The Trump administration awarded three contracts to expand a network of immigrant-only federal penitentiaries involving the country’s second-largest private prison company this week, marking the culmination of its promise to keep relying on private contractors to run federal prisons.
The three facilities ― one in Michigan and two in Texas ― have a combined capacity of nearly 5,000. The Texas prisons are part of a complex that attracted national attention in 2008 after poor conditions and a death in solitary confinement sparked a major inmate uprising.
In August 2016, the Obama administration directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to phase out contracts with privatized prisons, citing their poor safety records and lack of cost savings.
But the Trump administration quickly reversed the decision. Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo less than a month after his appointment saying that ridding the system of privatized prisons “impaired the bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.”
Two months later, BOP posted a solicitation for private prison space that resulted in this week’s awards.
Starting in 1999, the prison bureau began segregating noncitizens serving federal sentences into facilities called Criminal Alien Requirement (CAR) prisons. Most of the inmates held there are serving sentences for either drug or immigration crimes. The low-security prisons aren’t required to offer services available to citizens locked up on federal charges, such as drug rehabilitation services or continuing education.
“These prisons are not only separate from the rest of the prison system. In practice, and perhaps by design, they are worse than other prisons,” wrote University of Chicago teaching fellow Emma Kaufman in a recent article for the Harvard Law Review.
The North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Michigan, is currently vacant, but it previously held state prisoners transferred from Vermont. With bed space for 1,800 inmates, the prison will earn GEO Group $37 million annually after “reactivation,” the company said in a news release.
Two of the contracts went to Reeves County for prisons in West Texas that were part of a larger CAR prison in the past. The two that won contracts this week currently sit idle. A third unit there still runs as a federal immigrant prison on a short-term contract. All three are owned by Reeves County, to whom GEO Group provides management and consulting services.
The Reeves prison complex earned notoriety during its previous stint imprisoning migrants. In 2008 and 2009, five inmates died there, including two who died by suicide, according to The Texas Observer. An epileptic inmate, Jesús Manuel Galindo, died of a grand mal seizure while locked in solitary confinement in 2008, prompting two riots in quick succession over poor conditions.
It was problems like those at Reeves that led the Obama administration to reconsider its use of private contractors for federal prisons. A 2016 investigation by Seth Freed Wessler published in The Nation found that CAR prisons consistently delivered poor medical service, likely leading to several prisoners’ deaths. Abuses and shortcomings at privatized federal prisons, including the complex in sparsely populated Reeves County, were also profiled in a damning report by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2014 called “Warehoused and Forgotten.”
Criminal justice reformers decried the Trump administration’s contract awards, citing the Reeves County prisons’ troubled past.
“It’s a travesty,” Carl Takei, an ACLU staff attorney, told HuffPost. “The awful human rights record at Reeves is well documented and has been publicly available for years.” Takei spent years working on prison privatization issues and co-wrote the 2014 report.
“A number of these facilities have deep-seated problems,” César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, a law professor at the University of Denver, told HuffPost. “When we see the same private prison companies getting a contract renewed despite those problems, to me it’s a missed opportunity.”
A number of these facilities have deep-seated problems. When we see the same private prison companies getting a contract renewed despite those problems, to me it’s a missed opportunity. César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, University of Denver law professor
Setting the contract length for a decade would also give the federal government less leverage to address problems if they resurface, according to Bob Libal, the director of the criminal justice reform group Grassroots Leadership, based in Austin, Texas.
“Signing a long-term contract with Reeves — one of the nation’s most notorious immigrant prisons — is not only bad policy, it could be deadly for prisoners confined there,” Libal wrote in an email to HuffPost. “The long history of abuse in the fed’s private prisons is a reason to shutter these facilities, not renew contracts. And the best way to close these facilities is to stop the unnecessary and deeply costly — both in lives and dollars — criminal prosecutions of migrants at the border.”
GEO Group defended its record in a statement announcing the contracts, saying it provides “high-quality services in safe, secure and humane residential environments.”
The company relies heavily on immigration enforcement. Some 43% of its profits stem from contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Marshals Service, according to a company disclosure filed in March. ICE uses private contractors like GEO Group to run immigrant detention centers. The prison bureau uses them for its CAR prisons. And the Marshals Service holds migrants facing short-term sentences for immigration prosecutions.
Before this week’s announcement, the prison bureau ran 10 of these immigrant-only prisons with a capacity of about 19,000, according to the Harvard Law Review ― about half of the noncitizen federal prisoner population. All of them are managed by private prison contractors like GEO Group.
But, along with adding the three new prisons, BOP canceled a contract with Adams County Correctional Center outside Natchez, Mississippi. That leaves the bureau with a net gain of about 2,800 beds.
The Natchez facility is owned by CoreCivic, the country’s largest private prison contractor. It also has a past marred by major disturbances and allegations of abuse. Caitlin Carithers, a guard at the Natchez prison, died during a riot in 2012 that led to several other injuries. The prison’s contract with the federal government is slated to end in July.