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Over the years, inmate interviews performed by the group have yielded similar complaints about the conditions at Stewart from detainees who Edwards says couldn't possibly have coordinated their stories. According to Edwards' wife, Amy, complaints about the food are most common. Tammy corroborates: Her husband told her the inmates are fed mostly starches, meals of just bread and mashed potatoes. If they have money for the commissary, they can buy ramen noodles.
Lapses in medical treatment have also been of concern. According to Edwards, there's no doctor on staff at Stewart, despite its sizable population. He's had contact with one man in particular who developed a growth on his knee and some kind of infection of his genitals. He also complained that his eyesight was failing. Last anyone at El Refugio heard, the man had seen a nurse, but hadn't been diagnosed and was still waiting to see a doctor.
Asked about the medical care available to inmates, a CCA spokesman responds: "At Stewart, medical services are provided by the federal government, specifically, the Department of Immigrant Health Services. Our staff works closely with DIHS staff to ensure that detainees have access to that care. For all other services, the CCA Stewart facility adheres to detention standards as set forth by our government partner, ICE."
The problem, according to both Edwards and Flores, is that those federal standards aren't codified, and therefore aren't legally enforceable. Failing to meet the standards could mean CCA is in violation of its contract, but the company isn't likely to be seriously penalized for the transgressions.
The problems alleged by Stewart detainees are emblematic of exactly the kind of corner-cutting that prison privatization opponents warn are likely to take place whenever the principal goal is generating profits — and the industry has most definitely been profitable. A study by the Justice Policy Center says CCA and GEO Group, the country's two largest private prison corporations, brought in a combined total of $2.9 billion in revenue last year. CCA earned $46 million more in 2010 than the previous year. Handsome profits have afforded both companies the ability to insinuate themselves into the political process.
According to last year's NPR report, Arizona Gov. Russell Pearce, a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, and certain private prison executives (CCA is also an ALEC member) had met in a Washington hotel and essentially worked together to draft Arizona's legislation. Pearce later said the private prison industry had "zero" involvement in writing the law and denied having any contact with them whatsoever. CCA also insists that nothing quite so nefarious has ever taken place.
Spokesman Mike Machak tells CL, "It is CCA's policy and practice not to engage in legislation involving crime or sentencing policies. CCA has never lobbied or had a role in passage of Georgia's, or any state's, immigration laws."
But CCA's denial of any role in the passage of immigration legislation seems somewhat disingenuous. Between 2003 and 2010, CCA spent in excess of $240,000 contributing to the campaigns of Georgia lawmakers, the third-highest amount spent in a single state out of the 27 states in which it makes political donations. Of the 17 Georgia House members who received contributions from CCA in '09 and '10 — among them, Matt Ramsey, the bill's author and sponsor — only two voted against HB 87. None of the eight house members who were treated to dinner by a CCA lobbyist during last legislative session voted against HB 87, although one, Ed Rynders (R-Albany), was excused from voting.
Much was the same in the state Senate, where 10 of the 11 senators to receive campaign contributions voted in favor of the bill, four of them were sponsors of the bill. Two Cherokee County lawmakers, Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, and Rep. Calvin Hill, R-Canton, are current ALEC members.
Rogers was the author of a 2006 bill called the Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act, which was one of the most sweeping anti-illegal immigrant bills ever instituted at that time. Among other measures, the law required recipients of public services to show proof of citizenship, and required status verification of state employees and those working for contractors of the state. Both Hill and Rogers were vocal supporters of HB 87.
Although immigrant detention is a lucrative growth industry, it's hardly the private prison industry's only stake in Georgia's public policy. Between them, CCA and the GEO Group own and operate seven (soon to be eight) detention and corrections facilities in Georgia. Only two of them — Stewart and North Georgia Detention Center in Gainesville, both CCA owned — are ICE facilities. Their other customers include the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Marshals Service and the State of Georgia itself.
The Georgia Department of Corrections currently farms out inmates to Coffee Correctional Facility in Nicholls and Wheeler Correctional Facility in Alamo, both of which are operated by CCA. Half of CCA's national empire comprises contracts with state departments of correction. And last summer, the GEO Group entered into Georgia's state prison market when it was awarded a contract to build and operate — on state land, no less — a 1,500-bed facility in Milledgeville. (According to the GEO Group's website, construction is expected to be completed by early 2012.)
States partner with private detention companies for a number of reasons, but mostly to save money. The companies handle construction costs using private funds, so governments don't need to float bonds or use public money. Then there are the savings associated with not being responsible for the everyday maintenance, upkeep or staffing of the facilities.
But private prisons don't appear to be saving Georgians any money. Documents provided by the Georgia DOC indicate that in 2010, the state — i.e., taxpayers — spent an average of $36.32 a day to house an inmate in a state-owned and operated facility. Private prison space, on the other hand, cost the state $45.70 a day per inmate because federal subsidies don't apply. Ten dollars more per inmate might not sound like a lot, but consider that there were, on average, 5,195 state inmates in private prisons last year — and that number will increase by roughly 1,500 when Riverbend Correctional Facility opens in Milledgeville.
Job creation in struggling communities is another prison industry bargaining chip. In many cases — Stewart, for instance — the companies build facilities on speculation. They sell their plan to a community with the promise of employment opportunities for locals and, only after the prison is built, do they figure out how to fill the beds. CCA didn't respond to the claim, but CL was told by people close to the prison that Stewart County also gets a kickback of $1 a day per inmate.
Kung Li, former director of the Southern Center of Human Rights, has been involved in the immigration debate as an independent fellow with the Open Society Foundation. She says the promise of employment has become one of the main sales pitches.
"It's hard to overstate how important these detention jobs become in the mind-set of the community," says Li. "Once it's talked about as a jobs program almost, it becomes as if [the private prison corporations are] trying to save communities, but they're very much focused on their bottom line."
And there's a cruel irony at play at Stewart, one that really irks immigrant advocate Anton Flores of El Refugio. Inmates, many of whom are being detained strictly for being undocumented workers, are being put to work by ICE and CCA.
"Instead of using local people to do the cooking and cleaning, they're using detainees and paying them $1 to $3 a day," says Flores. "The glaring hypocrisy of this partnership [between ICE and CCA] is that it's not a partnership at all. These prisons are new plantations and immigrants are a new crop ... and there's a huge profit margin."
If Stewart Detention Center has, in fact, benefited the local economy, you wouldn't know it from driving around Lumpkin. In what has the potential to be a quaint, small-town downtown around the county courthouse, nearly every business is closed on this Saturday afternoon, many of them apparently permanently. The two storefronts that appear to be thriving are a gun store/tax preparation office and a taxidermist's workshop — symbiosis, it seems.
Back at El Refugio, Tammy and Amy sit in the living room talking. Tammy holds a religious tract of some sort in her hand. Her husband, who's still out on bond, is due to appear in court in Atlanta in October in an attempt to stay in the U.S. with his wife and child. The waiting, she says, has been like living on a death sentence.
"You don't know what's gonna happen, so, you're just living day to day," Tammy says. "We can't make plans for Christmas, like, 'Ok, we're going to go here to see this family,' because he might not even be here. And we've got to figure out how to explain to our kid, 'Daddy's gone, and I don't know if he's coming home.' It's a bad situation."
If an immigration judge decides Tammy's husband can't stay in the country, he'll be sent to a facility to await deportation. That place will likely be Stewart.
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