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Corporate Prison Boom, Immigration, And The Law

By Tilda Sosaya

Prison construction is booming in the USA, and New Mexico has been the guinea pig for the largest of the private prison corporations like Corrections Corporation of America, Cornell, GEO Corp. (aka, Wackenhut, Group 4 Falk) and MTC. In New Mexico about 45% of our prisoners are in private, for-profit prisons and jails, while the national average is less than 10%. Wexford, and Aramark, medical and food service providers - have had their hands full of cash from our state coffers but have proven less than adequate in providing services, eventually losing their contracts. In a scandal-ridden expose in 2006, it was revealed that Joe Williams, NM Corrections Secretary had been engaged in an intimate relationship with their lobbyist, Ann Casey (moon-lighting from her regular job as an assistant warden in Indiana). Wexford and Aramark both denied that she worked for them, but she was listed as an official lobbyist in the Secretary of State's office. Joe Williams was placed on "administrative leave" in March of 2006 by the Governor, pending an investigation, but the scandal was buried after Richardson's office found "no grounds for further investigation." Prior to being appointed a cabinet post in the Richardson administration, Williams had been the GEO warden in the Lea County Correctional Facility in Hobbs where a series of incidents (1998-99) left two inmates dead. A state commissioned study into levels of violence found that Hobbs had the highest number of prisoner injuries among all the state prisons. Yet Williams, in spite of his record, was appointed by Governor Richardson - and approved by the NM State Legislature - to run the State prison system.

All the "privateers" have their hands in the prison potty here, as do many of our elected officials. Private for-profit lock-ups are nothing new, they've been around now for more than a couple of decades. The Hamilton County jail in Chattanooga, Tennessee was the first local jail in the U.S. to "go private." CCA (Corrections Corporation of America) was awarded the contract in 1984 to operate the "secure adult facility." And a few years later, CCA built the first private prison in NM which opened in Grants in 1989 under the administration of Governor Garrey Carruthers (R). Until the mid-nineties, it remained the only private prison in our State, but during the administration of Republican Governor Gary Johnson four more private prisons (and several privately owned and operated municipal facilities) were constructed, while others were expanded, many by various contractors friendly with Johnson who had previously been owner and CEO of Big J Enterprises, a major construction company in the State. Recall, if you will, that Governor Gary Johnson was the poster child of the drug reform movement in the late nineties for his stand on legalizing marijuana. In spite of his "liberal" ideas about drugs (perhaps because he's a high mountain trekker, even climbed Mt. Everest ... now he's faded into a quiet retirement, a multi-millionaire at 55 who travels the world in Ray-Bans and a long faded-blonde pony-tail) Johnson took absolutely no interest or responsibility for conditions of confinement in New Mexico prisons. He was only interested in building them.

The private prison corporations have created a whopping boom-economy in the marketing and trade of human flesh, as our State so clearly exemplifies. The stranglehold of prison corporations is wasting state and national resources. These corporate giants are raking in hundreds of millions of dollars, and they are willing to spend mega-bucks in campaign contributions. Bill Richardson, while running his first campaign for the Office of Governor, promised that he'd "build no more prisons, public or private" in our State. He seemed to have changed his mind, however, after raking in $65,000 from GEO alone, more than GEO donated to any other Democratic gubernatorial candidate in the nation in that election cycle. In addition, GEO gave an equal amount of dollars to the Democratic Governor's Association during Richardson's tenure as National Chairman in 2004. Shortly after his second election success in 2006, a no-bid contract was awarded to GEO to build a new prison in Clayton, NM at a cost to taxpayers of $132 million, nearly twice the usual costs of construction. When questioned about these costs, Williams claimed it was due to the "high costs of labor" in New Mexico. Funny ... New Mexico is one of the poorest States in the nation, and wages here are consistently low, keeping the people at poverty levels almost unimaginable in other parts of the nation. Further, an expansion of GEO-owned Guadalupe County Correctional Facility in Santa Rosa is also a done deal approved by legislators as well as the Governor. The new prison in Clayton and the Santa Rosa expansion will add at least another 12-1,500 prison beds in New Mexico. Even now, Williams is saying that we will need more prison beds by 2009 and consideration is being given to a Phase 2 building plan in Clayton. Unfortunately, Richardson is not alone in filling his pockets with money from these flesh-peddlers. Many of our elected officials, from mayors to legislators, have accepted significant contributions from private prison companies, ranging from a couple of thousand dollars and up, and that's on both sides of the aisle. The Institute on Money in State Politics states that GEO donated nearly $80,000 to other New Mexico politicians in just the last election!

Not only does the prison-for-profit industry build prisons, but they also supply virtually everything from medical services to hygiene products and seasonal clothing, paid for by prisoners or by their family members who are often struggling to make ends meet. The market is huge, more than 2.5 million captive customers, and it is a "growth industry." Private prison transport companies, medical and psychological, telephone, food and commissary services are reaping ever-increasing profits from the burgeoning Prison Industrial Complex which is now among the largest contributors to the US GDP (gross domestic product). From apprehension to endless years of lock-up, the justice system and prison industry costs the nation about $150 billion annually. While the government pumps up the rush of fear in the meager minds of a propagandized nation, prison building is at an all-time high.

At the same time in near-by Texas, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and Colorado prison building is reaching an all time high as more and more immigrants are rounded up by ICE and Homeland Security under the "detain and deport" agenda (2002), replacing the former "catch and release" tactics of la migra. The ante has been raised - considerably. ICE is rounding up hundreds, if not thousands - of immigrants every day and their goal is to lock up 12 million immigrants by 2012. Right now, more than 200 children, toddlers, teens, and babies - are locked up in CCA's Hutto Residential Facility in Taylor, Texas, while others - teen-agers, children of immigrants - are literally being disappeared. As the prison boom escalates at exponential rates, building contractors like Halliburton and KBR are getting into the game, contracting to build facilities for "owner operators" like GEO and CCA. Prisons no longer rehabilitate, they entomb and dehumanize people. Prisoners are mere commodities stacked in warehouses, moved where/when they're needed, all for profit. Furthermore, there is virtually no oversight of prisons, security issues continuously cited as the primary reason. Even the UN investigator, Jorge Bustamante, was denied entry into Hutto as well as other immigrant facilities around the nation.

While crime rates continue to decline, prisons continue to be built, overcrowding most often cited as the "reason" behind the perceived need. Prisons are overcrowded for many reasons, but in New Mexico there are several specific reasons that prisons are bursting at the seams: prisoners are not being released on time, when their sentences are complete. In a report just completed in May by the NM Legislative Finance Committee, it states that the Parole Board removed "20% of inmates scheduled for parole from hearing dockets because of inadequate or missing documentation, facility transfers, or other reasons." This report also lists the various administrators in the system, including the Population Control Administrator, Janet Bravo, formerly a compliance monitor with the state overseeing GEO's contract facilities. Her husband, Erismo Bravo, had been warden at GEO?s Guadalupe County Correctional Facility in Santa Rosa back in 2000-02. Now he holds a higher, regional position, but his wife is "minding the store" at the New Mexico DOC's central office in Santa Fe, making sure the prison population is well controlled.

Reasoned excuses for increased prison building are proffered by the Corrections administration at the tables of legislative committees. They and the so-called experts (too often, former corrections professionals) rather easily convince legislators to build more prisons. Furthermore, recidivism in New Mexico is ridiculously high with at least 70% of all convicts returning to custody - a few are repeat offenders - but most are taken back to jail for "technical violations," which include testing positive for drugs, having overnight guests in their residences, possessing high-tech equipment, such as a new computer, being unable to find or keep a job, or merely for missing an appointment with a parole or probation officer. Employers are annoyed by the ever-present PO's coming into businesses like gang-busters, disrupting the work environment, and causing undue customer concern. The Probation and Parole division should not be under the sole authority of the Department of Corrections, perhaps, as in the Federal system, we should simply eliminate parole, and subject all probationers, both those coming from prison, as well as those who receive no prison time - to the jurisdiction of the courts. As it stands now, probation and parole often ignore even judges' orders and they're getting away with it. The system is a mockery of justice.

All of this must cause us to wonder a few things. First, who profits? Politicians, stock-holders and the corporations, in brief, but also the "corrections professionals" who move with ease between public and private sectors. Joe Williams, for example, will probably be re-hired by GEO in a high-level management position when his tenure with the State expires. Secondly, who will fill all those prison cells? We know that for now, at least, the focus is on immigrants, many who come here seeking asylum from war-torn nations and others merely trying to support impoverished families. We should also know that children, our children are being targeted, third grade reading scores are one of the components tallied in the projected need for prison beds. While educational funding declines and prison funding increases, the child left behind will inevitably be a prisoner in ten years, they figure. While charter schools arise and are publicly funded, private schools are growing nation-wide and the pressure to privatize education will continue to increase across the country. The children left behind, will undoubtedly be minorities and/or from among the poorest families in a nation now sadly dominated by the never ending wars - foreign and domestic - against people of color. The neo-con ideology guarantees that economic disparities will continue to grow, and thus prisons will be needed to contain those of us at the "bottom of the barrel." There will be three "classes" of people if this continues: the wealthy elites, the watched, and the watchers. Maybe the rest of us will just have to hide.

And, as I write this I must wonder what further affects will face my family as a result of this article? My son, who has been incarcerated for almost ten years, has been thwarted many times in his efforts to be released, in spite of the approval of the parole board last year. He's been abused and harassed, punished and even tortured, but that's another story. He is soon to be released and I have awaited his homecoming for five years, the expected time he'd have served except for my outspoken criticism of the system. Since he's been in prison, his brother died, his three sisters have all moved to other states, and he has a niece and nephew he's never seen. He has spent seven of almost ten years in solitary confinement and he's only 28 years old. Yet he urges me to continue in the struggle and for that I laud his strength and resilience, and I love my son, he's my shining star in spite of his situation. Ultimately, we've realized that even the parole board seems to have little power, nor do judges, our legislators have given it all to parole and probation officers. The local parole office still will not approve his parole plan, and we've come up with more than a few alternatives. PO's harass and humiliate ex-cons on a daily basis, and who profits? Corporations like GEO, CCA, KBR and Halliburton and their rich stockholders. Who suffers? We all do. Our communities are degraded; our people are wounded and angry. This is an environmental issue, an issue of race, economics and class, an issue of too little concern from too many people. We must stand and take notice. One out of every 136 citizens - mostly people of color - are behind bars in the USA today, but according to industry estimates, one in twenty Americans will spend time in a prison or a jail by 2020. And that was before 9-11 and The War on Terror. How many more wars, how many more deaths, how many more prisons, how many more broken families will it take before this nation crumbles, and notions of "freedom" are ground into dust? ... one can only wonder.

Tilda Sosaya has been an advocate for the rights of prisoners and their family members in New Mexico for the last ten years. She may be contacted at:

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