executive branch have turned to the criminal justice and penal systems.
New anti-immigrant laws and practices by ICE and CBP subject immigrants, legal or illegal, to double jeopardy, punishing them twice for the same offense. In 1996 the Republican majority in Congress led approval of three anti-immigrant and anti-crime laws that spurred INS to start cracking down on and deporting immigrants. These laws, together with the executive branch’s increased authority to devise repressive immigration procedures under the post-9/11 pretext of a war on terror, have created an enforcement regime in which noncitizen legal immigrants face immigration consequences (as well as criminal consequences) for past or present violations of criminal law. In other words, illegal immigrants and even noncitizen permanent residents may be jailed and deported for committing crimes or other offenses, whether violent or not. DHS and the Justice Department are not only combing the criminal justice system for legal and illegal immigrants to be detained and deported, but the departments are also working together to transfer illegal immigrants into federal courts and prisons.
Galindo’s father broke down, ‘We don’t understand how there can be so little humanity. . . . It was so cruel, and he died sick and afraid.’
Legal scholars have taken to calling this increasing merger of criminal and immigration law and the integration of the criminal justice and immigration systems “crimmigration.”
The private-prison industry’s executives are particularly upbeat about new criminal alien programs such as CBP’s Operation Streamline and ICE’s Secure Communities. GEO Chairman George Zoley told Wall Street analysts in a July 2009 investment conference call: “The main driver for the growth of new beds at the federal level continues to be the detention and incarceration of criminal aliens.” CCA’s Chief Financial Officer, Todd Mullenger, emphasized the importance of programs such as Operation Streamline to prison profits in a recent investment conference call:
Border Patrol has consistently indicated from the planning stage of the initiative to the present that Operation Streamline will require additional detain beds due to increased prosecution and length of stay anticipated by the initiative.
Operation Streamline was launched in 2005 as a pilot project of the Del Rio sector of Texas and extends east to the southern Rio Grande Valley and west to Yuma, Arizona. It is part of a national immigrant crackdown that CBP and ICE variously call “enhanced enforcement” and “zero tolerance.” The program directs Border Patrol agents to turn captured illegal border crossers over to the Marshals Service for prosecution, breaking with the usual practice of simply returning Mexican immigrants to Mexico or releasing non-Mexican immigrants with an order to appear in immigration court.
A few mornings each week, detainees pack the federal courtroom in Del Rio, Texas, where they plead guilty to illegal entry and are sentenced as criminals. The scene in Judge Dennis Green’s chamber is replicated along much of the border. While the courtroom is quickly filling, Del Rio’s nearby Main Street, which once bustled with shoppers from Ciudad Acuña across the river, is quiet, lined with empty and closed stores.
More than four dozen young men and eight young women shuffle into the courtroom on April 17, 2009, occupying the seats normally reserved for visitors and family members. Only at the last minute do the security guards allow me in, after determining that the back row will not be occupied by the day’s crowd of criminal aliens.
The clinking of chains fills the room as the accused are ushered into their seats. Handcuffed, chained from waist to ankles, they stand then sit in uniform when ordered by the attending U.S. marshals.
The scene was shocking the first time, but now I have witnessed it in three courts of justice in the borderlands: shackled immigrants filling up the courtrooms, and then, after an hour or two, shuffling out, where they are taken back to USMS detention centers or a BOP prison. At first I wondered if their laceless running shoes and work boots, with their tongues hanging loose, were a new style for young Mexicans. But later I understood that the marshals obligated them to surrender the laces (as possible weapons or suicide instruments) and that this, not the chains, explains why they walk without lifting their feet out of their shoes.
At these mass convictions and sentencings, I was in a small minority. The judges, the marshals, the lawyers, the security guards, and me—all white and older, with jobs and homes. And them: criminal aliens, all young and lean, most with strong arms and calloused hands, all with black hair and weathered brown skin. These courtrooms are where the South encounters the North, where the exclusionary institutions on one side of the global economic divide collide with collective desperation on the other. The power imbalance, so starkly visible, is startling.
Before starting the overland journey north—sometimes from as far as Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala—each immigrant understood that he or she was an economic castoff, marginalized by national and global economic forces. But each hoped that the United States would be what so many claim: the land of opportunity, where class and circumstances are no barrier to economic security, as long as you are willing to work hard.
Judge Green enters—“All rise,” intones the court sergeant at arms, and the immigrants stand up in unison, following the Spanish-language echo of their bilingual courtroom manager.
Over the past day or two, each prisoner has told his or her story in a few minutes to a paralegal who has organized a two-sentence defense.
Unlike the U.S. criminal justice system, immigration law provides no guarantees that all accused have the right to a court-appointed lawyer. Those facing criminal charges in federal court for immigration violations, however, do get free legal defense, but it is pro forma—a windfall for many regional attorneys who thrive on government fees for nominal defense work. The attorney representing the immigrants on April 17 in Del Rio was applauded publicly that day by the sitting judge for having recently been appointed to take his place on the bench. (Judge Green’s congratulatory comment went untranslated.)
One by one, the defendants are escorted to the front of the court. A CBP lawyer tells the judge that the accused has crossed the border between the ports of entry without inspection (violating Title 8 USC 1325) and recounts any previous record of illegal entry or criminal conviction.
More than fifty individual criminal hearings are streamlined—a possible explanation of the operation’s name—with the same judge, same public defender, and same outcome: guilty as charged and remanded for incarceration.
Before each case is heard and before each defendant is sentenced, Judge Green asks them en masse if they have had time to consult their attorney, if they have been forced or threatened to plead guilty, if they have knowingly violated the laws of the United States of America by crossing without inspection. They reply in a chorus of “Sí” and “No,” bringing to mind an elementary school classroom.
Could one gather a group of unfamiliar U.S. citizens and see such cooperation, such compliance?
As each faces the judge, their collective defense attorney reads from a sheet his assistant has prepared with the abbreviated stories and pleas for mercy from this mass of immigrants.
No one has more than an eighth-grade education, three out of four cite medical emergencies, all crossed to seek work and food, and many hoped to reunite with families that need them. Story after abbreviated story of fathers, mothers, wives, and children with brain tumors, heart conditions, crippling accidents, no work, and little to eat.
Judge Green occasionally expresses sympathy, encourages them to secure a visa the next time they want to come to the United States—a near impossibility for Latin Americans with no bank accounts and no property and utterly out of the question for these detainees, imprisoned and eventually deported for illegal entry—and then asks if they are guilty of breaking the laws of this country by entering without permission. One after another they say, “culpable” or “guilty.”
Before sentencing, the judge warns those who have never been previously deported that they will be judged felons if they are caught in the future. Depending on the time they have already spent in jail, they are sentenced up to twelve days. Those with a record of previous illegal crossings get harsher sentences, routinely as much as 180 days and sometimes several years. Although the charge is always illegal entry or reentry, the sentence varies based on the number of illegal entries, whether the charged immigrant has a criminal record, and the judge’s discretion.
The defense attorney and government prosecutors pack up their papers and leave the courtroom. Any hope on the part of an immigrant that the judge would find mercy is now dashed. Ordered to stand, the convicted and sentenced immigrants rise in unison, and, row by row, exit the courtroom, feet dragging in their laceless shoes. It’s back to the GEO prison whence they came that morning.
Between apprehension and removal, an unauthorized immigrant who is criminally prosecuted is technically in the custody of, first, CBP or ICE, then the Marshals Service, and finally BOP or the Marshals Service again. Depending on how long it takes ICE to prepare the removal papers and to present its case before the DOJ’s immigration court, immigrants may spend anywhere from a week to several years in detention before being deported.
With its staggering administrative, legal, and detention costs, Operation Streamline is certainly not quick and easy. But Operation Streamline is less about law than strategy. The idea is that, having suffered the humiliation of being branded a criminal and spending time in prison, these immigrants will not come back once deported and will tell others that the price of immigration is too high. As DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff explained in 2006, “We are working to get [Operation Streamline] expanded across other parts of the border” because “it has a great deterrent effect.”
Measured by the number of immigrants apprehended in the Del Rio sector and others, immigration flows have decreased markedly, although no one can say to what extent the drop is a result of deterrence as opposed to recession. But nearly three years after the program’s initiation, immigrants keep crossing the river at Del Rio. What strategy of deterrence could stop those forced to leave their families from attempting, even at the risk of increased jail time, to return to their loved ones back home in the United States?
• • •
Jesus Manuel Galindo, a native of Ciudad Juárez, had compelling reasons to come to the United States. His parents, originally from the Mexican state of Chihuahua, are both legal U.S. residents. They live in the border colonia of Anthony, New Mexico, just outside El Paso. They obtained legal residency for their younger son and daughter, and were in the process of getting papers for Jesus, their oldest. According to them, it was easier to get papers for younger children.
Graciela and Jesus Galindo have filed a wrongful death suit on behalf of their son, Jesus Manuel.
Jesus was twice married to legal U.S. residents; his children are American citizens.
In 2006 Jesus was picked up by the police when he had a seizure at a convenience store. When the deputies checked his records and saw that he had no legal status, they turned him over to immigration officials. He was deported to Juárez, where he remained a month or so, determined to come back to his second wife and children.
According to his mother, Graciela, he had the “mala suerte,” bad luck, to be caught by the Border Patrol. In the past the Border Patrol had just sent him back to Juárez. This time, he went first to the Otero County Prison Facility, and then spent three months in Sierra Blanca before being sent to Reeves County Detention Complex. Although he was convicted only of illegal entry, Galindo was sentenced to 30 months under a system of “penalty enhancement” that allows judges to add time for past crimes—in Galindo’s case, writing a hot check (for which he had already spent time in other Texas prisons) and contacting his ex-wife in violation of a restraining order—even if prior sentences were served.
Graciela said he had been working hard at Sierra Blanca in the laundry trying to reduce his time for good behavior, but it did not count for anything. He did the same thing at Reeves until prison administrators told him he could no longer work because of his seizures.
On December 11 he wrote to his mother:
Don’t despair. . . . But tell the investigator [a paralegal sent by federal public defenders] that I get sick here by being locked up all by myself. They don’t even know and I am all bruised up [from falling and thrashing during seizures]. . . . Tell the investigator that the medical care in here is no good and that I’m scared. Well, mom, I love you very much. I will write you on Monday. Kisses to everyone.
On the morning of December 12, Graciela called the prison to see how he was. “They didn’t want to talk to me. But I kept calling and then they told me that my son was dead.”
El Paso attorney Miguel Torres, who is preparing a wrongful death suit on behalf of Galindo’s wife, three children, and parents, calls Galindo’s death a “quintessentially avoidable tragedy.” The suit will likely be filed against GEO, Reeves County, and Physicians Network Association (PNA), the contractor responsible for providing medical services at the Complex. According to Torres, both Graciela and fellow inmates repeatedly urged prison officials to give Galindo his medication and to get him out of the security housing unit (SHU)—solitary confinement—where he had been placed for medical observation in November after an emergency stay at an area hospital due to a severe seizure. Graciela mailed the prison her son’s medical records, but they sent them back, instructing her not to send them again.
“The doctor said Jesus had an attitude problem because he was complaining about the lack of medical treatment that killed him three days later,” Torres told a reporter. “When they found him at 7 a.m., December 12, rigor mortis had set in, which meant he had been dead for three to five hours.”
Galindo’s father broke down as he discussed the conditions in which his son was kept:
We don’t understand how there can be so little humanity there in the prison. Animals aren’t even treated as badly as they treated our son, keeping him locked up in the hole so sick and without any company. It was so cruel, and he died sick and afraid.
In fact, lockdown in the SHU was Reeves’s policy for all ailing inmates. The prison does not have an infirmary. After the riots, BOP requested that one be built as part of the prison reconstruction and upgrade. At a public discussion, County Judge Sam Contreras explained why the $1.8 million outlay was needed: “[The lack of infirmary beds is] what caused the disturbance—because [prisoners] were placed in the SHU when they didn’t do nothing wrong. They are just sick.”
Galindo is not the only casualty of a toxic mix of crackdown policies and a burgeoning public-private-prison complex. At least 104 immigrants have died in ICE custody since 2003. Given the lack of oversight and legal protections, the gains to be made from cost-cutting, and the apathy surrounding prisoner well-being, these deaths are predictable. Indeed, the county awarded the medical care subcontract to PNA primarily because the medical services provider boasted that it would reduce the county’s expenses by cutting back on prescriptions, medical tests, and outside medical visits. And in this regard, according to former Reeves warden Rudy Franco, PNA did not fail.
• • •
PNA is the brainchild of a Lubbock, Texas physician, Vernon Farthing. In 1991, after working as a contract doctor for Lubbock’s county jail, Farthing started PNA, which he calls “a leader in correctional healthcare.”
From his base in Lubbock, Farthing oversees operations in dozens of prisons in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. PNA and prison operator Management and Training Corporation (MTC) were the subjects of a federal civil rights investigation into conditions at Santa Fe County Detention Center, which houses a large population of Native American inmates. The investigation was sparked by the suicide of pre-trial inmate Tyson Johnson, who suffered from severe claustrophobia and other mental illnesses.
In its report the Justice Department specified 52 actions needed “to rectify the identified deficiencies and to protect the constitutional rights of the facility’s inmates to bring the jail into compliance with civil rights standards.” Thirty-eight of the 52 identified deficiencies related to medical services. According to the report,
the Detention Center, through PNA, provides inadequate medical services in the following areas: intake, screening, and referral; acute care; emergent care; chronic and prenatal care; and medication administration and management. As a result, inmates at the Detention Center with serious medical needs are at risk for harm.
In a story on the investigation, Suzan Garcia, Johnson’s mother, explained that she had tried to contact the jail because she was concerned about her son’s psychological condition. “I called the jail and asked to speak to a doctor, but they said they didn’t have a doctor,” Garcia said. “When I asked to speak to the warden, they just put me on hold and then the phone would disconnect.”
According to the Justice Department’s findings and associated reports, Johnson had asked to see a psychologist, but the 580-inmate jail did not have one. Johnson was placed in solitary confinement, and managed to hang himself from a sprinkler head in his windowless cell.
Soon after the Justice Department released the results of its investigation, PNA pulled out of its subcontract with MTC, claiming it could not continue because it was losing money. Within a year, MTC terminated its contract with the county, also claiming it was losing money.
Three years later, when seeking to renew its Reeves County contract, PNA submitted what was at best a misleading statement about its history of providing correctional health care. PNA told the county commission that it was “proud of its record of no substantiated grievances in any facility” and that it had “never had a contract canceled or been removed from a facility.”
The riots at Reeves brought PNA’s medical services to the attention of the Austin-based advocacy group Grassroots Leadership as well as the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, both of which are now focusing on reform efforts. When asked about the liability that Reeves County may face if the inmates take their cases to court, County Attorney Alma Alvarez said she was not worried, noting that GEO and PNA had recently secured accreditation for the prison from both the American Correctional Association (ACA) and the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations. After visiting the prison herself, she said she was confident that the medical care was up to or above standards. She acknowledged, however, that she never spoke to any of the inmates about the quality of medical care, only to the administration.
Concerning the prisoner complaints made during the riots, Alvarez said, “They want to be media stars. They call the media from their cell phones and tell these stories because they want to be famous. It’s like they want to be on American Idol.”
A framed certificate of achievement from the ACA hangs on the wall of the prison’s lobby. Awarded exactly a month after the December 12 riot, it honors the prison for “the attainment of excellence in adult correctional care.”
Sheriff Andy Gomez said of Galindo’s death, “We investigate all the deaths in the prison, but I can’t remember every one.” And Gomez summed up a common sentiment in Reeves County when it comes to prisoners’ grievances about denial of medical attention: “These guys are criminals,” he said. “They need to realize that they are in jail.”
• • •
Soon after opening its first immigrant prison, MTC named Otero County Administrator Ruth Hooser a “Community Supporter of the Year,” describing her as “The Best of the Best” and placing her among the most appreciated public officials involved in eleven MTC correctional operations in the United States, Australia, and Canada. In accepting the award, Hooser said, “I just kept pushing and helping with whatever they needed.”
County officials play the role of smart economic developers and prison companies respond with accolades and awards. The mutual admiration is on display in the waiting rooms of the prisons, where plaques from local chambers of commerce praising companies’ civic virtues, statements of appreciation from the high school marching band or football team, and award certificates from the prison operators plaster the walls. At least in prison towns along the border, there is nearly universal agreement that the prison business is like any other.
Yet, while most government officials passively accept the conditions of the prison deals, and hardly anyone harbors moral or ethical reservations about the business, in some towns, including Pecos, locals grumble that they should be getting a greater share of the revenue. In Reeves County, many believe that the county could do a better job of running the prison than GEO.
“We pay the same management fees and salaries to GEO no matter how many inmates are out there,” said County Treasurer Linda Clark, who bemoaned the multiple riots and the millions paid GEO. County Auditor Lynn Owens observed that GEO has never received a merit-based increase in federal per diem payments, and both officials agreed that the county should be in charge at the Detention Center.
The prison industry occasionally runs into resident opposition of the not-in-my-backyard sort. In Otero County, residents of Alamogordo blocked a proposed GEO immigrant prison because the intended site was within the city limits. Several years later, a new proposal from MTC for a USMS immigrant prison 70 miles away on the far south side of the county was approved by the Otero County Commission with little protest. The county liked the business—a half-dollar a day per immigrant in the 630-bed prison—so much that it signed on with MTC in 2008 to build an ICE-fed, 1,100-bed detention center next to the existing prison.
Poverty partly explains the willingness to scrape a couple of dollars off federal per diem payments and in the process incur massive bond debt. The prison industry introduces the governments of desperate communities to what some call “backdoor financing”: project revenue bonds in the tens of millions of dollars that suddenly make them feel like economic players.
Beyond the false hopes and corporate greed that build immigrant prisons, their expansion seems fueled by something both sinister and uniquely American.
Since funding is provided by project revenue bonds rather than general obligation bonds, the county faces no direct liability if the speculative prison fails. “Money for nothing” is a common refrain when county officers are asked about the advisability of prison deals. This answer, however, is as naïve as it sounds. Even though the bondholders cannot hold the issuing government responsible if the speculative prison fails, there are still real costs, as Reeves County is experiencing. Its overall bond rating was downgraded in 2003 when the prison expansion went unfilled, and now, as residents and local officials predicted, the county must cover millions in repairs in the wake of the prisoner protests.
The full cost of the public-private immigrant prisons that now litter the Southwest and elsewhere is not yet known. Most counties and municipalities are still ten to fifteen years away from paying off the bonds. But poor rural governments worried that they may have been snookered into the prison business have some options. Last year Haskell County, Texas, sold its Rolling Plains Regional Jail & Detention Center for immigrants to the Inland Real Estate Group, a Chicago-based holding company specializing in shopping malls and government properties.
Beyond the false hopes and corporate greed that build immigrant prisons, their expansion, like that of other prisons that have mushroomed across the rural United States, seems fueled by something both sinister and uniquely American. The growing divide between citizens and immigrants is only partially responsible for what has befallen this new class of inmates. A wider sensibility about prisoners is also at work. The men and women held behind the perimeter fences are never seen, never discussed. The prison is treated as a waste dump, similarly placed on the community’s edge, where property values are low and there are no neighbors. The prisoners themselves are society’s refuse, its discards, outcasts, and outsiders who have lost their membership rights in the human community.
• • •
The United States’s high incarceration rate—fives times greater than the average rate in the rest of the world—is evidence, says Virginia Democratic Senator Jim Webb, that we are “doing something dramatically wrong in our criminal justice system.” Senator Webb apparently sees no contradiction in advocating an end to mass incarceration while supporting legislation calling for increased immigration enforcement and the doubling of immigrant-detention beds.
Since the 1970s crime control has become a central theme in U.S. politics and society. In the words of Berkeley Law professor Jonathan Simon, we are “governing through crime”—isolation and exclusion in an expansive penal system is the dominant response to tough social problems. Although the immigrant crackdown raises its own special concerns, it largely mirrors and merges with the broader wars on drugs and crime in terms of increasing costs, expanding law enforcement, high incarceration rates, and dismal cost-benefit ratios. Immigration, a contentious social issue lacking any easy policy solution, has similarly been addressed through increased enforcement and incarceration.
Given that get-tough models are the basis for our current approach to immigration, it comes as little surprise that, like the war on crime, the immigrant crackdown has flooded the federal courts with nonviolent offenders, besieged poor communities, and dramatically increased the U.S. prison population, while doing little to solve the problem itself.
Immigrants detained for prosecution often do time in several privately operated prisons before being deported.
Enforcement practices like Operation Streamline (and its many cousins: Operation Jump Start, Operation Return-to-Sender, Operation Reservation Guaranteed) and such absurdities as the border wall are not the partisan initiatives of restrictionist forces in Congress. The post-9/11 commitments by DHS to “protect America against dangerous people and goods” and to “restore respect for immigration laws” by making immigration enforcement and border patrol “consistent” and “comprehensive” are central to the immigration positions of both major political parties. Indeed, it has been Democrats, such as U.S. Representative David Price of North Carolina, who have led the efforts to extend Operation Streamline and pursue criminal aliens. Visiting Del Rio, Price, who chairs the Homeland Security Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, gushed, “It’s just a great model we need to put to use everywhere.”
But what works for Washington faces opposition in the trenches. Many of those living on the border are less enthusiastic about a strategy that turns immigrants seeking work into criminal aliens. Courts are clogged, the Marshals Service is severely taxed, and some in the Border Patrol are angered by the idea of sending workers to prison.
“This [criminalization] strategy pretty much has it backwards,” T. J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council told The Washington Post. “It’s going after desperate people who are crossing the border in search of a better way of life, instead of going after employers who are hiring people who have no right to work in this country.”
In the same article, Heather Williams, first assistant to the federal public defender of Arizona, complained about “misdirection of resources,” pointing out that the criminal crackdown on immigrants diverts attention from real crimes.
Williams also questions the fairness of the program. “[If U.S. citizens] were placed in any other country on the planet, and had to resolve a case in a day that could result in being deported and having a criminal record, we would be outraged, and so would our government,” she said.
Federal prosecutions for immigration violations have steadily climbed. In June 2009, immigration accounted for 55 percent of prosecutions. Sixty-one percent of prosecutions referred to the Justice Department that month originated at DHS. The judicial districts with the highest number of prosecutions in June were all on the border: Southern California, New Mexico, West Texas, South Texas, and Arizona.
Thus far, immigration prosecutions in 2009 outpace those of 2008 by 14 percent. Prosecutions are up 139 percent compared to five years ago, 459 percent compared to 1999, and 973 percent compared to 1989.
The Obama administration has done nothing to stop this flood of prosecutions or contest the misperception that immigrants are disproportionately responsible for crime. Instead it has embraced Secure Communities, a new criminal aliens program; extended federal-local cooperation in immigration enforcement through the notorious 287(g) program, which allows DHS to delegate immigrant-detention authority to local law enforcement; and responded to alarmist calls about purported spillover violence from drug wars in Mexico by deploying more U.S. marshals, ICE agents, and federal prosecutors to the border.
Rather than rejecting the immigration enforcement regime installed during the Bush administration, Obama has finessed the existing system, which remains in full effect. Since 2003 the combined budgets of CBP and ICE have more than doubled, rising from $7.4 billion to $14.9 billion in 2009, with $17.2 billion requested for 2010. Companies such as CCA and GEO—and their subcontractors, including PNA—will see continuing profit, as federal immigrant-detention, imprisonment, and correctional services contracts account for 40 percent of their revenues.
• • •
Concern for immigrant rights and the deplorable, largely unregulated conditions at public-private immigrant prisons may lead to better oversight. This past summer ICE announced a “major overhaul” of the detention system, including the creation of an Office of Detention Planning and Policy. However, while committing the agency to increased oversight of the nearly 400 facilities where immigrants are held for processing and deportation, ICE director John Morton said that the numbers of detainees would not decrease and that the agency had no plans to end its relationships with its many partners in state and local government and with prison contractors. Morton refused to support legally binding and enforceable minimum standards for immigrant-detention centers, sorely disappointing immigrant-rights and prison-reform advocates.
Hudspeth County, with a per capita GDP of $9,549, took on a $23.5 million debt in order to build the West Texas Detention Facility.
Nor did recent announcements from DHS include any plan to review the ICE practices that drive the demand for immigrant prison beds. There is every indication that DHS will continue to criminalize immigration through ever-more expansive local-federal cooperation in immigration enforcement and by prosecuting immigrants twice for crimes, once in criminal court and again in immigration court. These practices have not fueled only the growth of the ICE detention system, they have also sparked a dramatic expansion of USMS and BOP detention regimes, over which DHS exercises no direct authority. The failure of DHS and the White House to address the full range of players involved in immigrant detention indicates that the promised overhaul of the patchwork system will be no such thing.
The Obama administration has deftly deflected ethical arguments against mass detention with liberal rule-of-law logic. DHS, it argues, is simply upholding the rule of law by consistently and wholeheartedly enforcing immigration statutes and securing the border. Rather than echoing or shadowing the ideological restrictionism of the right, as the Bush administration did, the Obama administration argues that enforcement-first immigration policy will establish the political foundation for immigration reform. But there is no sign yet that the administration or the Democratic leadership are willing to lead the way toward durable immigration reform that would address both the future structure of immigration and the failures of the existing immigration system.
Such a reform should be based on measurements of how immigration flows affect existing wages. Armed with these benchmarks, we can establish how much new immigration is sustainable. The goal is both to ensure that new immigration will not undermine wages or working conditions in the U.S. labor force, and, at the same time, to allow American society and the economy to benefit from regulated flows of unskilled and skilled labor. Reforms would need to account for unauthorized immigrants who for many years were tolerated or even welcomed in the United States. These immigrants and their families have integrated into this country, and should now be accorded a path to citizenship.
As the immigrant crackdown continues, hundreds of thousands of immigrants like Jesus Manuel Galindo will be caught in the profit-driven public-private-prison complex. In the end though, the human cost of the system is unlikely to bring it down. It may only be when citizens and politicians start questioning the financial cost of incarcerating immigrants that these public-private prisons will go bust.
Meanwhile, the 26 inmates identified by GEO as having been involved in the riot following Galindo’s death will spend an additional year in detention. After the initial April 2009 count against them failed to elicit guilty pleas—there was little hard evidence—the U.S. Attorney’s office added another count to the indictment under an obscure statute requiring a mandatory ten-year sentence for the use of fire in the commission of a federal crime. Under threat, all plead guilty to the first charge. More than one hundred inmates will be indicted for the second riot.
Reeves County recently approved another $15.5 million in project revenue bonds to pay for prison repairs and upgrades that will not be covered by insurance. If the County does not make the costly improvements, it may lose its BOP contract to imprison criminal aliens. County Attorney Alvarez knows what is at stake. “Without that prison,” she told the Commissioners Court, “basically, Reeves County is going under.”
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