It’s hard to make ends meet in rural America.

That is why leading officials in Irwin County, Georgia worried when the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC), one of the largest employers in Ocilla, GA, struggled to fill its cells. The center had been used by various outfits when it was purchased in 2004 by a private company, Municipal Corrections. The county helped the company raise money to renovate the center, but it never recovered financially. It was bought by Detention Management LLC in 2009 which set out to stake a claim on the new, surefire way to improve cash flow: detaining immigrants.[i]

The story of how immigrants became a revenue stream for rural America involves local officials, private companies, congressional representatives, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) staff. County officials and company leaders joined forces and leveraged their political relationships in a bid to undercut the competition. Elsewhere in Georgia, ICE was paying $69-$99/day per detained person. At the time, ICDC was willing to house them for $45/day. The county’s U.S. representative and a Georgia senator lent their voices in support of the proposed contract. Despite concerns about the distance between Ocilla and established ICE offices in Georgia, and civil rights concerns expressed by detainees’ lawyers, ICDC managed to claim an ICE contract and began housing detained immigrants in 2010. [ii]  Nonetheless, ICDC’s finances never stabilized, and in 2012, the facility was sold to LaSalle Corrections, which maintained the ICE contract.

The purchase of the ICDC was part of LaSalle’s expansion into Georgia. The company’s base was Louisiana, the state that long held the ignoble title of the world’s prison capital, for incarcerating a higher percentage of its population than any other U.S. state.[iii] Lasalle Corrections emerged as Louisiana was ordered by a federal court to reduce overcrowding in its prisons, which sparked a prison building boom. Billy McConnell, a local businessman with experience building and managing schools, fire stations, and nursing homes (in short, public contracting experience), had—as his son, business partner, and ordained minister, Clay McConnell explained it to Matt Clarke of Prison Legal News—an epiphany:

“We realized that prisons are like nursing homes. You need occupancy to be high. You need to treat people fairly and run a good ship, but run it like a business, watch food costs, employee costs,” said Billy’s son, Clay McConnell, 37, an ordained minister who helps his father run the family’s prison business.

The private prison system in Louisiana works, in the words of Jackson Parish Sheriff, Andy Brown, through patronage. Again, from Matt Clarke’s reporting:

LaSalle pays the prison employees’ salaries but Brown has the authority to hire and fire them. With around 130 staff members at the facility, that’s a significant bonus in an impoverished parish with a population of 16,000. And it has paid off politically; Sheriff Brown was unopposed for reelection in 2011.

“There’s a lot of patronage here by hiring all these people. It’s good for a rural community,” he said. “We were able to bring a facility to this community without using any tax dollars. We employ X number of people and don’t spend any money, plus the $100,000 a year sponsor fee. I get the patronage.”

In a textbook illustration of the ‘revolving door’ between government officials and private company interests, LaSalle has also hired Scott Sutterfield, former head of ICE’s regional office that oversaw Louisiana to facilitate expanding its business into immigrant detention. As reported by Noah Lanard in November 2019 in Mother Jones:

Sutterfield was directly involved in ICE’s expansion into LaSalle jails, according to a former ICE official; it was Sutterfield who suggested to ICE leadership that it consider using some of the LaSalle facilities. The former official says LaSalle’s jails were attractive to ICE because they were cheap and could be filled quickly. 

Sutterfield is no longer listed on LaSalle’s management team. Nonetheless, the practice of entangling public representatives and government officials in the interests of private prison companies is mired in the industry. It is why companies like LaSalle were able to expand their business model into new areas of the South. In LaSalle’s case, the expansion into Georgia through purchase of the ICDC paid off.

The people who suffer from this business model are those in detention. Far from urban centers, they regularly face significant hurdles to accessing legal representation and communication with their families, and rarely are released on parole or on bond.[iv] The food is so bad, they have gone on hunger strikes, only to be locked in solitary as punishment.[v] Long before COVID, these arrangements proved deadly for the people held inside the private detention center. Corners were cut for basic care (food, medical care, exercise) for detained people, and programming was severely limited.[vi]

Project South has conducted many interviews with people detained at ICDC. Here are some of the statements they published:

[One] detained immigrant said she was not given her breast cancer medication for six weeks. In addition, she requested medical care four times and waited more than two weeks and still did not see a single medical professional. She went on to say: “The medical unit is not helpful at all, even if you are dying.” She explained: “For everything, including serious illnesses, they just hand out ibuprofen.” Another immigrant reiterated the same problems, saying that he did not receive his HIV medication for three weeks. He made five requests to see a doctor, but still had not seen one in over four weeks. He noted many individuals at Irwin have the same problem. He stated: “That’s the major problem here … the medication.”

Another detained immigrant explained how he was sick and in pain and submitted multiple sick call requests but did not receive timely or proper medical care. He said: “I am very sick. I have been complaining. I don’t know if they are really waiting to see me dead because sometimes they already see me on the floor laying crying, and not once, not twice, several times. All those things, sometimes make you hopeless and you know sometimes I feel like dying than to continue…”

Detained immigrants have in fact raised red flags regarding the unsanitary conditions at ICDC as a whole. “This place is not equipped for humans,” said one detained immigrant at Irwin. Another immigrant stated: “This is the dirtiest facility I have ever been in: everything is dirty; one shower for more than fifty people; one bathroom for all of us; I don’t even know how to give more details because it is all nasty, really nasty; only God is taking care of us here.” Another immigrant told Project South: “It’s been hell. It’s dirty, its nasty, and there is mold.” She went onto say: “The food is so bad that people can’t keep it down.” She explained that the food is often spoiled and often times cockroaches and ants from the unit come into the food. Another immigrant stated: “The meals are disgusting. There are ants in the food” (p. 3–4).

The tight margins are also maintained through chronic understaffing and low pay. For example, a current job advertisement for a supervisory position with ICDC offers $36,000 year, just barely over the poverty line for a family of four in Georgia.

When the COVID pandemic began, private prisons had few (if any) incentives to shift their practices. They failed to consistently implement the basic measures required to prevent or stem spread of the virus in prisons: provision of PPE to all staff and detained people, extra cleaning, well-managed and prompt medical response protocols, instructing staff to stay away while sick, instituting a rigorous testing agenda, counterbalancing lockdowns with free telephone or video conferencing with family or lawyers. None of these programmatic measures to contain the virus and respect detained peoples’ rights make sense for a for-profit prison company.

So LaSalle didn’t consistently impose these measures—as revealed on September 17, 2020, by Dawn Wooten (with the Government Accountability Project, which helps protect whistleblowers, and ProjectSouth, which works to cultivate social movements in the South). Wooten became a whistleblower, providing the information behind stunning charges against LaSalle’s ICDC. She had worked with LaSalle Corrections at several earlier points in her career and was brought on as a full-time a licensed practical nurse (LPN) at ICDC in October 2019. In July 2020, her position was demoted to “as needed” after she refused to work while experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.

Wooten’s allegations included three sets of issues. First, charges of derelict and potentially criminal medical care. Second, allegations regarding extremely serious lapses in COVID prevention and response policies. These breaches of COVID policies should have raised red flags—but not because they were at all surprising. LaSalle had already been identified in another whistleblower complaint as failing on this count at its Richwood Correctional Center in Louisiana. Of the detention centers LaSalle owns, several have had serious outbreaks (Table 1.1)

Table 1.1 Reported Outbreaks in Detention Centers Owned by LaSalle Corrections (updated 09.30.20)

Detention Center Location Capacity*it is not clear whether all beds were filled #Detained people testing positive *current and recovered % Testing Positive
Catahoula Correctional Center   Harrisonburg, LA 835   121 14%
Irwin County Detention Center   Ocilla, GA 1,201   55 4.5%
Jackson Parish Correctional Center   Jonesboro, LA 1,252   133 10%
Prairieland Detention Center   Alvarado, TX 707 104 14.7%
Richwood Correctional Center   Richwood, LA   1,129   158 13.9%
Winn Correctional Center   Winnfield, LA 1,576   241 15%

Data: ICE COVID data reporting, https://www.ice.gov/coronavirus (updated 09/30/20). Table: World Peace Foundation, 2020. Note: the number of people tested is not available for these sites, which limits our understanding of what the numbers represent.

LaSalle is not alone among detention centers with serious outbreaks of COVID-19. Detention centers at all levels, county jails, state prisons, ICE detention centers, and federal prisons have produced COVID hot spots around the country.

The third set of allegations that Wooten issued were more surprising: related to gynecological proceedings that detained immigrant women did not understand, want, or need. This was surprising, because at ICDC, as noted above, medical care was minimal at most times. As one detained person noted in 2016, ““[I]t needs to be a very serious emergency [to get immediate medical attention]…  Someone needs to be unconscious on the floor or profusely bleeding. If someone is in debilitating pain that is not reason enough to seek immediate medical attention. If it’s not deemed an emergency, than [sic] you have to wait until sick call to get attention.”[vii]

However, Wooten presented evidence that immigrant women detained in the jail were provided medical procedures—notably, hysterectomies—that they did not want, did not ask for, and which left them sterile. The shocking charges related to forced sterilization suggest that maybe one too many people tried to get a cut of the profits of the trade in immigrant bodies.

The physician in the case, Dr. Mahendra Amin, has claimed his innocence. And it may be a coincidence, but the same doctor, along with the Hospital Authority of Irwin County and several other physicians settled a case in 2015 related to fraudulently filed Medicare and Medicaid claims. As announced in a press release on April 29,2015:

Michael J. Moore, United States Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, and Samuel S. Olens, Attorney General for the State of Georgia, announced today they have reached a civil settlement with the Hospital Authority of Irwin County (ICH), Dr. Mahendra Amin, Dr. Ashfaq Saiyed, Dr. Romana Bairan, Dr. Arturo Ruanto, Dr. Concordio Ursal, Dr. Drew Howard, Dr. Steve Anderson, Dr. Robert Reese, and Dr. Marshall Tanner.  The Defendants agreed to pay $520,000 to resolve allegations that they caused false claims to be submitted to Medicare and Medicaid.

The hospital itself is in poor financial health, operating with losses in recent years. Its 2017 audit, the most recent available on its website, stated, “at November 30, 2017, the Authority’s current liabilities exceeded its current assets by approximately $963,000. These conditions raise substantial doubt about its ability to continue as a going concern” (p. 2).

In response to Wooten’s allegations, several members of Congress visited Irwin County Detention Center and heard first hand from women detained there. One women, as reported by the AP, stated that she had been “shackled, taken to Irwin County Hospital and under[went] a procedure she did not consent to. She woke up shackled, crying, hurting, discharged and brought back to Irwin … and just thrown back into a cell and forced to recuperate that way.” The same article quoted Rep. Raul Ruiz, a California Democrat who is also an emergency physician, as saying that “he saw in shower stalls the kind of black mold that can cause or exacerbate serious pulmonary diseases.”

Following Wooten’s whistleblower allegations and the Congressional visit, ICE announced it will no longer send detained women to Dr. Amin; a position that is actually much closer to LaSalle’s longer term record of not providing women or men the medical care they deserve. The practice is not limited to immigrant people who are detained; just this month LaSalle was charged in a lawsuit with responsibility for the death of Holly Barlow-Austin in its jail in Bistate Justice Center, on the Texas border with Arkansas.

While investigations into Wooten’s charges continue, the key issue, how the trade in immigrants became the means of choice for poor rural communities, via for-profit prisons[viii]–to grab federal dollars remains the heart of the problem. American tax dollars continue to be redistributed in ever-tightening webs that entrench injustice and inhumane treatment. But it is hard to make ends meet in rural America and someone has to pay.

Notes:

[i] For more on the background of the ICDC, see: Hannah Rappleye and Lisa Riordan Seville, April 10, 2012. “How one Georgia Town Gambled Its Future on Immigration Detention,” The Nation. Available at: https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/how-one-georgia-town-gambled-its-future-immigration-detention/ .

[ii] Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, and Adelante Alabama Worker Center,  November 2016, “Shadow Prisons: Immigration Detention in the South” Available at:  https://www.splcenter.org/20161121/shadow-prisons-immigrant-detention-south, pg. 4. Not much has changed even as the owners changed hands. The ACLU of Georgia issued a report in 2012 citing similar complaints: see https://www.acluga.org/sites/default/files/field_documents/prisoners_of_profit.pdf

[iii] Louisiana’s turn to for-profit prisons—often with sheriffs as key entrepreneurs—is a terrifying story and beyond this essay’s focus, for starters, read here, here and here. And to learn about what activists are doing to try to change the situation, start here or here or here.

[iv] SPLC 2016, pg. 10.

[v] Rappleye and Seville, 2012.

[vi] SPLC 2016, pp. 21 – 26.

[vii]SPLC 2016, p. 13.

[viii] This includes not only for-profit prison firms, but also the plethora of for-profit contractors that have infiltrated almost all prisons and jails—often with financial arrangements that send funds back into sheriffs’ and wardens’ hands. This includes telephone and communications systems (where incarcerated people pay exorbitant fees to talk to their families and loved ones), medical services, and so forth.

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