The Operators of America’s Largest Immigrant Detention Center Have A History of Inmate Abuse

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The South Texas Family Residential Center, run by CCA, is located in Dilley, Texas. Charles Reed/ICE

Updated | The Department of Homeland Security this week handed the keys to the largest detention center for undocumented immigrant families over to Corrections Corporation of America, a private prison company with a record of disregarding inmate safety and flouting federal laws. The Obama administration announced on Monday that CCA would run a 50-acre compound in Dilley, Texas, that will ultimately hold 2,400 women and children awaiting release or deportation.

In 2008, the Idaho Department of Corrections found that the CCA-run Idaho Correctional Center (ICC) suffered from "rampant violence" — in 2008, ICC experienced four times as many prisoner-on-prisoner assaults as Idaho’s seven other prisons combined, analysis by Idaho Department of Corrections Deputy Warden Tim Higgins found. Inmates supposedly called the prison a “gladiator school.” The ACLU sued CCA in 2012, arguing that CCA understaffed the facility and was to blame for the violence. However, a federal court-appointed independent monitor compiled a separate report on ICC which cast doubt on the ACLU's claim that the prison was significantly more violent than other Idaho state correctional facilities. The independent monitor concluded that, based on the number of its inmates and the percentage of violent inmates housed at ICC, it was not significantly more violent per capita than other Idaho prisons. The ACLU suit also charged CCA with falsifying records and billing the state for 4,800 hours of work at posts that in actuality remained vacant. In 2013, a federal judge held CCA in contempt of court for continuing to understaff the prison, even after it was sued by the ACLU. CCA and the ACLU ultimately settled out of court.

In 2013, the state of Idaho chose not to exercise its option to extend CCA’s $30 million contract, instead opting to open the contract up to bidding. Neither CCA nor any other private prison company bid on the contract, and the prison returned to state operation. In 2014, the FBI launched an investigation into the company over its running of ICC.

CCA’s reputation doesn’t end with Idaho. In 2013, the Texas Observer called the state’s CCA-run Dawson State Jail for nonviolent offenders in Dallas “the worst state jail in Texas.” Seven inmates have died in Dawson since 2004, among them 30-year-old Ashleigh Parker, who died of pneumonia while an inmate. Parker’s family claims CCA staff denied her life-saving antibiotics. In 2010, 45-year-old Pamela Weatherby died from diabetes-related complications after CCA staff at Dawson replaced her medically prescribed insulin injections with cheaper oral insulin. Weatherby suffered through multiple diabetic comas before her death. Her family is suing CCA. A representative from CCA says that health care services at Dawson were provided through a contract between the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the University of Texas Medical Branch, not CCA.

Perhaps the most grisly tale out of Dawson is Autumn Miller’s. Miller gave birth to a premature baby at 26 weeks after CCA guards refused her cries for medical attention, she claims. She delivered her daughter, Gracie, into a prison toilet. Gracie lived four days. Miller, too, is suing CCA.

Furthermore, in 2012, riots broke out at two CCA-run prisons in Mississippi. In one instance, inmates killed one guard and took CCA employees hostage.

Now, the Obama administration has given CCA the reins of the federal government’s largest detention facility for undocumented immigrant families, a group that already faces a higher-than-average risk of assault and sexual abuse in detention centers. The compound, a former oil field worker’s camp about 70 miles southwest of San Antonio, will hold 2,400 women and children, who will remain at the facility, run by CCA, until they are released or deported.

A 2011 investigation by Frontline found that few of the more than 170 complaints filed against guards by federal immigration detainees for sexual abuse over the course of four years were even investigated by the Department of Homeland Security.

The Texas facility is not the first immigration detention center run by CCA. In April 2013, two Guatemalan nationals held at the Eloy Detention Center outside Phoenix, Arizona, another CCA-run facility, committed suicide three days apart. At the time, Alessandra Soler, executive director of the ACLU of Arizona, told Prison Legal News, "Suicides are a red flag. They usually signify a much larger problem. Sometimes it's because of ineffective mental health treatment, but often times it's caused by poor staffing issues.” CCA denies liability.

In 2005, a female detainee at a CCA-run immigrant detention facility in Otay Mesa, near San Diego, sued CCA, claiming a correctional officer raped her twice. The guard was fired as a direct result of an investigation by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Investigations, but both the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Civil Rights Division declined to prosecute him, according to a report by the DHS’s Office of Inspector General. The report also found that, in May, 2005, a detainee at a CCA facility in San Diego alleged a correctional officer “dislodged him from his wheelchair when he tried to enter another area.” The detainee suffered no injuries, CCA medical staff found, and the correctional officer was placed on administrative leave.

CCA, the largest for-profit prison company in the country, is worth more than $1 billion. Arizona’s controversial immigration law, SB 1070, which requires police to detain individuals if there is a “reasonable suspicion” that they are not in the country legally, was in fact initially drafted by a group called ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. Representatives from CCA were present when the legislation was being drafted at ALEC, according to an investigation by NPR, though CCA vehemently denies that it had any hand in the drafting of SB 1070.

And of the 36 legislators who co-sponsored the bill in Arizona’s legislature, 30 received campaign donations from CCA.

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify CCA representatives' role in the drafting of of Arizona Senate Bill 1070 and preceding legislation on which it was modeled. It has also been modified to include findings from a 2013 Comprehensive Violence Report on the Idaho Correctional Center, to clarify CCA's responsibility for health care services at Dawson State Jail, and to remove reference to a lawsuit filed by the family of an inmate who died while incarcerated there.