Private Prisons Are a Dead-End Economic Recovery Model. Just Ask This California Town.

Conner MartinezSeptember 16, 2019

The privately run immigrant detention center in Adelanto, Calif., could shut down as soon as next March. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Dri­ving into the rur­al com­mu­ni­ty of Ade­lan­to, Calif., you are greet­ed by a large sign that reads Ade­lan­to, The City With Unlim­it­ed Pos­si­bil­i­ties.” Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the sign’s state­ment is incom­pat­i­ble with the envi­ron­ment sur­round­ing it, a seem­ing­ly end­less desert with sparse hous­ing, almost no com­mu­ni­ty spaces and a mas­sive immi­gra­tion deten­tion center.

Adelanto’s real­i­ty may final­ly change, how­ev­er, with a new bill (AB 32) ban­ning pri­vate pris­ons, includ­ing immi­grant deten­tion cen­ters, passed by the leg­is­la­ture Sep­tem­ber 11, and now expect­ed to be signed by Gov. Gavin New­som (D). Though the effects are uncer­tain, the bill’s pass­ing could mean Adelanto’s deten­tion cen­ter clos­ing as ear­ly as next March. That would not only put an end to the con­sis­tent human rights vio­la­tions com­mit­ted inside the facil­i­ty, but it would also end the city’s long, failed attempt at using deten­tion as a devel­op­ment strat­e­gy, pro­vid­ing an exam­ple for oth­er rur­al com­mu­ni­ties across Amer­i­ca who have gone down the same dis­as­trous path.

In 2010, the city of Ade­lan­to was in des­per­ate need of a new start to their econ­o­my after the finan­cial cri­sis, and offi­cials decid­ed to sell the city-owned prison to the Flori­da-based pri­vate prison com­pa­ny, GEO Group. The deal was for $28 mil­lion, and accord­ing to city offi­cials was made to fos­ter eco­nom­ic growth. The $28 mil­lion will help relieve some of the finan­cial stress on the city,” said then-Ade­lan­to City Man­ag­er Jim Hart.

But the deten­tion cen­ter has failed to bring the eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ty it promised. Cur­rent­ly, the city’s pover­ty rate is 38.5%, 18% high­er than in neigh­bor­ing Los Ange­les, and the city is fac­ing a $4 mil­lion struc­tur­al deficit.

The facil­i­ty, mean­while, has bal­looned to hold near­ly 2,000 beds, a num­ber rough­ly tripled from the orig­i­nal 650. It’s noto­ri­ous­ly been plagued with scan­dal since its incep­tion” says Liz Mar­tinez, the direc­tor of advo­ca­cy and strate­gic com­mu­ni­ca­tions for Free­dom for Immi­grants, a non­prof­it devot­ed to the abo­li­tion of immi­gra­tion detention. 

In a recent sur­prise vis­it from the Office of the Inspec­tor Gen­er­al, var­i­ous human rights vio­la­tions were observed in the Ade­lan­to facil­i­ty, includ­ing med­ical neglect, the con­tin­ued pres­ence of noos­es despite mul­ti­ple sui­cide attempts, and exces­sive use of soli­tary con­fine­ment as pun­ish­ment. After three deaths at Ade­lan­to in 2015, ICE reviewed the cas­es and foundmed­ical care defi­cien­cies relat­ed to pro­vid­ing nec­es­sary and ade­quate care in a time­ly manner.” 

It’s basi­cal­ly hell on earth,” says Mar­tinez. Munic­i­pal­i­ties should not be involved in [pri­vate deten­tion]. Rather, they should be invest­ing in their communities.”

In March, the city of Ade­lan­to announced it would be end­ing its agree­ment with Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment (ICE) and GEO Group to man­age the Ade­lan­to ICE Pro­cess­ing Cen­ter. Although on this sur­face this may have looked like a vic­to­ry, it quick­ly became clear the result could make the sit­u­a­tion worse. The split was part­ly orches­trat­ed by GEO Group as a way to cir­cum­vent the Dig­ni­ty Not Deten­tion Act, a bill strict­ly reg­u­lat­ing whether and how local gov­ern­ments could con­tract with pri­vate deten­tion cen­ters. With GEO Group and ICE now free to con­tract direct­ly, the facil­i­ty is no longer legal­ly oblig­at­ed to meet the same stan­dards of treat­ment for detained indi­vid­u­als. (As not­ed above, how­ev­er, a new Cal­i­for­nia law could bar GEO and ICE from renew­ing their new con­tract next year.)

Speak­ing about the con­tract ter­mi­na­tion, Liz­beth Abeln of the Inland Coali­tion for Immi­grant Jus­tice (ICIJ) said that com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers were not edu­cat­ed on any of the impacts [end­ing the con­tract] may have on them,” and that they were just told, yes, this is good, we will get mon­ey for the city.”

Just weeks before city offi­cials made the deci­sion, GEO Group’s CEO George Zoley emailed Ade­lan­to offi­cials request­ing the ter­mi­na­tion of their contract.

We believe GEO has been a good part­ner for the City by cre­at­ing sev­er­al hun­dreds of jobs and sig­nif­i­cant­ly con­tribut­ing to the City’s finan­cial well-being, par­tic­u­lar­ly, when the times were very dif­fi­cult. We con­tin­ue to con­tribute through high school schol­ar­ships and to local char­i­ties. We now ask for your coop­er­a­tion to dis­con­tin­ue the ICE IGSA [the con­tract between ICE and Ade­lan­to],” Zoley stat­ed in the email.

GEO Group, like oth­er pri­vate deten­tion com­pa­nies, under­stands how lever­ag­ing cities’ eco­nom­ic anx­i­eties against them is a prof­itable busi­ness plan. I think com­pa­nies like the GEO Group smell des­per­a­tion, and they are very tuned in on cities that actu­al­ly need com­pa­nies to prop them up,” said Ade­lan­to res­i­dent and native Mario Novoa. That vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty is what allows them to affect the deci­sions and pri­or­i­ties of local officials.

In Ade­lan­to, for exam­ple, after the con­struc­tion of the city’s first high school was approved in 2008, the open­ing was delayed from 2012 to 2014 due to the project going $3.4 mil­lion over bud­get. In com­par­i­son, the deten­tion facility’s expan­sion project went over bud­get by $25.4 mil­lion, and was com­plet­ed in four years.

When rur­al local gov­ern­ments pri­or­i­tize deten­tion facil­i­ties over schools, the answer to why their com­mu­ni­ties face high­er lev­els of pover­ty, depres­sion, drug addic­tion and sui­cide should be clear.

Incar­cer­a­tion goes rural

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Adelanto’s sit­u­a­tion is lit­tle dif­fer­ent than that of many oth­er rur­al U.S. com­mu­ni­ties. When agri­cul­ture moved out and the great depres­sion moved in, Ade­lan­to went through eco­nom­ic trou­ble until it was propped up by the war econ­o­my. In 1941, the bor­der­ing com­mu­ni­ty of Vic­torville began build­ing the Vic­torville Army Air­field, lat­er renamed the George Air Force Base. That made Ade­lan­to the home of thou­sands of Air Force fam­i­lies, and cre­at­ed a depend­able source of rev­enue for the city.

When the base was offi­cial­ly decom­mis­sioned in 1992, the City again entered an eco­nom­ic slump that has con­tin­ued to this day. In an act of eco­nom­ic des­per­a­tion, Ade­lan­to made the choice many rur­al com­mu­ni­ties did in the 1990s: It became a prison town. In 1991, the city con­tract­ed with the state of Cal­i­for­nia to con­struct the Ade­lan­to State Prison.

Through­out the 1980s and 90s, many local gov­ern­ments in rur­al com­mu­ni­ties across the Unit­ed States worked with the state and fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to secure prison con­tracts. From 1980 to 1991 there were 213 pris­ons built in non-metro areas in the U.S. Many of them came with mas­sive accom­mo­da­tions from local government.

In one instance, the town of Abi­lene, Texas, offered an incen­tive pack­age worth over $4 mil­lion to the state of Texas to attract the con­struc­tion of a prison. The plan also includ­ed 1,100 acres of farm­land capa­ble of pro­duc­ing $500,000 in cot­ton a year. One major rea­son for this was the steady increase of incar­cer­a­tion rates since 1980. Sta­tis­tics from the Bureau of Jus­tice show that the prison pop­u­la­tion rose more than 300% from a record high at the time 329,122 inmates in 1980, to 1,489,363 inmates as of 2017.

From prison to immi­grant detention

Today, the hyper-crim­i­nal­iza­tion of migra­tion by the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has cre­at­ed a new oppor­tu­ni­ty for rur­al com­mu­ni­ties to choose deten­tion as a devel­op­ment strat­e­gy. Both on the bor­der and in the inte­ri­or you are see­ing a mas­sive surge of deten­tion expan­sion,” says Liz Mar­tinez of Free­dom for Immigrants.

From 2000 to 2016 — before Trump even took office — the num­ber of immi­grants in deten­tion rose 442% from 4,841 to 26,249. With the eco­nom­ic out­look of many rur­al com­mu­ni­ties still bleak, deten­tion can seem a wise investment.

In March, the rur­al Vil­lage of Dwight, Ill., approved the con­struc­tion of a 1,200-bed immi­gra­tion deten­tion facil­i­ty. In response to statewide protests against the facil­i­ty, Vil­lage Pres­i­dent Jared Ander­son cit­ed eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment as the rea­son the vote passed. You are look­ing at $60,000-a-year salaries. That’s a good wage that would bring peo­ple into Dwight and give them an oppor­tu­ni­ty to have a house in town,” Ander­son stated.

How­ev­er, the jobs Ander­son is talk­ing about require pri­or expe­ri­ence and high lev­els of edu­ca­tion. What is more like­ly to occur is the same thing that hap­pened to Ade­lan­to: a staff formed most­ly of out com­muter work­ers, which con­tributes lit­tle to the town’s econ­o­my. The oth­er big ques­tion is how many peo­ple that work at the deten­tion cen­ter actu­al­ly live in Ade­lan­to,” as com­mu­ni­ty mem­ber Mario Novoa point­ed out.

Mul­ti­ple stud­ies on prison towns show that well below half of prison jobs are giv­en to the com­mu­ni­ties’ cur­rent residents.

A study draw­ing on 25 years of data on New York’s rur­al prison com­mu­ni­ties by researchers from The Sen­tenc­ing Project found that res­i­dents of rur­al coun­ties with one or more pris­ons did not gain sig­nif­i­cant employ­ment advan­tages com­pared to rur­al coun­ties with­out prisons.”

The state­ment that we bring more jobs’ is not accu­rate,” Liz­beth Abeln of the ICIJ stat­ed, adding that most of the peo­ple don’t last long work­ing there because it’s dis­or­ga­nized, mis­man­aged, and they just don’t like the work­ing envi­ron­ment. So if we’re going to talk about jobs, these aren’t the jobs peo­ple want.”

Also, work­ing in a deten­tion cen­ter or prison pos­es a seri­ous threat to the health of the res­i­dents who do receive jobs.

A 2017 report from the Mar­shall Project has shown that 65% of cor­rec­tion­al offi­cers say they have symp­toms of PTSD, and three of four have seen a death or seri­ous injury occur at work. In 2013, the Cal­i­for­nia Cor­rec­tion­al Peace Offi­cers Asso­ci­a­tion report­ed that the sui­cide rate among its mem­ber was 19.4 deaths per 100,000, com­pared to 12.6 deaths among the U.S. gen­er­al pub­lic. On Glass­door, an online web­site where pre­vi­ous employ­ees can review jobs, Geo Group employ­ees in Cal­i­for­nia rate their jobs one and a half stars out of five, and only five per­cent of review­ers rec­om­mend the job.

For detainees, the sit­u­a­tion is worse. In response to reports on abus­es with­in the prison, Liz Mar­tinez said that one of the things that was the most chill­ing was the unvar­nished cru­el­ty of the way the staff and guards were treat­ing peo­ple.” A report from Human Rights Watch has shown that poor med­ical treat­ment was a major fac­tor to more than half of the deaths report­ed by ICE dur­ing a mon­i­tored 16-month peri­od. Not only are there almost no reg­u­la­tions with­in these deten­tion cen­ters, but those detained also are denied their legal rights, such as the right to free rep­re­sen­ta­tion or the use of phones to com­mu­ni­cate with lawyers.

I’ve seen a few attempt­ed sui­cides using the braid­ed sheets by the vents and then the guards laugh at them and call them sui­cide fail­ures’ once they’re back from med­ical,” one Ade­lan­to detainee told an inspec­tor from the DHS Office of the Inspec­tor General.

As for the eco­nom­ic growth pris­ons and deten­tion cen­ters promise to bring, the results are also incon­se­quen­tial. The same research by The Sen­tenc­ing Project showed that in the case of New York, from 1982 until 2000, per capi­ta income rose 141% in coun­ties with­out a prison and 132% in coun­ties that host­ed a prison.”

Chang­ing the mean­ing of progress

While recent legal devel­op­ments make the future of Adelanto’s deten­tion cen­ter uncer­tain, the city must still con­tin­ue its uphill bat­tle against a strug­gling economy.

One new hope Ade­lan­to has found in an effort to turn away from deten­tion is mar­i­jua­na. In 2015, the city of Ade­lan­to became one of the first in Cal­i­for­nia to per­mit the growth of med­ical cannabis. In 2017, May­or Richard Kerr said he want­ed to turn the city into the Sil­i­con Val­ley of med­ical mar­i­jua­na,” but then in 2018 Kerr was tak­en out of his house in hand­cuffs on the charges of corruption.

So far, the com­mu­ni­ty is skep­ti­cal about the cannabis indus­try. With the cannabis indus­try, we have to make sure those com­pa­nies are pay­ing their tax­es so that Ade­lan­to has a good rev­enue going,” says Abeln of the ICIJ. Instead of an indus­try like cannabis, Abeln believes that focus­ing on com­mu­ni­ty insti­tu­tions like schools and parks and recs [and] men­tal health facil­i­ties” will help build a bet­ter Adelanto.

Trans­lat­ed to Eng­lish, Ade­lan­to means progress. While that def­i­n­i­tion seems hol­low now, res­i­dents and activists still believe that progress and oppor­tu­ni­ty are pos­si­ble in Adelanto.

When it comes to the news, you have mod­er­ate or left voic­es that are talk­ing about Ade­lan­to in a neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tion because the GEO Group is attached to it,” Novoa says. What does that do to the psy­che of the community?”

Abeln agrees. When­ev­er some­one hears Ade­lan­to they don’t think about the pos­i­tive things, they think about the deten­tion cen­ter and the deaths that have occurred there. The res­i­dents know this, and it puts a kind of gray cloud over the city and it blocks growth.”

Con­ner Mar­tinez is study­ing polit­i­cal sci­ence at the Grad­u­ate Cen­ter, CUNY. You can find him on Twit­ter @MartinezConner.
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