Illegal Immigrants Are Dying in U.S. Private Prisons That Don’t Answer to Anyone

Though they’re overseen by federal authorities, the private facilities answer to no one—and detainees are paying the ultimate price.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Jun 11, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Matt Fleischer is a TakePart contributor who was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

Jesus Manuel Galindo knew his illness was life-threatening. The Mexican national and inmate at the privately run Reeves County Detention Complex in Pecos, Texas, had been caught reentering the U.S. after being deported. Epileptic and prone to massive grand mal seizures, he had repeatedly asked guards to up his medicine, or to at least place him in a cell with other inmates who could alert staff if his seizures returned. Only days before his journey north, a seizure left him hospitalized.

Ignored, he was locked up alone in an isolation unit where he feared for his life.

“I get sick here by being locked up all by myself,” he wrote in a letter to his mother. “[T]he medical care in here is no good and I’m scared.”

A day later, Galindo was dead following a massive seizure, after guards failed to get him treatment in a timely manner. A toxicology report after his death found “below-therapeutic levels” of Dilantin in Galindo’s system—an inexpensive antiepilepsy drug that could have kept him alive.

Galindo’s 2008 death sparked riots at Reeves, where inmates recognized Galindo was not alone in the horrific treatment. A new report released by the American Civil Liberties Union this week reveals the full extent of the detention center’s shortcomings—and that it is not an isolated problem.

A call seeking comment from The GEO Group, which oversees Reeves and nearly a hundred other correctional, rehab, and detention facilities around the world, was not immediately returned Wednesday.

Abuses of undocumented immigrants runs rampant at federal detention facilities, called criminal alien requirement prisons, which are privately operated and overseen by the Bureau of Prisons and specifically built to house undocumented immigrants.

“At the [criminal alien requirement] prisons we investigated, the prisoners lived day to day not knowing if their basic human needs would be met, whether they would get medical attention if they were hurt or ill,” said Carl Takei, an ACLU attorney with the National Prison Project. “Prisoner after prisoner reported that medical care was delivered slowly, cheaply, and poorly.”

And that was only the beginning. Because the prisons are privately run, they are only contractually obligated to follow 40 of the more than 200 regulations that govern typical Bureau of Prison operations. Perhaps most disturbing is their dependence on solitary confinement. Criminal alien requirement prisons must construct 10 percent of their bed space into extreme isolation units—that’s nearly double the rate of other federal Bureau of Prison facilities.

“It’s a requirement that has terrible human consequences,” said Takei of the tactic that is usually reserved for the worst offenders. “I spoke to prisoners who spent weeks in isolation cells after being sent there upon intake—simply arriving at prison was the reason why they were locked in a cell and fed through a slot for 23 hours a day.”

Another part of the problem is that private prison contracts stipulate the government must keep the facilities stocked at a 90 percent or higher capacity. The government has obliged.

“Many of these facilities are operating at 115 percent capacity,” said Takei. “That means those isolation cells are going to get used.”

The prisons in the United States house roughly 25,000 inmates. They were mostly built in the last decade in response to a new trend in criminal prosecutions, charging undocumented immigrants with felony illegal entry into the United States. Instead of deportation, the common practice for dealing with this population, undocumented immigrants are now being imprisoned at taxpayers’ expense.

In 1998, more people were convicted and sentenced of federal property crimes than immigration violations. Since then, immigration convictions have more than doubled—and as of 2009, more people have been arrested and imprisoned in federal detention facilities for immigration crimes than for all property, weapons, and violent crimes combined.

“In the past few years, we have seen the creation of a prisoner population that had not existed before,” said Takei. This created pressure on federal officials to grant contracts to private prisons. “The result has been to essentially segregate noncitizen inmates and put them in a shadow system not accountable to oversight.”

Private immigrant detention centers are not currently subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, and according to Takei, the Bureau of Prisons makes it “extremely difficult to get information as it relates to private prison contractors.”

That also includes deaths. The ACLU uncovered six deaths in criminal alien requirement prisons, but there may be more, Takei said.

The ACLU is recommending that Congress move to make all such facilities subject to FOIA requests. They also want legislation to ensure private prison officials and employees are subject to the same liability as public facilities for constitutional violations. And, of course, they are demanding a cessation to all new private prison contracts.

“The shameful conditions inside CAR prisons are a direct result of the government’s decision to allow suffering inside these for-profit prisons,” said Takei.