Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Boom Behind Bars

Selvin Cardenas's three months in the U.S. immigrant detention system began in the usual way, with a knock at his door. At 5 a.m. on Apr. 21, 2009, three men in suits spotted him through the window of his Houston home. "We're here for you," one of them said. "You're Selvin Cardenas. Open up the door."

Cardenas says he arrived in Miami legally from his native Honduras in 1990, at the age of 32, working aboard a ship. He moved to Houston and for nearly two decades lived there working as a pizza deliveryman, dishwasher, and truck driver. He has four kids born in the U.S., in addition to one born in Honduras, and when the agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) appeared, his instinct was to wake his children and say goodbye.

He didn't open the door, but after stalling and calling a lawyer, he decided to cooperate, in the hope that if they took him away without a fuss, they might not arrest his wife, whose immigration status was also precarious. He says the agents were civil throughout the encounter and didn't cuff him, but they did lead him outside and into an unmarked green Tahoe. They cruised around Houston for three hours looking for other potential deportees. Finding none, they drove him to ICE's Houston Contract Detention Facility.

Then, as quickly as ICE detained him, it released him. His freedom lasted about 10 seconds—the time it takes to walk from the ICE building on Greens Rd. to its neighboring building, the Houston Processing Center, a prison owned and operated by Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America (CXW) (CCA). A publicly traded company, CCA is the largest private prison contractor in the U.S. ICE pays CCA about $90 a day per person to keep immigrants behind bars and to manage every aspect of detainees' lives, running its prison much as the government does. The main difference is that CCA locks people up for profit.

The private prison system runs parallel to the U.S. prisons and currently accounts for nearly 10 percent of U.S. state and federal inmates, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Those numbers rise and fall in response to specific policies, and CCA has been accused of lobbying for policies that would fill its cells—such as the increase in enforcement of regulations like the one that snagged Cardenas. Tougher policies have been good for CCA. Since the company started winning immigrant detention contracts in 2000, its stock has rebounded from about a dollar to $23.33, attracting investors such as William Ackman's Pershing Square Capital Management, which is now its largest shareholder.

CCA has current contracts with ICE and other federal clients, as well as 19 state prison systems. Its largest competitor, the Geo Group (GEO), is slightly smaller, and together they account for more than $3 billion in gross revenues annually. The next-largest player, MTC, is privately held and does not disclose numbers, but the industry as a whole grosses just under $5 billion per year.

In Houston, ICE is paying CCA to hold about 1,000 alleged illegal immigrants while they are processed for potential deportation. CCA manages them until the moment they leave U.S. soil. If they are Mexican, it puts them in white CCA buses with tinted windows and drives them on its daily run to the Mexican border. If they're from somewhere else, it drives them across the road to the airport, marches them to an airline counter, and watches them fly away.

CCA declined interview requests but did answer some questions by e-mail and issued a written statement that outlined their strategy—to try to do what government does, but more efficiently. When the federal government or states want to build a new prison, they take as long as six years; CCA says they build theirs in 18 months, at less than half the cost. Despite their speed, they claim to meet and exceed public prison standards and point to the high marks their facilities have won from the American Correctional Assn., the main trade organization in the corrections community.

Read the rest here.

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