Locking up immigrants for profit: a case of human trafficking

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers detain a suspect during an enforcement operation on February 7, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Charles Reed / ICE via AFP Getty)
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On what planet does a system with a declining prison population suddenly need a bunch of new jails? One where the prisons are privately run for profit and the only thing needed to make money is to fill them up. What happens when prison populations drop? That’s easy, profits fall. The solution? Find a way to keep them full.

Muffy Sunde

What are private jails? They are for-profit prisons run by corporations with names that sanitize the ugly reality they represent. Wackenhut, staffed by former government spies who compiled dossiers on suspected communists and provided scabs as union busters for strikes, is one. In a public relations makeover it created a subsidiary to handle their private prisons and named it the GEO Group.

Another private jail giant, the Corrections Corporation of America, morphed into CoreCivic. Both needed to paper over the rotten core of their mission — to profit from the forced incarceration of human beings. Together these two corporations have 85 percent of the private prison business and they make billions.

Private jails could have been a casualty of the decreasing prison population resulting from criminal justice reforms. In fact CoreCivic faced bankruptcy in 2000 due to low incarceration rates. September 11, 2001 changed that with an unprecedented increase in immigrant roundups. Both companies grew stratospherically and made profits every year since. Anyone with a mutual fund, investments in municipal bonds, or a pension, is likely to have an investment in a private prison company. That includes Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a big fan of private jails, who has much of his fortune parked in the Vanguard Group, a major investor in GEO.

It is tempting to blame this all on Donald Trump and his immigrant bashing agenda, but the Democrats and the Republicans both enthusiastically supported the hysteria fueled roundups of immigrants in the post 9/11 era.

Democratic Senator Robert Byrd, in 2009, during a decline in the undocumented immigrant population, inserted language into the Department of Homeland Security budget requiring that it maintain a minimum of 33,400 prison beds. This has remained, treated as a quota required by congress. Private prisons have gobbled up most of that business since. Whether they are paid a guaranteed yearly rate to operate these jails, or paid per person — about $150 per day — they make out like bandits.

Border crossings and deportations are down but immigration arrests are up. Most folks arrested are not crossing the border. In fact, many undocumented people are returning home because the economy is so bad for them here, Trump’s tough talk about needing to build a wall and increase patrols at the border notwithstanding.

So who is detained? Your neighbors, soccer teams, parents dropping their kids off at school, people who report, as required, to ICE every two years. Border Patrol checkpoints are snatching people during evacuation from Texas floods.

Deportations are down because detention makes billions for private prison companies, so the jails need to stay full. Many are imprisoned for months or years. Longer detentions equal more profit!

Profit is also made by virtual slave labor inside. Detainees forced to work for $1 per day, or less, do work normally done by paid employees. Those refusing face solitary confinement. People volunteer for kitchen duty to get enough to eat. One GEO facility has one paid janitor for a facility of 1500 detainees. A hunger striker in the Pacific Northwest Detention Center (built on a toxic waste dump) volunteered to be deported to her family in Mexico and was denied.

According to a 1997 legal settlement, children are supposed to live in homes, not detention centers. But, in 2014, Barack Obama, eager to “solve” the crisis of thousands of refugee children, allowed their placement in private Texas Detention Facilities. Texas and ICE are still trying to get these jails classified as “child care centers” to circumvent federal law, even as Harvey threatens to flood them.

This Orwellian nightmare must be stopped. It will take getting radical in defending immigrants and opposing the system that creates these jails. They must be closed, their operators prosecuted for human trafficking, all detainees given documents, and the border opened. That’s for starters.

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