Intelligence Bill Signals Boon for Immigrant Incarceration Industry


The recently passed Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA) will intensify a crisis in immigrant communities while benefiting a burgeoning immigrant incarceration industry.

Amongst other things, the omnibus bill, passed in December 2004, consolidates the nation’s intelligence programs into a National Intelligence Program, creates a Director of National Intelligence, and increases border enforcement.

According to human rights advocates, some of the most odious measures in the original bill, such as depriving asylum seekers of judicial review and allowing deportation to countries where torture is likely, were removed before passage.

However, one of the bill’s largely overlooked provisions authorizes 40,000 new immigrant detention beds by 2010. That triples the current immigrant detention system continuing an assault on immigrant communities started in the Clinton administration and intensified since the 9/11 attacks.

The Human Face of Immigrant Incarceration

Only a handful of the current 22,000 immigrant detainees are suspected of any connection to terrorism. In fact, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, before 1996’s Anti Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act was passed as few as 4,000 immigrants were detained on a given day. Most of the newly detained are either asylum seekers or “criminal aliens” – immigrants convicted of crimes, anything as low as shoplifting or minor drug possession charges – who are awaiting deportation hearings.

Aarti Shahani from New York-based Families for Freedom, a New York-based immigrant rights organization, says the addition of 40,000 immigrant detainment beds will put added strain on detainees and families already struggling with long detainments.

“There is a financial effect on families of the ongoing costs of telephone calls, commissaries, and travel, as well as the emotional effect of knowing your loved one is behind bars,” Shahani said.

Take, for example, Linden Corrica and Carol McDonald.

In 2003, Corrica, a legal resident from Guyana, was arrested and plead guilty to possession of marijuana in New York. Corrica, expected to be returned to his family after a few weeks in jail. Instead, immigration screeners at Rikers Island whisked him off to a federal detention center in Louisiana where he has been held, awaiting deportation hearings, for well over a year.

Carol McDonald, Corrica’s wife, says that his detainment has provided a hardship on the family. “It’s been really, really hard,” she says. “Right now I’m doing three jobs, number one to support me and my daughter who are here, and to support him and the telephone calls and the lawyer’s fee.”

McDonald says that most policy makers do not seem interested in how long detentions affect families. “They just want to deny that it’s affecting families,” she says. “They talk about family values, well here is real suffering.”

Incarceration for Profit

Sadly, what is bad for immigrant families, has become very good for business.

Notorious private prison companies like Corrections Corporation of America and the Geo Group (formerly Wackenhut Corrections) have been major benefactors of immigrant detention increases. The Department of Homeland Security contracts out for nearly all of its detention beds to private companies which are likely to receive substantial contract awards if the new legislation receives necessary funding.

“This is pork at its worst,” says Judy Greene, a policy analyst with the Justice Strategies. “This will be a massive new bailout of the private prison industry.”

And Greene isn’t alone in such predictions.

MSN Money’s Michael Brush, in a glowing analysis of prison industry stocks, writes that the legislation “makes it likely that more illegal immigrants will be caught.” He continues, “Lawmakers estimate that by 2010 the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement will need another 40,000 prison ‘beds,’ as they say in the business.”

Actually, Brush is a bit mistaken. While the increased border patrol does make it more likely that undocumented immigrants will be caught, that alone does not create a need for detention beds. Proven alternatives to detention exist.

Just ask the Vera Institute. From 1997-2000 they operated an Appearance Assistance Program for immigrant asylum seekers and “criminal aliens” to attempt to demonstrate that alternatives to detention exist. The program used a series of check-ups to ensure that immigrants would show up to their hearings, where an immigration judge will rule on their fate. Over 90% of people appeared for their immigration hearings in this program, a rate substantially higher than that for people released on bond or parole.

So, why the need for 40,000 new beds now? Shahani, of Families for Freedom, fears that the end result of this bill is that more people will end up spending longer amounts of time in detention centers. When there are an excess of beds, she says, there is little incentive for immigration courts to expedite hearings or practice alternatives to detention.

In addition, incarceration culture runs wild on Capitol Hill. A nation that locks up over 2.2 million people, the large majority for non-violent crimes, is more likely to refer immigrant detainees to jail cells than to other, more cost-effective solutions.

Private prison corporations will not be alone in looking to profit from the expanded detention system. Public entities, such as county jails and even state corrections departments may try to win the lucrative federal detention contracts.

Dana Kaplan of the National Resource Center on Prisons and Communities says the intelligence bill will further a growing trend of local jail expansion even at a time when many states are scaling back their state-controlled prison systems.

“When word is out that the government is looking to house 40,000 new detainees, that puts a huge incentive on local jail systems to expand especially when there is no funding for other services (that provide jobs) in the region,” Kaplan says.

New York is an example of the way that local jails can lead to a sort of back-door expansion to the prison system. According to Kaplan, while New York’s state prison population has slightly decreased in the past several years, the local jail system has expanded by nearly 16% in the past 10 years.

This trend is especially troubling because when prison expansion is decentralized, enormous political and economic pressure is expended to keep prison beds full.

Texas: Ground Zero for Immigrant Incarceration

In 2003, Reeves County, Texas built a 960 bed expansion to its 2,000 bed jail. The county, located in sparsely populated west Texas, built the expansion with the hopes of obtaining a federal contract to house detainees.

The only problem is that the contract never came. Even after desperate measure like hiring majority whip Tom Delay’s brother to lobby the federal government for prisoners, the expansion was still sitting empty after nearly a year. Eventually, the county privatized its jail and began importing prisoners from Arizona.

Reeves County represents an interesting paradox in the immigrant incarceration industry. On one hand, federal legislators have justified tripling the current detention system by claiming that the system is badly overcrowded. At the same time, many of the recently built immigrant detention centers are not full.

The answer to lies in the “if you build it, they will come” mentality that prison operators have taken to heart. Greene, Kaplan, and Shahani all agree that if the detention system is expanded, even when it appears that there is not an excess of detainees, the system will find people to warehouse in these facilities.

And Texas has become ground zero in this immigrant incarceration boom. The lone star state is home to at least 7,000 proposed or recently built prison beds – all of which are intended to house immigrant detainees and all of which are to be housed a private prison company.

IRTPA will hasten the spread of jails and detention centers in rural west and south Texas, a region fast becoming dependent on detention centers as a major source of economic development.

Where’s the hope?

According to Shahani, hope to stop immigrant detention expansion lies in a combined effort between immigrant communities and rural communities where the detention centers are sited.

There is a growing sense that prisons, jails, and detention centers are not the economic boon for small towns promised by jail developers.

In fact, a study from Washington State and Ohio State professors published in Social Science Quarterly last year studied 3,000 communities that built prisons in the past 30 years. The study found that those communities actually ended up with slower economic growth than similar communities that did not build prisons. The study has been used by community activists to derail several jail proposals.

Shahani recounts the story of taking families from New York to Louisiana to visit their loved ones in detention. In several of the detention facilities family members were not allowed to be in the same room, instead forced to communicate via a closed circuit television system. Many of the family members refused to make a return trip because they didn’t want to see the detainees in such inhumane conditions.

IRTPA will create 40,000 more of these heart-breaking stories. To drive back the damaging effects of this bill on immigrant communities will be a long process, but one worth fighting.

Bob Libal is a student/youth organizer for Grassroots Leadership’s Not With Our Money! campaign in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at [email protected]

Leave a comment