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Abuses Continue at Private INS Facility

The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) continues to experience problems at a privately -operated detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey. In June 1995 detainees rioted at the facility, which was then run by Esmore Correctional Services. The detainees mostly asylum-seekers who had not been charged with any crime complained of severe abuse and human rights violations by the poorly-paid and under-trained Esmore staff. [ PLN , Sept. 1995]. The company lost its contract to operate the center, changed its name to Correctional Services Corporation and relocated to Florida.

The INS facility reopened in 1997 under the management of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), and was soon lauded as a national model for privately-operated detention services. But now the former assistant warden at the center, Steve Townsend, has filed suit claiming he was fired by CCA after informing the INS that detainees were forcibly sedated and improperly restrained. Townsend said that both his supervisor and CCA corporate office ordered him to "illegally cover up and conceal such actions."

Initially the INS denied that detainees had been involuntarily sedated, but later admitted the allegations were true after reviewing medical records from the facility. The agency then decided the failure to report the sedation's and improper restraints was part of a larger pattern of mismanagement and non-compliance. Both the INS and CCA blamed the warden, who was transferred to Tennessee. CCA declined to comment on the charges.

The INS operates nine detention centers and contracts with seven private facilities, including four managed by CCA. In addition, the agency rents bed space in hundreds of state and local jails nationwide. CCA has announced plans to build a $60 million, 1,000-bed detention center in California to cash in on the expanding market for incarcerating illegal immigrants.

According to Penny Venetis, administrative director of the Constitutional Litigation Clinic at Rutgers Law School, corporations that operate private detention facilities are mainly concerned with maximizing profits by cutting corners. "Privatization gives government agencies excuses," she said. "They hide behind the private contractor." Venetis is representing 19 detainees in a lawsuit against the INS and former Esmore Correctional Services.

Weekly News Update on the Americas , June 1998.

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