Unlawfully crossing the United States border has traditionally been a civil offense where a person committing the act was deported, but more than half of all criminal prosecutions last year were for crossing the border and for-profit prison corporations operating federal facilities have directly benefited.

The corporations make money incarcerating over 25,000 immigrants. Thousands are subjected to solitary confinement and denied medical care. The squalid conditions have spurred protests, hunger strikes and uprisings against abusive treatment, according to a multi-year investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The ACLU of Texas and the National Prison Project investigated [PDF] five of the nation’s thirteen “Criminal Alien Requirement” (CAR) prisons in Texas. They are some of the only federal facilities run by for-profit companies, like the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the GEO Group or the Management & Training Corporation (MTC), instead of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

It is exceedingly difficult to uncover what is happening inside the prisons because “by statute” most of the corporation’s records are “exempt from the open records laws that apply to prisons.” However, through interviews with individuals incarcerated, the ACLU was able to uncover some of the stark dehumanizing aspects of detention at the five CAR prisons—Reeves Detention Center Complex, Big Spring Correctional Center, Eden Detention Center, Giles W. Dalby Correctional Facility and Willacy County Correctional Facility.

All of the BOP contracts that ACLU reviewed encouraged private prison corporations to “place excessive numbers of prisoners in isolation. “CCA’s contract for Eden, MTC’s contract for Dalby, and GEO Group’s contracts for Reeves and Big Spring each require at least 10% of the ‘contract beds’ to be SHU isolation cells—in effect, setting an arbitrary 10% quota for putting prisoners in extreme isolation whenever the prison is filled to capacity.” Not only that, BOP insisted during the solicitation for one CAR contract that the 10% SHU quota not be reduced even though a “potential bidder” requested it be 5%.

To put this in perspective, this percentage is “nearly double the percentage of prisoners kept in isolated confinement in BOP-managed facilities, most of which house higher-security prisoners than the low-custody prisoners” at CAR prisons. While states like Colorado are moving to reduce the number of prisoners in isolation, BOP is helping for-profit corporations keep the percentage high because apparently it’s preferred business policy.

CAR prisons use the Special Housing Unit (SHU) or isolation to punish prisoners for “just about anything.” Complaining about conditions will get you put in isolation. Helping other prisoners file grievances will get you placed in isolation. Demanding immediate medical care can get you thrown in isolation. Gripe about the food and you might end up in isolation. Fail to speak English and you may end up in isolation too.

Like one prisoner said, “Anything you do or say can get you into the SHU.”

Conditions of “extreme isolation” in these facilities include toilets overflowing in cells, which causes the “smell of feces to permeate in the SHU for days.” Prisoners are expected to know when they arrive that they are supposed to fill out a form if they want “recreation” outside. One prisoner at Dalby told the ACLU he “spent his first three months in isolation” because he was unaware of this procedure. Big Spring and Reeves also cram prisoners into isolation cells only designed for two people, which inevitably means one prisoner is sleeping on the floor.

These facilities have “occupancy quotas.” The ACLU found that “contracts stipulate that the facilities must remain at or
above 90% capacity. The contracts further provide ‘Incremental Unit Price’ payments for each additional prisoner above the 90% occupancy quota, up to 115% capacity. By the terms of the contract, the companies actually make more money by admitting more prisoners from BOP than their facilities were designed to hold.”

“Rated capacity” is the term BOP uses to describe the “number of prisoners a facility is designed to house safely and securely, with adequate access to services, necessities for daily living and programs.” All the CAR prisons in Texas, according to the ACLU, are “filled beyond their rated capacities.”

“At Reeves, some prisoners are housed in what they call the ‘chicken coops,’” the report indicates. These are “converted recreation rooms that have been transformed into open dormitories with bunk beds and three toilets. The men cannot move freely around the packed facility because their movement to and from various rooms is restricted until the top of each hour.”

In the Eden facility, “hallways between cubicles have been repurposed into additional dormitory space, with beds lining the walls. Prisoners refer to this space as the ‘freeway’ and report that there is no privacy and little space to move around.”

Anywhere from 200 to 250 men can be housed in a single large room, and the over-crowding means that toilets and showers constantly give off foul odors and there is little to no space in recreation areas for the hundreds of prisoners.

The corporations pay the costs of medical care. There is no financial incentive to provide care to prisoners. Urgent treatment, as well as preventative care, is regularly denied. One single doctor, the ACLU found, can be responsible for providing health services to 2,000 prisoners. And, in one case, a prisoner told the ACLU a man died “after security staff failed to send medical staff into the unit for hours, despite the pleas of fellow prisoners who watched him slowly deteriorate.”

At the GEO Group-operated Reeves County Detention Center, prisoners sought “better medical care, more food and less crowded living conditions.” They mounted a protest in the summer of 2013 and organized a petition against conditions. GEO Group prison staff responded by targeting organizers, tear-gassing dormitories and shooting rubber bullets at them. The organizers and “bystanders who objected to being tear-gassed” were then locked in isolation cells.

Samuel, a Jamaican immigrant, recounted how over 100 prisoners, along with him, were “forced to spend two days in isolation cells. They were subject to a “mass lockup in the SHU,” as retribution. Samuel had not planned any of the protest, but after organizers “refused to go with the guards, the guards tear-gassed the entire dorm,” where he was being held.

…”Once everyone was lying down [after the tear-gassing], they cuffed us and took us out and put water on us. I started speaking up, not talking of resistance, but I was saying it’s not fair to punish all,” Samuel told the ACLU. Samuel and the others were taken to SHU where they were locked up four to a cell—even though the cells were designed to hold no more than two people at a time—and forced to sleep on the ground with no pillows or blankets. Though there were showers in the cells, the prisoners were denied soap for two days.276 Samuel reported that his skin burned the whole time….

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The Migration Policy Institute has reported that the US Customs and Border Protection now “refers more cases for federal criminal prosecution than the FBI. Nationwide, more than half of all federal criminal prosecutions initiated in fiscal year 2013 were for illegal entry or reentry into the United States.”

What is responsible for this development? Operation Streamline.

Started in 2005, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice have a “zero-tolerance” policy in southwestern border states (except California) that calls for the apprehension of immigrants being processed for deportation. They are to be federally prosecuted instead of sent back to the countries from which they came.

The ACLU report indicates, “The vast majority of these prosecutions take place in the four Operation Streamline jurisdictions, where they dominate federal criminal dockets: in fiscal year 2013, illegal entry and reentry prosecutions accounted for 80% of all federal prosecutions in Arizona and New Mexico, 83% of all federal prosecutions in the Western District of Texas, and a whopping 88% of all federal prosecutions in the Southern District of Texas.” And, “According to news reports, the increasing focus on immigration prosecutions has siphoned resources away from prosecution of other crimes, eroded morale among federal prosecutors near the border, and overloaded the federal court system.”

While this all may overload federal courts and encourage abusive and cruel treatment of human beings sent to facilities, the corporations with contracts could not be more pleased with the outlook for business in America.

At a 2009 investors meeting, one CCA executive declared:

Let me just make a brief comment on Operation Streamline…. Before this initiative was put in place, only a small percentage of [il]legal persons crossing the U.S.-Mexico border were prosecuted….We are now experiencing significant numbers to further be in place in custody as a result of Operation Streamline.

And:

We believe that the Federal Bureau of Prisons continues to see value in using the private sector to meet their capacity needs and will continue to provide a meaningful opportunity for the industry for the foreseeable future.

CCA’s annual report to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in 2012 outlined:

Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities. The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.

The BOP has been largely willing to help this “growth” and allow capitalism to flourish by facilitating the incarceration of tens of thousands of immigrants, who are warehoused by these corporations. And, as the report shows, it has brought about all-too-predictable consequences as life is dehumanized and devalued while money influences just about everything.