[my column reprinted from WireTap Mag]
Column: Budget shortfalls have prompted cities to raise revenue by jailing undocumented immigrants.
Washington Governor Chris Gregoire is proposing the early release of some inmates to help balance his state’s budget. Meanwhile, cities in Los Angeles County are relying on the arrest and detention of immigrants to keep their coffers full. Los Angeles communities are increasingly seeking federal revenue to house larger numbers of arrested immigrants. With the state and federal government’s ongoing attention on immigration detention, Los Angeles counties never had any difficulty keeping their beds full.But, the looming budget crisis is forcing cities to find more aggressive routes to gain revenue. Using the “if we build them, they will come” logic, cities are exploiting the growth (PDF) of undocumented immigrant population, the culture of ICE raids and anti-immigrant sentiment to collect increasing numbers of immigrants in order to keep cities afloat. The city of Santa Ana in Orange County has been at the center of this detention-for-profit news coverage.
Detention as Revenue Santa Ana has seen its immigration rates grow since the 1980s because of the impenetrable job competition in Los Angeles. In 2007, following crackdowns on undocumented workers, Latino rights activists tried to convince the Santa Ana council members to declare their city a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants.
Such a sanctuary designation would give greater protection to undocumented residents and presumably reduce the number of immigration detentions. But it would be bad business for cities like Santa Ana that are experiencing budget crunches and taking an alternative, albeit less friendly, approach.
The Santa Ana City Jail, which receives the most federal revenue of any city jail in the Los Angeles area, not only plans to house additional detainees, but to also negotiate a rate increase from $82 to $87 per detainee per day. Anna Gorman’s LA Times article, “Cities and Counties Rely on U.S. Immigrant Detention Fees,” notes that the Santa Ana Police Department “plans to convert two multipurpose rooms at the 480-bed jail into dormitory rooms this spring,” accommodating 32 additional immigrant detainees. That translates into about $1 million more in city revenue.
The Prison Industry Expands
Detention centers and prisons have always been an industry of sorts. Over a decade ago, Eric Schlosser penned an Atlantic Monthly article, “The Prison Industrial Complex,” in which he argued:
“The prison-industrial complex is not only a set of interest groups and institutions; it is also a state of mind. The lure of big money is corrupting the nation’s criminal-justice system, replacing notions of safety and public service with a drive for higher profits.”
Today’s U.S. correctional population including those in jail, prison, on probation or on parole is estimated to be 7.3 million, or 1 in every 31 adults. The high incarceration rate provides contracts, jobs and revenue for a number of public and private entities. Some private entity has to build the prison, provide food, build beds, design uniforms, organize phone card systems, etc., and some city is paid per detainee to house them in this facility.
If crime and detention pays better than most other pursuits these days, can we trust that incarceration is motivated by a genuine concern for rehabilitation, safety and reconciliation? And when Philadelphia judges admit to jailing more juveniles and receiving $2.6 million in kickbacks from private youth detention centers, we know the system isn’t broken, but earning healthy profits for a select few institutions and individuals.
Currently, the federal government is looking for contractors to build a new detention center in the Los Angeles area. Following the trend of contracting out immigration detention services to private companies like the Corrections Corporation of America, this proposed detention center will also be privately contracted — a move that guarantees profit gains.
“We treat the jail as a business”
The logic of detention for profit has even reached Virginia, where the largest immigration detention facility in the mid-Atlantic region has been proposed. A Public Eye article provides insight into the immigration control industry, noting:
“In the same way that private companies like the Pinkerton Detective Agency provided highly profitable policing, surveillance, and other government services targeting immigrants and citizens in the 20th century, companies like Halliburton, Blackwater, the Corrections Corporation of America, Boeing and others are reaping profits by helping build the government’s immigrant policing bureaucracy today.”
It seems that in the past, the prison and detention industry engaged in its efforts under the guise of protection and efficiency. Given the realities of profit-driven immigration detention services, we shouldn’t be surprised at Los Angeles County’s efforts. Such motivations have always existed. The difference now is that detention-for-profit is being publicly discussed without the slightest sense of shame or hesitation.
Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters has said, “We treat [the jail] as a business,” adding that, “If I had 100 more beds, they’d fill them.”
The financial crisis has lessened governmental concerns with public image; cities and states are not hiding their profit-driven focus on detention. So we’re left with this question: Who should be held accountable? Should we hold responsible the federal government that baits struggling cities with promises of revenue for increased detentions, or the desperate states that take the bait?
While the issue of increased immigration detention to cover budget shortfalls speaks to the complexity of the prison industrial complex and immigration policy, it also highlights state failure to provide cities with better opportunities to recover from this financial crisis.