Detention Center Blues

Dan Frosch June 14, 2004

On April 7, politi­cians and law enforce­ment offi­cials gath­ered in Taco­ma, Wash­ing­ton, to cel­e­brate the open­ing of the Depart­ment of Home­land Security’s newest gem, a $115 mil­lion facil­i­ty called the North­west Deten­tion Center.

The build­ing, designed to hold up to 700 undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants await­ing depor­ta­tion, was near­ly two years in the works, and sup­port­ers hoped it would pro­vide a much-need­ed eco­nom­ic boon to the region.

Lat­er that week, the Jus­tice Department’s Civ­il Rights Divi­sion sent a report to Mary­land Gov­er­nor Robert Ehrlich, doc­u­ment­ing the results of an inves­ti­ga­tion into two of the state’s juve­nile halls. In stom­ach-churn­ing detail, inves­ti­ga­tors described how employ­ees bru­tal­ly beat youths at the facil­i­ties, and how basic liv­ing con­di­tions didn’t meet even the low­est con­sti­tu­tion­al stan­dards. In a sub­se­quent state­ment, Assis­tant Attor­ney Gen­er­al R. Alexan­der Acos­ta said, No juve­nile should be exposed to such conditions.”

One of the juvie halls named in the report, the Charles H. Hick­ey, Jr. School, was oper­at­ed by Cor­rec­tion­al Ser­vices Cor­po­ra­tion (CSC), the Sara­so­ta, Flori­da-based com­pa­ny con­tract­ed by Home­land Secu­ri­ty to run its Taco­ma deten­tion cen­ter and anoth­er in Texas, slat­ed to open next year.

The fact that Home­land Secu­ri­ty — specif­i­cal­ly its Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment (ICE) branch that over­sees deten­tion cen­ters — would hire a com­pa­ny whose facil­i­ty was the sub­ject of a recent and damn­ing fed­er­al inves­ti­ga­tion is as per­plex­ing as it is dis­turb­ing. More dis­con­cert­ing is that the gov­ern­ment would employ CSC after near­ly a decade of sim­i­lar scandals.

Found­ed in 1989 by Mor­ris Esmor and James Slat­tery, who ran an infa­mous­ly decrepit wel­fare hotel in New York, CSC ini­tial­ly was involved in oper­at­ing halfway hous­es for the state. Then known as Esmor, the com­pa­ny rose to promi­nence when detainees at a fed­er­al deten­tion cen­ter for undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants in Eliz­a­beth, New Jer­sey, riot­ed over deplorable liv­ing con­di­tions and abuse by guards. Short­ly after, the Immi­gra­tion and Nat­u­ral­iza­tion Ser­vices (INS), ICE’s pre­de­ces­sor, closed the deten­tion cen­ter and ter­mi­nat­ed its con­tract with Esmor — which then changed its name to CSC and moved its head­quar­ters to Florida. 

Three years lat­er, a Flori­da state jail mon­i­tor dis­cov­ered that CSC was pur­pose­ful­ly keep­ing juve­niles at the Paho­kee Youth Devel­op­ment Cen­ter past their release dates so it could make more mon­ey. Inspec­tion reports ripped con­di­tions at Paho­kee and the way employ­ees treat­ed its charges, some of whom alleged phys­i­cal abuse. In 1999, the state seized Paho­kee from CSC before its con­tract was up.

CSC has had lots of prob­lems here in Flori­da,” says Ken Kopczyn­s­ki, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Flori­da-based Pri­vate Cor­rec­tions Insti­tute, a nation­al orga­ni­za­tion mon­i­tor­ing pri­vate cor­rec­tions companies.

INS nonethe­less award­ed CSC a con­tract to run its Seat­tle deten­tion cen­ter. But back in New York, the com­pa­ny still couldn’t steer clear of the head­lines. In 2000, the head of CSC’s New York offices was arrest­ed in the Domini­can Repub­lic on charges of pro­duc­ing child pornograp

y. Impro­pri­ety regard­ing CSC’s cozy rela­tion­ships with local politi­cians also sur­faced. In 2003, the New York State Lob­by­ing Com­mis­sion fined CSC $300,000 for fail­ing to dis­close gifts to elect­ed state offi­cials — the stiffest penal­ty met­ed out by the agency. CSC exec­u­tives were sub­poe­naed in a crim­i­nal probe into the company’s polit­i­cal activities.

CSC’s most recent abus­es in Mary­land hard­ly present a new phe­nom­e­non in that region, either. In 2001, the Mary­land Depart­ment of Juve­nile Jus­tice chose not to renew CSC’s con­tract to run anoth­er youth facil­i­ty, the Vic­tor Cullen Acad­e­my, after a series of audits revealed the famil­iar pat­tern of inad­e­quate liv­ing con­di­tions and abu­sive treat­ment by employ­ees, includ­ing alle­ga­tions of a fight club” where youths were encour­aged to bat­tle each oth­er like glad­i­a­tors. CSC was forced to pay $600,000 to the state for vio­lat­ing the terms of its con­tract at Cullen.

It’s safe to say we’ve been unhap­py with CSC’s per­for­mance,” says LaWan­da Edwards, spokes­woman for the Mary­land Depart­ment of Juve­nile Justice.

I can’t imag­ine CSC being an appro­pri­ate provider of cor­rec­tion­al ser­vices for any human being in the U.S., based on what they’ve done here,” adds Heather Ford, direc­tor of the Mary­land Juve­nile Jus­tice Coali­tion, which mon­i­tors the state’s juve­nile facil­i­ties and has inter­viewed youths and their par­ents from both Cullen and Hickey.

Indeed, giv­en the haunt­ing con­sis­ten­cy of CSC’s prob­lems, one won­ders how Home­land Secu­ri­ty came to decide that this par­tic­u­lar com­pa­ny should run two of its deten­tion centers.

Part of the answer lies in the his­to­ry of immi­gra­tion deten­tion cen­ters them­selves, says Mark Dow, author of the new book Amer­i­can Gulag: Inside U.S. Immi­gra­tion Prisons.

Before the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty was cre­at­ed in 2002, Immi­gra­tion and Nat­u­ral­iza­tion Ser­vices (INS) han­dled deten­tions under the purview of the Jus­tice Depart­ment. Dow’s book doc­u­ments cas­es of abuse and unjust impris­on­ment in INS deten­tion cen­ters dat­ing back to the 80s and the influx of immi­grants from coun­tries like Haiti, Guatemala and El Sal­vador. Such an envi­ron­ment thrived, he says, because detainees were trapped in a legal nether­world and few out­side the deten­tion cen­ter walls noticed.

The poten­tial for abuse wors­ened as the num­ber of undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grant detainees explod­ed from 5,532 in 1994 to 20,000 in 2001. Faced with mount­ing costs, INS began con­tract­ing with pri­vate com­pa­nies, states and coun­ties. But the result­ing patch­work of fed­er­al, pri­vate and local respon­si­bil­i­ty cre­at­ed even less account­abil­i­ty, says Dow, and in effect helped fur­ther shield INS from pub­lic scrutiny.

Fol­low­ing 911, the Jus­tice Depart­ment added to the secre­cy shroud­ing detainees by invok­ing a series of dra­con­ian mea­sures designed to expand INS’s pow­er. They include clos­ing immi­gra­tion hear­ings to the pub­lic and hold­ing detainees with­out charge for 48 hours, or in emer­gency cas­es, indef­i­nite­ly. INS offi­cials denied mass roundups, but it was clear peo­ple were being detained with increased reg­u­lar­i­ty. Although specifics are dif­fi­cult to come by, Dow says between 1,200 and 5,000 peo­ple have been detained as a result of the Jus­tice Department’s new policies.

The Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty absorbed INS and repack­aged the agency’s deten­tion cen­ter respon­si­bil­i­ties into ICE, which made lit­tle dif­fer­ence in how things were run, says Dow.

There is a long and entrenched agency cul­ture of racism and bru­tal­i­ty that car­ried over from INS to ICE,” he says. And on top of that, you have always had the account­abil­i­ty and incom­pe­tence problem.”

Indeed, in 2003, the Gen­er­al Account­ing Office (GAO) pro­duced a report on Home­land Secu­ri­ty find­ing inher­ent prob­lems with the con­tract­ing pro­ce­dures of INS, which had not yet mor­phed into ICE. The report con­clud­ed that INS wasn’t con­duct­ing fair and open con­tract­ing, and per­haps more impor­tant, that it wasn’t ade­quate­ly mon­i­tor­ing its con­trac­tors once they were hired. ICE respond­ed by updat­ing its over­sight of con­trac­tors to ensure humane treat­ment of detainees, says Tim Per­ry, ICE’s branch chief of deten­tion acqui­si­tion and support.

The GAO didn’t specif­i­cal­ly exam­ine the rela­tion­ship between Home­land Secu­ri­ty and CSC but empha­sized that the prob­lems with open com­pe­ti­tion and over­sight are still there, says Michele Mackin, assis­tant direc­tor of acqui­si­tion and sourc­ing man­age­ment for GAO and a co-author of the report.

Our con­cerns are not 100 per­cent gone,” she says. Clear­ly, we rec­og­nize there are problems.”

Despite that, a company’s his­to­ry is one of the most impor­tant fac­tors” of the con­tract­ing process, says Soraya Cor­rea, direc­tor of pro­cure­ment for ICE. CSC’s Seat­tle facil­i­ty has expe­ri­enced rel­a­tive­ly few prob­lems, but giv­en the over­whelm­ing scope of its trou­bles else­where, it appears that ICE didn’t do its homework.

In some cas­es when you go out and call ref­er­ences, what’s being explained to you isn’t quite what’s been doc­u­ment­ed in the news­pa­pers,” Cor­rea says. We have to make a best val­ue judg­ment based on the infor­ma­tion made avail­able to us.”

Dow dis­agrees. Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, peo­ple at the high­est lev­els know about the his­to­ry of mis­treat­ment and lack of account­abil­i­ty [in terms of whom they’re hir­ing],” says Dow. As one INS offi­cial told me, immi­gra­tion head­quar­ters uses pri­vate com­pa­nies as a buffer.”

CSC offi­cial Rus­sell Rau, how­ev­er, main­tains his company’s integri­ty. We’ve been run­ning the INS facil­i­ty in Seat­tle for over a decade with­out inci­dent. Now we’ve built this new facil­i­ty at our expense for the needs of the detainees. We’re proud of our record.”

Mean­while, CSC, which employs a for­mer INS offi­cial as a senior vice pres­i­dent, stands to earn up to $22 mil­lion a year in fed­er­al dol­lars in Taco­ma and close to the same in Texas.

With its well-doc­u­ment­ed and trag­ic his­to­ry, the real cost could be much greater.

Dan Frosch is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist based in New York whose work has appeared in the Los Ange­les Times, The Source and the San­ta Fe Reporter.
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