One of the regular complaints lodged against the new Trump administration is that the president’s long-discussed plans for job-boosting infrastructure investments are still largely a matter of vague promises that his allies in Congress don’t seem to take very seriously.
But hey, that may be unfair. There is one area where there’s a lot of excitement in the air about new construction and new jobs: in the private prison industry! And that’s not just because the president appears generally to enjoy incarcerating people, or because he strongly rejected the plans of both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to end the practice of warehousing criminals in for-profit facilities. No, there’s a real-live boom under way for private prison companies thanks to Trump’s early executive order calling for an expansion of detention centers for undocumented immigrants near the U.S.-Mexico border.
Overshadowed by the chaotically implemented and soon-stalled travel ban, Trump’s border-enforcement order is being implemented. And among other things, that’s meant happy days are here again for private prisons, as explained by Jenny Jarvie of the Los Angeles Times, who went to South Texas and felt the excitement:
When John Chavez peers through chain link and razor wire into the vast tent city that once housed one of the nation’s most notorious prisons for immigrants, he does not see a failed experiment.
Two years ago, inmates set fire to the sprawling [Willacy County Correctional Center] complex in protest of poor medical conditions, slashing holes in their tents and forcing the government to shut it down. Yet many people in this struggling South Texas county— like Chavez, who once worked as a security guard at the privately run prison — have high hopes the abandoned detention center will reopen.
Whether or not unemployed South Texas workers get their low-wage correctional jobs back, the companies that could be hiring them are already tasting sweet success:
Stocks for private prison companies have surged in the two weeks since President Trump signed an executive order calling for expansion of immigrant detention facilities at or near the border with Mexico, specifically authorizing the use of private contractors “to construct, operate, or control facilities” in what is expected to be a substantial ramp-up of the massive detention system that thrived under the Obama administration.
With the number of immigrant detainees already at historic levels, critics warn that rapidly expanding prisons will only exacerbate squalid living conditions and substandard medical care. The big beneficiaries, they say, will be stockholders and executives of for-profit prison companies.
Already two-thirds of the people being detained by federal immigration officials are housed in facilities run by private for-profit contractors. If — as appears very likely — detentions swell along with deportations under Trump, we’ll likely see a return and most probably an exacerbation of past incidents of poor conditions.
At the Willacy County facility Jarvie visited, horror stories abounded even before inmates burned the place down:
“The level of human suffering was just unbelievable,” Kathleen Baldoni, a former Willacy nurse, told a congressional briefing in 2009, adding she was unable to provide the level of medical care ethically required of her. A 2010 human rights report noted the prison had only one physician on staff to treat 1,358 inmates. The following year, a PBS documentary explored more than a dozen allegations of sexual abuse by Willacy guards.
And now the very company that ran Willacy then is seeking to reopen it, even though they are being sued by the county government for damages associated with its “abysmal management” of the facility.
Will negative publicity over such problems convince the Trump administration to slow down its drive to detain immigrants, or rely less on for-profit goals? It’s possible. But to the extent this administration appears to be pursuing a strategy of encouraging mass self-deportation of undocumented immigrants, word-of-mouth reports of brutal conditions in detention centers could be exactly what it wants.