Cover Story: Cashing in on a crackdown

Georgia’s thriving private prison industry will get a boost from new immigration law

Located on the outskirts of the less-than-idyllic hamlet of Lumpkin in rural southwest Georgia, Stewart Detention Center is awash in corporate hubris.

A large, cylindrical water tank at the entrance is splashed with the Corrections Corporation of America’s bright red logo and a “WELCOME” that reads more like a command than a genuine attempt at hospitality. A small sign jutting out of sparse turf on the left side of the road leading to the jail — named CCA Drive, naturally — declares, “You are important ...” A second sign right behind it finishes the thought: “... to CCA!”

The sentiment is lost, no doubt, on the majority of the people who come to Stewart, visitors and inmates alike, if for no other reason than many of them don’t speak English.

To lots of people — human and civil rights advocates in particular — there’s something inherently objectionable about the private prison industry. Companies that make money by constructing and operating detention centers essentially turn a profit on high crime rates, harsh penalties for offenders and the ideological crusade against illegal immigrants. It’s a consummate example of what leftist social critic Noam Chomsky calls “profit over people.”

Ask folks on the opposite end of the political spectrum and they’ll likely say private prisons are simply a demonstration of a free market economy at work — the fewer pies our dysfunctional guv’ment has its grubby fingers in, the better.

If the branding effort at Stewart is any indication, CCA, for one, is mighty proud of the work it does.

The medium-security facility, which sits behind twin chain-link fences and enough razor wire to put Alcatraz to shame, is the largest immigrant detention center in the United States. The 260,000-square foot compound hosts a virtually self-replenishing population of around 1,700 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement prisoners — asylum seekers, men fighting to stay in the country, others simply waiting to be deported. And CCA’s making money on every single one.

The private prison industry has seemingly found a fitting bedfellow in the state of Georgia, which enjoys locking people up almost as much as corporations like CCA enjoy collecting on them. One in 13 Georgians are either incarcerated or under some kind of probationary supervision; even as most states have seen their prison populations decrease, Georgia’s has continued to rise. And, with its new penalties for falsifying work visas and provisions for verifying immigration status, HB 87, Georgia’s anti-illegal immigration legislation, will only contribute to this increase.

Because they’re paid per detainee, per day by whichever government entity they’ve contracted with, CCA and other private prison firms need a steady stream of inmates in order to remain profitable. They rely on lawmakers to ensure that demand for their product — prison bed space — remains high. Stringent pieces of criminal justice legislation, many of which are instituted in the name of public safety, are the industry’s lifeblood. In its 2010 annual report, CCA recognized that efforts to the contrary — for instance, Gov. Nathan Deal’s stated commitment to finding alternatives to incarceration — endanger its viability.

“The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected,” the report warned, “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 our criminal laws.”

According to the report, even safer streets pose a threat to CCA: “Similarly, reductions in crime rates ... could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences requiring incarceration at correctional facilities.”

The passage of HB 87 was a major victory for the growing segment of the population that believes illegal immigrants are to blame for much of what ails the state, from low employment to high crime. Two of the law’s more controversial provisions — one that would allow police to investigate the citizenship of crime suspects who can’t produce I.D., and another that would impose penalties for people who knowingly transport or harbor illegal immigrants — have been blocked by the courts while their constitutionality is decided. But, in whatever form it eventually takes, HB 87 has the potential to be a boon for private prison companies. And they aren’t content with being passive beneficiaries.

A 2010 National Public Radio investigation concluded that CCA was very involved in the drafting of Arizona’s illegal immigration law through its affiliation with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-wing organization that brings corporations and conservative lawmakers together to write model legislation that benefits the private sector.

In Georgia, CCA’s role in the creation and passage of HB 87 — if any role existed — wasn’t nearly as obvious, although the bill bears a distinct resemblance to Arizona’s law and is routinely described as “copycat” legislation. But what is apparent is that the biggest private prison corporations — CCA, the GEO Group and the Cornell Companies, which has since been absorbed by CCA — have spent bundles in campaign contributions and lobbyist dinners wooing Georgia lawmakers. Some Gold Dome observers say that even if the industry’s influence over public policy in Georgia isn’t immediately visible, it’s there.

“There’s so much legislation that’s explainable to conservatives and to the public as being tough on crime, and often the finger of CCA isn’t immediately obvious because it fits within the conservative philosophy,” says Larry Pellegrini, executive director of the Georgia Rural Urban Summit, which lobbies for progressive causes. “But, other pieces of legislation, ones that add penalties to crimes or enhance juvenile crimes so they result in prison time — all of that is something that I see the fingerprint of CCA on.”

The concern, as prison privatization expert Judith Greene put it in her 2007 book Prison Profiteers, is that the “prison contract tail is wagging the correctional policy dog.”

It’s a muggy Saturday afternoon and inside Stewart Detention Center’s meager lobby, a handful of men, women and small children — most, if not all, of whom appear to be of Latin American decent — wait patiently to visit their respective loved ones. There’s only one security staffer on duty to locate the requested inmates and then check the visitors in, and the clock is ticking. Visiting hours end at 4 p.m.

P.J. Edwards realizes he’s pushing his luck by showing up at 2:50 to see an inmate. He fills out the three pages of required paperwork with haste and stands eagerly clutching the clipboard as the lone security person seemingly does her best to ignore him. At the stroke of 3, the guard’s internal alarm clock goes off. She glances at the wall clock for confirmation, then turns to Edwards and informs him, matter-of-factly, that he arrived too late: A detainee head count has just commenced, so she won’t be able to locate the inmate he’s visiting. He can either wait until the head count’s been completed and hope to get a few minutes of Plexiglass-partitioned face time, or he can come back another day.

He’s disappointed, but probably not quite as much as the road-weary mother with several children in tow who walks in just minutes after Edwards got the bad news, and will likely get some version of the same speech.

Edwards doesn’t actually have any family members or friends being held at Stewart. He’s part of a faith-based advocacy group that, among other things, visits detainees, particularly those who don’t have family in the area or those whose loved ones steer clear of the facility because of their own tenuous presence in the country. They visit to talk with inmates and pray with them, but they also keep an eye on CCA, to make sure they’re adhering to federal detention standards.

Edwards says there’s little official oversight of the conditions inside Stewart, and, given the current political climate, few on the outside seem terribly concerned about it, either. “I think a lot of Americans have written these people off by saying, ‘They’re illegal, so who cares?’” he says. “That’s a big problem we’ve faced.”

Last year, he and fellow immigrant advocate Anton Flores leased a bungalow down the street from Stewart and opened El Refugio, a hospitality house for families visiting detainees. “The idea,” says Edwards, “is to give people a place to come and rest, to get a free meal. A lot of these families are coming from the Carolinas and aren’t wealthy, so we’re trying to offer a free place for them to stay.”

Not that there’s anywhere else to stay in Lumpkin. The closest motel is something called Kay-Lyn Kourt, eight miles away in Richland.

Since they started El Refugio — and even before, when they were only doing humanitarian visits with inmates — Edwards’ and Flores’ relationship with CCA has been contentious at best. They’ve been forbidden from referring people in the jail’s waiting room to their facility because it constitutes “solicitation,” even though El Refugio is not for profit.

A woman named Tammy who lives in nearby Cusseta has begun apprenticing at El Refugio on weekends. She became interested in the cause after her husband was detained last year. A mason by trade, he had immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico illegally when he was just 13. Even though he’s since married an American woman and fathered a child, he was picked up last June for driving without proper identification and spent 15 days at Stewart until Tammy could post bond. He didn’t have a good experience in CCA’s care.

“He said they’re very cruel,” Tammy explains in her thick Southern drawl. “They mistreat you there. He really doesn’t talk about it because it was a bad experience and he wants to forget it, but he said it’s just very inhuman the way they treat you. They treat you like animals.”

Next: Do private prisons save Georgians money?

Over the years, inmate interviews performed by the group have yielded similar complaints about the conditions at Stewart from detainees who Edwards says couldn’t possibly have coordinated their stories. According to Edwards’ wife, Amy, complaints about the food are most common. Tammy corroborates: Her husband told her the inmates are fed mostly starches, meals of just bread and mashed potatoes. If they have money for the commissary, they can buy ramen noodles.

Lapses in medical treatment have also been of concern. According to Edwards, there’s no doctor on staff at Stewart, despite its sizable population. He’s had contact with one man in particular who developed a growth on his knee and some kind of infection of his genitals. He also complained that his eyesight was failing. Last anyone at El Refugio heard, the man had seen a nurse, but hadn’t been diagnosed and was still waiting to see a doctor.

Asked about the medical care available to inmates, a CCA spokesman responds: “At Stewart, medical services are provided by the federal government, specifically, the Department of Immigrant Health Services. Our staff works closely with DIHS staff to ensure that detainees have access to that care. For all other services, the CCA Stewart facility adheres to detention standards as set forth by our government partner, ICE.”

The problem, according to both Edwards and Flores, is that those federal standards aren’t codified, and therefore aren’t legally enforceable. Failing to meet the standards could mean CCA is in violation of its contract, but the company isn’t likely to be seriously penalized for the transgressions.

The problems alleged by Stewart detainees are emblematic of exactly the kind of corner-cutting that prison privatization opponents warn are likely to take place whenever the principal goal is generating profits — and the industry has most definitely been profitable. A study by the Justice Policy Center says CCA and GEO Group, the country’s two largest private prison corporations, brought in a combined total of $2.9 billion in revenue last year. CCA earned $46 million more in 2010 than the previous year. Handsome profits have afforded both companies the ability to insinuate themselves into the political process.

According to last year’s NPR report, Arizona Gov. Russell Pearce, a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, and certain private prison executives (CCA is also an ALEC member) had met in a Washington hotel and essentially worked together to draft Arizona’s legislation. Pearce later said the private prison industry had “zero” involvement in writing the law and denied having any contact with them whatsoever. CCA also insists that nothing quite so nefarious has ever taken place.

Spokesman Mike Machak tells CL, “It is CCA’s policy and practice not to engage in legislation involving crime or sentencing policies. CCA has never lobbied or had a role in passage of Georgia’s, or any state’s, immigration laws.”

But CCA’s denial of any role in the passage of immigration legislation seems somewhat disingenuous. Between 2003 and 2010, CCA spent in excess of $240,000 contributing to the campaigns of Georgia lawmakers, the third-highest amount spent in a single state out of the 27 states in which it makes political donations. Of the 17 Georgia House members who received contributions from CCA in ‘09 and ‘10 — among them, Matt Ramsey, the bill’s author and sponsor — only two voted against HB 87. None of the eight house members who were treated to dinner by a CCA lobbyist during last legislative session voted against HB 87, although one, Ed Rynders (R-Albany), was excused from voting.

Much was the same in the state Senate, where 10 of the 11 senators to receive campaign contributions voted in favor of the bill, four of them were sponsors of the bill. Two Cherokee County lawmakers, Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, and Rep. Calvin Hill, R-Canton, are current ALEC members.

Rogers was the author of a 2006 bill called the Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act, which was one of the most sweeping anti-illegal immigrant bills ever instituted at that time. Among other measures, the law required recipients of public services to show proof of citizenship, and required status verification of state employees and those working for contractors of the state. Both Hill and Rogers were vocal supporters of HB 87.

Although immigrant detention is a lucrative growth industry, it’s hardly the private prison industry’s only stake in Georgia’s public policy. Between them, CCA and the GEO Group own and operate seven (soon to be eight) detention and corrections facilities in Georgia. Only two of them — Stewart and North Georgia Detention Center in Gainesville, both CCA owned — are ICE facilities. Their other customers include the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Marshals Service and the State of Georgia itself.

The Georgia Department of Corrections currently farms out inmates to Coffee Correctional Facility in Nicholls and Wheeler Correctional Facility in Alamo, both of which are operated by CCA. Half of CCA’s national empire comprises contracts with state departments of correction. And last summer, the GEO Group entered into Georgia’s state prison market when it was awarded a contract to build and operate — on state land, no less — a 1,500-bed facility in Milledgeville. (According to the GEO Group’s website, construction is expected to be completed by early 2012.)

States partner with private detention companies for a number of reasons, but mostly to save money. The companies handle construction costs using private funds, so governments don’t need to float bonds or use public money. Then there are the savings associated with not being responsible for the everyday maintenance, upkeep or staffing of the facilities.

But private prisons don’t appear to be saving Georgians any money. Documents provided by the Georgia DOC indicate that in 2010, the state — i.e., taxpayers — spent an average of $36.32 a day to house an inmate in a state-owned and operated facility. Private prison space, on the other hand, cost the state $45.70 a day per inmate because federal subsidies don’t apply. Ten dollars more per inmate might not sound like a lot, but consider that there were, on average, 5,195 state inmates in private prisons last year — and that number will increase by roughly 1,500 when Riverbend Correctional Facility opens in Milledgeville.

Job creation in struggling communities is another prison industry bargaining chip. In many cases — Stewart, for instance — the companies build facilities on speculation. They sell their plan to a community with the promise of employment opportunities for locals and, only after the prison is built, do they figure out how to fill the beds. CCA didn’t respond to the claim, but CL was told by people close to the prison that Stewart County also gets a kickback of $1 a day per inmate.

Kung Li, former director of the Southern Center of Human Rights, has been involved in the immigration debate as an independent fellow with the Open Society Foundation. She says the promise of employment has become one of the main sales pitches.

“It’s hard to overstate how important these detention jobs become in the mind-set of the community,” says Li. “Once it’s talked about as a jobs program almost, it becomes as if the private prison corporations are trying to save communities, but they’re very much focused on their bottom line.”

And there’s a cruel irony at play at Stewart, one that really irks immigrant advocate Anton Flores of El Refugio. Inmates, many of whom are being detained strictly for being undocumented workers, are being put to work by ICE and CCA.

“Instead of using local people to do the cooking and cleaning, they’re using detainees and paying them $1 to $3 a day,” says Flores. “The glaring hypocrisy of this partnership between ICE and CCA is that it’s not a partnership at all. These prisons are new plantations and immigrants are a new crop ... and there’s a huge profit margin.”

If Stewart Detention Center has, in fact, benefited the local economy, you wouldn’t know it from driving around Lumpkin. In what has the potential to be a quaint, small-town downtown around the county courthouse, nearly every business is closed on this Saturday afternoon, many of them apparently permanently. The two storefronts that appear to be thriving are a gun store/tax preparation office and a taxidermist’s workshop — symbiosis, it seems.

Back at El Refugio, Tammy and Amy sit in the living room talking. Tammy holds a religious tract of some sort in her hand. Her husband, who’s still out on bond, is due to appear in court in Atlanta in October in an attempt to stay in the U.S. with his wife and child. The waiting, she says, has been like living on a death sentence.

“You don’t know what’s gonna happen, so, you’re just living day to day,” Tammy says. “We can’t make plans for Christmas, like, ‘Ok, we’re going to go here to see this family,’ because he might not even be here. And we’ve got to figure out how to explain to our kid, ‘Daddy’s gone, and I don’t know if he’s coming home.’ It’s a bad situation.”

If an immigration judge decides Tammy’s husband can’t stay in the country, he’ll be sent to a facility to await deportation. That place will likely be Stewart.

Next: The Georgia politicians that received campaign contributions from the CCA