“How can they have so many jails?” howled a Facebook friend. “They must have been planning for this.” He has a point. As horror stories mount, of 2300 unaccompanied children taken into custody and held separately  from their parents, the logistics alone are staggering.

On the other hand, this is the first time I’ve ever heard anyone doubt the formidable capacity of the U.S. prison system, given that it has the world’s highest incarceration rate per capita. Currently, one in every 38 Americans is under the control of the corrections system.

Let us count the overkill. The U.S. has more jails than colleges. The tiny state of Rhode Island has more prisoners than the entire nation of Costa Rica. Infuriatingly, of the 2.3 million people in U.S. jails at any time, most have not been convicted. They are awaiting trial.   

However, people who are apprehended for crossing the border (which has usually been treated as a misdemeanor) are under the authority of the U.S. Border and Customs Patrol, which has its own detention facilities at or near its border stations. The BPC detention centres provide the warehouses and cages where officers separate children from their parents — one Texas border station alone handled 1100 young children — and where the photos of children with mylar emergency blankets come from.

Prisoners are mostly Mexican, Central and South American women and children fleeing war zones and seeking asylum in the U.S. They are “Some of the most desperate people I’ve ever met,” said MSNBC correspondent Jacob Soboroff, because they are running from the random violence, the drive-by shootings and the gunfire fights, that gangs and cartels use to control the territory where civilians live. 

Even before this crisis started, says a Prison Policy Initiative report, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detained 34,000 people who were not charged with any offence, and held them “in federally-run or privately-run immigration detention facilities or in local jails under contract with ICE.”

Although identifying all the institutions and compiling all the data can be challenging, the report says that the U.S. holds captive almost 2.3 million people in almost 7000 federal and state prisons, local jails, juvenile facilities, Indian Country jails, military prisons, immigration detention facilities, private jails and prisons, and more. Of those, private jails and prisons hold about eight percent of U.S. prisoners (almost 20 percent of federal prisoners); they house even more immigration and federal pre-trial detainees. Add in the 840,000 people on parole and 3.7 million on probation, and in all, almost seven million (7,000,000) residents are under the control of Correctional Services.

Two companies control most of the private corrections business: the CivicCore (formerly Corrections Corporation of America or CCA) and the GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut). Both companies have faced allegations of abuse and inhumane conditions. Both are known to lobby local and federal governments to implement harsher laws and longer sentences. The GEO Group seems to be handling most of the new captives who are charged with “illegally” trying to enter the US.  

“Within the Texas legislature, a controversial bill is pending,” starts a Newsweek story from May 2017. “A private prisons company called the GEO Group has allegedly asked Republicans to submit a law that could lead to immigrant children being indefinitely detained in its lucrative centers.” GEO sought to obtain child care licenses for some of its staff in hopes of qualifying as a childcare provider and thereby overriding the 20-day maximum stay for children. 

However, President Obama’s acting Attorney General Sally Yates had already announced that the federal government would begin phasing out its contracts with private prisons. Federal prison populations had dropped from 220,000 in 2013 to 195,000 in 2016  — almost the 15 percent that the private prisons housed. Journalism may have influenced her decision. Mother Jones had just published Shane Bauer’s damning “My four months as a private prison guard,” about his job at a CCA facility.

In fact, incarceration rates have been falling steadily since 2007 because of legal reforms. As the Pew Foundation reports, because of legislative trends like the infamous Three-strikes-and-you’re-out laws, U.S. prison populations increased fourfold from the mid-1970s to the mid-2000s. “By 2007, one in 100 American adults was behind bars, and one in 31 was under some form of correctional control, including probation or parole.” Meanwhile, taxpayers footed corrections expenses of more than $74 billion a year.

Since Texas instituted its Justice Reinvestment program in 2007, more than more 30 states have changed their laws to expand non-prison alternatives for nonviolent offenders, reduce recidivism, and make violent and career offenders top priority for costly prison space.

“Between 2007 and 2015,” Pew reports, “the incarceration rate receded to 1 in 115 adults, the correctional control rate dropped to 1 in 37, and the overall crime rate continued its downward trend….The 10 states with the biggest decreases in their use of prisons saw crime drop more, on average, than the 10 states with the largest increases in imprisonment.”  

In 2016, Hillary Clinton supported this anti-incarceration, pro-social approach to corrections. Conversely, the GEO Group apparently saw it as a threat to their business. At any rate, they did what any self-interested capitalist would do. They contributed to her opponent’s campaign.

As Mirren Gidda reported in Newsweek: “On August 19, the day after Yates’ announcement [that DOJ would phase out private prisons], GEO Corrections Holdings Inc., a subsidiary of the GEO Group, donated $100,000 to the pro-Trump PAC Rebuilding America Now. Then, on November 1 — seven days before the presidential election — it gave another $125,000 to the organization.” GEO also donated $250,00 towards Trump’s inaugural celebrations.

Since then, as Gidda’s article predicted, top civil servant Daniel Ragsdale has moved to GEO (as an Executive Vice-President), directly from his position as Deputy Director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Last March, the Trump administration announced plans to spend $1.5 billion on “expanded detention, transportation, and removal of illegal immigrants.”

“The private prison industry has thrived under Trump,” wrote Michael Sainnato in the New York Observer. “Shortly after the election, stocks soared for the two largest private prison corporations, GEO Group and CoreCivic.

“Trump’s Department of Justice reversed a plan to reduce the use of private prisons in February 2017, paving the way for new government contracts for the industry… In February 2017, a leaked memo from the Trump administration cited plans to double the capacity of beds at immigration detention centers from 31,000-34,000 individuals held daily to 80,000….”

So it seems my sceptical Facebook friend may be right. Plans for detention centres were in the works long before Republican immigration policies were clear. Apparently there’s already a pipeline for the children they take and keep in custody longer than the 20 days permitted by law. At least children from southern border stations have turned up in New York City.

As the New York TImes reported, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Wednesday afternoon that “350 children had come through the [New York City Cayuga] center and that 239 of them were currently in Cayuga’s care.” Among the youngsters were a nine-month-old, and a 9-year-old boy who came on the bus by himself from Texas.  

Separating infants from their parents never made any sense to me, even as an extortion tactic. Yet time and again Donald Trump lowers the bar on acceptable behaviour. Sacrificing young children to increase GEO’s bottom line is an obscenity. It is the crassest capitalism and the vilest venality possible. 

There’s a special place in hell for people who help their friends profit from tormenting helpless infants.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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Penney Kome

Penney Kome

Award-winning journalist and author Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local (Calgary) column...