Worse than prison? America's privatised detention centres

Worse than prison? America's privatised detention centres
Comment: Private detention centres have become draconian hellholes driven by the perverse incentive of profit, write Behnam Gharagozli, Jon Roozenbeek and Adrià Salvador Palau.
5 min read
Immigrants are finding themselves trapped in these centres for much longer than before [AFP]
The financial crisis of 2009 caused huge spikes in US unemployment. 

With so many people out of work, the Obama administration reasoned that newly arrived migrants were more an economic (and political) burden, than a potential boost to the economy. Its solution was to crackdown on 'illegal' immigration, most of it coming from Mexico, a country that was going head first into the worst years of its drug war.

The number of undocumented migrants stuck in detention centres began to increase dramatically. Obama replicated the model introduced by the Republican Party to deal with rampant incarceration rates, and used private contractors as jailers and county jails as detention facilities.

With this, the United States begun subordinating people's freedoms to private interests. To make matters worse, current immigration laws generally prohibit people fleeing from cartel and gang violence from obtaining asylum.  

With no real system to hold them accountable, private jails and detention centres became draconian hellholes driven by an obviously perverse incentive: Profits could be maximised by keeping the detainee in detention as long as possible, and spending as little as possible on his or her well-being.

Politically speaking, detained immigrants frequently have it much worse than convicted criminals.

ICE, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, employs three different sets of standards for immigration detention centres (from 2000, 2008 and 2011).

Profits could be maximised by keeping the detainee in detention as long as possible, and spending as little as possible on his or her well-being

The latest 2011 standards - though not legally binding - were designed to curtail sexual assault and increase access to religious services and visiting opportunities. Currently, only 31 centres run by or under contract with ICE follow these guidelines. In short, business boomed as basic human rights suffered.

The legal system hasn't offered much help. Starting around 2012, judges began to noticeably increase bail amounts for detained immigrants. It is unclear why or how, but the fact is that it's now much cheaper to post the bond to get out of jail, than out of an immigration detention centre.

As a result, immigrants are finding themselves trapped in these centres for much longer than before, and business has continued to boom. Neglect led to mental health problems, in some cases death, and the immeasurable suffering associated with the deprivation of liberty.

The fact that these two factors (increased bail amounts and the growth of the private detention jail businesses) have occurred simultaneously, should be enough to raise a red flag.

Business boomed as basic human rights suffered

One example of this trend towards privatisation is the federal government transfer of an immigration detention centre from Lancaster to Adelanto, both in California.  

While the conditions in Lancaster were not perfect, lawyers - including one of the authors of this piece - report that the system in Lancaster was relatively smooth. Waiting times to see clients at Lancaster were quite short, and clients hardly ever complained about the conditions and things appeared to be relatively functional.

Protestors at a women's march against the Trump administration's immigration policies,
28 June 2018, Los Angeles, California [Getty]

A large part of this was thanks to who was in charge. While the LA county sheriff's reputation is far from perfect, sheriff deputies had at least received training on how to handle the Lancaster detainees and make sure they were properly taken care of. What's more, bail amounts ordered by immigration judges at the Lancaster facility were fairly reasonable.

But the system went through a sudden and extremely unwelcome change in 2012.

That year, the federal government transferred all detainees from its Lancaster location to Adelanto, and a private company, The GEO Group, won the contract to house immigration detainees.

Bail amounts increased drastically as well. The beneficiary of these higher bail amounts was, unsurprisingly, The GEO Group's private detention centre

Conditions worsened significantly, waiting times for attorneys to see clients increased exponentially, and the detention facility saw a sharp decline in the quality of care from the staff.

Rather than having trained law enforcement officers overseeing detainees, Adelanto had private contractors do the job. Conditions got so bad that detainees went on hunger strike in 2017.  

Bail amounts increased drastically as well. The beneficiary of these higher bail amounts was, unsurprisingly, The GEO Group's private detention centre. The rights of immigrant detainees appeared unimportant to both The GEO Group or the federal government.   

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Mark Kleiman, a civil rights attorney who has represented prisoners at the Adelanto detention centre, states that,

"There is a permanent state of war between the rich and the rest of us. It's bad enough that they use everything they touch to limit our options, and smother our hopes. Now they have figured out how to wring every last penny from all the weapons they use against us.  

"For-profit schools paid for by tax dollars. Drug companies that get people hooked and kill them, just to raid the Medicare cash drawer. And now they've even figured out how to make billions off of imprisoning us. The uber-rich used to disparage the cradle-to-grave welfare state, so now it's cradle-to-grave thievery. Somehow, it doesn't make me feel better."

In the Gulags of eastern Europe we saw perhaps the epitome of the corruption of collectivist regimes. One can't help but wonder if something akin to that is taking place in today's immigration detention centres. Perhaps Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's words about the Gulag describe a reality not far removed from some of these centres today: "Unlimited power in the hands of limited people always leads to cruelty."

Behnam (Ben) Gharagozli received his BA with Highest Distinction in Political Science from UC Berkeley and his JD cum laude from UC Hastings College of the Law. While at UC Hastings, he served as Development Editor of the Hastings International and Comparative Law Review.

Follow him on Twitter: @BenGharagozli

Jon Roozenbeek is a PhD candidate at the Department of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge. He studies Ukraine's media after 2014. Before coming to Cambridge, he worked as a freelance writer, editor and journalist.

Adrià Salvador Palau Is a PhD candidate in the Distributed Information and Automation Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. He has written several journalistic articles about politics and international relations. He is interested in how data science can be used to better understand political dynamics.

Follow him on Twitter: @adriasalvador

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.