Commentary

The neglect-for-profit scheme of corporate detention

Private prison companies in N.M. make millions off the suffering of asylum-seekers and refugees

September 13, 2021 5:45 am

Immigration detainees at the Eloy federal contract prison in Arizona. The detention center is owned and operated by private company CoreCivic. (Photo by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.)

A colleague and I drove through the desert east of Estancia to the Torrance County Detention Facility a couple of weeks ago. We were going there to speak with half a dozen Nicaraguan asylum-seekers. 

After witnessing the sheer remoteness of the facility and the chaos and the desperation of the people detained inside, we agreed that it felt like a black site or a secret prison. 

It was especially sickening to know that a private prison corporation is making millions of dollars because of that misery.

Across the United States, 71 percent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers are run by private prison corporations that extract enormous profit through the abusive incarceration of immigrants awaiting administrative hearings. The great majority of these places are in Texas. But three are in New Mexico. The executives and shareholders of these companies will likely never set foot in our state, but we welcomed them here in spite of their poisonous impact on the people they detain and the communities surrounding them.

Profit-motivated incarceration is a terrible practice.

Corporations win bids and improve their bottom lines by understaffing their facilities, underpaying and undertraining their staff, and working with similarly motivated subcontractors to do things like feed detainees and provide medical care at rock-bottom cost.

The neglect-for-profit scheme creates conditions so dangerous they are often deadly. 

This detention model persists because of our country’s tolerance for the suffering of the mass incarcerate and because politicians at every level are greased with corporate payouts to stay quiet.

The three sites in New Mexico where immigrants are incarcerated by private prison corporations are Otero County, Cibola County and Torrance County. 

Otero County Processing Center, run by the Management and Training Corporation, houses the most immigrant detainees of the three on any given day and has operated the longest as an ICE detention center since 2007. The Cibola and Torrance County facilities, which picked up ICE contracts in 2016 and 2019, respectively, are run by CoreCivic. 

The human suffering in these facilities is glaring and well documented. All three detention centers have had massive COVID-19 outbreaks. Detainees in Torrance County were pepper-sprayed by guards during a hunger strike to improve conditions during the pandemic. In the last three years, two transgender women died because of poor medical care in Cibola and Otero counties. 

Reports abound about medical and mental health neglect, violence against detainees, use of solitary confinement and denial of basic access to things like interpreters, phones and lawyers. All of this treatment is heaped on asylum-seekers mostly, people who have a right to ask for help escaping violence and life-threatening conditions under U.S. and international law.

Why are corporations that are obviously toxic to human rights welcome in New Mexico? For starters, there is an embedded assumption that their presence in rural counties creates jobs and revenue. But that assumption doesn’t always hold up. A paper put out by New Mexico’s People over Private Prisons coalition in 2021 points out that the presence of private prisons in these rural counties does not impact the unemployment rate.

In 2019, a report was published by the Institute for Policy Studies called the “Detention Drain” about Cibola County Correctional Center. The report is quick to point out that a lack of transparency in county finances and detention contracts makes drawing clear conclusions about the center’s economic benefit difficult. However, the state auditor’s report shows the detention center lost $2 million in 2018, but Core Civic was compensated by an undetailed transfer of funds from the county, according to the researchers. As the report’s title suggests, detention is a drain on Cibola County. 

Yet there is another reason private immigration detention persists in New Mexico: the public doesn’t understand that we have the ability to opt out. These contracts are between the Department of Homeland Security and local counties, and the ultimate responsibility is on the Biden administration to end ICE contracts with private prison corporations. But despite campaign promises, there isn’t much indication that this is a priority for this administration, and without significant public outcry, that is unlikely to change. 

In the absence of federal support for banning private detention, places like Washington and California issued bans on private prison corporations from contracting in their states. In New Mexico, a broad bill that would have banned private contracts for both immigration and criminal incarceration came before the Legislature during the last session but lacked the popular support to get to the finish line during a year plagued with problems related to COVID-19. Opposition to the bill centered around financial losses to the counties. 

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New Mexicans need to decide whether we will continue to welcome these corporations in our state. They are toxic and only a tiny fraction of the outrageous revenue they collect on these contracts finds its way back to the local communities. People living in rural counties deserve economic development that enriches their lives. They are worth more than low-paid and dangerous jobs serving poisonous corporations that earn millions off of human suffering. 

Politicians at the federal, state and local level must weigh in on whether they support the presence of private prison corporations in our state and explain their reasoning to the public. They must justify why we should be willing to trade abject human pain for speculative economic gains on contracts that mostly enrich affluent people who, again, will never set foot in New Mexico. We deserve more in our state. 

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Allegra Love
Allegra Love

Allegra Love is an immigration attorney from Santa Fe. She is a graduate of Dartmouth College and the University of New Mexico School of Law. She is the founder of and former director of Santa Fe Dreamers Project, a legal services organization serving immigrants and refugees. Currently she works with the El Paso Immigration Collaborative to represent detained asylum-seekers in the Southwest and in the national movement to abolish immigration detention in the United States.

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