Monday 18 February 2019

Life on jailhouse rations

Asylum detainees locked up in California work for $1 a day just to stay clean and to stave off hunger, writes Michelle Conlin

Migrants from Honduras near the border fence in Tijuana, Mexico. Photo: Reuters
Migrants from Honduras near the border fence in Tijuana, Mexico. Photo: Reuters

Michelle Conlin

Detained in a California lockup with hundreds of other immigrants from Central America seeking asylum in the US, Duglas Cruz faced a choice.

He could content himself with a jailhouse diet that left him perpetually hungry. Or he could work in the prison's kitchen to earn money to buy extra food at the commissary. So Cruz went to work. But his $1-a-day salary at the privately run Adelanto Detention Facility did not stretch far.

A can of commissary tuna sold for $3.25. That is more than four times the price at shops near the small desert town of Adelanto, about two hours northeast of LA. Cruz stuck with ramen noodles (58c a package, double the local price). A miniature deodorant stick, at $3.35 and more than three days' wages, was an impossible luxury, he said.

"If I bought that there wouldn't be enough money for food," Cruz said.

Tuna and deodorant would seem minor worries for detainees such as Cruz. Now 25, he sought asylum after fleeing gangs trying to recruit him in his native Honduras, a place where saying "no" can mean execution.

But lawyers say expensive commissary goods are part of a broader strategy by private prisons to harness cheap inmate labour to lower operating costs and boost profits. Immigrants and activists say facilities such as Adelanto, owned by the Geo Group - the US's largest for-profit jail company - deliberately skimp on essentials, even food, to coerce detainees to work for pennies an hour.

Geo Group spokesperson Pablo Paez called those allegations "completely false". He said detainees are given meals approved by dieticians, the labour programme is strictly voluntary, and wage rates are federally mandated.

The company said Geo Group contracts outside vendors to run its commissaries, whose prices "are in line with comparable local markets". It also said Geo Group makes a "minimal commission" on commissary items, most of which goes into a "welfare fund" to purchase recreational equipment and other items for detainees.

Relatives can send money electronically to fund their loved ones' commissary accounts, for fees that can reach as high as 10pc of the amount deposited, some families report. But for many immigrant detainees, scrubbing toilets or mopping floors is the only way they say they can stay clean and fed.

You "either work for a few cents an hour or live without basic things like soap, shampoo, deodorant and food", detainee Wilhen Hill Barrientos (67) said in a class-action lawsuit filed last year by the Southern Poverty Law Centre against CoreCivic, the US's second-largest for-profit prison operator. In the complaint, Barrientos said guards told him to "use his fingers" when he asked for toilet paper at the Stewart Detention Centre, in rural Lumpkin, Georgia.

Detainees are challenging what they call an oppressive business model in which the firms deprive them of essentials to force them to work for sub-minimum wages, money recaptured in the firms' own commissaries.

"These private prison companies are profiting off of what is essentially a company-store scenario," said an SPLC spokesman.

US government watchdogs and lawmakers are taking notice. In November, 11 US senators sent letters to Geo Group and CoreCivic lambasting the "perverse profit incentive at the core of the private prison business", which has benefited from a crackdown on immigrants under Donald Trump.

The US for-profit prison industry has exploded over the past two decades. In 2016, 128,300 people - roughly 1 in 12 US prisoners - were incarcerated in private lock-ups. That is an increase of 47pc from 2000.

Geo Group and CoreCivic manage over half of US private prison contracts, with combined revenues of nearly $4bn in 2017. Trump's immigration polices have been a boon for the industry, which spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on his election and inauguration.

The government pays private prison companies fees ranging from $60 to $130 daily for the care and feeding of each detainee.

Detainee Barrientos, the lead lawsuit plaintiff, said in court documents he worked seven days a week at the facility in order to purchase hygiene products and phone cards to call family in Guatemala. Those basics can add up. A copy of the centre's commissary price list shows detainees are charged $11.02 for a 4 oz tube of Sensodyne toothpaste, available on Amazon.com for $5.20.

Dove soap was $2.44 at the commissary, but costs just a dollar locally. A tube of denture cream selling for $4.99 at Walmart is $7.12.

Fees are pricey, too. Former detainees at Geo Group's Adelanto facility say 10pc of the money her family spent to fund her commissary account was consumed by fees.

"When my daughter put in $40, I got $36," said Gutierrez (37).

A native of Mexico, she said she spent six months at Adelanto after asking for asylum at a port of entry. She is out on bond and staying in Oregon while she awaits the outcome of her deportation case.

Geo Group said its inmate commissary account services are provided by a third-party vendor, and that it does not profit from those transactions.

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