Viridiana & NIYA vs. GEO & private prisons

For sheer badass-ery, this will be hard to beat.  On July 20, Viridiana Martinez walked up to a checkpoint in Port Everglades, a south Florida “Where Security is Everyone’s Business” port for cargo and cruise ships that requires everyone passing through to show government issued identification.  Viridiana came to the United States when she was 7 and has no such ID.  The Border Patrol agent arrested her and sent her half an hour north to Broward County Transition Center.

Turns out, Broward TC is Viridiana’s briar patch.  The National Immigrant Youth Alliance organizer got through intake and got to work, looking for people who should not be in detention.  She is one of seven undocumented NIYA organizers who have intentionally put themselves into deportation proceedings to challenge the Obama administration’s lackadaisical implementation of the June 17, 2011 Morton memo urging prosecutorial discretion, a directive that should have taken millions of undocumented immigrants out of danger of deportation.

Viridiana and her fellow NIYAn’s audacious (and ongoing) action is forcing President Obama to work a little harder.  The dozens of stories she and others have collected from Broward calls for action rather than rhetoric from the Administration.  As DREAMers eligible for deferred action, the NIYA organizers are making it clear that they want more than a temporary reprieve for themselves – they’re looking for relief for their parents as well.  Somewhere in the White House, President Obama is muttering curses of aggravation and admiration for these young organizers, braver and more effective than he ever was.

But NIYA’s organizing inside Broward TC is doing more than refocusing attention on ICE’s refusal to halt the deportation of low-priority individuals.  It is also drawing attention to ICE’s increasingly hot and bothersome bromance with private prison companies.

Broward TC where the NIYAns are detained is owned and operated by private prison giant GEO (formerly Wackenhut).  When GEO/Wackenhut first bought the old hotel complex and updated it into a prison in the 1990s, the company’s intent was to rent beds long term to the Sheriff of rapidly growing Broward County.  But post-9/11, the market – and asking price – for detaining immigrants took a sharp uptick.  For GEO/Wackenhut, it was a simple business decision to end its contract with the Sheriff and make a bid for federal immigration dollars.

The company’s initial contract in 2002 with ICE (then INS) was only for 29 beds, but the number grew steadily each year thereafter, up to its current contract for 650 beds.  That number of beds translates to between 6,500-7,000 low-risk immigrant men and women passing through Broward TC every year.

In an excellent piece in today’s USA Today, AP writer Laura Wides-Munoz reports that the increase in immigration enforcement is “generating lucrative profits for the nation’s largest prison companies.”  GEO, along with its chief competitor Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), have captured close to half of the $2 billion spent annually to detain immigrants during deportation proceedings.  The private firms have poured over $45 million into donations and lobbying to keep the golden spigots open.

GEO’s lobbyists do not have the easiest sell.  Brutality abounds in Wackenhut/GEO’s facilities. If you can stand it, read I Know Why the Cajun Bird Sings about the Jena Juvenile Justice Center in Louisiana. The Wackenhut guards pummeled one teenager so hard their blows pushed the boy’s intestines out through the hole in his colostomy bag.  Or read the transcript of 60 Minutes’ Locked Inside a Nightmare, describing the ordeal of 14-year old Sara Lowe, one of 12 girls repeatedly raped by Wackenhut guards in a Texas facility. After she was released, Lowe killed herself with one shot under her chin and a second to her temple.  When asked whether he owed Lowe or any of the girls an apology, Wackenhut CEO George Zoley said, “Not that I’m aware of. I don’t know what you mean by that.”

But violence and neglect are as commonplace in publicly run prisons as private ones, so why the interest in private prisons?  Is a focus on private prison companies even a good idea? Hardcore prison abolitionists like Ruthie Gilmore point out that those working for an end to mass incarceration should not get overly focused on the private prison companies, since they hold less than 10% of the overall prison population.

There may be good reasons, though, to pay private prison companies some special attention.  For starters, there’s the extra ickiness of profiting off of misery.  When Group 4 Falk bought out Wackenhut in 2002[1], George Wackenhut retired with $124 million.  It’s hard to imagine what he did with the millions, considering he already owned one of the largest houses in Florida, a 22,000 square foot beachfront behemoth that is today “exceptionally well-priced at only $22,995,000 reduced from $39,600,000.”  Here, until his death in 2004, George and his wife snacked on prosciutto and visited the drapes in a mansion that, if converted by GEO into a prison, would have had held 576 or so people rather than two, twelve people locked inside each of its 48 rooms.

The ickiness wasn’t just about George; it’s the whole lot of back slappers and mutual back scratchers whose profits rise in direct proportion to the number of people detained.  People like Charles Thomas, who, as a consultant for the Correctional Privatization Commission, was hired by the state of Florida to consider the pros and cons of privatization, Thomas pushed hard for privatization. No wonder – he owned over half a million dollars in stock in Wackenhut and CCA.  Thomas resigned and was fined $20,000 for this indiscretion, but the Commission itself survived another decade, before finally being disbanded for being (gasp) too cozy with GEO and CCA.

Focusing on private prison companies also has the advantage clear targets.  A national prison divestment campaign coordinated by Enlace, for example, has zeroed in on the role of Wells Fargo, as a holder of 8% of GEO stock.

And then there’s the love of a good story, about the extremely close ties between Wackenhut/GEO and the federal government – the CIA especially – that have had conspiracy theorists abuzz for decades.  George Wackenhut teamed up with three other ex-FBI agents to form his first security company after leaving the FBI at the age of 34.  During the Cold War, Wackenhut put together the nation’s largest private collection of files on suspected communists, dissidents, subversives – dossiers on at least three million Americans, probably more.  And then, the relationships with the CIA got deeper…the link above is to a 1992 SPY Magazine article.  Believe what you will.

Whatever the truth value of the rumors that Wackenhut/GEO was/is engaged in private domestic spying and/or did the work too dirty for the CIA  (is there such a thing?), there is something concretely, economically important about the immigrant detention slice of GEO’s pie.  There’s market coverage, certainly, with over half the immigrants detained while in deportation proceedings held in a privately run facility.  What’s astounding about this 50% number is that just six years ago, when the New York Times ran a story about how President Bush’s tough Immigration Enforcement Benefits Prison Firms, CCA and GEO held less than 20% of the immigrants in detention.

From the point of view of GEO, what’s most important about ICE contracts is simply their contribution to the company’s bottom line.  In 2006, ICE contracts made up 5% of the GEO’s income.  That percentage has since tripled, to 14% of GEO’s income.

Looking back, it’s clear the t- t- t- timing of federal immigration contracts post 9/11 saved both GEO and CCA from financial ruin.  Private prison prognosticator Judy Greene was gnashing her teeth back in 2001, arguing that at the precise moment when riots, deaths, rapes, and escapes were causing state to pull back from private prisons, a slew of new contracts with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the Marshals, and INS were Bailing Out Private Jails.  As always, Greene proved to be prescient.  CCA’s financial nosedive in FY2000 – its stock lost over 90% of its value in FY2000 and the company was bloated with 8,500 empty prison beds – was reversed when 9/11 resulted in an almost instantaneous demand for immigrant detention beds.

Looking forward, there are growth opportunities for CCA and GEO in immigrant detention even as the number of deportations drop.  For an aggressive and creative  GEO sales rep, the push for more humane detention can be parlayed into profit.  GEO earlier this year completed a $32 million complex in Karnes City, TX, to ICE specifications.  What ICE wanted, and what GEO delivered, was a 608 low-security bed facility that features basketball courts, better access to lawyer, and “resident advisors” rather than guards.  The effort to replace a hodge-podge of crappy beds leased from county jails with new, more decent facilities prompted House Judiciary Chair Lamar Smith to call a Subcommittee on Immigration hearing.  The new Karnes City facility, according to Smith, provided detainees with a “Holiday on ICE.”

The sarcastic title and Smith’s fellow GOPer’s foaming at the mouth during the hearing was offensive, but nothing more than theatrics.  Each of the legislators had, no doubt, been visited by a GEO lobbyist carrying gifts and assurances that building new detention beds – whether hard or marginally softer – were a great boon to free enterprise.

If this new market opportunity for GEO and CCA is to be stopped, then, it will be up to the same advocates and organizers who are insisting that current conditions of confinement need to be overhauled.   An effort to build a new facility in Southwest Ranches (just thirty miles south of the Broward TC where the NIYAns are being detained) was successfully opposed earlier this year by a coalition of pro-immigrant organizations and south Florida residents, led by the Florida Immigrant Coalition.  The motley crew fought the new detention facility tooth and nail for a year, and moments after President Obama made his June 15 announcement that DREAMers would be granted deferred action, ICE hoisted the white flag and withdrew its plans to contract with CCA to build the 1800-bed facility.

It may be a trend – a few days earlier, the ICE-CCA lovebirds had been hammered in Crete, Illinois, where the board of trustees responded to passionate, organized resistance by local groups with an unanimous rejection of CCA’s proposal to build a 750-bed immigrant detention center.  And back in Florida, the country’s largest prison privatization bill, to put the prisons in 18 central and south Florida counties out for private bid, failed, though not for lack of effort and shenanigans.

For more on immigrant detention and private prison companies, check out:


[1] In 2002, the Danish security giant Group 4 Falk bought Wackenhut Corporation and 57% of its main division Wackenhut Corrections Corporation. The next year, Wackenhut Corrections Corporation bought back all of its stock from Group 4 Falk, renamed itself the GEO Group, and spun off from the larger Group 4 Falk-Wackenhut entity.  By the time Group 4 Falk merged with Securicor to become G4S (the world’s largest private security firm, responsible for the world’s largest security f*ck-up, ongoing, at the London Olympics), the adult prison business GEO Group was off on its own.

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