Slave Labor in Private Prisons


Lazaro Perez (not his real name), a poor Tzotzil Indian farmer from San Juan Chamula Chiapas, caught the old bus out of the state capital Tuxtla Gutierrez for the three-day journey to the northern border. Lazaro was determined to cross the brutal desert that separated him from the American dream – a cousin in Phoenix Arizona where there is a growing Chamulan community had written that there was plenty of work there.

Disembarking in El Altar, Sonora on the lip of the desert, Lazaro and a handful of fellow Chamulans with whom he had hopped the bus in Tuxtla contracted a “guia” (guide) for $1000 a head to get them across the foreboding badlands where more than 200 have perished each year for a decade. But “the corridor of death” as this wedge of the border west of Yuma is called is not such an easy place to die in these days. The beefed-up “Migra” (Border Patrol or Immigration Customs Enforcement as Homeland Security now calls it) aided and abetted by National Guard “scouts” brought in to back up the ICE under Operation Jumpstart as one facet of the Bush administration’s politically motivated immigration crackdown, is corralling record numbers of undocumented travelers in this sector and Lazaro and his pals were taken into custody not an hour into their trek across the desert.

Out a $1000 he had borrowed from relatives, penniless, and in detention in a strange land, Lazaro wished he had never left Chiapas. The Chamulan’s bad luck is shared by thousands of new would-be “indocumentados” these days all along the 3000-kilometer border between Mexico and Fortress America as immigration detentions skyrocket.

But Lazaro Perez’s misfortune is making a fortune for one of the fastest-growing industries in the border region ­ private immigration detention centers operated by such titans of the euphemistically-named “corrections industry” as GEO (formerly Wackenhut) of Boca Raton, Florida and the billion buck Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) out of Nashville.

Last spring’s hopeful outburst of activism for immigration reform that put millions of marchers into the streets of U.S. cities, has soured into a summer and fall of frustration. The more liberal Kennedy-McCain bill on the Senate side that would have provided a difficult path to legalization for millions of undocumented workers (millions more would have been deported) ran into a stone wall over in the House where HR 4437, a bill sponsored by James Sensenbrenner (Republican Wisconsin) and backed up by the usual nativist lynch mob, offered only punitive responses to the plight of the indocumentados streaming in from the south. HB 4437 would criminalize illegal immigration and would even throw in jail those who offer the migrant workers a glass of water, build hundreds of miles of border walls, and grow the Migra by 15,000 troops.

“Citizen” hearings held by Republican House members around the U.S. this summer turned into an anti-immigration circus, converting the misery of millions of migrants into a “National Security” issue, another front in Bush’s Terror War – to the delight of private contractors like GEO and CCA.

By Labor Day, immigrant rights group could not muster up 10,000 marchers on the U.S. Capital steps.

Split off from HB 4437, a provision calling for 700 miles of border fencing (really a triple barrier wall) was signed into law by Bush in the run-up to the November mid-term elections.

The big prison privatizers are, of course, gung ho for Sensenbrenner and its various legislative offshoots such as the “Safe Border Act” ­ if enacted, they are going to get fat on the hapless new arrivals. Whereas Kennedy-McCain does promise 2.2 million deportations of undocumented workers with less than five years U.S. residence, repatriation would be voluntary pending registration in a legal guest worker program and would involve no detention time.

On the other side of the ledger, the private prison czars figure that if the hardnosed provisions of HB 4437 become the law of the land, the federal government is going to need about 27,000 new beds each day over the next 18 months ­ although at $95 a night in detention costs, Motel Six would seem to be a cheaper fix then private detention centers. Nonetheless, prospects of juicy contracts to come have the industry salivating.

The privatization of the detention side of the prison-industrial complex has been expanding exponentially since the new millennium kicked in – in the past six years, eight out of 16 federal immigration detention facilities have fallen into private hands. Moreover, 57% of all so-called “illegal aliens” are now housed in county jails far away from the border, about a fifth of which are administered by the privatizers.

Although the number of migrant workers on their way to El Norte has declined slightly in recent years, more indocumentados are being captured and the Feds need somewhere to warehouse them ­ Homeland Security’s veto of “catch & release” policies for all but Mexican “illegals” that previously allowed non-Mexican detainees to stay out of detention while their cases were being adjudicated, is further straining the federal system.

For the privatizers, managing the detention centers requires minimal investment compared to criminal incarceration facilities ­ the no-frills lock-ups do not require legally mandated recreation, educational, or law library components that must be made available to common criminals. Although the U.S. prison population ­ 1.5 million inmates ­ remains the most voluminous on Planet Earth, incarceration rates are slowing to a little over 1%a year increase while the detention side is running 21% annual growth.

As the detention market balloons so do the fortunes of the corrections titans ­ CCA’s detention facilities turned a $95 million profit last year and its stock is up to $53 a share according to this morning’s Wall Street Journal. Similarly, GEO stock has boomed 68% in the past year. “The detention market should grow by $200 to $250,000 in the next two years” figured Patrick Swindle of Avondale LLC in an instructive July 27th New York Times business page piece. “What’s great is that this industry promises steadily growing profits,” offered an upbeat Anton High of Jefferies & Company brokers (ibid.)

The detention market needs tough enforcement laws to fly and the corrections industry contracts high-powered Washington lobbyists to grease the wheels of Congress, prison activists like Kansas-based Frank Smith contend ­ although Smith says the bucks are hard to track. Reluctant to advertise how they profit on the migrants’ misery, the big guns sneak in under the radar, masquerading as PACs to bulk up the war chests of such immigration hawks as San Diego’s Duncan Hunter, Colorado’s Tom Tancredo, and the venerable Sensenbrenner.

The money is easier to follow on the state side. Numero Uno amongst U.S. politicos on the private prison hand outs is New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson who has received nearly $50,000 from the industry since 2004 according to the Montana Open Secrets project ­ New Mexico has privatized more prisons than any other state in the U.S. union with over half of its lock-ups now being managed by the corrections moguls.

The criminalization of undocumented workers presents a cornucopia of opportunities for private industry. For example, boosting Border Patrol numbers to 15,000 agents boosts the stock price of VF Industries of Nashville which manufactures the Migra’s uniforms ­ although VF can no longer subcontract out to Mexican maquiladoras to assemble Border Patrol outfits for fear that Migra uniforms will fall into the hands of narco-terrorists (federal prison inmates are reported to be the top candidate for the newly-returned jobs.)

Food and health providers are making a bundle contracting with the private detention centers to provide bottom line services and the 700 miles of new border “fence” (read wall) that Bush has just signed off on, will make construction contractors happy ­ it is suggested that they will employ “illegal aliens” to cut corners.

Transporting the detained indocumentados is also a lucrative outcropping of draconian immigration enforcement policies. Indeed, the Mexican carrier Aeromexico operating on contacts from CSA Aviation grossed $13.5 million in 2005 flying two daily “voluntary return” flights a day from Phoenix-Tucson that carried 20,592 detained Mexicans back into the interior of their country. Among the passengers was Lazaro Perez (not his real name) of San Juan Chamula, Chiapas.

JOHN ROSS’s ZAPATISTAS! Making Another World Possible–Chronicles of Resistance 2000-2006 will be published by Nation Books in October. Ross will travel the left coast this fall with the new volume and a hot-off-the-press chapbook of poetry Bomba!–all suggestions of venues will be cheerfully entertained–write johnross@igc.org

Ross will present both volumes at Modern Times Bookstore 888 Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District Wednesday Nov. 8th at 7 PM. FREE




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JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to johnross@igc.org

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