Monday, July 28, 2008

The Cheneys and Jail From The Wrong End

The disgrace that the Hutto Jail in Texas became, emprisoning non-citizens who were awaiting hearings on their immigration status, seems to be a moneymaker. The professional jailers are showing up as a factor in the U.S. effort to keep immigrants in detention. As usual, a good hard look turned up occupiers of the White House finding a support system for family on your dollar.

In 1997, with the private prison business booming, the Corrections Corporation of America picked a 64-acre plot near Austin, Texas, for its newest lockup. A medium-security prison, it was named after the company's cofounder and designed for some 500 federal inmates. But the anticipated stream of prisoners never arrived: By the time the T. Don Hutto Correctional Center opened, a glut of private prison beds, along with cca's own poor track record, had left the company nearly bankrupt. Its stock, which once traded at around $45 a share, bottomed out at 18 cents. Several of its facilities were shuttered or sat empty for years, including the Hutto prison, which cca moved to close in 2004.

But Hutto, like cca itself, has risen from the ashes thanks to a sudden source of new business: the Bush administration's crackdown on immigrants. Historically, Mexicans caught illegally entering the country have been dumped back across the border, while immigrants and asylum seekers from other countries were processed and released to await their court dates. (Only those with criminal records were detained.) Most of those released, though, failed to appear for court hearings and removal proceedings, and the government didn't have the resources to go looking for them. So in 2006, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ice) agency ended its traditional "catch and release" policy and instead started incarcerating non-Mexican immigrants—anyone from a Salvadoran migrant to an Iraqi family seeking political asylum—pending their deportation or asylum hearings. Over the two years since, the agency has increased its use of detention facilities by more than half; it now holds some 30,000 people on any given day.

In this new population—and in ice's $1 billion-plus detention budget—cca saw opportunity. In 2004, when Congress passed legislation authorizing ice to triple the number of immigrant detention beds, CCA's lobbying expenditures reached $3 million; since then, it has spent an additional $7 million on lobbyists. Among them was Philip Perry, Vice President Dick Cheney's son-in-law, who later became general counsel at the Department of Homeland Security, ice's parent organization, which has awarded cca millions in contracts; one of them, in 2006, allowed the company to reopen the old Hutto prison, now christened a "residential facility" housing immigrant families, including small children.

The anti-immigrant sentiment that has sprung up as jobs went away has been used in several ways that are a detriment to this country's character. Emprisonment of children is another very black mark on our reputation. This executive branch appears to have no moral compass, and embodies the law of the jungle that has replaced our constitution.

Every time you think it can't sink any lower, it does.

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