Immigrant Rights Advocates Ask Congress to Stop Private Prison Expansion

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Last May, a riot in a private prison in Natchez, Mississippi, turned deadly when a prison guard was beaten to death. The riot was sparked by undocumented immigrants angered by poor food and medical care and abusive guards. It’s only the latest in a series of riots that have occurred in the booming immigrant detention system in the United States.

In Pecos, Texas, riots broke out in 2008 over medical negilgence after a detainee with epilepsy died in solitary confinement. Despite the riots, deaths and documented cases of abuse the number of detention facilities — many of them private jails — increased by 208 percent between 2002 and 2008. The industry has grown massive, fed by Operation Streamline a federal policy expanded in 2005 to detain immigrants who enter the country illegally. People who enter illegally for the first time can serve a 30 day sentence in jail while a repeat offender can serve anywhere from 1 to 20 years in prison.

Since 2001, it has cost U.S. taxpayers $5.5 billion to incarcerate undocumented immigrants yet research shows that it does little to deter immigrants from coming illegally to the United States. Thursday, Austin nonprofit Grassroots Leadership and other civil justice groups will testify at a Congressional Briefing sponsored by U.S. Representative Jared Polis. The briefing will examine human rights abuses and waste, which they say is prevalent in the Federal Bureau of Prison’s “Criminal Alien Requirements” private prison contracting program. “The federal government has another 1,000 beds budgeted for 2013,” says Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership. “Private detention facilities have grown exponentially but research shows incarcerating people doesn’t deter them from coming.The biggest determinant is the economy.”

So many immigrants have been incarcerated for entering the country illegally that it has radically changed the composition of the federal prison population. In 2011, for the first time Hispanics made up 50.3 percent of people sentenced for felonies even though they make up just 16 percent of the U.S. population. Libal and other advocates hope the federal government will consider less costly and more humane alternatives to jail. “We have less undocumented Mexicans entering the country than in decades and we’re still expanding the detention system,” he says. “There has to be a better policy.”

Read a new report released by Grassroots Leadership called “Operation Streamline:Costs and Consequences.”

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. She has a master’s in public health from Texas A&M University and a master’s in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.