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Private Prison Companies Not Forthcoming About Immigration Detainee Deaths

Private Prison Companies Not Forthcoming About Immigration Detainee Deaths

by Matt Clarke

The private prison industry has benefited from a recent influx of contracts from the federal government to incarcerate immigration detainees. Such contracts are more lucrative than those for imprisoning state prisoners. However, questions have been raised about the quality of medical care provided to immigration detainees, and neither the federal government nor private prison contractors have been forthcoming about details related to the deaths of 66 detainees between January 2004 and November 2007.

There wouldn’t even be a public list of immigration prisoner deaths had Congress not demanded one from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Congress became involved after relatives of deceased detainees complained about the lack of information they were given about the deaths, and how they had not been told their relatives were sick or in the hospital.

One example was the death of Boubacar Bah, 52, a native of Guinea who had a successful New York business creating handmade clothes. Bah had overstayed his tourist visa. He returned to Guinea to visit his family; while he was abroad his application for a green card was denied, revoking his permission to reenter the country. He was detained by ICE when he returned to the U.S. His friends hired an immigration lawyer who tried to reopen Bah’s application while he was held for nine months at the Corrections Corp. of America (CCA)-run Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey.

According to internal CCA records labeled “proprietary information – not for distribution,” which were not given to Bah’s relatives, other detainees witnessed Bah fall near a toilet and strike his head on the floor. He was taken to the infirmary where he became incoherent and agitated, pulling away from doctors and grabbing at staff, then vomiting. Instead of recognizing this as a textbook symptom of brain hemorrhaging, a physician’s assistant approved of Bah being handcuffed, shackled and placed in solitary.
Medical staff determined that Bah’s “screaming and resisting” was due to “behavior problems,” and questioned his “unwitnessed” fall.

Bah was taken to a solitary confinement cell where he remained in shackles on the floor, breathing heavily and foaming at the mouth. A guard recognized the severity of his condition and contacted the medical department, but a nurse refused to come to the solitary confinement unit.

Fourteen hours after Bah’s fall and head injury, the nurse finally made rounds in solitary and observed his serious condition. He was transported to a hospital where brain scans revealed hemorrhages, swelling and a fractured skull. Emergency surgery was performed, but it was unsuccessful. A medical examiner’s report listed Bah’s cause of death as an “unattended accident.”

The list of other immigration detainees who died in custody also cited cryptic causes of death. Some were designated “undetermined” or “unwitnessed arrest, epilepsy.” Fourteen listed heart problems, while thirteen stated suicide. Details of the deaths, including where they occurred and the nationality of the deceased prisoners, were omitted.

Part of the problem is that ICE uses federal facilities, local jails and privately-run prisons to incarcerate immigration detainees. Critics, including some in Congress, say this hodgepodge approach and a transient population allow ICE to cover up questionable detainee deaths by transferring or deporting witnesses. It also hobbles the investigation of complaints about poor medical care, inadequate suicide prevention and abuse.

Ironically, ICE is the savior of the private prison industry, which overbuilt capacity in the late 1990s. The price of a share of CCA stock plummeted from a high of $70 to under $1.00 amid industry scandals involving riots, escapes and prisoner abuse, plus ill-fated business decisions related to a CCA real estate investment trust spin-off called the Prison Realty Trust. [See: PLN, Aug. 1998, p.5; July 2000, p.1].

With CCA on the verge of bankruptcy, the federal government stepped in with a series of contracts for private prisons to house the growing population of immigration detainees. The first such contract was for CCA to incarcerate foreign national Bureau of Prisons (BOP) prisoners in a California City facility. Then came an immigration detainee contract that paid CCA $89.50 per diem to house up to 1,000 prisoners at the San Diego Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa, California.

By 2007, federal contracts with ICE, the U.S. Marshals Service and BOP accounted for 40% of CCA’s nearly $1.5 billion in annual revenue. With the company’s net profit reaching $133 million in 2007, CCA’s stock has recovered nicely.

ICE maintains a close and friendly relationship with the private prison industry. The agency spends an average of $119.28 a day to incarcerate prisoners in federal facilities, while its private prison contracts average $87.99 per diem. The question is how such savings – and resultant profits for the industry – are achieved.

Is it by providing inadequate medical care and poorly trained staff which contribute to preventable deaths, such as that of Boubacar Bah? Or is it through cut-rate housing such as the windowless tent-like structures used by Management & Training Corp. (MTC) to incarcerate 2,000 immigration detainees in Willacy County, Texas? [See: PLN, Sept. 2007, p.1]. That prison has been so profitable that a 1,086-bed expansion was completed in July 2008 at a cost of more than $50 million.

Large profits are also being generated from the lucrative practice of incarcerating immigration detainee families and children who have not been charged with any crimes, such as at CCA’s 512-bed T. Don Hutto “residential” facility in Williamson County, Texas. [See: PLN, Jan. 2008, p.1; Aug. 2007, p.10]. Despite widespread criticism and protests, on December 23, 2008 the county commissioners voted 4-1 to extend a contract with CCA to operate the controversial prison for another two years.

The substantial financial incentives in the immigration-driven private prison industry have sparked a rush to build detention facilities not seen since the boom-bust cycle of the late 1990s. This expansion is compounded by a lack of transparency from private prison contractors and the federal government.

While oversight is clearly needed for the sake of both immigration detainees and their families, CCA lobbied against legislation (H.R. 1889) that would have required the company to comply with the Freedom of Information Act to the same extent as federal agencies such as ICE.

Meanwhile, following extensive coverage of immigration detainee deaths by the New York Times and Washington Post last year, Julie Myers, Assistant Secretary of ICE, informed a Congressional subcommittee on June 4, 2008 that ICE would provide more detailed information about in-custody deaths to the Dept. of Justice. She said the change would result in “more transparency” – a worthy objective that private prison companies should likewise embrace, particularly in cases where immigration detainees die under questionable circumstances at for-profit facilities.

Sources: New York Times, Union-Tribune, Washington Post

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