By Catalina Nieto, Witness for Peace National Grassroots Organizer
The only time four-year-old Logan got to play hide-and-seek with his dad this year was through a plexiglass window at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, nine hours from his hometown.
There are any number of reasons a person might be detained in a for-profit center like Stewart. Some detainees were seeking refuge in the United States, the victims of U.S.-sponsored military training and atrocities in Latin America. Others were farmers whose only economically viable option was to find work in the United States in order to provide for their families. Trade policies beneficial to American agribusiness have forced more than 2 million small scale farmers off their land in Mexico and are often at the root of this type of migration.
In Logan’s dad’s case, the issue was bureaucratic: his mother became confused during a interview and then official paperwork was sent to an incorrect address. Despite the fact that Pedro Guzman Perez came to the United States 22 years ago as an eight-year-old child, is married to a U.S. citizen and has a U.S.-born son, he has been held in detention for the past 15 months.
But for now, Pedro is stuck in immigration purgatory. And life in a detention center can be even harsher than federal lock-up. With 1,752 beds, Stewart Detention Center is run by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). The CCA clearly prioritizes profit margin over maintaining minimum standards for health care. As a result, thousands of detainees across the country are left suffering in prison cells without access to the medical attention they need. Within the center, Pedro’s fellow prisoners have resorted to hunger strikes to call for better conditions, In March 2009, Stewart detainee Roberto Martinez Medina died of a simple infection.
“You show me a for-profit prison and I’ll show you a human rights violation,” said one former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service at a 2009 panel on immigration detention.
CCA’s executive team wasn’t always swimming in money. In 1999, independent auditors expressed doubt that CCA could even stay in business after the corporation suffered a net loss of $72 million, primarily due to beds left empty in their detention centers.
Then CCA began to lobby for harsher immigration policies. Over a 15 month period, CCA spent $4.4 million lobbying the Immigrant and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Department of Homeland Security, both houses of congress and other government bodies.
Five of CCA’s most lucrative contracts with ICE have no end date. And as a result, ICE is devoting less funding to immigration policies that meet basic human rights standards.
Meanwhile, CCA owners who refer to detained immigrants as “product,” are set up to reap huge profits.
In addition to lobbying funding towards enforcement-only policies that criminalize immigrants, CCA pushes for immigration policies that get more undocumented residents locked up. In fact, a special investigation by National Public Radio uncovered CCA’s role not only in lobbying for the anti-immigrant Arizona State Bill B1070, but also in drafting it. CCA already has six detention centers in Arizona. For CCA, laws like SB 1070 mean big bucks.
“We’ve never seen the wind at our back like it is today,” CCA’s President and Chief Executive Officer, John D. Ferguson said after discussing $1.3 billion in revenue during a conference call with investors. The federal government is spending $60.50 per inmate per day at the detention center.
And that’s too bad for kids like Logan, who just missed a second Christmas with his dad this year.
“Emotionally, it’s really hard and mentally draining. I don’t see my wife very often,” Pedro told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution following a vigil at the Stewart Detention Center. “For my son, I want to be there. I want to play with him … I cannot smell him and feel his skin and give him a hug. I wish I could have that time.”
But for now, every day Pedro languishes in at the Stewart Detention Center, his family is further torn apart and CCA’s profit margin grows.