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The Secret World of For-Profit Immigrant Detention

November 26, 2011 09:01:01 am

By Will Matthews

After fleeing to the United States from South America to escape an abusive husband, Kimberly, a mother of three, wound up incarcerated at the T. Don Hutto immigration detention center in Taylor, TX.  Immigration authorities while crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico had captured her.   But when immigration officials determined she had a credible fear of persecution if she returned to her home country, Kimberly was granted her release.

Nevertheless, Kimberly (whose real name is concealed to protect her identity as a victim of abuse), her exposure to the dark and largely secretive world of the nation's immigration detention system was only just beginning.

As she was being driven to the airport in Austin by an employee of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation's largest private prison company that manages Hutto and a number of other immigration detention facilities across the nation, she was sexually assaulted. The officer who assaulted her was later convicted and put behind bars. Now he is again a free man.

Tragically, Kimberly’s story is not unique.

Documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and made public for the first time last month show the sexual abuse of immigration detainees in detention is a widespread problem and that the government has fielded nearly 200 allegations since 2007 alone from nearly every state that houses an immigration detention center.

Yet despite the brutal and dehumanizing toll of immigration detention, there is one particular special interest group that is laughing all the way to the bank: the private prison industry.

Although empirical studies show a heightened level of violence against prisoners in facilities run by private companies, the number of immigration detainees housed in privately-run jails continues to increase.

Today, according to some studies, nearly half of the tens of thousands of immigrants in detention every day are locked up in jails and detention systems operated by private prison companies. This explains the private prison industry's deep financial incentive to see the continued expansion of the system, even in the face of myriad abuses. 

An ACLU report released this month examining the destructive impact of prison privatization outlines the nefarious connection between the for-profit private prison industry and its expansion during the last decade of immigration detention.

What’s clear is that executives in the private prison industry have achieved gigantic profits on the backs of immigration detainees left vulnerable to sexual abuse and even death.

As the report makes clear, private prisons have profited not only from needlessly harsh sentencing policies but also from an unprecedented increase in the number of detained immigrants.

In 1994, the average daily population of detained immigrants stood at 6,785. By 2001, the number of immigrants detained at any given time had more than tripled, to 20,429. By 2010, fueled to a significant degree by a post-9/11 increase in reliance on immigration detention, that number stood at 31,020—an eye-popping 450 % increase over 1994 levels.

More detainees means more money for private prison companies like CCA, consequences be damned.

The ACLU last month filed a federal class-action damages lawsuit on behalf of Kimberly and others. But litigation alone is not the answer.

The government must be committed to ensuring that all people in its custody are protected. In the coming weeks, the Barack Obama administration will likely decide whether the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003— legislation passed with broad bipartisan support and which aims to ensure that no prisoner in this country is subjected to the brutal horrors of rape or other forms of sexual assault—applies to immigration detainees and detention centers.

It absolutely should.

The business of immigration detention is a dirty one indeed, and one that is in desperate need of as much outside oversight and accountability as possible.   

Will Matthews is senior media relations associate at the American Civil Liberties Union. He welcomes comments from readers.

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