01/08/2013 05:31 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2013

Detained Immigrants Exploited for Profit

More than 30,000 immigrant men and women were separated from their families during the holiday period. They were detained in the more than 250 facilities across the U.S. including the largest: the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin.

In the last 15 years, we have witnessed a dramatic expansion in the jailing of immigrants, from about 70,000 detained annually to more than 400,000. The cost of this system stands at $1.7 billion.

In the mid 1990s, Congress passed a series of harsh measures that led to a vast increase in unnecessary detention. This trend has been exacerbated by the private prison industry looking to exploit immigrant detention for profit. In 2009, approximately half the immigrant detainee population was housed in for-profit facilities.

In 2010, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest owner and operator of privatized correctional and detention facilities in the U.S., grossed more than $1.7 billion in total revenue.

These corporations aggressively lobby the Department of Homeland Security and Congress. CCA and the GEO Group, another operator of prisons, spent more than $20 million on lobbying from 1999 to 2009.

Private immigration detention facilities are particularly ripe for abuse because there is little federal oversight to ensure that applicable standards are enforced. The 2011 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) standards meant to guide operation of these facilities are not binding regulations and have not been applied to many for-profit detention facilities under contract with ICE. Without the threat of sanctions, compliance has been low, and violations are pervasive.

Since 2003, at least 24 people have died in immigration detention facilities operated by CCA.

The Stewart Detention Center is emblematic of the violations that plague the system.

From April 2009 to the summer of 2012, there was no doctor at Stewart. Currently, there is only one doctor and seven nurses on staff at the 1,752-bed facility. As the ACLU of Georgia documented in our May 2012 report, "Prisoners of Profit: Immigrants and Detention in Georgia," it can take days or even weeks for medical requests to be answered. In addition, individuals with mental disabilities are routinely placed in solitary confinement, leading to further deterioration of their mental health.

CCA further gets detained immigrants to labor for $1 to $3 per day for work the corporation would have to hire regularly paid employees for.

As part of a national campaign to expose and close the 10 worst facilities in the country, more than 200 community members marched to Stewart in late November, calling for its closure. Among our speakers were individuals formerly detained at Stewart, such as Pedro Guzman.

"After 20 months away from home, you lose faith, you feel worthless," Guzman said. "This place breaks you. The constant screaming and verbal abuse by the guards is just made to break your soul and handicap you."

Stewart is not the exception, but the rule, in immigration detention today. It is unacceptable to spend billions in taxpayer dollars every year to contract with corporations such as CCA that perpetrate human rights abuses against this vulnerable population.

This article originally appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.