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Private prisons in Georgia and the Year of Mercy

Pope Francis in his annual World Day of Peace Message for the 49th Year of World Peace, urged governments to consider granting a Holy Year amnesty to prisoners, find alternatives to incarceration and at the very least abolish the death penalty.

The Pope’s message urged policy-makers as well as individuals to overcome what he has called the “globalization of indifference” to the plight of the most vulnerable: the poor, the sick, migrants, prisoners and the elderly. “On the institutional level, indifference to others and to their dignity, their fundamental rights and their freedom, when it is part of a culture shaped by the pursuit of profit and hedonism, can foster and even justify actions and policies which ultimately represent threats to peace,” he wrote.
 
In the United States of America there are companies that profit if you go to jail. These corporations spent over $45 million in lobbying to make sure when you get sent to jail, you go to their jails. They are so good at this that there was a 40% increase of private prison detainees between 2002-2012. They are currently outpacing state and federally funded prisons. Yet there is no evidence that there are any savings in the use of private prisons.
 
Within the Diocese of Savannah the largest for-profit prison system in the U.S., the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), has five institutions. In addition to owning and operating the Wheeler Correctional Facility in Alamo, the Coffee Correctional Facility in Nicholls, and the Jenkins Correctional Facility in Millen, CCA owns and operates the McRae Correctional Facility in McRae on behalf of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  For Immigration and Customs Enforcement, CCA owns and operates the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin which is located about 145 miles south of Atlanta, and costs taxpayers $65 per inmate per day. Collectively, CCA is responsible for more than 8,000 inmates and detainees in Georgia. Currently CCA owns or controls 66 correctional, detention and re-entry facilities, with a design capacity of approximately 75,000 beds. It also manages 11 additional facilities owned by government partners with a total design capacity of approximately 14,000 beds, in 20 states and the District of Columbia. 
 
Stewart Detention Center (SDC) in Lumpkin, Georgia, is one of the largest immigration detention facilities in the United States with the capacity to jail 1,752 people. Although the facility is owned by Stewart County and is contracted as an IGSA (Intergovernmental Service Agreements), the facility is actually operated by CCA. SDC houses immigration violation detainees who are mainly Hispanic, from Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina and had the highest count of inmates partly because of its capacity. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents detain men, women and children suspected of violating civil immigration laws at these facilities. Most of those held at the 250 sites nationwide are illegal immigrants awaiting deportation, but some green card holders, asylum seekers and others are also there.
 
A recent report on conditions in immigrant detention centers such as Stewart finds a systematic and ongoing failure by the government to adequately inspect facilities run by public and private contractors. The report entitled “Lives in Peril: How Ineffective Inspections Make ICE Complicit in Immigration Detention Abuse,” alleges a pattern of basic human rights violations leading to deaths, suicides, violence and sexual assaults in facilities that were given a clean bill of health by federal inspectors.
 
Those are among the conclusions drawn by the National Immigration Justice Center and Detention Watch Network based on a review of government inspection documents for 105 detention facilities. One of the primary problems is a lack of transparency and objectivity in the inspection process by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
 
With regard to the medical care at SDC the report states, that facility “had only one doctor and seven nurses to provide medical care for over 1,500 detained men.” ICE inspections found the medical staffing to be adequate, “even with five vacant positions in 2011 and 2012.” SDC outsourced medical care for more than 775 detainees in 2012. Unfortunately in March 2008 Roberto Medina Martinez, a 39 year old immigrant, died at SDC from a treatable heart condition after being detained for two months.   
The report also notes that SDC’s remote location is a hindrance to attracting and retaining adequate medical staff, and also creates barriers to visitation from attorneys and family members. Attorneys in the region told Detention Watch Network in 2012 that visitation rooms at SDC were inadequate because they were forced to speak with their clients through a phone and Plexiglas, making it difficult to prepare for court and to provide clients confidential documents. People detained at SDC in 2012 also claimed that they were allowed infrequent access to the law library and had unreliable phone access. Prisoners held in this remote facility depend on the prison’s phones to communicate with their lawyers and loved ones. Exploiting inmates’ need, CCA charges detainees $5 per minute to make phone calls. Yet the prison only pays inmates who work at the facility $1 - $4 a day depending on the type of work. At that rate, it would take some detainees five days to pay for just one minute phone call.
 
Many activists have called on ICE to shut down Stewart and its other private jails in Georgia, complaining they are located in mostly rural isolated corners of the state far from immigrants’ families, medical facilities, and attorneys, or indeed clergy. Other critics have pointed to the dangers that for-profit jails are simply providing low-cost services to state and federal governments while generating money for their investors.  Hence the assertions that companies such as CCA and GEO favor government policies that keep more people behind bars for longer periods of time, whether the persons are immigrants or felony drug offenders. 
 
A poor rural county such as Stewart makes money from a private jail such as SDC by taking in immigrants for ICE, or the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS), which typically pay more for inmates than state and local governments.
 
It is clear from the immigration debacle in the U.S. that the expansion of private prison corporations into immigrant detention has led to lucrative profits and increasing dividends for their investors. Private prison corporations have a very cozy relationship with members of Congress on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, with regard to detention quotas. Public reports indicate that private prison companies have spent millions on federal lobbying, since their profit margins largely depend on business from federal correction and detention agencies. The industry’s giants — Corrections Corporation of America, The GEO Group, and Management and Training Corp. — have spent at least $45 million combined on campaign donations and lobbyists at the state and federal level in the last decade, the Associated Press found.
 
The 2014 Annual Report to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), in Form-10K, CCA Corporation stated: “As of December 31, 2014, we had approximately 6,000 beds at five core facilities that are vacant and immediately available to use. Historically, we have been successful in substantially filling our inventory of available beds and the beds that we have constructed. Filling these available beds would provide substantial growth in revenues, cash flow, and earnings per share.” 
 
A report to shareholders in 2014 CCA reported “growth in revenues from company owned and operated facilities in 2014. As a Real Estate Investment Trust, these facilities were key drivers for our growth in operating margin and operating income compared with 2013. Our improved results contributed to our ability to increase the cash dividend paid to shareholders to $2.04 per share in 2014.”
 
The Atlanta Journal Constitution in 2011 reported that “Federal taxpayers pay Stewart County $60.50 per inmate held at that jail per day through an agreement with ICE. That works out to $97,647 per day, based on last fiscal year’s average daily inmate count.  The county, however, keeps only 85 cents per inmate per day for its administrative costs and pays CCA the rest, or $59.65 per inmate per day. Since 2007, the county has collected about $1.7 million through this arrangement, county officials said. That represents more than half of the small county’s $3 million annual operating budget.” It seems from my research that today taxpayers are paying almost double what they paid in 2011 for each detainee per day.
 
The Stewart Detention Center is the county’s largest employer with about 340 workers, most of whom are from the local area. Jobs are scarce in Stewart County, where the median household income in 2009-2013 was $23,451 and where 30.7% of families live below the federal poverty level, according to U.S. census figures.
Court documents, do not say “Private Prison Corporation vs Defendant; they say “The State vs Defendant.” There is an obligation I believe to ensure that detainees are safe, that human rights are respected, and that justice is served. In the end, we need to know that our government is in charge of our prisons and not the highest bidder. Justice should be not-for-profit. 
 
A recent report entitled “A Joint Report of Migration and Refugee Services of the USCCB Center for Migration Studies” states, “The privatization of the detention system incentivizes detention growth, makes effective oversight and accountability difficult and, in the United States, has created a network of politically active agencies with a financial self-interest in a large immigration enforcement and detention infrastructure.”          
 
Further the report states, “Detention and the broader criminalization of immigration has shaped the public’s view of unauthorized immigrants as criminals, creating an environment conducive to seeing even the most vulnerable as a business opportunity. For all of these reasons, private corporations should have a more limited and modest role in a shrinking detention system.” 
 
A 2012 report by the Sentencing Project,  “Dollars and Detainees: The Growth of For-Profit Detention” states, “There are few signs of a slowdown in ICE and USMS’ commitment to contracting with for-profit companies. New facilities are slated to be built and the private prison industry is reaping the profits. Millions of dollars of these funds will be funneled back into the political system to promote policies to assure there will be large numbers of detainees to bolster companies’ profits. More transparency and comprehensive oversight is needed to know where, by whom, and under what conditions people are being detained, and who is profiting from privatized detention. Yet, that would not address the fact that private detention, and prison privatization as a whole, is built to fail. It operates off of a structure where individuals are treated as commodities, and where profit, rather than public safety, is the bottom line. This incentive structure may benefit the owners of private companies, but it is not in the best interest of the detainees, the contracting agencies, or the general public.”
 
Returning to the words of Pope Francis “indifference to others and to their dignity, their fundamental rights and their freedom, when it is part of a culture shaped by the pursuit of profit” are directly applicable to companies such as CCA in its pursuit of profits and its indifference to the basic rights of its largely immigrant populace at SDC.
In his World Day of Peace Message 2016, Pope Francis called for urgent measures to improve conditions of prisoners, especially those awaiting trial. He called for governments to abolish the death penalty and consider alternatives to incarceration as well as a Holy Year amnesty. “In the spirit of the Jubilee of Mercy, all of us are called to realize how indifference can manifest itself in our lives and to work concretely to improve the world around us, beginning with our families, neighbors and places of employment.”
 
In this Year of Mercy may we not be accused of indifference to the plight of so many in our prisons in Georgia, or worse still be investors in companies that profit from such indifference. 
 
Father Jeremiah J. McCarthy, JCL, VF is Pastor of Saint Anne Church, Columbus.
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