Feds Poised To Hire Private Prison Firm With Record Of Mistreating Children To Run Detention Center

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

By Nicole Flatow

Share prices for the two major private prison firms have skyrocketed since an influx of Central American migrants crossing the Mexico border increased the likelihood of more detentions and more profit. And it turns out investors had good reason to be optimistic. Officials at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Friday they are poised to sign a final contract with private prison firm Corrections Corporation of America to house immigrant families, just a few years after the firm was forced to remove children from another Texas immigrant center because of a lawsuit over subpar conditions.

The planned detention center may hold some 2,400 immigrants — doubling the existing capacity for immigrant families — and intended to “to accommodate the influx of individuals arriving illegally on the Southwest border,” ICE spokeswoman Nina Pruneda told the Texas Observer. But advocates are outraged that ICE is signing a new contract for a major family detention center with CCA just a few years after another detention center was embroiled in controversy. T. Don Hutto Residential Center initially housed immigrant families, until the American Civil Liberties Union documented abhorrent treatment of children like mini prisoners confined to cells for 12 hours a day, and punished with prison discipline for behavior that was typical of children. A year after the ACLU settled its lawsuit with ICE, President Obama ordered children and family inmates removed from Hutto and placed in a Pennsylvania facility deemed more habitable for kids.

The controversy is one of many CCA and the other private prison operators have faced, as their incentive to profit from detention and incarceration clashes with the goals of humane treatment and rehabilitation. CCA has also faced allegations that it falsified staffing records while leaving key security posts vacant, and imposes inmate quotas in state prison contracts to keep its beds filled.

Several states have ended their contracts with CCA in the wake of these controversies. But CCA has found a new more profitable source of revenue in new immigration detention facilities. During an investor call last year, CCA Chief Executive Officer Damon Hininger assured a “strong demand for beds” after immigration reform.

Some who support the contract say ICE has limited options as it struggles to meet an increase of children and families crossing the border, the Austin American Statesman reports. But former ICE deputy director Alonzo Pena said if the agency is going to enter into contracts with private firms, there needs to be more oversight and accountability, particularly since many of the immigrants are seeking asylum.

The other major private prison firm, GEO Group, is also profiting from the influx of migrants from Central America. That firm has already secured a fixed price contract to house families in a facility it had previously been using to detain immigrant men. When one advocate asked an ICE official why they had contracted with the private prison firm with a checkered reputation, he said he had no choice, because they had a contract with the county, which then subcontracted with GEO.

Addressing concerns about the new deal, ICE officials say the agency has reformed its policies since the Hutto facility housed families, and now “ensures that family detention facilities operate in an open environment that includes play rooms, social workers, medical care, and classrooms with state-certified teachers and bilingual teachers.”

Update:

ICE announced Tuesday that it signed the contract for the facility and Reuters reports it will be run by CCA. The facility will eventually accommodate 2,400 individuals, and the agency estimates that at full capacity, it will cost $298 per person per day, according to Reuters.