What Happened at an Immigrant Detention Center While ICE Officials Looked the Other Way?

This story is co-published with Capital & Main

In 2016 two immigrant detainees died after receiving care at facilities run by Emerald Correctional Management, a small Louisiana-based for-profit prison firm that at the time managed detention centers for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

A Russian asylum seeker, 46-year old Igor Zyazin, died of a heart attack several days after medical staff at Emerald’s San Luis Regional Detention Facility near Yuma, Arizona failed to adequately treat his severe chest pain. Olubunmi Joshua, 54, passed away after enduring eight months of medical errors and treatment delays at the Rolling Plains Detention Center in Haskell, Texas. 

Emerald operated three ICE detention centers and a county jail before going out of business in early 2017. A Capital & Main investigation has found Emerald took in millions of government dollars as it skimped on essential expenses and damaged detainees, its own employees and, likely, taxpayers while ICE officials looked the other way. Like other for-profit prison companies, Emerald did business with ICE through secretive no-bid contracts using city governments as middlemen. Critics charge these contracts allow ICE to avoid legal responsibility—for deaths, injuries and sexual abuse that occur in detention—and play a role in the government’s see-no-evil approach to detention abuses. Since 2003, 183 detainees have died in ICE custody.

The federal government depends on profit-driven prison companies, including smaller firms like Emerald and corrections giants, such as CoreCivic and the Geo Group, to run its sprawling, 200-plus-prison detention network.

Otay Mesa Detention Center Otay Mesa Detention Center during a demonstration against US immigration policy that separates children from parents, in San Diego, California June 23, 2018. - The Otay Mesa Detention Center, owned and operated by private prison company CoreCivic, has an inmate population that includes detainees of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

At Emerald, chaos reigned in the form of wage theft, poor medical care and crowded, unsanitary conditions. But ICE officials didn’t intervene, and it’s rare that it does at other facilities with serious problems. Between 2010 and 2017, just two of more than 200 detention centers received failing or “deficient” ratings from ICE inspectors.

The government’s failure to act against these facilities is partly the result of an insatiable hunger for lockups, said Mark Fleming, an attorney with the National Immigrant Justice Center. Fleming contended that without the capacity to warehouse thousands of immigrants in facilities run by private prison companies, the government would face “an existential crisis.”

In a rush to create detention space, ICE has used opaque noncompetitive contracts called Intergovernmental Service Agreements to quickly bring beds online.

Now, as ICE seeks to expand family detention, it is likely to turn to IGSAs just as it did in 2014, when a wave of Central American children and families sought asylum in the U.S. It is reportedly planning to house families at the Fort Bliss Army base in Texas.

Critics argue that the sole purpose of some of these agreements is to avoid public protest and federal contracting rules that officially are aimed at ensuring transparency and avoiding overpayment by the government.

Immigration detention has expanded fivefold in the past 23 years, and with the Trump administration’s deportation surge, is growing larger.

But when Emerald got its start in 1997, the immigration detention system was just ramping up, and immigration detention contracts were a reliable source of business for the company—even as Emerald’s blunders were getting it ousted from county jails and knocked out of the running for state and local bids to operate jails and prisons nationwide.

The company drummed up some of its business by convincing small towns that jails and prisons would revive their dying economies.

In the 1980s and ’90s, Raywood J. LeMaire, one of the company’s four partners, learned firsthand as the five-term Vermilion Parish sheriff that there was money to be made in renting out jail beds to relieve state-prison overcrowding. Louisiana sheriffs like LeMaire generated money and power for their offices by housing state prisoners in their jails—often on the cheap and in poor conditions.

“As long as you didn’t feed them too well—grits and beans and cold bologna—you could make some money,” alleged Keith Nordyke, a Louisiana attorney who has long represented prisoners.

Asked about his partnership in Emerald, LeMaire, now in his late 70s, told Capital & Main, “I got out of it in January,” before refusing to talk further and hanging up the phone. Emerald’s other partners, Glenn Hebert, who also once worked for the Vermilion Parish Sheriff’s Office, Clay Lee, W.T. Lee and former CEO Steve Afeman couldn’t be reached for comment. Hull Youngblood, an attorney who represented the company, didn’t return calls or answer emails.

Red flags had warned of trouble inside the company at least since 2003, when Emerald took over operations at the Rolling Plains Detention Center from another private firm.

“We saw things go to hell,” said Judy Morrell, who worked as a guard at Rolling Plains. Food for detainees was scarce, she alleged: “They would feed these people chicken bones and rice. If you don’t feed them, they’ve got to get money to buy [from] the commissary.” Morrell noted that Emerald profited from its in-prison store. “But you take people who didn’t have money, by God, they didn’t eat. They’d get to stealing and thieving.”

Now 70, Morrell said that when she started with Emerald she knew how prisons were supposed to run, having put in five years with the Texas prison system.

Morrell publicly complained about bad food and overcrowding, and quit her job in 2004. Federal officials were quoted in local media at the time as pledging to investigate her accusations. Three years later, a habeas corpus petition filed on behalf of five members of a Palestinian family alleged they were the victims of sexual harassment, inadequate medical treatment, excessive use of solitary confinement and religious intolerance.

Over the years at Rolling Plains, Texas Commission on Jail Standards inspectors found repeated incidents of overcrowding, unsafe and unsanitary conditions, failure of medical staff to follow doctors’ orders, understaffing and failure of staff to perform regular checks on detainees. (ICE inspectors became more critical of the facility only in its later years, noting dozens of violations of its standards but, based on available inspection reports, never appears to have given Rolling Plains an overall deficient rating.) Cases of egregious neglect by Emerald have included:

  • The 2016 suicide of a 77-year-old county inmate, Kennie Moore, who hanged himself using his boxer shorts as a noose.
  • Emerald’s 2012 ousting, by a Louisiana sheriff, from the Riverbend Detention Center when his officers discovered a mother lode of drugs, cellphones and shanks during a shakedown.
  • A lawsuit filed by workers at the West Texas Detention Facility against Emerald that alleged they were forced to work off the clock and weren’t paid for overtime; it was eventually settled out of court.

By 2016 the company had abandoned or been fired from more detention contracts than it maintained. As early as 2005, local and state governments in Florida, Vermont and Texas began to turn down the company’s bids to house prisoners or build facilities, citing its record. What’s more, the prison building boom was winding down as states tried to reduce their prison populations.

ICE immigration, customs enforcement NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 11: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), officers look to arrest an undocumented immigrant during an operation in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn on April 11, 2018 in New York City. New York is considered a 'sanctuary city' for undocumented immigrants, and ICE receives little or no cooperation from local law enforcement. ICE said that officers arrested 225 people for violation of immigration laws during the 6-day operation, the largest in New York City in recent years. John Moore/Getty Images

But ICE was Emerald’s ace in the hole. In 2016, Emerald finished construction on the $60 million Prairieland Detention Center in Alvarado, Texas and began managing the 700-bed facility for the agency. Prairieland replaced Rolling Plains, whose location was too remote for adequate staffing and transportation of detainees, said a former ICE official.

Perhaps ICE could overlook the company’s checkered history because technically the federal agency wasn’t in business with Emerald. Emerald’s contract was not with the government, but rather with Alvarado, a town of 4,000 near Fort Worth, which has no actual role in running the detention center.

ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok didn’t address Capital & Main’s questions about whether it reviewed Emerald’s record before approving it as the operator of the Prairieland facility. He wrote in an email that new facilities contracts must meet the latest ICE standards, which require that all facilities “vigorously investigate all claims of abuse, and mistreatment of detainees by staff and other detainees.”

Like all Intergovernmental Service Agreements, the deal was made without the transparency that federal contracting rules dictate. ICE signed the agreement with Alvarado city officials, but city officials have no role in operating Prairieland.

“If you told me today that I’d have to start running the jail tomorrow, that wouldn’t work,” said Rick Holden, Alvarado’s city manager. “We’re not set up for that.” Holden is new on the job, having arrived in early May. Still, he said that after six weeks in office he hadn’t visited Prairieland.

“We don’t manage it from here. Nobody out there reports to me,” Holden said. “ICE is the agency that has the facility.”

If Holden would find it daunting to manage a detention center in his backyard, imagine the task that would face city officials in Eloy, Arizona. On paper, Eloy manages the 2,400-bed South Texas Family Residential Center, which is located more than 900 miles away in Dilley, Texas. But last February, the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general found that Eloy doesn’t actually run the detention center, and didn’t even negotiate the agreement with ICE. Private prison operator CoreCivic did.

CoreCivic appears to have engineered the whole deal by asking the Eloy City Council to modify an existing ICE contract to also include the South Texas facility.

The town of Eloy was simply a middleman that was paid more than $400,000 annually by CoreCivic for the job, the inspector general concluded.

The IG noted that a lack of accountability is built into this particular contracting arrangement: “Because ICE’s agreement and legal relationship is with the city of Eloy, CCA’s [Core Civic’s] performance is effectively insulated from government scrutiny.”

The absurdity of a small city like Eloy overseeing a massive detention center in another state may be apparent, but the basics of its contract don’t differ much from a number of other IGSAs between ICE and local governments: Cities are routinely paid fees to act as middlemen between ICE and private companies.

Still, for the most part, the inspector general’s office limited its criticism to the Eloy agreement. But it did express its disapproval of ICE’s handling of IGSAs in general.

“ICE has no assurance that it executed detention center contracts in the best interest of the Federal Government, taxpayers, or detainees,” the report observed.

Eloy isn’t the only city supposedly overseeing detention operations from afar. In California, the city of Adelanto, in San Bernardino county, signed a 2014 agreement to provide guard services for a family detention center in New Mexico for a year. The services were provided by the for-profit prison firm, the GEO Group, not the city of Adelanto. The small San Joaquin Valley town of McFarland has a long-standing IGSA with ICE to operate the Mesa Verde Detention Center in Bakersfield, nearly 30 miles away.

The legitimate purpose of IGSAs is to allow government agencies to fill urgent needs by piggybacking onto services a local government already offers. In many cases, ICE does exactly that by signing an agreement with a local sheriff to rent beds in a county jail.

However, in other cases, ICE has used IGSAs only to rapidly bring detention facilities online by skirting federal contracting rules, which require an open bidding process that ensures transparency and competition.

About a third of all immigrant detainees are housed under these sort of agreements between ICE and cities.

Attorney Mark Fleming believes these are sham contracts, especially in cases where the city doesn’t even own the facility, much less operates it.

“These are fraudulent contracts to allow ICE to float money to a private company to avoid federal procurement laws,” Fleming said. “That’s a fraudulent contract because the locality has nothing to offer.”

For example, the Adelanto Detention Center in San Bernardino County is operated under an IGSA between the city of Adelanto and ICE. The city, however, doesn’t run the detention center. The for-profit GEO Group does.

Fleming said that even in cases like Prairieland, where the city of Alvarado owns the facility, its operations are controlled by the for-profit subcontractor, now LaSalle Corrections.

“The actual performance is happening between the private contractor and ICE,” Fleming said. “Yet, because there’s a private subcontractor, there’s no direct accountability that ICE can assert.”

Because of these contract arrangements, it’s difficult to hold ICE or local governments responsible for detention center abuses, Fleming noted.

Alvarado City Manager Holden and Mayor Tom Durington declined to comment on their city’s contracts with Emerald and ICE because neither was in office when they were signed. City councilmembers Jacob Wheat and Shawn Goulding, who, from its inception, served on the board of the Prairielands Public Facilities Corporation (PPFC), the economic development entity that operated the facility, couldn’t be reached for comment.

One former high-ranking Department of Homeland Security official, who asked not to be named in this story, disagreed with agency critics that IGSAs are a means by which ICE shirks its responsibility for detainee welfare, but he would not comment on whether IGSAs are legitimate contracts. However, he expressed concerns about the process of granting them.

“I think the way some of these contracts are done is troubling,” the former DHS official said. “It gives a lot of authority to bypass procurement rules and be selective about who benefits.”

Could Emerald have won a competitive bid under federal procurement standards? It officially obtained ICE approval to operate Prairieland after responding to a request for proposals issued by the city of Alvarado. It was the only firm to submit a bid, city officials said. Furthermore, the company appeared to have enjoyed an unusual advantage: In July 2011, CEO Steve Afeman, a Louisiana resident, was appointed by Alvarado city officials to serve as a governing board member of the PPFC. Afeman resigned his post the following month.

Then, less than a year after Prairieland was built, Emerald announced to each of the local governments with which it held contracts that it could no longer honor them, reportedly because of financial problems.

Emerald seems to have remained out of the detention business; at least two of its creditors have gone to Louisiana courts seeking to collect the company’s debts.

This story has been updated.


This reporting was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.