In the morning of December 12, 2008, two inmates at the Reeves County Detention Center, in Pecos, Texas, set a mattress on fire and started a riot. For months, prisoners at the facility, which housed twenty-four hundred male inmates, had been complaining about poor food, abuse in solitary confinement, and inadequate health care. That morning, Jesus Manuel Galindo, a thirty-two-year-old epileptic inmate, was found dead from a seizure brought on by a lack of medication. Galindo was from Mexico, though he had lived in the United States since he was thirteen, and was serving a thirty-month sentence for “illegal reëntry” into the country, after a previous deportation, which is a federal felony offense. Guards had left Galindo in solitary confinement, where his pleas for medical attention were ignored. The insurrection spread throughout the facility but ended the next day. Six weeks later, though, when guards reportedly moved an inmate named Ramon García into solitary confinement after he said that he was ill, another riot broke out; it lasted five days and caused twenty million dollars’ worth of damage. “We spoke with the warden and we told him to take our countryman out of the punishment cell and take him to the hospital,” an inmate later said, according to an account by the Texas Observer. “We told them that if they were not going to do it, then we would do it.”
The Reeves County Detention Center was then the largest private prison in the world, and the “insurrection at Pecos,” as the riots became known, brought national attention to the people who were incarcerated there. It was a population that, until then, had been mostly overlooked by politicians, journalists, and the general public. The inmates were not U.S. citizens, and they would eventually be deported, but first they were serving criminal sentences. Some had committed immigration offenses, and others had been convicted of drug possession, burglary, or assault; a few had been found guilty of violent crimes, including homicide. In Galindo’s case, it was his illegal-reëntry sentence that landed him in federal custody, but a judge “enhanced” his prison term, based on additional charges that Galindo had written a fake check and contacted his ex-wife in violation of a restraining order.
No one understood exactly how the process worked, but, at some point after the men were sentenced, federal prison authorities had segregated them from the general prison population. The logic appeared to be that, because these inmates would eventually be deported, the government need not expend additional resources on them or provide services such as access to drug-treatment programs and literacy courses that were typically given to citizen inmates. Normally, federal rules mandate that inmates be housed within five hundred miles of their families, but, even though many of these men had family members in the United States, they were thousands of miles from them. Although the facility was under the charge of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, it was administered by the GEO Group, a private-prison company that, in 2008, reported a billion dollars in profits that came largely from contracts with the federal government. The inmates’ medical care had been sub-contracted to a private health-care provider whose practices had previously been investigated by the Department of Justice.
There are currently close to nineteen thousand noncitizen inmates being held in ten privately run prisons in seven states. Immigration detention is the responsibility of the Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.), which detains about forty thousand undocumented immigrants on any given day. But many immigrants who’ve been convicted of crimes, like Galindo, are under the supervision of a different branch of the federal bureaucracy, the Bureau of Prisons (B.O.P.). As the legal scholar Emma Kaufman notes, in a new article in the Harvard Law Review, inmates in foreign-only, or Criminal Alien Requirement (C.A.R.), facilities make up ten per cent of the over-all population in federal prisons, and they have far fewer protections. Kaufman writes, “All foreign prisons are not only places where foreigners are separated from the rest of the penal population. They are also stripped-down institutions with fewer services than other federal prisons.” Because the inmates will be deported at the end of their terms, they have become a “distinct class of prisoners” whose status has led “prison officials to funnel foreign nationals into remote prisons with fewer resources.”
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