By Jill Nguyen ’13

My friend Micajah Cooper could not believe what he saw and heard during his visit to the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, GA in mid-February. Micajah, a fourth-year student at the University of Georgia, visited the detention center through his school’s Undocumented Student Alliance and El Refugio, a ministry serving visitors of Stewart detainees and providing humanitarian visits to detainees who don’t have family members that can visit them. When describing conditions at the Detention Center, he said:

“The living situation is horrible, and many immigrants – documented and undocumented – were denied their rights to appeal and to a lawyer because they were not considered a citizen for protection under the Sixth Amendment.  From the stories gathered from the detainees themselves, the staff of Stewart refused to listen to one detainee’s appeal to retract his solitary confinement even though he had a reliable witness and evidence to refute its premises, simply because he did not speak English and ultimately because they did not care.”

Stewart Detention Center is just one of over a hundred private detention centers across the country that works with our government’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency to lock up prisoners for a profit. It is among the largest such centers in the United States and is owned by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) – one of the three largest private detention and correction facility corporations in the country. In 2012 alone, CCA brought in $1.7 billion in revenue, roughly one fourth of which came from contracts with ICE and the federal Bureau of Prisons to detain immigrants living in the United States in for-profit prisons. Sickeningly enough, in the United States the majority of detainees are housed in for-profit institutions. In fact, between 2002 and 2010, the number of detainees held in private detention centers increased by 206%. Additionally, the cost to detain an immigrant in these types of institutions is about $164/person/day. Compared with community-based supervision programs that are more effective and cheaper (many as low as$15/person/day), one can’t help but wonder why we pour so many resources into such a costly, ineffective, and inhumane system.

As the ICE’s budget grows bigger every year and more immigrants are detained, more money is flowing into these corporate pockets. But money is also flowing in another direction: from prison corporations to Washington, D.C. Indeed, the three biggest for-profit prison corporations, including CCA, spent roughly $45 million in the past decade to influence state and federal policymakers. Speaker John Boehner, while criticizing the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill and delaying any effort on a House bill, pocketed $63,000 in total from these private detention groups. Senator John McCain of Arizona received $71,000 during his presidential campaign after dropping his support of a bill that would reduce detention. This is yet another example of why the vast amount of money in our political and electoral system is undermining our democracy.

We live in a country where big corporations benefit from the mass incarceration of people of color and immigrants while neglecting human rights violations. Thousands of immigrant detainees are held in non-criminal custody each year and treated like criminals in the process. Innocent children, seniors, pregnant women, human trafficking victims, sexual violence survivors, and more have gone through these facilities, stripping them of their dignity and ripping families apart. It’s time for our lawmakers to stop dining on corporate money and figure out a bipartisan solution to our broken immigration and detention systems.