How These Prisons For Non-Citizens Compound All The Problems With American Incarceration


At the intersection of concerns over U.S. overcriminalization, private prisons, and immigration policy are U.S. prisons made for non-citizens, where inmates bear the brunt of all three. In so-called “Criminal Alien Requirement” prisons, some 25,000 non-citizens are held in federal custody under conditions that are subject to even less oversight than those in other federal prisons, oftentimes for nothing other than immigration offenses, and with the draw of profit incentivizing the private firms that house them to pack in more individuals with less care and investment.

Like inmates in many U.S. facilities facing prison overcrowding, these inmates face medical neglect, abuse, and frequent placement in solitary confinement simply because there is nowhere else to put them. Among the findings of an American Civil Liberties Union report out this week, inmates were left to die without medical care, crammed into sleeping quarters in hallways, and put into solitary confinement for complaining about about these conditions or failing to speak “English in America.” In fact, the Bureau of Prisons contract with Corrections Corporation of America mandates that ten percent of CCA’s “contract beds” be used for isolation, creating one of several perverse incentives on confinement. Another is the profit motive of private corporations, who have seen their bottom line skyrocket through investment in immigration detention.

Private prison executives have been open about their interest in continued detention of immigrants — in both these CAR facilities and in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities that hold tens of thousands of immigrants awaiting deportation proceedings. Corrections Corporation of America actually assured investors of a continued “strong demand” for beds, even after immigration reform, while GEO executives assured their investors a few months later of “growing offender population.” And 2013 filings showed that GEO Group lobbied on federal immigration reform, despite pledges not to. The lobbying has paid off. Private prison firms handle the overwhelming majority of CAR inmates, at a clip that has increased every year. In its 2014 budget, the Bureau of Prisons requested $691 million to pay private prison companies, according to the ACLU.

Set against the incentives of these private firms is lax BOP oversight and requirements as compared to that imposed on public, non-immigration facilities. Because individuals in “CAR” prisons are “not expected to return to U.S. communities,” the facilities are not required to provide vocational treatment, drug treatment, or other fundamental programs that are associated with better outcomes when individuals are released. Many who could be eligible for earlier release were they able to participate in a drug treatment program are instead left to languish behind bars, at the cost of the taxpayer. Others describe the hopelessness that accompanies total lack of rehabilitation. “I had the idea: I have three years. I will do something so I have something to make of myself. . . . But there’s nothing to do here,” one inmate said.


Many of the individuals were placed in these prisons simply for having re-entered the country to be with their families. And with scant access to a lawyer in the remote parts of Texas where several facilities are located, and the threat of isolation for expressing disagreement, it is particularly difficult for these individuals to dispute their incarceration.

These facilities are also not subject to the requirement at other prisons that they place inmates close to their families, even though many have families in the United States. With many of these facilities clustered in Texas, regular visitation by those with families is out of the question, even though such visits are another factor associated with positive post-prison outcomes, and even though kids are often deprived of access to a parent.

Even the Bureau of Prisons, which oversees the facilities, acknowledged in a contract with GEO Group, “Contractor is unable to successfully achieve their own plans of action to correct deficient areas” and “Lack of healthcare has greatly impacted inmate health and wellbeing.” BOP nonetheless renewed its contracts with these firms, concluding that maintaining the contracts would require less work and disruption, and maintain the agency’s “credibility as a solid customer” with the private prison agency.

One of the most overarching problems is that private prisons are not subject to the same disclosure requirements under Freedom of Information laws. This means that we don’t know as much about these facilities as we do know. In fact, according to one review of lobbying filings, “CCA has spent about $7 million since 2007 successfully lobbying against legislation that would have subjected its prisons to the same federal open records obligations as BOP-operated prisons.”


An earlier version of this post referred to these CAR facilities as “detention centers.” The post has been edited to distinguish between these CAR facilities — which house inmates who have already been convicted — and immigration detention centers, where tens of thousands individuals facing potential deportation are held.