How the private detention industry courted Crete

 Siddhartha Mahanta | 05.16.12
American Independent

The fight over a proposed privately run federal immigration detention center in Illinois is raising thorny questions about the benefits and drawbacks of these facilities. Since late last year, the Corrections Corporation of America has been embroiled in a stand off over the proposed center, slated for construction just outside of Chicago in the small, relatively affluent village of Crete. Bolstered by state and congressional lawmakers, local activists aim to beat back the proposed facility, citing CCA’s less-than-sterling track record on alleged prisoner abuses and its role in helping carry out what they perceive as the government’s anti-immigrant policies.

CCA has long cast its eye on Crete, securing a first-purchase option on the proposed detention center site roughly seven years ago, according to CCA spokesman Steve Owen. This means that the owner of the property — a private citizen who no longer lives in Crete — is barred from selling it to another party until the option expires.

In late 2010, CCA informed the town that it was the ideal place for a new federal immigration detention center. Town administrator Tom Durkin and his colleagues agreed to explore the idea without fully committing to the plan. Durkin says he and his colleagues were “interested in seeing what it would entail, what it would mean,” and what “some of the drawbacks” might be.

Though CCA had already offered its services to Crete, the town had yet to actually secure a contract with the U.S. Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement — meaning that CCA functioned as its own middleman, actively seeking out Crete and encouraging it to apply to host the federal facility.

Which is exactly what it did in November of 2010, firing off a white paper to Washington outlining how it planned to comply with ICE’s revised detention standards. The Obama administration laid out those new requirements in 2009 in response to complaints from human rights and civil liberties groups about the treatment of undocumented immigrants.

Crete’s 780-bed facility would, according to the white paper, be built to meet ICE’s requirements for “a wholly new generation of detention facilities uniquely suited to ICE’s civil detention authority” with “innovative and cost-effective designs … easy access to legal services, abundant natural light, ample outdoor recreation,” as well as “freedom of movement.”

Seven months later, Crete received a letter from ICE saying that the town had been “tentatively selected” to host the new facility.

As part of the deal, Crete would receive part of a per-diem fee CCA would collect for each detainee. And since the detainees would count as village residents for tax purposes, Crete would collect roughly $60,000 in additional revenue per year from the state, the Chicago Tribune reported in January. According to Crete Mayor Michael Einhorn, wages for detention center employees would be set by the Department of Labor and not by CCA.

Under CCA management, the facility is supposed to inject life into a stagnant economic bloodstream, creating some 250 new jobs, generating fresh tax revenue, and staving off potential cuts to police and municipal services.

Private corrections companies frequently seek out small towns angling for an economic shot in the arm. Doling out promises to “grow hair on bald heads and make money rain from the skies,” they present a lucrative pitch, according to Frank Smith, a private prisons expert with the Private Corrections Institute.

As part of its effort to court Crete, CCA took Einhorn and other Crete officials on a fact-finding tour of a pair of its facilities, one of which is a US Marshals detention center in Leavenworth, Kansas. Einhorn insists that the facility did not appear to be a blight on the community. The unit houses some 1100 federal inmates and is not marred by a troubled track record. Since the 1850s, Leavenworth has hosted a number of state and federal prisons; by the time CCA opened the Leavenworth Detention Facility in 1992, prison business had long-since become Leavenworth’s business.

Because the unit is located in an industrial park (as the proposed Crete unit would be) it has no discernable impact on surrounding property values, Leavenworth city manager Steve Miller says.

“It is a model facility in its location and its operations. They’re good neighbors to the city,” Miller says. “A lot of those that work at CCA, they live in the city. And we value them here.”

The people of Crete, meanwhile, appear concerned over what a detention facility would suggest about their town, its values, and its stance on undocumented immigrants.

“We’ve heard ICE’s promises regarding improvements to the way that detention was going to be handled,” says Fred Tsao, policy director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights policy director. “Having a company whose motivations are profit-driven is not the right way to go.”

Durkin is sympathetic to that view, but unconvinced. “You tend to have people who may be stopping at nothing to try to stop something like this,” Durkin says. “A lot of their concerns are at the federal level … that’s not going to be decided here.”

As the American Civil Liberties Union’s David Shapiro documented last year, the exploding market for private correctional services to run federal immigration detention centers has kept CCA flush, helping the company net some $1.7 billion in 2010. And with the Obama administration deporting undocumented immigrants in record numbers, the demand for building and operating immigration detention facilities has never been greater.

The case against CCA is strong. In 2009, a spate of allegations of sexual abuse at the CCA-run Otter Creek Correctional Facility in Kentucky prompted Hawaii officials to remove the 168 female inmates it was housing there. Last year, the ACLU of Texas sued CCA after an officer at one of its units was accused of allegedly sexually abusing several immigration detainees. And in 2011, reports surfaced of horrific violence at a CCA facility in Idaho, which inmates had dubbed the “Gladiator School.”

Emails obtained by the American Independent suggest that CCA appears to have been keenly aware of the negative perception surrounding its projects, and sought to reassure Crete officials from the outset. Representatives of both parties regularly traded links to news stories and PDFs of protest pamphlets and fliers, in an effort to track the rising tide of opposition to the facility.

In one exchange from late last year, town administrator Tom Durkin sent Brad Wiggins, CCA’s senior director for site acquisition, a thorough rundown of the major regional news outlets that were expected to report on the proposed project.

All of this could be for naught. On March 28, the Illinois Senate passed a bill, with bipartisan support, that would bar the state and its localities from contracting with private companies to operate civil detention facilities, including immigration centers. Now, it must pass the House before being signed into law by Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn.

CCA is leaving nothing to chance. On April 19, the company deployed two of its big guns — vice president and deputy chief development officer Lucibeth Mayberry, and Jeb Beasley, managing director of partner relationships — to meet with Crete’s residents in attempt to assuage their concerns. Six days later, Mayberry, Beasley, and two other CCA officials registered with the Illinois Secretary of State to lobby the governor’s office and members of the legislature on corrections and detentions issues. And just a day earlier, CCA secured the services of Dorgan-McPike & Associates, a high-powered Illinois lobbying firm.

CCA spokesman Steve Owen argues that the legislation restricts municipalities’ power while diminishing their competitive advantage in a still-volatile economic climate.

“Generally, we obviously oppose any sort of legislation that either prohibits or undermines our ability to conduct business and meet our government partners’ need,” Owen says.

Amid all this, Illinois Congressmen Jesse Jackson Jr. (D) and Luis Gutierrez (D) are teaming up to kill the Crete project. In February, Jackson requested that ICE officials come to Crete to hold a town meeting to hear concerns over the project; that meeting is set for May 21.

In an email to The American Independent, ICE says that it is “committed to building and maintaining constructive relationships with community stakeholders in an effort to foster public awareness.” Through the meeting, ICE hopes to “enhance [its] understanding of community concerns related to the proposed detention facility.”

“I don’t want the south suburbs to become famous for building prisons and breaking up families,” Jackson said back in February. “Regardless of your feelings about immigrants, Crete is a vibrant and charming small town. That image would change drastically with a prison.”