|AUSTIN, July 14 - This week, we learned that McAllen, Texas has been keeping a dirty secret: the city plans to publish a formal request for qualifications this week from private prison operators willing to build a new 1,000-bed lock-up.
The new prison would house federal prisoners for the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) under an existing agreement with the city. McAllen police Chief Victor Rodriguez said, “There’s a great need to have their prisoners held in a facility that’s local.”
Currently, the federal government pays McAllen $52 a day per prisoner housed at the Public Safety Building, located blocks from the courthouse, but only capable of housing 30 prisoners. USMS transports prisoners from private prisons in Laredo and La Villa to McAllen for court hearings, described as the cause of “logistical headaches” for the Marshals Service. Under the new deal, the private prison operator would pay the city of McAllen to house prisoners, but that amount is still being negotiated. The location of the new prison is also yet to be determined.
According to the article, The (McAllen) Monitor caught wind last spring that city officials had been discussing the deal with private prison giant GEO Group. But, why are we just now hearing about this? The Monitor failed to report the news, at the city’s request, “to avoid tipping off potential competitors and skunking the deal.”
See any problems with this “secret deal”? We see a few.
Let’s start with GEO Group. The second largest private prison company in the country, GEO Group rakes in billions in profits each year from incarcerating human beings, despite having a track record riddled with prisoner abuse and mismanagement. GEO Group is certainly no stranger to our Humpday Hall of Shame, being the subject of a handful of entries from failing to provide critical health care to revolving door scandals to the revelation of “squalid conditions” in a GEO operated Texas facility contracted by Idaho after an investigation of a prisoner suicide.
Most recently, GEO Group was in the national spotlight for their failed attempt at buying the naming rights to Florida Atlantic University’s new football stadium. The $6 million deal went sour when FAU students and faculty decided they didn’t want their school associated with a private prison company with a history of human rights abuses. Student grassroots organizing efforts and protests, along with pressure from a coalition of state and national faith and civil rights groups, led to a hailstorm of bad publicity, which ultimately not only ended the deal, but also contributed to the end of Mary Jane Saunders’ career as FAU President. GEO Group might have hoped that $6 million and their name on a stadium could hide their track record of scandal and abuse, but they could not have been more mistaken.
Another problem: McAllen city officials wanted to keep the private prison deal a secret, and to make matters worse, The Monitor obliged! The lack of transparency by city officials should raise serious concerns for the people of McAllen. By intentionally keeping the deal a secret for more than a year, it appears public input about the construction of new private prison failed to make city officials’ list of priorities. Perhaps they are worried that aligning themselves with GEO Group could cause a debacle similar to what happened at FAU.
Lastly, the construction of a new 1,000-bed private prison in McAllen is a problem because we know exactly who those beds are for. They will most likely be filled by undocumented migrants who, as a result of Operation Streamline, are detained at the border and imprisoned while awaiting criminal prosecution. Operation Streamline was started in 2005 with the signature of Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, and required all undocumented border-crossers in the Eagle Pass area of the Del Rio Border Patrol sector to be funneled into the criminal justice system and charged with unlawful entry or re-entry. By 2010, every U.S.-Mexico border sector except California had implemented a "zero-tolerance" policy of some sort - the whole of which are commonly referred to as the original Operation Streamline.
Immigrants entering the criminal justice system through Operation Streamline proceedings are generally housed in the custody of either USMS or Bureau of Prisons (BOP), both of which rely heavily on private prisons for contract bed space. Consequently, this criminalization of migrants has meant huge profits for private prison companies like GEO Group, who have seen record profits each year since the implementation of Operation Streamline.
Connect the dots and the picture becomes quite clear: A new private prison in McAllen would be another cage for the unjust imprisonment of migrants and another win for an industry that profits handsomely from misery. Now, the secret is out, but the City Commission must still approve the project and negotiate a contract, so residents should be able to make their voices heard.
Holly Kirby is an organizer for Grassroots Leadership. Grassroots Leadership says it is a "multi-racial team of organizers who help Southern and Southwest community, labor, faith, and campus organizations think critically, work strategically and take direct action to end social and economic oppression, gain power, and achieve justice and equity." The above blog first appeared in Grassroots Leadership.