WASHINGTON -- It was December 2010, and officials who ran the nation's federal prisons had a dilemma. They weren't sure if they should renew a contract with the giant private prison company GEO Group to imprison federal inmates who aren't U.S. citizens.
So an official with the Federal Bureau of Prisons resorted to a tried-and-true method: He made a list of pros and cons. On the benefits side, the official wrote that leaving the GEO Group in charge of the Reeves correctional facility in Pecos, Texas, would be less work, would cause less disruption and would lock in a good per-prisoner price.
Then there were the disadvantages.
"CONTRACTOR SHOWS LITTLE SIGNS OF IMPROVEMENT," the official wrote, as one of 15 issues listed. There were major disturbances at its facilities, he wrote, and GEO Group "IS UNABLE TO SUCCESSFULLY ACHIEVE THEIR OWN PLANS OF ACTION TO CORRECT DEFICIENT AREAS."
"LACK OF HEALTHCARE HAS GREATLY IMPACTED INMATE HEALTH AND WELL BEING," he wrote.
Despite those problems, the GEO Group's contract was renewed. A Bureau of Prisons official later wrote in an email to an official in the Justice Department's Justice Management Division that ending the contract would cause the agency to lose "credibility as a solid customer" with private prison companies.
According to a new in-depth report from the American Civil Liberties Union, that story is illustrative of the lack of oversight that the Bureau of Prisons exercises over the private prison companies that have contracts to incarcerate federal offenders who are not U.S. citizens.
The new report, "Warehoused and Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped in Our Shadow Private Prison System," documents a part of the federal agency's bailiwick that is rarely examined. Focusing on five "Criminal Alien Requirement" private prisons in Texas, the four-year-long ACLU investigation found "pervasive and disturbing patterns of neglect and abuse of the prisoners," many of whom were convicted only of immigration offenses, like illegally re-entering the country.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the report shows how separating non-citizens from the rest of the inmate population and putting them into the hands of private companies, who make higher profits when they hold as many inmates as possible and spend as little on them as possible, results in a wide variety of abuses. Investigators found an "overwhelming sense of despair" at the facilities they visited, where prisoners are often far from their families, are frequently sent to solitary confinement for offenses as simple as complaining about food, and are often forced to sleep on the floor because there aren't enough beds.
The report relays accusations that guards subject some inmates to verbal abuse, calling them names like "Mexican n****r" and "wetback," taunting gay prisoners and harassing those who don't speak English.
There are 13 federal private-contract prisons in the United States, mostly holding non-citizens who will likely be deported at the end of their sentences. Just under 30,000 inmates -- about 13 percent of the overall federal prison population -- are housed in privately managed facilities.
"Andrew" is one of them. He has been behind bars for 22 years on drug charges and a few years ago reconnected with his now-fiancée. When he was in a regular federal prison, he used to write her emails all the time. But there's no email at the Reeves correctional facility. Phone calls are much more expensive than they are in the regular federal prisons, costing $70 per month for 300 minutes at one privately run facility. Snail mail is delayed and sometimes sent back, and it can be cost-prohibitive for his fiancée to make the journey to visit him.
"They don't follow any of the BOP rules. They don't follow anything," his fiancée, "Maria," told The Huffington Post. "As a taxpayer, I don't think that's fair, even if it wasn't my fiancé. ... I know they're not in the Hilton Hotel, but come on, they're human."
"It's just absolutely crazy," Maria said. "I've never seen anything like it."
A spokesman for the GEO Group, Pablo Paez, didn't respond directly to the accusations in the ACLU report, but issued a statement saying that both public and private facilities "face challenges that are inherent in the management of offender and detainee populations." He said that GEO’s facilities under contract with the Bureau of Prisons "achieved an average score in excess of 99% during the most recent accreditation audits conducted by the American Correctional Association."
Chris Burke, a spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons, said that the agency would not comment on the specifics of the ACLU report but "take[s] seriously the allegations made in it." In a statement, Burke further noted:
The Bureau has found that contracting with the private sector provides an effective means of managing low security, specialized populations. The majority of these inmates are sentenced criminal aliens who will be deported upon completion of their sentence. The criminal aliens were an appropriate group for housing in privately operated institutions where there are somewhat fewer programs offered to prepare offenders to successfully reintegrate into U.S. communities. Contracting bedspace provides flexible and cost effective solutions for our crowded facilities.
To ensure contractors perform in accordance with the contract terms and conditions, and ensure the safety and security of the inmates and community, the BOP places several staff on-site at each facility for monitoring purposes. These staff are in the facility, perform scheduled and unscheduled inspections, and are expected to be aware of, and resolve, any performance issues before they reach an unsatisfactory level. This is accomplished by providing technical direction and guidance in addition to assessing contract performance.
In addition to our staff on-site, a team of subject matter experts conduct annual reviews to provide a more detailed assessment of the contractor's overall performance in all areas of correctional management. Serious findings identified during these reviews may result in monetary deductions.
This story has been updated with comments from a Bureau of Prisons spokesman.