This past month brought good news, when the Department of Justice announced a gradual phase-out of federal contracts with private prison and detention corporations.
For years, groups like the Detention Watch Network have raised a collective lament for the abuses and lack of accountability found in private prisons, and Mother Jones sent one of its reporters undercover to investigate the conditions in a state prison in Louisiana run by Corrections Corporation of America.
Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates echoed these sentiments with her announcement that private prisons “simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department’s Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security.”
But the recent announcement only affects the private detention centers run by the Department of Justice — meaning that most of the state government contracts for corrections corporations remain intact. Immigration and Customs Enforcement also does business with the private prison industry, and many immigration detention centers are, at least, partly privatized.
My family and I immigrated to Miami in 2001, when I was just 6 years old. This was a particularly rough period in Colombian history, with the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), a Marxist, guerrilla group, gaining ground against government forces and threating to send Colombia into a bitter civil war. A close family member — who held an important position within the Colombian Air Force at the time — was directly threatened, with a promise of retaliation against the rest of his family, as well. Faced with such difficult circumstances, my parents made the tough decision to immigrate to the United States, praying that we would be granted political asylum.
This was a time when many Colombians were leaving their home country. In fact, one study shows that by 2005 one out of every 10 native-born Colombians lived abroad. This included large portions of my extended family, including my tío (uncle), Germán Segura.
Germán Segura came to the United States wishing to be with his young adult kids (my cousins): to take care of them as they finished growing up, and to make a better life for himself. This dream was derailed on May 11, 2005, when, after four years of seeking political asylum, he was arrested by ICE officers and eventually deported back to Colombia.
I recently reached out to my uncle to get his perspective on his story and see where it fit in the current debates around immigration, incarceration, and what is considered a “legitimate” immigrant. He told me how he was detained in Krome Detention Center in South Florida, in a facility that used to house nuclear warheads at the height of the Cold War. He recalled, still betraying a tone of anger, that he was dragged out of his home one day in Weston, Fla., and arrested. He wasn’t allowed to change from his pajamas, and all his possessions were left behind in his apartment.
Although his lawyers had promised him that permanent residence status was certain for his case, the ICE officers told a different narrative — one of deportation.
I asked Germán to tell me about the conditions of the facilities in Krome, and he humbly obliged. He remembered sleeping in a cellblock with 100 other detainees, even though it seemed clear that the quarters had a max capacity of around 40 bodies. He was able to team up with some of the other detainees and petition the prison administration to provide better living spaces and actually succeeded. He seemed very proud of winning that fight. However, most of his experiences with officials in those days were negative. Although Germán had recently had shoulder surgery and was temporarily disabled when he was arrested, he said he didn’t receive special accommodations during the whole process. He mentioned the correctional officers, employed by private corporation Akal Security, being rude and aggressive towards the detainees. He spent 20 days in Krome before being deported on May 31, 2005.
This sort of negligence and abuse has long been reported about Krome. The Miami New Times wrote an extended piece on some of the systemic problems that have festered in the detention center, especially since private corporation Akal Security took over the security aspect of the prison in 2002. One whistleblower correctional officer recalled a culture where prison administration officials were "demanding that we falsify documents" in order to escape government accountability. The article details many reported instances in which guards assaulted detainees and sent individuals to solitary confinement for practicing their faith.
It’s damning evidence, the kind that is seen in so many other correctional facilities where corporations are put in charge of jailed human beings. Stories of abuse and systemic negligence are rampant in private prisons, including those used to house immigrants and their families.
It’s fascinating to see the contrast of my uncle’s perspective. He wasn’t allowed to pack up his apartment and bring his belongings with him back to Colombia, yet he didn’t dwell on the financial loss. His real pain and sadness is seen when he talks about missing 10 years of his son and daughter’s life. During that time they graduated college, got their first jobs, and got married. His grief is in missing those moments, since he is not allowed to legally re-enter the United States for 10 years.
He understands the value of prioritizing human life and connection over financial gain, a lesson various governmental agencies in America can learn when confronted with the tempting offer of cutting costs by contracting to correctional corporations. Today my uncle lives in his hometown of Armenia, Colombia. He hasn't been back to the United States since being deported.
On Aug. 29, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson announced that his department (which includes ICE) would also review the contracts of private companies contracted in its detention facilities. He cited the DOJ’s recent decision as a contributing factor to this investigation. We can only hope that their review will discover the inefficacies of private detention centers and prioritize the treatment of immigrants in their facilities.
Private prisons place profits over people, and I call on the DHS to end this inhumane practice, so that stories like my uncle's do not repeat themselves.