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Let's Slam the Door on Private Prisons Once and for All

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Illinois faces a crucial decision: Do we allow a notoriously irresponsible company like the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) into our state, or do we send them a clear message that Illinois is not Arizona by passing Senate Bill 1064? SB 1064 would block state and local government bodies from contracting with private companies to run detention facilities in Illinois.

Illinois law already bars the state and local governments from contracting with private companies to build and run correctional facilities. As this law states, jailing people is a "uniquely governmental function." SB 1064 would extend this decades-old public policy to civil detention settings and close the remaining door enabling the private prison industry to come to Illinois.

CCA, however, wants to build a new immigration jail in Crete, Illinois. A debate has arisen about whether this detention center is any good for Illinois. On our side of the debate are more than 1,100 local residents, law enforcement leaders, organized labor, the American Civil Liberties Union, more than 100 community organizations, and nearly every religious denomination, including the Catholic Conference of Illinois. On the other side of the debate are high-powered highly-paid prison lobbyists.

Last weekend CCA made national headlines when a riot flared up in its Natchez, Mississippi detention center -- a center just like the one proposed in Crete. One guard was killed in the riot and at least 20 others were injured. More than 300 inmates ran wild, some using sticks and homemade knives. A bonfire started on the prison grounds with mattresses and wood gathered from the detention center. Local police chiefs and sheriffs had to be called in from across the state to fill in the gaps left by prison staff who were not given proper support from CCA.

This crisis is nothing new for CCA. In 2010, CCA was forced to settle a lawsuit because it was running a "gladiator school" in an Idaho prison where guards forced inmates to fight one another as they watched. This isn't even the first crisis in Mississippi, where another bonfire occurred years earlier. Chemical grenades had to be used at yet another CCA prison in Tennessee. A total of 24 immigrant detainees have died in CCA custody over the years.

CCA, a multi-billion dollar corporation, has a long, well-documented history of cutting costs, underpaying and under-training staff, and fighting unions. These profit-driven practices have created poor morale, high turnover, and personnel who are ill-prepared to handle their responsibilities.

It is important to set the record straight about jobs, too. This new center would be a job killer, not a job creator. The Crete facility is part of a plan by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to close up detention operations at three other detention centers in Illinois. This would result in what we estimate to be at least 185 lost jobs, with no guarantee that these employees would find employment in the new facility.

But above all else, the Mississippi riot this past weekend should end the debate on this issue. We don't need that kind of crisis in Illinois.

Lawrence Benito is the executive director at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.