When Angelica Moreno’s brother died of cancer after nearly three years locked in a private prison in Mississippi, she vowed to fight so that he’d be the last to suffer such a fate. "I want to fight for every other person inside that jail," she told me in July, weeks after her brother died. On Wednesday, Moreno joined a group of human rights and criminal justice advocates and a member of Congress for a briefing on Capitol Hill to halt the expansion of private federal prisons like the one that Moreno says killed her brother. "No other family should have to go through this."
The federal government is poised to expand a little known part of the American incarceration system–privately operated facilities that hold immigrants convicted of crimes. Many of the inmates are charged criminally for what’s called "illegal reentry" when they’re picked up by Border Patrol trying to return to the country after a previous deportation. The facilities are among the only ones that the Bureau of Prisons has privatized and their expansion promises more profits for companies, like the Corrections Corporation of America, which runs the Adams County Correctional Center where Moreno’s brother was held.
It’s "quite a racket going on [for] these for profit prisons," said Rep. Jared Polis, who sponsored the briefing. "It’s not a particularly good deal for taxpayers."
There are now more than 24,000 inmates in 13 federal prisons for immigrants charged with crimes. Advocates including the ACLU of Texas, Grassroots Leadership and Justice Strategies gathered for the briefing on Thursday because the federal Bureau of Prisons in July issued a call for proposals for a 14th privately-managed facility to house 1,000 "low security, adult male inmates, that are primarily criminal aliens…"
The groups released a set of reports on abuses in the prisons and profits raked in by the private companies that manage the facilities. Together, they called on Congress to reject a $25,865,000 appropriation for 1,000 new prison beds for non-citizens proposed in the 2013 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations bill.
The incarceration policies are responsible for a rapid growth of the Latino federal inmate population. "These polices have led to the point where about half of federal prisoners are now Latino," said Bob Libal, director of Grassroots Leadership, who authored "Operation Streamline: Costs and Consequences," a report released on Wednesday. It documents the growth of the Streamline program, a federal initiative that pushes migrants crossing the border into criminal proceedings. As a result of the program, there has been a rapid growth in recent years of the number of immigrants prosecuted for "illegal reentry." According to data released by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, reentry "was the most commonly recorded lead charge brought by federal prosecutors during the first half of FY 2011."
"We are clogging the justice system with this astounding increase in unnecessary prosecutions of people who merely sought to reunite with their families," said Libal.
The prosecutions are a relatively new phenomena. Before the program and similar prosecutorial directives began, migrants apprehended crossing the border without papers were quickly deported, treated through the civil immigration system. Now, the federal government prosecutes unauthorized entrants criminally and locks them up for months and sometimes years in federal prisons before they’re eventually removed from the country. Since Streamline began in 2005, the federal government has spent $5.5 billion incarcerating undocumented immigrants, according to the Grassroots Leadership report. That money is funneled into private profits.
In May, one of these facilities, the Adams County Correctional Center, where Moreno’s brother Juan Villanueva was held on a three year sentence for reentry, made national headlines after prisoners there organized to protest bad medical care, insufficient food and disrespect and abuse from prison guards. A riot ensued after the warden refused to hear demands and a guard for the Corrections Corporation of America, which operates the prison, was killed. Two inmates who the government claims helped lead the violence were charged criminally in the last several weeks. One pled guilty to taking part in the riot. The other was just charged last week.
I noted Villanueva’s case just after the riot, when he was still alive. At the time he’d been moved to a Board of Prisons medical facility in North Carolina where he was treated for cancer. According to his sister, Villanueva’s illness was ignored for months while locked up in Adams County and his condition deteriorated. "They killed my brother," she said. Moreno says her brother was prescribed repeated doses of antibiotics even after he complained of pain and was regularly vomiting blood. When months later he was finally taken to an emergency room and diagnosed with cancer, his illness had advanced significantly, but still the prison failed to transport Villanueva to all of his chemotherapy appointments, according to Moreno.
Just before the Adams facility erupted into violence in May, Villanueva was moved to a North Carolina medical facility where two months later he died. His body was flown to Los Angeles, where his family held a funeral.
The Adams County violence mirrors similar strife in other private prisons for non-citizens. As noted in another report released on Thursday by Justice Strategies, a criminal justice reform group, in 2008 and 2009, two riots erupted in the Reeves County federal prison that held over 3,000 immigrants convicted of low level drug crimes and "reentry." The first spate of violence erupted in late 2008 after an epileptic prisoner died in solitary confinement without sufficient medical care. According to the report, "His family said that when Galindo asked to see a doctor to treat his seizure problem, he was put in solitary in the segregated housing unit." Another protest exploded in 2009 after a second prisoner was put into solitary after demanding medical attention.
The ACLU of Texas, which also released a report, investigated four privately operated Board of Prisons facilities in Texas and documented widespread neglect and abuse of immigrant inmates. In Reeves, the organization documented at least 9 deaths inside the facility since 2006. At least one prisoner in Reeves committed suicide after he was placed in solitary confinement and denied psychiatric drugs to treat bipolar disorder. Inmates in other facilities complained of similar conditions including overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, insufficient food and interference with access to attorneys.
Despite this track record or neglect and violence, the federal government plans to expand the incarceration of non-citizens in private facilities. A report released on Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office revealed that the BOP projects it will add an 1500 CAR inmates every year until 2020, which will expand the population in these federal facilities to nearly 36,000. The GAO notes that the Board of Prisons annual projections are conservative and "therefore, the actual number of inmates would likely be higher than the projections."
"These companies don’t care about people like my brother. They care about making money," Moreno said yesterday. "He was dying little by little. They could have done something about it. But they didn’t because he was just a prisoner."