Remember all those immigrant kids who crossed the border last summer? Some of them are about to get babysat by a private prison company.
At least one senior House Democrat has had enough and called on a government watchdog to investigate how GEO Care—a subsidiary of a for-profit, private prison company—scored a lucrative deal with the federal government to supervise undocumented women and children and make sure they get to their court hearings on time.
And it’s a little awkward.
That’s because GEO Care’s parent company, GEO Group, is dealing with a lawsuit brought by a group of former detainees alleging it engages in human trafficking to pad its profit margins.
The plaintiffs in that lawsuit, Menocal v. GEO Group, charge that some immigrant detainees in the corporation’s Aurora, Colorado, facility get forced to work for as little as $1 a day—and, in some cases, are forced to work without pay under threat of solitary confinement. A report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights notes that detainees in other facilities and their lawyers have accused the group of refusing medical care for a child with a brain tumor and letting another detainee die. A spokesman for GEO Group said the company “strongly refutes” any allegations that its facilities are unsafe or inhumane.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, isn’t pleased with the fact that the Department of Homeland Security has contracted with a GEO subsidiary to supervise upwards of 1,500 immigrant families. On September 22, he sent a letter to DHS’s inspector general calling on him to investigate ICE’s contract with GEO.
“I am pleased that the Department of Homeland Security will pilot an Alternative To Detention (ATD) initiative that uses case managers,” he wrote, “but I am dismayed that this contract was awarded to one of the same for-profit prison companies that has been detaining women and children in horrific conditions for financial gain.”
GEO Group isn’t facing any criminal charges. Rather, they’re facing a civil suit, with immigrants seeking damages for the alleged coerced labor.
So how did they get the contract to begin with?
Let’s take a step back. Before last summer—when the number of undocumented minors crossing the Southern border increased dramatically—the United States had essentially abandoned the practice of holding immigrant families in detention centers before their immigration hearings. But then tons of kids started coming to the U.S. illegally, garnering sensational headlines and calls that the federal government do something.
So the Obama administration amped up the practice of family detention, and put thousands of immigrant moms and kids in lockups built just for them, as we detailed here. The majority of immigrants detained awaiting trials stay in facilities that are managed by private, for-profit prison corporations. And while it is profitable to lock up toddlers, as we reported this month, it’s also politically dicey.
Under pressure to take little kids and their moms out of facilities that are basically (though not technically) prisons, the Department of Homeland Security did something sort of unusual.
On September 17, the department sent out a stakeholder notification announcing that it is rolling out a new program as an alternative to detention for immigrant women and children. The program, which will handle upwards of 1,500 families at a time, will offer “individualized family service plans,” as well as “tracking and monitoring of immigration obligations (to include attendance at immigration court hearings).”
DHS promised that the “umbrella provider” of the new program will try to work with local community providers— charities—to supervise immigrants in the non-detention program.
Which bring us back to GEO Group and that lawsuit, and its eye-popping allegations of human trafficking.
Hans Meyer, one of the attorneys working for the former detainees suing GEO Group, argued that since for-profit corporations exist to make profits, they naturally “create a system of indentured servitude.”
“It falls on us as a society to say whether or not that’s right,” he said.
Thus far, the court is hearing them out.
In July, U.S. District Judge John L. Kane denied a motion to dismiss from GEO Group. And in August, the judge denied GEO Group’s request that he reconsider his denial of their previous motion to dismiss. Attorneys for the plaintiffs say this is already a historic win, according to LexisNexis Legal Newsroom, since “it is believed to be the first time a court has held that a for-profit immigrant detention contractor may be held liable for alleged violations of the [Trafficking Victims Protection Act].”
(Fun Fact: In 2012, GEO’s community service arm, The GEO Foundation, co-sponsored a fundraiser for a charity that helps human-trafficking victims.)
The case is underway, and on September 22 GEO’s attorneys asked the Colorado district court judge presiding over the case to put the brakes on the discovery process—which would let the plaintiffs get more information from GEO Group about the Aurora facility—and to let the corporation appeal to a higher court.
In the filing, lawyers said implications that the federal government and GEO are “engaged in a regime of forced labor of foreign citizens” are baseless.
You might think this legal tiff could give the Obama administration pause in its dealings with the company.
“One of the consequences, you would think, would not be getting another contract for $11 million a year to do something the company’s never done before,” said R. Andrew Free, another attorney working on the case.
It’s also curious because, as The Houston Chronicle noted, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights just released a lengthy report detailing a host of allegations of maltreatment at privately run immigrant detention facilities—including GEO’s Karnes County Residential Center, which detains women and young children. The report noted one case where—per Grassroots Leadership, an advocacy group that opposes for-profit detention and incarceration—the facility’s managers refused to let a 7-year-old girl get treatment for a brain tumor.
“Three U.S. medical doctors sent ICE a report expressing concern that the young girl’s life was in danger and warned that she needed immediate treatment for her malignant brain tumor,” the report said. “Instead of sending the young girl to receive medical treatment, ICE ‘kept the family locked up at Karnes until Texas United for Families began a grassroots campaign to free the family and the media became involved.’”
That report also said some immigrants detained in these facilities have died “from inadequate medical care.” It cites the case of one man at a GEO facility in California who agonized for three weeks without treatment, even though fellow detainees reported that he was “suffering from diarrhea, severe abdominal pain, and uncontrollable leakage of urine.”
“Additionally, ‘when [the] man asked for a catheter, medical staff at Adelanto denied him,’” said the report.
Three days after finally getting to a hospital, that man died.
Detainees and watchdog groups aren’t the only ones lobbing allegations of abuse and mistreatment at GEO detention facilities—allegations which GEO says are baseless. Olivia López, formerly a social worker at Karnes, told members of Congress in July that detainees there faced rampant abuse and neglect. She told the Los Angeles Times that even though a 5-year-old girl who was raped on the journey from Central America to Texas started losing weight at the facility and had to wear diapers, one of her supervisors “discharged the girl with a note saying she was sleeping and eating better.” López also told members that when one detained mother begged for medical care for her infant son—who suffered from cranial bleeding—staff rebuffed her. The baby’s condition got worse, and they finally had to take him to a hospital by helicopter for emergency surgery.
GEO rejected any allegations of mistreatment or neglect.
“GEO’s facilities provide high quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments, and our company strongly refutes allegations to the contrary,” emailed a company spokesman. “Our facilities adhere to strict contractual requirements and standards set by ICE, and the agency employs several full-time, on-site contract monitors who have a physical presence at each of GEO’s facilities.”
And Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the fact that GEO Group is primarily a prison company isn’t a problem.
“While the parent company of GEO Care is a company with significant detention experience, this program is based in social work,” said ICE spokesman Richard Rocha. “Community based organizations in which GEO Care formally partners or employees hired to interact with the participants will have vast experience assisting communities and individuals in need.”
Whether GEO should be losing sleep over this is very much TBD. The forays that for-profit companies are making into the immigrant-detention business draw minimal media attention and sparse Capitol Hill outrage.
“In some ways, immigration detention escapes a lot of scrutiny,” said Meyer. “It’s the Wild West of incarceration.”