Few Americans know about our nation's system of immigrant detention centers. Each year, the U.S. government locks up roughly 440,000 immigrants in over 200 immigrant prisons. These facilities have grown into a highly privatized, lucrative and abusive industry that profits off the misery of immigrants awaiting deportation. Here at Brave New Films, we're doing everything we can to expose the abuses of the deportation industrial complex. In our new film, Immigrant Prisons, we explore conditions inside the detention centers, exposing substandard medical care, widespread physical and sexual abuse, virtual slave labor working conditions and more. These abuses happen behind closed doors with little to no oversight.
It's important to remember that immigration detention is a civil form of confinement. "This is not criminal custody, this is not someone who’s been convicted of a crime," says attorney James Fife of the Federal Defenders of San Diego. "This is just someone who’s being held for the government’s convenience so that the person’s available” for processing, said Fife.
Unlike with criminals who have been convicted of a crime, there's no time limit on how long people can be held at immigration detention centers. It's hard to believe, but immigrants can be locked up indefinitely without a criminal offense or bond hearing. In the film we highlight the case of a Kenyan immigrant, Sylvester, who spent 9 years and 4 months in immigration detention. Another immigrant describes her time in detention as being "like a legal kidnapping.”
Immigrant detention centers are overseen by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, a division of the Department of Homeland Security. Since ICE was created in 2003, there have been 177 confirmed deaths in detention centers. Medical neglect is the greatest contributing factor.
In the film, we speak with Gerard, a former detainee who almost died during his 11 months at a California facility. He was denied medical care for two weeks as a severe infection spread in his body. The private facility managers kept ignoring his requests until it was nearly too late. Such medical neglect contributed to nearly half all of deaths in immigrant prisons.
Christina Fialho, the executive director of CIVIC and a leading advocate for detainee rights, says that "denial of medical care at immigration detention facilities is routine." This substandard medical care is often accompanied by substandard food, unsanitary water and generally unhygienic living conditions.
Fialho says that immigrant detention centers are also plagued by abuse. “Guards with little to no training are kicking, hitting, sexually assaulting people in immigration detention,” she says. Each year thousands of complaints alleging sexual and physical abuse and substandard medical care are filed with authorities, but very few cases are ever investigated.
Adding insult to injury, detainees at for-profit detention centers are often coerced into working for virtually no money. The for-profit companies that run the facilities have all the wrong incentives and a captive workforce at their disposal. The food they provide detainees is frequently so inadequate that detainees feel they have no choice but to work for $1 a day to buy additional food from the commissary, often at inflated prices. Fialho doesn't mince words about this practice: "Detention centers are starving people into working in order to then cut staff salaries.”
The two largest private detention center operators, CCA and Geo Group, got started in the 1980s. In fact, CCA's very first contract was for locking up immigrants. In the past twenty years, the two companies have made over $12 billion in profits, largely from immigrant detention.
Wrongful death lawsuits and class action lawsuits alleging forced labor have helped expose abuses at private immigrant prisons, but systemic reforms are needed. Stock in CCA and Geo Group slid after the Obama administration moved to end the use of private prisons by the federal government, but the stocks rocketed up after the 2016 election. President Trump, who received major contributions from the private prison industry, reversed President Obama's order on private prison use and has proposed a 25% increase in ICE's budget.
Immigrant Prisons is our first film on the deportation industrial complex. In future films we'll explore how private prison companies promote policies and procedures that line their own pockets and profile the individuals who are working to perpetuate our abusive immigration enforcement system.
Unlike the private prison industry, we don't have millions to spend on advertising and lobbying. But there is a powerful grassroots movement rising up in this country to take on abuses in our immigration system.
I hope you will join the movement and share Immigrant Prisons with your networks. You can also screen the film for free at schools, houses of worship and community meetings for local media and elected officials through our Brave New Educators program. Together we can bring detained immigrants out from the darkness and provide them with the respect and dignity that we owe to all people.