By Emma Winger | Aug 17, 2023
On Thanksgiving Day 2017, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers arrested Kamyar Samimi—a lawful permanent resident with a decade-old conviction for drug possession—and sent him to the privately run ICE Processing Center in Aurora, Colorado. Two weeks later, he was dead. Facility staff had forced him to stop methadone treatment cold turkey and then assumed he was faking his withdrawal symptoms, inducing a seizure. Even when Mr. Samimi screamed that he could not breathe and began vomiting blood, staff delayed calling 911 for several hours. He was never examined by a facility doctor.
On October 13, 2022, Melvin Ariel Calero-Mendoza suffered a heart attack at the Aurora ICE Processing Center. The facility staff member who called 911 provided the dispatcher the wrong address and placed the dispatcher on hold when asked how paramedics could enter the facility. Mr. Calero-Mendoza died of a pulmonary embolism.
Mr. Samimi and Mr. Calero-Mendoza’s cases are just two examples of recently uncovered medical neglect and other abuses in private immigration prisons.
After a three-year court battle, NPR gained access to more than 1,600 pages of secret inspection reports documenting a range of abuses in immigration detention facilities—many run by private corporations. Despite promises of transparency, the Biden administration fought the release of these reports, which were prepared by experts hired by the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. DHS released the records only after a court ordered their production under the Freedom of Information Act.
The reports describe a man sent into a jail’s general population with an open surgical wound, a person denied access to an inhaler, and a mentally ill man strapped into a restraint chair whose clothes were then cut from his body by a female officer.
At the Houston Contract Detention Facility, run by the private prison company CoreCivic, an inspector found that despite numerous complaints of discrimination, verbal abuse, and retaliation by custody staff, the facility had not conducted any investigation.
In the face of such abuses – many with deadly consequences – the private immigration detention industry is booming. New analysis by the ACLU shows that as of July 2023, 90.8% of people detained in ICE custody each day are held in privately owned or operated detention facilities. This is up from 81% at the end of the Trump administration. The GEO Group – the private company that operates Aurora ICE Processing Center – made $1.05 billion from ICE contracts in 2022 alone. $408 million of that income came from contracts to electronically monitor immigrants released on an Alternative to Detention program. CoreCivic made $552.2 million on its ICE detention contracts in 2022.
This expansion of for-profit immigration prisons marks an about-face for President Biden, who promised during his presidential campaign to end private immigration detention. Instead, DHS rejected the recommendation of its own Office of Inspector General to remove all detainees from CoreCivic’s Torrance County Detention Facility. After closing a privately run prison for individuals in criminal custody, the Biden administration promptly reopened the same private facility for immigration detention. Moshannon Valley Correctional Facility now holds nearly 1,000 people in rural Pennsylvania.
As immigration remains a political flashpoint, politics may be driving the Biden administration to abandon past promises by expanding immigration detention. But the financial incentives cannot be ignored. An entire industry has grown up to profit from the incarceration of immigrants. Large corporations are making lots of money. And they are selling the idea to small towns – a new, private detention center is often welcomed as a source of jobs for the surrounding county. ICE has financial incentives to fill those private detention centers. Private prison contracts often guarantee that ICE will pay for a certain number of beds, even if they are empty.
But financial incentives should play no role in a person’s freedom. Immigration detention is not punishment. Immigration detention is supposed to serve no other purpose than to ensure a person appears in immigration court and can be deported if necessary. It should never, under any circumstances, be a place of widespread abuse and medical neglect. Where the vast majority of immigrants show up to court on their own, there is no legitimate explanation for investing in detention facilities that endanger the health, safety, and fundamentally, the lives of immigrants.