Private prison corporations have done well under the Obama and Trump administrations, but not without a shortage of criticism. Amidst the latest push by migrants’ advocates to limit the business of human confinement, Bank of America announced this week that it will roll back its involvement with the industry that operates much of the nation’s immigration prison system.
For decades, private prison corporations have relied mightily on mainstream financial institutions to operate their prison estates. “Despite their substantial coffers, private prison corporations can’t operate without additional financial backing,” I write in Migrating to Prison: America’s Obsession with Locking Up Immigrants, my forthcoming book. For that reason, activists have been pressuring large banks to divest from the private prison industry. If the government won’t stop contracting with the prisons, perhaps private prison corporations can be tripped up by consumer pressure, the thinking goes. Reflecting the power of public pressure, Bank of America explained its decision by pointing to “the concerns of our employees and stakeholders in the communities we serve…”
The bank’s decision is momentous, but it’s nothing like an industry pioneer. Earlier this year, Wells Fargo and JP Morgan Chase both announced that they are scaling back their involvement with the private prison industry.
Private prison corporations aren’t taking this without a fight. In response to Bank of America’s announcement, a press release by CoreCivic (formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America) claimed, “Bank of America knows we care deeply about doing business in an ethical, responsible way, and that we have stepped up as a leader in helping address some of the most serious challenges facing our country.”
CoreCivic’s largest competitor, GEO Group, added a full-throttle defense of its immigration prison practices, stating in its own press release: “The Processing Centers we manage on behalf of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are not overcrowded and comply with performance-based standards, which were first established under President Barack Obama’s administration. These modern Processing Centers provide safe and humane residential care, high quality medical services, and enhanced amenities including artificial turf soccer fields, flat screen TVs in living areas, indoor and outdoor recreation, classrooms, multipurpose rooms, and libraries.”
As is to be expected, both companies paint themselves in a favorable light, even if oversight reports regularly reach the opposite conclusion. In government reports, GEO’s facilities appear rather gruesome. A September 2018 report from the DHS inspector general about the Adelanto ICE Processing Center, which GEO operates, reads like the picture of irresponsible facility management. “We identified a number of serious issues that violate ICE’s 2011 Performance-Based National Detention Standards and pose significant health and safety risks at the facility,” the inspector general announced. Among the concerns that the government’s internal oversight unit found were nooses in detainee cells.
The inspector general also found that 14 of 14 people living in solitary confinement for disciplinary reasons—known as disciplinary segregation in ICE policies and distinguished from administrative segregation—were placed there “inappropriately…before they were found guilty of a prohibited act or rule violation.”
At GEO’s facility in the Denver suburb of Aurora, Colorado, a different inspector general report described a “recreation yard” that is enclosed on four sides by high walls. Even the top isn’t open. Rather, the DHS inspector general wrote in June 2019, it’s covered with “mesh cages.”
CoreCivic’s facilities don’t get better assessments. Last month, I wrote about the frequent use of solitary confinement at the prison that CoreCivic runs in Eloy, Arizona on behalf of ICE. Using government records that I obtained through a FOIA request, I identified 50 instances of solitary confinement in a 17-month period. Of these, eight instances involved being in solitary confinement for more than one month. One man was held for 106 days.
Two years earlier, a DHS panel had described a prison in Dilley, Texas that the company, then called Corrections Corporation of America, runs for ICE as “lack[ing] the tools critical for representing detained families in expedited proceedings—from small, portable printers and scanners to access to phones and internet for attorney teams building factual records and legal arguments….” The panel’s report added that the facility’s law library was empty.
Taken alone, these are isolated incidents. Collectively, though, they flag a prison regime that is poorly regulated and lightly overseen. The ICE standards that GEO points to in its press release aren’t enforceable. That is, migrants locked up inside can’t demand that GEO meet those standards. Only ICE can, yet it repeatedly fails to do so. Across the entire ICE network, government records show almost 7,000 violations of ICE’s own policies in the eight years from October 2010 to August 2018. Regrettably, there is little likelihood of any meaningful change because DHS’s oversight system doesn’t follow up on identified problems.
Shortcomings in the immigration prison oversight system aren’t temporary failures. They are longstanding features of the sprawling carceral archipelago that the federal government has created to confine migrants. Whatever outrage private prison corporations express as a result of financial industry moves to back away from their important support of human bondage is, at best, misplaced.