Immigration law a boost to Georgia’s thriving private prison industry | Cover Story | News & Views | Creative Loafing Atlanta.
Located on the outskirts of the less-than-idyllic hamlet of Lumpkin in rural southwest Georgia, Stewart Detention Center is awash in corporate hubris.
A large, cylindrical water tank at the entrance is splashed with the Corrections Corporation of America’s bright red logo and a “WELCOME” that reads more like a command than a genuine attempt at hospitality. A small sign jutting out of sparse turf on the left side of the road leading to the jail — named CCA Drive, naturally — declares, “You are important …” A second sign right behind it finishes the thought: “… to CCA!”
The sentiment is lost, no doubt, on the majority of the people who come to Stewart, visitors and inmates alike, if for no other reason than many of them don’t speak English.
To lots of people — human and civil rights advocates in particular — there’s something inherently objectionable about the private prison industry. Companies that make money by constructing and operating detention centers essentially turn a profit on high crime rates, harsh penalties for offenders and the ideological crusade against illegal immigrants. It’s a consummate example of what leftist social critic Noam Chomsky calls “profit over people.”
Ask folks on the opposite end of the political spectrum and they’ll likely say private prisons are simply a demonstration of a free market economy at work — the fewer pies our dysfunctional guv’ment has its grubby fingers in, the better.
If the branding effort at Stewart is any indication, CCA, for one, is mighty proud of the work it does.
The medium-security facility, which sits behind twin chain-link fences and enough razor wire to put Alcatraz to shame, is the largest immigrant detention center in the United States. The 260,000-square foot compound hosts a virtually self-replenishing population of around 1,700 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement prisoners — asylum seekers, men fighting to stay in the country, others simply waiting to be deported. And CCA’s making money on every single one.
The private prison industry has seemingly found a fitting bedfellow in the state of Georgia, which enjoys locking people up almost as much as corporations like CCA enjoy collecting on them. One in 13 Georgians are either incarcerated or under some kind of probationary supervision; even as most states have seen their prison populations decrease, Georgia’s has continued to rise. And, with its new penalties for falsifying work visas and provisions for verifying immigration status, HB 87, Georgia’s anti-illegal immigration legislation, will only contribute to this increase.
Because they’re paid per detainee, per day by whichever government entity they’ve contracted with, CCA and other private prison firms need a steady stream of inmates in order to remain profitable. They rely on lawmakers to ensure that demand for their product — prison bed space — remains high. Stringent pieces of criminal justice legislation, many of which are instituted in the name of public safety, are the industry’s lifeblood. In its 2010 annual report, CCA recognized that efforts to the contrary — for instance, Gov. Nathan Deal’s stated commitment to finding alternatives to incarceration — endanger its viability.
“The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected,” the report warned, “by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices, or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws.”
According to the report, even safer streets pose a threat to CCA: “Similarly, reductions in crime rates … could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences requiring incarceration at correctional facilities.”
The passage of HB 87 was a major victory for the growing segment of the population that believes illegal immigrants are to blame for much of what ails the state, from low employment to high crime. Two of the law’s more controversial provisions — one that would allow police to investigate the citizenship of crime suspects who can’t produce I.D., and another that would impose penalties for people who knowingly transport or harbor illegal immigrants — have been blocked by the courts while their constitutionality is decided. But, in whatever form it eventually takes, HB 87 has the potential to be a boon for private prison companies. And they aren’t content with being passive beneficiaries.
A 2010 National Public Radio investigation concluded that CCA was very involved in the drafting of Arizona’s illegal immigration law through its affiliation with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-wing organization that brings corporations and conservative lawmakers together to write model legislation that benefits the private sector.
In Georgia, CCA’s role in the creation and passage of HB 87 — if any role existed — wasn’t nearly as obvious, although the bill bears a distinct resemblance to Arizona’s law and is routinely described as “copycat” legislation. But what is apparent is that the biggest private prison corporations — CCA, the GEO Group and the Cornell Companies, which has since been absorbed by CCA — have spent bundles in campaign contributions and lobbyist dinners wooing Georgia lawmakers. Some Gold Dome observers say that even if the industry’s influence over public policy in Georgia isn’t immediately visible, it’s there.
“There’s so much legislation that’s explainable to conservatives and to the public as being tough on crime, and often the finger of CCA isn’t immediately obvious because it fits within the conservative philosophy,” says Larry Pellegrini, executive director of the Georgia Rural Urban Summit, which lobbies for progressive causes. “But, other pieces of legislation, ones that add penalties to crimes or enhance juvenile crimes so they result in prison time — all of that is something that I see the fingerprint of CCA on.”
The concern, as prison privatization expert Judith Greene put it in her 2007 book Prison Profiteers, is that the “prison contract tail is wagging the correctional policy dog.”
- Joeff Davis
- Immigrant advocates P.J. and Amy Edwards — inside their Smyrna Catholic church — worry many Americans have simply written illegals off.
It’s a muggy Saturday afternoon and inside Stewart Detention Center’s meager lobby, a handful of men, women and small children — most, if not all, of whom appear to be of Latin American decent — wait patiently to visit their respective loved ones. There’s only one security staffer on duty to locate the requested inmates and then check the visitors in, and the clock is ticking. Visiting hours end at 4 p.m.
P.J. Edwards realizes he’s pushing his luck by showing up at 2:50 to see an inmate. He fills out the three pages of required paperwork with haste and stands eagerly clutching the clipboard as the lone security person seemingly does her best to ignore him. At the stroke of 3, the guard’s internal alarm clock goes off. She glances at the wall clock for confirmation, then turns to Edwards and informs him, matter-of-factly, that he arrived too late: A detainee head count has just commenced, so she won’t be able to locate the inmate he’s visiting. He can either wait until the head count’s been completed and hope to get a few minutes of Plexiglass-partitioned face time, or he can come back another day.
He’s disappointed, but probably not quite as much as the road-weary mother with several children in tow who walks in just minutes after Edwards got the bad news, and will likely get some version of the same speech.
Edwards doesn’t actually have any family members or friends being held at Stewart. He’s part of a faith-based advocacy group that, among other things, visits detainees, particularly those who don’t have family in the area or those whose loved ones steer clear of the facility because of their own tenuous presence in the country. They visit to talk with inmates and pray with them, but they also keep an eye on CCA, to make sure they’re adhering to federal detention standards.
Edwards says there’s little official oversight of the conditions inside Stewart, and, given the current political climate, few on the outside seem terribly concerned about it, either. “I think a lot of Americans have written these people off by saying, ‘They’re illegal, so who cares?’” he says. “That’s a big problem we’ve faced.”
Last year, he and fellow immigrant advocate Anton Flores leased a bungalow down the street from Stewart and opened El Refugio, a hospitality house for families visiting detainees. “The idea,” says Edwards, “is to give people a place to come and rest, to get a free meal. A lot of these families are coming from the Carolinas and aren’t wealthy, so we’re trying to offer a free place for them to stay.”
Not that there’s anywhere else to stay in Lumpkin. The closest motel is something called Kay-Lyn Kourt, eight miles away in Richland.
Since they started El Refugio — and even before, when they were only doing humanitarian visits with inmates — Edwards’ and Flores’ relationship with CCA has been contentious at best. They’ve been forbidden from referring people in the jail’s waiting room to their facility because it constitutes “solicitation,” even though El Refugio is not for profit.
A woman named Tammy who lives in nearby Cusseta has begun apprenticing at El Refugio on weekends. She became interested in the cause after her husband was detained last year. A mason by trade, he had immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico illegally when he was just 13. Even though he’s since married an American woman and fathered a child, he was picked up last June for driving without proper identification and spent 15 days at Stewart until Tammy could post bond. He didn’t have a good experience in CCA’s care.
“He said they’re very cruel,” Tammy explains in her thick Southern drawl. “They mistreat you there. He really doesn’t talk about it because it was a bad experience and he wants to forget it, but he said it’s just very inhuman the way they treat you. They treat you like animals.”