Private Prisons Turn a Handsome Profit

By Erin Rosa

Global Research, July 25, 2009

While the nation’s economy flounders, business is booming for The GEO Group Inc., a private prison firm that is paid millions by the U.S. government to detain undocumented immigrants and other federal inmates. In the last year and a half, GEO announced plans to add a total of at least 3,925 new beds to immigration lockups in five locations. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency and the U.S. Marshals Service, which hire the company, will fill the beds with inmates awaiting court and deportation proceedings. GEO reported impressive quarterly earnings of $20 million on February 12, 2009, along with an annual income of $61 million for 2008—up from $38 million the year before. But the company’s share value is not the only thing that’s growing. Behind the financial success and expansion of the for-profit prison firm, there are increasing charges of negligence, civil rights violations, abuse and even death.

Detaining immigrants has become a profitable business, and the niche industry is showing no signs of slowing down. The number of undocumented immigrants the U.S. federal government jails has grown by at least 65 percent in the last six years. In 2002, the average daily population of immigration detainees was 20,838 people, according to ICE records. By 2008, the average daily population had grown to 31,345.

Since 2003, more than a million people have been processed through federal immigration lockups, which are part of a network of at least 300 local, state and federal lockups, including seven contracted detention facilities. GEO operates four of those seven for-profit prisons.

Numerous investigations and reports have documented problems at GEOs immigration detention facilities.

At the company’s Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, federal prosecutors charged a GEO prison administrator in September 2008 with “knowingly and willfully making materially false, fictitious, and fraudulent statements to senior special agents” with ICE, according to court filings. A February 2008 audit found that over a period of more than two years ending in November 2005, GEO hired nearly 100 guards without performing the required criminal background checks. The GEO employee responsible, Sylvia Wong, pleaded guilty. In the plea agreement the federal government stated that Wong falsified documents “because of the pressure she felt” while working at the GEO lockup to get security personnel hired at the detention center “as quickly as possible.”

Two months before the fraud charges, a study by the Seattle University School of Law and the nonprofit group OneAmerica reported that conditions at the Tacoma facility violated both international and domestic laws that grant detained immigrants the right to food, due process and humane treatment.

Federal immigration officials have the authority to incarcerate undocumented immigrants, asylum-seekers, and even lawful permanent residents while they await hearings with immigration judges or appeal decisions. ICE reports the average length of stay is 30 days, but detentions can last years, according to a November 2008 ICE fact sheet.

Pramila Jayapal, executive director with OneAmerica, took part in interviewing a random sample of more than 40 immigrants detained at the Northwest Detention Center, which holds approximately 1,000 immigrants at any given time.

“It’s a very giant concrete box. It’s just like a jail,” said Jayapal. “You’re only supposed to meet in the client area, which is only a few rooms.”

One inmate from Mexico, Hector Pena-Ortiz, told interviewers that guards had interrogated and handcuffed him twice, demanding that he sign immediate deportation papers despite the fact that he had a pending appeal. Under federal law, immigrants cannot be deported from the United States if their immigration legal cases are still pending. During one of the incidents, guards admitted to having a file on the wrong inmate, Pena-Ortiz said.

In addition to violations of legal rights, inmates cited food as a major concern. The vast majority of the 40 prisoners interviewed at the facility said rations were inadequate and sometimes rotten. Inmates with financial resources depended on food bought from the lockup’s commissary. Others went hungry. A man identified in the study as “Ricardo” said he had lost 50 pounds of his original 190-pound weight since arriving at the detention center.

ICE officially denied the claims in the report, but in 2005, annual agency inspections at the Northwest Detention Center documented problems with the quality and quantity of food and found that some meals were so poor, guards had to collect and replace them.

Looking for opportunities

The Tacoma lockup, site of the most recent GEO controversy, is located on top of a former toxic waste dump that borders coastal wetlands near the Port of Tacoma, Washington. In August 2008, the firm announced plans to expand its 1,030-bed Northwest Detention Center to 1,575 beds, “to help meet the increased demand for detention bed space by federal, state, and local government agencies around the country.”

Just four months after GEOs announcement, ICE notified government contractors that the agency was looking for a contractor-owned and -operated detention facility. According to federal procurement data, the new facility should be capable of providing 1,575 beds—the same number GEO was set to build—to be completed no later than September 2009—the same date GEO had set for the completion of its own construction project.

Lorie Dankers, ICE spokeswoman in Washington State, implied that the similarity in numbers and date was a coincidence. “I would never comment, nor have I in the past, on what GEO is doing and why they’re doing it. That’s a business decision that GEO made,” said Dankers. “To insinuate that there was some kind of connection, or that they has some inside information as to the request, that would be incorrect.”

Dankers added that ICEs request for more space is still in the “pre-solicitation” phase, meaning that there is no guarantee a contract will be offered, and the agency is simply requesting information from contractors to “gauge interest.”

“I don’t have any information one way or the other as to what would happen,” Dankers said. “I think often times, if I had to speculate, they see where there’s a need. I think they’re always looking for opportunities.”

Canceled contracts

And opportunities, like prisoners, abound. GEO owns more than 62,000 prison beds in the United States, with approximately 3,000 beds used for detained immigrants. The company also claims a global market share of 25 percent of the private corrections industry. Currently, the Northwest Detention Center incarcerates immigrants mainly from Oregon, Washington and Alaska, according to Dankers.

In the last five years, criminal immigration prosecutions have surged by 388 percent according to federal court data obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University in New York. The most recently available court information shows that there were 11,454 prosecutions in September 2008 alone. Adding to GEOs profitability and prospects are immigration laws introduced in the 1990s, the expanding use of immigration detention without bond, and a greater emphasis on prosecutions after 9/11.

The company’s relationship with government officials has also proven valuable in winning corrections contracts.

In 2006, while on the state payroll as director of prisons at the Colorado Department of Corrections, Nolin Renfrow helped GEO obtain a $14 million-per-year contract to detain 1,500 inmates in a proposed state prison project in the northern part of the state. Renfrow was moonlighting for GEO—with an expected compensation of $1 million—when a 2007 state audit and news reports uncovered the public servant’s business deal.

The audit found that Renfrow’s actions could “arguably present a conflict of interest and result in a breach of … the public trust,” because state law prohibited an “employee from assisting any person for a fee or other compensation in obtaining any contract.”

The county district attorney with jurisdiction over Renfrow declined to press criminal charges, but in the wake of the scandal, officials with the state’s corrections department rescinded the contract.

Prisons as money makers

Immigrant facilities are not the only GEO lockups that have sparked claims of negligence and abuse.

In 2007, the firm settled a lawsuit with the family of an inmate for $200,000. LeTisha Tapia, a 23-year-old woman incarcerated at the GE0-owned Val Verde Correction Facility in southern Texas, told her family in July 2004 that she had been raped and beaten after being locked in the same cell-block with male inmates. Shortly after, she had hung herself in her cell. The nonprofit Texas Civil Rights Project sued GEO on behalf of Tapia’s family.

“The jail drove this young woman to kill herself,” charged the family’s attorney, Scott Medlock, in a February 15, 2006 press release from the Texas Civil Rights Project. “GEO cuts corners by hiring poorly trained guards, providing inmates with cut rate medical care, and running their facility in a grossly unprofessional manner.” Citing confidentiality provisions in the settlement, Medlock refused further comment.

More recently, in 2008, civil liberties attorneys sued the company for failing to provide adequate medical attention to inmates outsourced from Washington, DC, to the Rivers Correctional Institute, located in North Carolina and overseen by GEO through a contract with the federal Bureau of Prisons. That same year, Idaho state authorities removed 125 inmates from a GEO prison after an investigation—spurred by the suicide of a detainee at the facility—revealed poor staff training and healthcare.

“Pretty immediately when people started going to Rivers we started to get letters about how bad the healthcare was, and just how people were really scared of dying there,” said Deborah Golden, an attorney with the DC Prisoners Project, a group that is representing inmates in the legal case against GEO. One inmate named in the report, Keith Mathis, claims he was denied medical treatment for a cavity until the tooth became infected and caused an open ulcer on his face that eventually “burst open,” requiring surgery and three days hospitalization.

“The more we looked into the situation the more we realized it was a systemic problem,” said Golden. “I suspect that it’s a pattern all over. When you try to run prisons as money makers what you do is cut back on the most expensive thing you can, which is medication and medical care.”

GEO has said it will not publicly comment on pending legal cases or abuse claims by third parties, including nonprofit groups. Company spokesman Pablo Paez says that on the subject of business plans, “we have no comment beyond what’s in our public disclosures.”

Despite a wide array of grievances and tragedies, GEO has accrued contracts worth more than $588 million in federal tax dollars since 1997, according to available federal procurement data. And as long as federal officials continue to remand a growing number of inmates and immigrants over to private businesses, without imposing strict oversight, GEO will likely remain profitable.

200 inmates riot in Warkworth, Canada

Inmates at Warkworth penitentiary took over a portion of the prison and burned anything they could get their hands on. Rioters were heard shouting “burn, baby, burn,” according to Sun Media.

Story from Toronto Sun
Joe Warmington, Pete Fisher and Andrea Houston
22nd July, 2009

An inmate is dead from a suspected drug overdose after prisoners at Warkworth penitentiary took control of a portion of the prison, including its infirmary, in an uprising overnight.

The “disturbance” began at 9 p.m., said Ann Anderson, assistant warden of management services for Warkworth Institution.

No further information on the man, including name, age or the suspected drug taken, is being released until next of kin are notified, Anderson said.

The situation involved 211 inmates, about a third of the prison population, who refused to come in from the recreation yard and reached an internal fence, Anderson said. The remaining inmates were secured in their cells.

All inmates were back in their cells by about 4:10 p.m., Anderson said.

After Warkworth gained control of the facility, 13 inmates were sent to an outside hospital, nine with suspected drug overdoses and four with unrelated medical conditions, Anderson said.

Anderson said a “state of emergency” was called based on the various medications kept in the health centre.

The Riot Act Proclamation was read around 5:50 a.m., meaning the institution could use whatever force necessary to gain control of the situation, Anderson said.

Anderson would not say what, if any, force was used to gain control of the facility.

“The inmates were compliant and came back into their cells with the assistance of our emergency response team (ERT),” she said.

It was a tense scene overnight as corrections staff, armed in riot gear and firing tear gas, tried to regain control of the prison as firefighter and ambulance stood by.

Warkworth ERT as well as ERT teams from Millhaven, Joyceville and Kingston penitentiaries responded, Anderson said. The OPP were on the perimeter.

“(The inmates) got into the hospital area and took control,” said one emergency services worker standing outside the front gate.

Four inmates were transferred to hospital in nearby Campbellford as correctional workers battled to regain control of the prison.

The four were suffering from suspected narcotics overdoses, Anderson said. As of 1 p.m., staff had gained control of all but 50 inmates.

“The medical centre was breached and we now have correctional officers keeping inmates in the yard to prevent another breach,” she said. “There have been no demands from inmates. There will be an investigation as to why.”

“They are burning anything they can get their hands on,” a firefighter on scene said, adding he understands the inmates’ recreation centre may have been torched.

It was a tense scene overnight as corrections staff, armed in riot gear and firing tear gas, tried to regain control of the prison as firefighter and ambulance stood by.

Fires burned throughout the night inside the walls in a yard area from where you could hear inmates cheering and yelling “let it burn.”

The riot squad entered just after 6 a.m.

The institution will remain on lockdown until management is assured it’s safe to return to a normal routine, Anderson said.

The Correctional Service of Canada will be conducting an internal investigation to determine the cause of the incident, including the death in custody, Anderson said.

Warkworth is a medium-security institution that has 568 inmates and 340 staff. No staff were hurt in the takeover.

http://www.torontosun.com/news/canada…26216.html

Guantanamo’s stateless losing hope

Andrew Wander, a Reprieve Media Fellow

Al-Jazeera English

When Ayman al-Shurafa was taken to the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, few outside Chicago had heard of Barack Obama.

By the time Obama, a junior senator from Illinois, announced he was running for president in 2007, al-Shurafa, a Palestinian, had already spent five years in the jail and had been cleared for release by the administration of George Bush, the then-president.

When Obama became president almost two years later and said he would close the prison, 34-year-old al-Shurafa was still being held on the US naval base but should have been one of the first detainees to leave.

Although he had admitted to attending a training camp in Afghanistan, the Pentagon assessed that he posed no threat and should be released. But in the strange world of Guantanamo Bay, degrees of innocence and guilt are only part of the story.

Al-Shurafa’s case helps to explain why, six months after ordering the closure of Guantanamo Bay, Obama has made so little tangible progress to this end – only 11 of the 242 prisoners he inherited from the Bush administration have been released during his tenure.

Despite being born and raised in Saudi Arabia, al-Shurafa is Palestinian by nationality. His family and friends live in Jeddah, but the Saudi government has so far refused to allow his return from Guantanamo, saying he is not a Saudi national and has no residency rights in the country.

The Palestinians say he would be welcome in the Occupied Territories, but the Israelis will not allow him to enter.

Stateless

Ayman al-Shurafa is one of dozens of “stateless” inmates

Al-Shurafa has been rendered stateless by the stamp of Guantanamo, despite having never been convicted of a crime.

He desperately wants to return to his family in Saudi Arabia, but convincing the authorities of his suitability is no easy task while he is held incommunicado on the other side of the world.

Al-Shurafa’s predicament is not unusual. Around 60 of the remaining 229 prisoners cannot return to their countries of origin. While some are not welcome by their governments, others fear what will happen when they arrive.

In 2007, a Tunisian Guantanamo prisoner called Abdullah bin Omar al-Hajji was returned, against his will and over his lawyers’ objections, to Tunis.

He had not lived in the country for 20 years and despite having been cleared by the Bush administration, he was immediately arrested by state security forces and taken into custody.

His interrogators beat him and threatened to rape his wife and daughters if he did not confess to terrorist offences.

He is still in jail today, based on evidence gathered by means of torture. Tunisia continues to demand the return of its remaining nationals in Guantanamo.

Unsurprisingly, none of them want to go, and their only hope of safe release lies in finding another country to offer them asylum.

Diplomatic impasse

That is easier said than done. The Obama administration has been exerting diplomatic pressure on countries that might offer such prisoners a home.

But it has failed to secure an agreement even with countries which have proven links with the prisoners, let alone those with which they do not.

The result has been that smaller and more obscure countries are being considered. Even tiny Palau is a contender to take former detainees, allegedly in return for a multi-million dollar aid package.

Obama’s efforts to persuade countries to offer a home to Guantanamo asylum-seekers have partly been hobbled by the political climate in the US, where congressmen have balked at the suggestion of bringing prisoners to their shores.

For many countries, the idea of taking Guantanamo prisoners while the US refuses to do the same is unacceptable. In an article written earlier this month, Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator, summed up Europe’s position.

If European countries are to take prisoners, he wrote, “we in the EU expect the US to do likewise; if it is safe to release these people in Europe, it is safe to do so in the US”.

From the perspective of many potential host countries, the resettlement issue has become a case of “do as I say, not as I do”, with Washington asking other countries to do what it itself finds politically impossible.

Forced repatriation?

Domestic opposition in the US has meant detainees cannot be sent there [EPA]

Lawyers for the remaining prisoners warn that as time runs out, Obama may attempt to return them to countries where they will not be safe.

Cori Crider, an attorney from the UK-based legal charity Reprieve, which represents more than 30 detainees, says that the new administration’s intentions are far from clear.

“Closing Gitmo (sic) shouldn’t mean sending prisoners from the frying pan into the fire,” she said.

“But as the osmotic pressure increases on the US to move people out of Guantanamo, the risk of quick and dirty solutions in places like Algeria or Tunisia is greater than ever.”

And resettlement is not the only diplomatic barrier facing Obama. Hammering out conditions for what should be straightforward repatriations is also taking time.

Ninety-four of the remaining prisoners are Yemeni, and brokering a deal on their fate is essential.

Return to Yemen is one option. But the country has been identified by US security agencies as a potential new theatre of operations for al-Qaeda, and Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Yemeni president, is facing a gathering secessionist movement in the south.

The US want any men returned from Guantanamo to be monitored by Yemeni authorities, but Saleh has not yet demonstrated the will to do so.

Many of the Yemenis in Guantanamo have shared Saudi heritage and reaching a deal on their fate with Riyadh could be key to the prison’s timely closure. So far none has been forthcoming. They, too, are waiting in limbo before they can go home.

Hopes fading

In the midst of the political and diplomatic wrangling over Guantanamo’s closure, it is easy to forget that at the centre of this story are 229 human beings. Crider says many of the prisoners are losing faith in Obama’s promises.

“Many of them thought the new administration might finally be the light at the end of their tunnel, but most of them have started to lose hope again,” she says.

Just last month one of the Yemeni prisoners, Mohammad al-Hanashi, could take no more and committed suicide.

It was a stark reminder that every day Guantanamo Bay remains open increases the human cost of a system built on an inherent contradiction – that even if you are found innocent, you are still treated as if you were guilty.

This contradiction lies at the heart of the lack of progress being made on closing the prison. It must be resolved if Obama’s January deadline is to be met.

Andrew Wander is a Reprieve Media Fellow working on Al Jazeera’s Public Liberties and Human Rights Desk.

Reprieve is a legal charity based in London that represents more than 30 prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and investigates US secret prisons worldwide.

Army deserter tells of his time behind bars

Tony Perry / Los Angeles Times

Instead of waking up to his son, he woke up to “… high fences and razor wire.” Robin Long, released from Miramar Marine Corps Air Station, said the hardest part of his 12 months in the brig was being away from his young son. He had fled to Canada in opposition to the Iraq war. By Tony Perry July 11, 2009 Reporting from San Diego — Army deserter and antiwar activist Robin Long said Friday that the most difficult part of his 12 months behind bars was being away from his young son. Long, 25, released Thursday from the brig at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station, said he missed celebrating Christmas and other special occasions with his 3-year-old son, Ocean.

Robin Long Robin Long Meeting reporters outside the Veterans Museum and Memorial Center in San Diego, Long said he wished every morning that he could see his son running toward him and hear his voice. “Instead I woke up to reveille and I saw high fences and razor wire,” said Long, from Boise, Idaho. “This punishment was for having a moral opposition to the Iraq war.” Long enlisted in 2003 and was trained as a tank crewman but fled to Canada in 2005 when his unit was on the verge of deploying to Iraq. He said his views about the war had changed since his enlistment. Long said that, like much of the American public, he began to doubt the wisdom of the war when the U.S. was unable to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Long said he was influenced by a quotation attributed to Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” In Canada, Long sought refugee status but was turned down.

The decision by the Canadian government to deport him to the U.S. for court-martial caused a political furor in Canada. He is considered the first U.S. deserter to be deported by Canada during the Iraq war. Long said he plans to enroll in a school in San Francisco to learn massage therapy. He also plans to reunite in Seattle with his wife, Renee, and their son and to continue speaking out against the Iraq war. His wife, a Canadian citizen, has remained in Canada to receive care for multiple sclerosis. As a convicted felon, Long may be barred from reentering Canada, but he said he plans to appeal. Although he was sentenced to a dishonorable discharge from the Army, he is still on active duty but not being paid. Long said he had no major complaints about his treatment in the brig. “The food was horrible and it was a filthy place to be,” he said. “But I was treated pretty well.”