• Jenny Crum

Immigration Incorporated

This country harbors the most extensive and profitable immigration detention system in the world. And here, people are assets.

Private prisons have "occupancy guarantees." If they aren't filled, states pay a fee (Jeremy Redmon/AJC).

The metaphor of a melting pot is frequently used to describe the United States. The United States has an expansive history of immigration, and many citizens take pride in our unique national diversity. The prospects of opportunity brought Western European immigrants to the new frontier in the mid-1850s and southern and eastern Europeans to Ellis Island in the 1900s as they sought a bustling metropolis and modern industry. Today, the US has the largest immigrant population in the world. From sea to shining sea, immigrants have come to the United States seeking safety, work, freedom, and opportunity.


But in early 2019, images of migrant children in cages flooded the media. Reflective blankets wrapped around tiny bodies on flimsy mattresses stunned citizens and lawmakers alike. Many asked: how did the conditions within detention centers get so bad?


The conditions within the detention centers, inhumane and callous as they are, are nothing new to the United States Immigration System.

This country harbors the most extensive and profitable immigration detention system in the world. And to private detention companies, people are assets.


Individuals are placed into detention facilities for a plethora of reasons, including visa violations and illegal/unauthorized entry into the country. Some, including many asylum seekers, are placed into detention as they await court proceedings. The average daily population of detainees in the United States reached a height of 40,520 persons actively detained every day in 2018, with that number growing and having likely reached a total of 47,000 persons by the end of 2019. While only 49% of beds out of the total detained immigrant population were located in private detention centers in 2009, by 2015, more than 62% of beds were in a private detention center.

Confined to overcrowded barbed wire cages, provisions are meager, and treatment is horrid (Reuters).

The use of privatized detention has roots in the Reagan presidency. During the 1980s, political unrest in the Caribbean brought a surge of migrants to the shores of the United States seeking asylum. To accommodate for this influx, the Reagan Administration passed legislation allowing local law enforcement to detain undocumented Haitian migrants awaiting removal hearings. These rulings, which targeted Caribbean migrants specifically, were ruled unlawful in the Supreme Court Case Jean vs Nelson. Subsequently, the Immigration Control and Reform Act of 1986 was passed. This Act would prove to propagate the now vast immigration detention system in the United States for decades to come. Private correction companies such as the Corrections Corporation of America (currently known as CoreCivic) sprung up, seeking to profit off the emerging private detention industry.


In the thirty years following 1986, private detention corporations have amassed immense wealth and proven their priorities.

In a report released by CoreCivic, the total revenue within CoreCivic’s Fourth Quarter and Full Year (2019) amounted to $1.98 billion.

This nearly $2 billion was a profit increase of 8% from the previous quarter and year, and their numbers continue to rise.


For private detention companies, detainees are assets. In 2012, CoreCivic sent a letter to top prison officials in 48 states recommending the consolidation of state facilities into CoreCivic as long as there is “an assurance by the agency partner that the agency has sufficient inmate population to maintain a minimum 90 percent occupancy rate over the term of the contract.” The average stay for any immigrant detained in the United States is 31 days, but if a detainee is to fight for their case to stay in the United States, their average stay is 577 days.

CoreCivic trades on Wall Street and its motto is "Better the Public Good" (Gabriel Angotti-Jones/NYT).

One of the biggest detention centers currently operated by CoreCivics is Stewart Detention Center (SDC) located in Lumpkin County, Georgia. A two-hour drive from Atlanta, in a facility hidden in the trees off of a two-lane road, SDC accommodates detained individuals and immigration court proceedings. Stewart Immigration Courts continuously obtain the highest deportation rate as compared to any other detention center in the United States, having deported 5,763 individuals in 2016, which is more than half of all detainees housed at SDC throughout that year. The conditions within SDC are substandard. Complaints from attorneys and detainees highlight excessively high bonds, mistreatment/verbal abuse of detainees, and blatant ignorance of mental health concerns of inmates.


A prime example of SDC’s mistreatment of inmates is the death of Jean Jimenez-Joseph. On May 15th, 2017, Jimenez was found hanged and unresponsive in the solitary confinement cell he had been placed in for the last 19 days of his life. Jimenez had a history of schizophrenia and had been committed to mental health facilities in the past because of his conditions—a medical history that the staff at Stewart Detention Center were aware of, as he was taking medication for his schizophrenia.

According to Jimenez’s mother, Jimenez relayed that “Everyone here [at Stewart Detention Center] is against me. No one is going to help me. They don’t believe that I have schizophrenia.”

Standards for the Management of Detention Centers released by ICE to the public explicitly state that all individuals who are placed in segregation (away from other inmates) must routinely be checked for changes in mental health condition. A study released by the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law revealed that negative effects of solitary confinement are amplified within persons who suffer from a major mental disorder (including schizophrenia), stating that “the stress, lack of meaningful social contact, and unstructured days can exacerbate symptoms of illness or provoke recurrence.” Jimenez being placed in solitary confinement aggravated his schizophrenia and led to his demise. This mistreatment of Jimenez is just one example of the garish conditions within SDC.

Detention centers are not confined to the border. This one in Eloy, AZ has had five suicides since 2000 (Getty).

Migration into the United States is ever increasing. The privatization of detention centers has given room for federal guidelines to fall through the cracks, and federal compliance with daunting circumstances within contract facilities is unacceptable. The Biden administration in recent weeks signed an executive order banning private prisons; the Georgia State Senate has proposed a bill banning private detention centers. These first steps, although important, are not expansive enough to address the problems within privatized detention centers. Comprehensive legislation that addresses issues across the entire American immigration system must be passed. No executive order or law passed alone will be enough. The situation at Stewart Detention Center and within the private detention industry points to one stark conclusion: reform in America’s detention centers must be swift, must be widespread, and must be implemented soon.


Cover: Jennifer Whitney/NYT

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