The ‘sunk costs’ of a profit-driven prison system

The number of immigrants held in detention in the US – many in for-profit prisons – has nearly doubled since 2001.

Barbed wire
The increasing use of immigration detention is a waste of government resources, says author [AFP/Getty]

Atlanta, GA – Over the past decade, there has been an alarming increase in the use of immigration detention in the United States. From 2001 to 2010, the number of immigrants held in immigration detention each year nearly doubled from 209,000 per year to over 363,000.

The increasing use of immigration detention is an unnecessary drain on government resources and taxpayer dollars. In 2012, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) maintained a record-high daily detention capacity of 34,000 beds, costing taxpayers $2bn. As of November 2011, the US government spent approximately $166 per day to hold one immigrant in detention. This is 18 times greater than the $8.88 per day it costs for more efficient, highly effective, and humane alternatives to detention.

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The for-profit prison industry is the main beneficiary of the ever-expanding, unregulated immigration system in the US. Since 2001, private corporations have gained increasing control over immigration detention facilities in the US and continue to bring in record profits.

In 2010, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest owner and operator of privatised correctional and detention facilities in the US, grossed more than $1.7bn in total revenue. The GEO Group’s contracts with ICE increased from $33.6m in 2005 to $163.8m by the end of 2010. These companies aggressively lobby DHS and Congress. CCA and GEO spent more than $20m on lobbying from 1999 to 2009.

In 2009, approximately half of the immigrant detainee population was housed in for-profit facilities as compared with 8 per cent of state and federal prisoners.

Private immigration detention facilities are also particularly ripe for abuse, because there is little federal oversight to ensure that applicable standards are enforced. The 2011 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention standards in place to guide operation of these facilities are not binding regulations and have not been applied to many for-profit detention facilities under contract with ICE. Without the threat of sanctions, compliance with these standards has been low and violations of these standards are pervasive.

Since 2003, there have been 24 deaths in immigration detention facilities operated by CCA. In May 2010, a CCA guard at the T Don Hutto Residential Center in Texas was convicted in state and federal court of sexually abusing female detainees while transporting them to the airport.

A major report recently released by the ACLU of Georgia confirms the problems inherent to keeping immigrants in for-profit detention centres.

Titled “Prisoners of Profit: Immigrants and Detention in Georgia”, the report covers the four immigration detention facilities in Georgia, including the largest immigration detention centre in the country, the Stewart Detention Center. Three of the facilities are operated by corporations. 

For purposes of this documentation project, the ACLU of Georgia interviewed 68 individuals who were detained at the Georgia immigration detention facilities, as well as detainees’ family members and immigration attorneys. We also toured the detention centres and reviewed documents obtained from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other agencies.

The report documents serious violations of detainees’ constitutional and human rights as well as ICE standards. These abuses require immediate action. 

Eduardo Zuniga

The ACLU of Georgia’s findings raise serious concerns about violations of detainees’ due process rights, inadequate living conditions, inadequate medical and mental health care, and abuse of power by those in charge. 

One of the detainees whose account is featured in the report is Eduardo Zuniga. Eduardo suffered two injuries to his legs while working in the Stewart Detention Center’s kitchen for sub-minimum wages, and both injuries were undertreated. Due to a shortage of special shoes, Eduardo was told he would have to work in his regular shoes. His first injury came from a cooler dropping on his foot, which shattered his toenail. The medical staff refused to remove shards of the splintered nail from his foot. The toe became infected and Eduardo eventually removed the shards himself.

Four months later, his toenail had still not grown back and the swelling persisted. After making numerous complaints, he was finally able to see a doctor. Eduardo injured his knee about a month later when he slipped on water on the kitchen floor. He was not allowed to get medical help for three days. The nurses and medical staff called him names like “crybaby” and “little girl”. The medical staff issued him one crutch despite the fact that medical records show he was supposed to receive two. His armpit became bruised and blistered. He missed meals for two days because he had to rest his arms and couldn’t get to the meal hall without the crutch. In at least one instance, guards threatened Eduardo with “the hole” if he did not get up and get back to work despite medical orders to rest.

Now back in Mexico, Eduardo continues to experience pain in his knee and is unable to walk comfortably. He has not been able to go to a doctor since he has no way of paying for it, so he still does not know the extent of the damage.

Ermis Calderone

Another is Ermis Calderone, a young man who suffers from bipolar disorder and frequent panic attacks. Before his detention at Stewart, Ermis had struggled with addiction issues and depression. Both had been effectively treated through counseling, medication, and support programmes. All that ended when he arrived at Stewart. Less than a week after his detention at Stewart, without a support system, a therapist, or his regularly prescribed medication, Ermis suffered a panic attack. While waiting for an appointment to re-visit his medication levels, Ermis sensed a panic attack coming. “I just wanted to take my clothes off so I could breathe, so I asked the guard if I could be taken back to my cell,” he said. The guard refused.

As he felt his heart begin to race and his vision blur, Ermis asked if he could at least go to the restroom. Again he was denied. An attack set in. He began hitting himself in the head and striking his head against the wall. Having observed this, four guards threw him to floor, cuffed him, and held him to ground until he was still. Although no violence or threats of violence occurred during the episode, Ermis was placed in segregation and kept in segregation for almost the entire time he was detained, which was over six months. When the ACLU of Georgia spoke with Ermis in September 2011, his knuckles were bruised from punching the wall of his cell. His arms and wrists were still raw and scabbed from a recent suicide attempt. 

“I feel like I’m going crazy. My medicine is always changing, and it makes me crazy. When I get upset, they just give me more medicine. I can’t tell them I’m really upset or they just put me in a helmet and handcuffs for a few days. That’s torture! I don’t see anybody. I don’t really care about anything. I just want to get out and get into a programme that will help me.”


The ACLU of Georgia report recommends that ICE stop detaining immigrants at the for-profit Stewart and Irwin County Detention Centers given the extent of the documented violations as well as the facilities’ remote locations, which isolate detainees from their families and communities of support. 

The private prison industry is committed to generating money for its investors. As a result, it feeds off of government policies that keep more people behind bars for longer periods of time and has incentives to cut corners.

As the ACLU of Georgia’s findings illustrate, there is deep-seated tension between the profit-making aims of prison corporations and what the American values of justice and liberty demand – humane conditions for those detained and release of immigrants who pose no danger or flight risk.

Instead of continuing to rely on the for-profit prison industry to keep more and more people imprisoned in substandard conditions, the federal government must make greater use of cost-effective alternatives to detention, especially community-based approaches.

Azadeh Shahshahani is the National Security/Immigrants’ Rights Project Director of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Georgia.