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Grijalva Rails Against Contracts Permitted In His Own Prison Reform Bill

Progressive Arizona congressman Raúl Grijalva expressed dismay that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) signed an $11 million contract with GEO Care because its parent company, GEO Group, profits off detaining women and children in horrific conditions. Yet, remarkably, Grijalva is the sponsor of a bill, which contains specific exemptions allowing companies like GEO Group to do exactly what upsets him.

This is just one example of how efforts by lawmakers and watchdog groups to reform the prison system are simultaneously acknowledged and actively undermined.

On September 17, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) released a report [PDF] on the conditions facing immigrants in detention centers across the country. The commission found both government and privately-operated facilities were not complying with standards of medical care, legal information and “other basic standards of treatment” put in place in 2011.

USCCR charged the DHS with “not respecting the civil rights and due process rights of detainees,” “not sufficiently [protecting] detainees from sexual assault and abuse,” and violating the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). It also found the federal government was not complying with the District Court’s decision in California’s Flores Settlement Agreement, which prohibited the detention of mothers and children fleeing violence in their home countries.

The report recommended DHS “release all family detainees, reduce the use of detention, ensure humane treatment of detainees, increase the use of alternatives to detention, allow legal and pastoral access to detention facilities, and strengthen due process protections.”

The same day, Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) joined Congressman Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) and others to introduce a prison reform bill called the Justice Is Not For Sale Act, which included provisions to outlaw facility management contracts with private prison companies, re-establish the federal parole system, remove the bed quota for immigrant prisons, and end the practice of incarcerating immigrant families.

Sanders’ bill also called for alternatives to detention for immigrants and families, and promoted policies that would lead to release for many—just as the USCCR report recommended. However, the bill made an exception for private prison companies to provide services and operate facilities involving inmates outside prison walls.

Additionally, as part of the re-establishment of the federal parole system, the bill allowed for the government to compel individuals to participate in certain treatment programs or live in certain residential centers to which they would also be responsible for paying fees. This includes companies that operate halfway houses and substance abuse treatment programming.

These elements leave the door open for the same companies who faced criticism for years for the conditions of their facilities to continue to diversify and reap massive profits from post-release programming and treatment.

Almost as if on cue, the Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency quietly announced an $11 million agreement with GEO Care, a subsidiary of private prison giant GEO Group. GEO Care will be part of a pilot program matching families with caseworkers “to help families integrate and make sure that they conform to the conditions of their release and show up to their court dates.”

GEO Group makes upwards of $1.4 billion dollars each year operating immigrant facilities for ICE—the same facilities at the heart of the USCCR’s report—as well as other state and federal lock-ups. The company faces claims of being a major purveyor of violence and abuse against prisoners of all types.

Like its competitors, GEO Group has been busy in recent years acquiring other companies and diversifying into markets outside of facility management as public pressure has mounted against their misconduct. GEO Group bought BI Incorporated, which makes electronic monitoring devices, for nearly half a billion dollars in February 2011.

In 2009, GEO Care acquired Just Care and took over medical and mental health care at the Columbia Regional Care Center in South Carolina, where a woman would make headlines for impersonating a nurse and illegally administering treatment to patients two years later.

It’s no great surprise that GEO Care has been the subject of numerous lawsuits and fines as well, allegedly abusing inmates and providing them with substandard mental and physical healthcare. Under the exemptions in the Justice Is Not For Sale Act, GEO Group would likely be allowed to continue making a profit through release services for immigrant detainees, such as those agreed to in this new contract with ICE.

All things considered, activist groups now find themselves in somewhat of an awkward position, applauding ICE for initiating caseworker programs to help immigrants and their families transition out of detention, while expressing concerns about the contract and money going right back to one of the original sources of the problems: GEO Group.

“Our initial reaction is that we are disappointed that it went to a company that focuses more on corrections and prisons than to an organization that has stronger migrant community ties, especially since our hope is that the program focuses on case management and integration into the community,” Michelle Brané, director of the migrant rights and justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission, told Express News. “But at the same time, we completely support the creation of this program, and we hope that Geo Care does incorporate case management and a nonpunitive approach.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Raul Grijalva sent DHS a letter expressing his disappointment with the decision to sign a contract with GEO Care given the record of its parent company. “I am dismayed that this contract was awarded to one of the same for-profit prison companies that has been detaining women and children in horrific conditions for financial gain,” he wrote.

“Given the numerous allegations of mistreatment in facilities run by private prison companies, it is inconceivable that the same entities will continue profiting off women and children seeking refuge in the United States.”

Indeed, it is “inconceivable.” Luckily, Grijalva is in a position to stop it. All he has to do is update his bill.

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.