Thousands of immigrants convicted for entering the United States illegally are being held in inhumane prisons operated by private companies that are exempt from the same oversight that applies to government facilities, according to a report released on Tuesday.
The number of immigrants who are criminally prosecuted instead of being subject to civil deportation procedures has risen dramatically since the late 1990s, flooding institutions with inmates, according to the American Civil Liberties Union study.
From 1998 to 2011, the number of people in federal custody for immigration crimes increased by 145 percent, the ACLU said, with more than 26,000 immigrants currently held in what are called criminal alien requirement (CAR) facilities, which are managed by private companies.
These prisons, which rarely make the headlines, operate outside the scrutiny usually applied to U.S. government facilities and have become warehouses to hold a steadily increasing number of inmates, according to the report. Those held in CAR facilities are subject to isolation more often than those held by the federal Bureau of Prisons, and some have been abused for protesting their inhumane conditions, the report said.
Such inmates are held in 13 private facilities in states from Pennsylvania to New Mexico. Five facilities, which the ACLU profiled in its report, are in Texas. They form part of a dramatic upward trend in the way the federal government approaches immigration crimes, which in the past were treated as minor civil offenses. In recent years, the number of people in federal prison for immigration crimes has approached the number imprisoned for drug crimes, which was long the dominant category of convicts.
Though the surge of prosecutions for immigration crimes has not attracted the same media attention given to other recent efforts at criminal justice reform — such as rolling back harsh drug laws — judges who preside in courts in border states have decried the trend for years.
“The expense of prosecuting illegal entry and re-entry cases (rather than deportation) on aliens without any significant criminal history is simply mind-boggling,” Judge Sam Sparks, in the Western District of Texas, wrote in a 2010 court order.
Because immigrants held in CAR facilities are not expected to return to American society, the private companies that administer the prisons are not required to provide them with education, vocational training, drug treatment or other rehabilitation programs included in U.S. government prisons.
Those companies also hold their inmates in isolation cells far more often than their government counterparts. The five CAR facilities in Texas each contracted with the federal government on the condition that they would use 10 percent of their bed space as isolation cells, nearly double the normal federal rate.
Three companies run the 13 CAR facilities in the United States, according to the report: the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the GEO Group and the Management and Training Corp. Together, the three earned roughly $4 billion in revenue in 2012 and have spent $32 million on federal lobbying since 2000. In its 2012 report to the Securities and Exchange Commission, CCA wrote that any changes in federal laws “with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration” could affect its growth.
Though proponents of private prisons such as those holding immigrants argue that such facilities are cheaper than what the government could provide, the Government Accountability Office reported in 2007 (PDF) that the Bureau of Prisons refused to carry out the necessary studies to determine if that was the case.
Observers who attempt to study the CAR facilities are hindered by the fact that records relating to private prisons are not subject to the same standards as government facilities under the Freedom of Information Act.
Though information about conditions in such facilities rarely makes headlines, attention briefly turned to private immigrant prisons in 2012, when inmates at a CAR facility in Natchez, Mississippi, rioted, killing one guard and leaving more than 20 prisoners injured.