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For-profit prisons reap business benefit from Trump’s immigration stance

A new investigation reveals the rapid growth of for-profit prisons being used to house immigrants. While the phenomenon has generated tremendous revenue for the industry, it has also resulted in hundreds of cases of alleged abuse and mistreatment in those facilities. William Brangham reports and talks to USA Today’s Alan Gomez about who the migrants are and what they say happens in the facilities.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A news investigation is revealing how fast the growth has been of for-profit prisons being used to house immigrants.

    As William Brangham explains, while it has generated tremendous profits for the industry, it has also evidently caused hundreds of cases of alleged abuse and mistreatment in those facilities.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    Since President Trump took office, the business of housing immigrants has exploded. According to a new investigation by USA Today, 24 centers and 17,000 new beds have been added in the last three years.

    While these private companies are meant to save money and to operate more efficiently, the team at USA Today documented poor conditions, over 400 cases of sexual assault or abuse, and at least 29 deaths, including seven suicides.

    Alan Gomez is one of the many reporters who worked on the series, and he joins me now.

    Alan, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Before we talk about the growth of this industry that you document so clearly in your series, can you tell us a little bit about the people who are being held in these facilities? Who are they?

  • Alan Gomez:

    Yes, the vast majority, to make this point from the very beginning, are not convicted criminals; 67 percent of the roughly 50,000 people in ICE custody are people who are being held just until they get to their next immigration court hearing or until they're deported.

    Those are mostly undocumented immigrants who've either been picked up by ICE in the interior of the country or people who have crossed the southern border illegally.

    And it's important to note that 26 percent of these people, close to 12,000 of them, are being held solely as they await a hearing for asylum. They have approached the southern border. They have requested asylum there. And they are being detained for weeks, months at a time just as they await their asylum hearing.

  • William Brangham:

    One of your stories also documented some very serious accounts of abuse, deaths, assault, mistreatment.

    Can you give us a bigger sense of what you found?

  • Alan Gomez:

    Yes, I mean, it runs — runs the gamut of what you just kind of listed there.

    Every detainee that we spoke to — and we spoke to at least 35 current and former detainees. All of them complained about the treatment that they received from the guards as being verbally abusive, as being physically abusive, taunting them with racial slurs, all sorts of things like that.

    We heard a lot of complaints about the medical care that they receive in these facilities. I spoke to one woman who was — whose cancer was in remission while she was being held in ICE custody, and she said that she'd go up to two or three weeks without getting her cancer medication. Her cancer eventually returned.

    And we found a lot of cases of people being thrown in solitary confinement for what they describe as very minor violations while they're in these facilities. We found people who will just try to conduct peaceful sit-ins or hunger strikes getting either assaulted or being put in solitary confinement as punishment.

    And the reason so much of this is so hard to comprehend, it's — this shouldn't even be allowed into a prison, some of these conditions that we found, but it's — but, again, immigration detention is supposed to be civil in nature. It's not supposed to be corrective. It's not supposed to be punitive, which is what makes these findings all the more egregious.

  • William Brangham:

    What about this issue of oversight? In your report, you identified — you and a government watchdog identified almost 16,000 violations of detention standards.

    And yet you report that more than 90 percent of those facilities received passing grades by government inspectors. I mean, who is supposed to be the cop on the beat here?

  • Alan Gomez:

    Well, that's one of the major problems that we found in this system.

    ICE uses either five or six different methods to inspect these facilities, all of which the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general has said are deficient. They don't do a good enough job of either analyzing the conditions that are in these facilities, or even some of the methods that they use that might be up to par just aren't done enough.

    And so what you have are these situations where facilities, they will check for certain things, but we will look — we have looked at inspection reports where they will show dozens of cases of sexual assault, of physical force against detainees, and they get a passing grade and laudatory comments from inspectors.

    And one of the problems there that we found is that the majority — that most of the inspections that are done are announced ahead of time. We have spoken with the people who do the inspections who say that unannounced inspections would probably be better.

    Some of the private companies that run these facilities have said, sure, we will take that. We will take on unannounced visits. We're happy. We're confident we can do that. But it's ICE that pushes back. They say that these unannounced inspections might cause a — quote — "disruption 'to the facilities, and that they just want to ensure that the proper people that they need to talk to are there on the day that they visit.

    So there's a lot of questions about that inspection process that we found throughout this investigation.

  • William Brangham:

    You touched on this issue of — you have talked to some of the heads of these companies that have been accused of some of these abuses.

    What is their reaction to this? Do they — are they saying, look, we're trying to do our best and sometimes these accidents occur? How do they respond to your reporting?

  • Alan Gomez:

    I mean, what they say is that — we talked to the head of CoreCivic, which is one of the largest companies that runs these facilities, and some of the senior leadership at the GEO Group, who also — those are the two big giants in the field.

    And both of them say that they have been doing this work each for over 35 years, they have usually done it without any big problems, but then all of a sudden now there's this blowback against them, which they blame on a combination of who's in the White House, a very hyper-politicized climate right now, and the fact that they say that they have been improperly, kind of — that people in the country have improperly attributed what we saw on the southern border last year to these companies.

    To be clear, they're right. Those — everything we saw over the last couple of summers, with all these people in overcrowded Border Patrol facilities, that is separate and apart from what we're talking about here. These folks run detention centers for ICE in the interior of the country.

    And so, yes, they say it's a lot of misunderstanding, it's a lot of just unfair publicity on them. But they say that they run very efficient, very safe facilities for all these detainees.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Alan Gomez of USA Today, thank you very much for this really, really interesting series.

  • Alan Gomez:

    Thanks for having me.

    Video courtesy USA Today and Abilene Reporter News.

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