~ This article was published by El Universal on October 28, 2014 ~
Detention centers oblige inmates to labor as cleaners for one dollar a day; former prisoners complain about “illicit enrichment” by U.S. companies that earn 3 billion
Los Angeles, California. –- The day that undocumented migrant Claudia Amaro entered the Immigration Detention Center in Eloy, Arizona she went prepared for anything: to share the cell with others, to eat poorly, to suffer the cold and possibly be abused. What she wasn’t expecting on arrival was that they would offer her work.
The Eloy Detention Center is one of sixty prisons operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the private corporation with the greatest number of detention centers in the United States. For 30 years this corporation has received millions in profit for operating detention centers for undocumented migrants while they await the resolution of their case before an immigration judge. Taken together, CCA and GEO Group – the country’s second largest detention provider – earn more than US$3 billion per year: with US$2 billion of that sum coming from the taxpayer.
As well as receiving a fixed sum from the government through contracts, these businesses have found ways to cut costs and increase their profits. Last 22 October a group of people detained in the Aurora Immigration Detention Center in Colorado, operated by GEO, filed complaints against the business for using them as cheap or free labor for the period of their detention.
The petitioners are Alejandro Menocal, Marcos Brambila, Grisel Xahuentitla, Hugo Hernández, Lourdes Argueta, Jesús Gaytán, Olga Alexaklina, Dagoberto Vizguerra and Demetrio Valerga, “former and present detainees who were imprisoned and employed by GEO Group,” who submit “in their own name and in the name of others in a similar situation” this complaint about “unpaid salaries and forced labor” as well as “illicit enrichment.”
In the text of the document it mentions that “in the course of their GEO employment, the petitioners and other individuals cleaned bathrooms, showers, toilets and windows (…) swept and waxed floors, washed dirty clothes and clothes from the medical wing, prepared detainees’ meals and tended to the garden…” and, among a series of additional tasks, also cleaned their own cells. The sum they received during the time when they worked was one dollar a day. They could not refuse to do this work; those who objected were sent to solitary confinement, according to the complaint’s text. They did not receive pay for cleaning their own cell. Minimum wage in the United States is US$7.25 per hour; for every four hours worked by a detainee, the corporation saves 25 dollars in wages.
According to guidelines from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency charged with establishing contracts with the corporations, a voluntary work program exists that was designed to give the residents “the opportunity to earn money” so that “the negative effect of confinement is diminished by lessening idleness, raising morale and reducing violent incidents.” It specifies the program is voluntary, so until now there has been no legal way to bring an end to it; the complaint seeks to change this situation by appealing to state and federal labor law and denouncing exploitation.”
These complaints from activist organizations have occurred over several years.
Amaro, who stayed in detention for three weeks in CCA-operated facilities, confirms that “arriving at the center, they offered (residents) work everywhere and they paid them one dollar for cleaning cells, sweeping, mopping, and cleaning the kitchen, washing clothes and even electrical work and painting. I did not agree to do it but most people felt intimidated and wanted to please their guards. That’s exploitation: the money CCA saves in manual labor is how they pay for their guards.”
Over the last fifteen years, the U.S. immigrant detention system has drastically increased its numbers. The system has gone from fewer than 10,000 beds in 1999 to 34,000 in 2014 spread across 250 centers. Six of every ten of these detainees is housed in a prison operated by CCA or GEO.
One of the policies implemented since the 2007 budget, is known in the budget of detention centers as the “quota”.
This provision requires that ICE detain a minimum number of migrants at a number to be set annually. This “quota” protects the profits of the corporations responsible for the detention centers. This practice would not be possible without intense lobbying from the corporations. According to Detention Watch Network (DWN), in 2013 lobbyists for GEO Group spent US$1.2 million to convince Congress to act according to the corporation’s interests. The company also spent US$880,000 on outside lobbying firms.
In the Public Interest (ITPI), a center documenting concessions to private enterprise based in Washington, DC, has analyzed the private prison contracts to identify the patterns in those agreements. ITPI found that 65 per cent of the contracts for private detention centers include a clause that guarantees the quota and requires paying the contractor 80 to 100 per cent of the total occupation rate, even when there are empty cells. These agreements mean that, with or without arrests, the business charges. In these contracts the mechanism is called a “tax on low criminality.” Through this mechanism, taxpayers guarantee that the businesses do not lose profits. The states of Arizona, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Virginia have contracts that guarantee high occupancy rates of between 95 and 100 per cent.
DWN confirms that this quota means that Immigration Agents in certain cities and towns work to fill space in cells in those areas. “Establishing a quota (…) puts a price on the life of the immigrants (…) it treats them like numbers or products that have to be bought and sold, not like real people with children and loved ones who depend on them.”
The National Immigrant Justice Center, a human rights defense organization, recently issued a series of recommendations that include eliminating the quota and detaining people only on the basis of their individual situation.
The group is also asking that detention be replaced by alternative detention mechanisms, like remote monitoring, a method that would permit individuals to stay with their families while they resolve their legal situation. But an alternative mechanism costs between 70 cents and US$17 per day. By contrast, the corporations earn US$119 per day for each detainee, and the number increases to US$298 in family detention centers. The numbers speak for themselves.
The Corporate Machine
GEO and CCA both share histories of complaints about abuse, human rights violations, exploitation of workers and lack of transparency, all of which have resulted in past sanctions.
In CCA’s case, the best-known case is that of the T. Don Hutto Detention Center in Texas, “a family residence”, meaning it was a detention center for families with children. In 2009 the Obama Administration closed Hutto because of the pressure from activists complaining about the conditions in which the children lived, like the use of prison uniforms and the lack of access both to education services and medical attention.
In GEO’s case, the business became known for the Coke Juvenile Justice Center, also in Texas, that was closed in 2007 after discovering irregularities such as the use of pepper spray, the absence of educational programs, excrement in the cells, unhealthy food, insect infestation and insufficient staffing.
Years before, the center faced a complaint filed by twelve families for “multiple rapes of minors by adults.” A couple of employees were charged and there was a financial arrangement with the families but no officials at the center were sanctioned. One of the victims, raped at the age of fifteen, killed herself the day the financial settlement was confirmed.
Figures from DWN suggest that from 2003 until the present 144 people have died in immigrant detention centers, mostly from cardiac arrest, circulatory or breathing problems. But there are also cases of kidney failure, cancer and hangings. Private prison monitoring organizations have complained about the lack of protection and adequate treatment for sicknesses at those centers.
In the same period of time, CCA and GEO have between them spent US$32 million on lobbying Congress, according to Grassroots Leadership. Contracts for the most recent detention projects of the Obama Administration, the expansion of detention centers for migrant families with children, one in Karnes and the other in Dilley and both in Texas were respectively given to GEO and CCA.
Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), based in Nashville, Tennessee is the United States’ largest private prison and detention center corporation. It has more than 15,000 employees and in 2013 reported revenue of more than US$1.7 billion and profits of US$300 million. All of these profits come from government contracts paid for with taxpayer dollars.
According to its last shareholder report, during 2013 the president and CEO of CCA, Damon T. Hininger, who has an annual salary of more than US$700,000 earned a total of US$3.2 million in profits from shares and benefits under three distinct headings.
For its part, GEO Group, based in Boca Raton, Florida and established more or less at the same time as CCA is a strong player in the international market with almost 100 detention centers and 18,000 employees in the United States and abroad, according to its own information. Called Wackenhut Corrections Corporation when first established, GEO has a history similar to that of its competitor in terms of lobbying and profits. In 2013 it reported earnings of US$1.5 billion.
The months that follow will show whether the complaint presented by those who allege workplace exploitation by the corporation will proceed and whether this could have an effect on the way private detention centers operate.
For the moment, the response from GEO via its spokesperson, Pablo Paez, has been: “our facilities adhere to standards set by the [federal government] and the strict requirements established by ICE contracts (…) and they are audited and reviewed by the agency on a routine basis (…) During the more recent reviews, our facilities have scored a perfect 100 per cent.”
Journalist Eileen Truax is based in Los Angeles, California and was born in Mexico City. You can follow her on Twitter @EileenTruax. Her first book, Dreamers: An Immigrant Generation’s Fight for their American Dream, will be released in English translation by Beacon Press in March 2015 and is available in Spanish, here. She is a contributor to Cuadernos de la Doble Raya. This article, the second of two in a series of investigative reports, appeared under the title, “Denuncian ‘trabajo forzado’ en ‘cárceles’ de migrantes” available at: http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/nacion-mexico/2014/impreso/denuncian-8220trabajo-forzado-8221-en-8220carceles-8221-de-migrantes-219774.html.
Translator Patrick Timmons is a human rights investigator and journalist. He edits the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP), a quality selection of Spanish-language journalism about Latin America rendered into English. Follow him on Twitter @patricktimmons. The MxJTP has a Facebook page: like it, here.