“Operation Streamline”: The New Prison Boom

Efrain Alejandro, a Mexican who has twice served prison time in the United States for illegally crossing the border, at the Kino Border Initiative shelter in Nogales, Mexico, January 28, 2014. Migrants like Alejandro are meant to be discouraged by the special courts known as Operation Streamline, but the resulting mass deportations have led to accusations of assembly-line justice.

Efrain Alejandro, a Mexican who has twice served prison time in the United States for illegally crossing the border, at the Kino Border Initiative shelter in Nogales, Mexico, January 28, 2014. Migrants like Alejandro are meant to be discouraged by the special courts known as Operation Streamline, but the resulting mass deportations have led to accusations of assembly-line justice.

From Truth Out/ By Leticia Cortez

What is “Operation Streamline”? It’s a U.S. Border Patrol Operation that began in 2005 under G. W. Bush. This law makes jail time mandatory for people convicted of illegal entry or re-entry into the United States. The plan was designed to get tough on illegal immigration by arresting and prosecuting those crossing the border, instead of simply deporting them or placing them in a civil detention center. This made the private prison industry a very profitable sector since they started incarcerating these immigrants. According to a report released last year by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 80 percent of immigration defendants convicted in federal court since 2010 received a prison sentence. This has had a dramatic effect on the makeup of the criminal justice system.

The immigration issue in this country is complex on many levels from the personal, political and economical. If one looks at it from the perspective of a woman, man or child caught crossing illegally, then held in jail up to 15 months, one must ask what is going on with the new prison industrial system. The war on immigrants is replacing the previous war on drugs that filled the jails and made obscene profits for private prisons. This new prison boom is foremost in states along the border with Mexico such as Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico. In Texas it costs the state $266/day to house a person not including food. That’s $97,090 per year paid for by taxpayers.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced reforms to the nation’s drug sentencing laws in an attempt to reduce the number of federal inmates held on non-violent drug charges. “It’s great that Eric Holder is talking about over-incarceration, but the actions he’s taking are not tackling the full scope of the problem,” said Carl Takei, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. “There’s this whole other population that’s looming in the background, and growing.”

Advocates for reducing incarceration say that true reform of the prison system must also address the criminalization of immigration since reducing punishment for drug offenders is unlikely to affect the private prison industry.

“If you look at where the private operators reside, it’s primarily immigration,” said Kevin McVeigh, a senior analyst with Macquarie Group who follows the private prison industry. “So if you think about where Holder is positioning with these reforms, it really doesn’t impact them from an incarceration perspective.”

The expanding pool of federal inmates has meant steady business for the two largest U.S. private prison corporations. Last year, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) received 30 percent of its revenue from federal contracts with the U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Prisons, a total of $546 million, according to company financial statements. The GEO Group received more than 25 percent of its revenue from those two agencies last year, a total of $384 million. Both companies have spent millions of dollars lobbying the federal government over the past decade, and four of CCA’s senior executives came from the federal Bureau of Prisons. A GEO Group board member, Norman Carlson, was a former Bureau of Prisons director. CCA says that its lobbying efforts are meant to “educate decision-makers on the merits and benefits of public-private partnerships.”

“The war on immigrants is surpassing efforts to reform the war on drugs,” said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, a criminal justice advocacy group. “We will not be able to reduce the federal prison population unless we stop prosecuting so many people for immigration violations.”

Things are looking grim for immigrants due to provisions in immigration legislation passed by the Senate in June, and more stringent measures being considered by the House that would increase arrests and prosecutions of those crossing the border. A Congressional Budget Office analysis of the Senate immigration legislation estimated that increased funding for enforcement and prosecution of undocumented immigrants in the bill would result in an additional 14,000 inmates per year in the federal prison system, at a cost of $1.6 billion over the next decade.

This amounts to an unprecedented campaign to criminally prosecute undocumented immigrants crossing the border. “This is the crime du jour,” said Judith Greene, director of the nonprofit Justice Strategies, which has focused on the private prison industry’s growing reliance on incarcerating undocumented immigrants. “It’s the drug war all over again. It’s what’s driving the market in federal prisons.”

According to The Credit: Bureau of Justice Statistics, the more than 60,000 people convicted of immigration crimes this year were primarily guilty of one or two things: coming into the country without authorization, or doing it again: “illegal entry,” or “illegal re-entry.” Immigrants make up 11 percent of those in federal prisons, but this year, more than 60 percent of all federal criminal convictions have been for immigration-related crimes, federal data show.

The U.S. is a country where prisons are private corporations that profit from “lockup quotas.” It’s a country where taxpayers pay for empty beds should crime rates fall below that quota. How many people know that? Not many.

In Arizona three privately run jails have contracts that require 100 percent inmate occupancy, so the state is obligated to keep its prisons filled to capacity. Otherwise it has to pay the private company for any unused beds. The main incentive for private prisons is to make money and they lobby politicians to keep it that way.

This contract clause does nothing to promote rehabilitation, crime reduction, or community building. Reverend Michael McBride, director of Urban Strategies and Lifelines to Healing at PICO National Network said the real human impact of having lockup quotas was unjustifiable. “It’s important for us to step back and look at this from a moral perspective; all people of any faith or no faith at all can claim it’s reprehensible to imprison someone just to make money,” he said. “It’s important to always remember every single person is a human being … even if they have done something we may find problematic or illegal. They are not profit incentives.”

Private prisons rule with little oversight and this enables the widespread mistreatment of inmates, according to a multi-year investigation by the ACLU’s National Prison Project. Their report compiles testimonies from prisoners who describe overcrowded, unsanitary facilities, inadequate food and substandard medical care. Some living quarters, like those at the Willacy County Correctional Center in southeast Texas, are nothing more than Kevlar tents filled with closely-packed rows of bunk beds with overflowing toilets, and plenty of bugs. Prisoners also face discrimination, verbal and sexual abuse from guards. A PBS Frontline report last year found that undocumented immigrants had filed more than 170 allegations of sexual abuse against detention center staff.

Also according to the ACLU, Bureau of Prisons require Texas’s jails to set aside 10 percent of their bed space for isolation cells. And now prisoners report being sent to isolation for little to no reason at all. Some say anything as small as complaining about medical care, requesting new shoes, or even speaking Spanish has landed them in isolation. Others report being sent directly to isolation cells upon arrival — not because they’d done anything wrong, but because that’s where the only available beds were — and remaining trapped there for days or weeks after they arrived. “This is a story about the consequences of the criminalization of immigration,” said Carl Takei, of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “It enriches the profit prison industry to a huge cost to the taxpayers, allows shocking abuses without oversight, and it tears families apart.”

“Meanwhile, the costs of the increased prosecutions are significant and growing,” the HRC report states. “The costs include an estimated $1 billion annually in incarceration costs alone and lasting damage to the lives of migrants and their family members, tens of thousands of whom are U.S. citizens or permanent residents.”

“If passed by the House of Representatives, the comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate last year would triple the budget for Operation Streamline, increasing the quota of illegal entry prosecutions as well as the quantity of private jails,” says Takei from the ACLU.

Pearsall is a small Texas town decorated with churches, shops and a high-school football field. It has a jail that can house up to 1,800 men at any one time, sleeping on iron bunk-beds in dormitories of up to 100. This is not a jail but it is surrounded by fences topped with razor wire and is run by the GEO Group. The Pearsall detention facility is quiet inside, apart from the noise of thick metal doors opening and closing.

As long as Operation Streamline continues to make billions for the prison industrial complex, the politicians they control will continue passing laws to criminalize immigration. And more towns like Pearsall will open up facilities to house human beings entering or re-entering this country. This is bound to grow worse now that Republicans control both chambers in Congress.

Leticia Cortez was born in México and grew up in Chicago. She worked as a teacher at Truman College. She is a writer, educator and activist who currently lives and teaches in Santa Fe, Nuevo Mexico.