(CN) - America has spawned a virtually unregulated and abusive private system of immigration prisons that rewards profit-seeking companies for holding people in solitary confinement, and allows the Bureau of Prisons and its contractors to duck responsibility for abuses, the ACLU said in a scorching report.
The 104-page report, "Warehoused and Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped in Our Shadow Private Prison System," is the result of a multiyear study of private immigration prisons, particularly five prisons in Texas, which are authorized to imprison 13,548 people.
The Bureau of Prisons paid private prison companies $600 million in fiscal year 2013 to run "privately operated institutions," the ACLU said in the report, which was released Tuesday.
The nation's largest private prison company, the Corrections Corporation of America, did not respond to media inquiries. Two other major private prison corporations, the GEO Group and MTC, denied the allegations that their prisons are abusive.
The ACLU report says the U.S. prison population grew by more than 700 percent from 1970 to 2009. In the first part of this period, much of the growth stemmed from the "war on drugs."
But in the 21st century, criminalization of immigration offenses has been the prime reason for growth. While crossing the border without papers had been, and can be, treated as a civil offense, the federal system, often spurred by border-state and national politics, immigration has become the No. 1 federal offense prosecuted in recent years.
"The tipping point came in 2009, when more people entered federal prison for immigration offenses than for violent, weapons, and property offenses combined - and the number has continued to rise each year since," the ACLU said in the report.
The report continues: "The criminalization of immigration also enriches the private prison industry. Once prosecuted, noncitizen federal prisoners are mostly segregated into thirteen 'Criminal Alien Requirement' (CAR) prisons. The CAR prisons are unusual in three respects: they are some of the only federal prisons operated by for-profit companies instead of being run as federal institutions by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP); they house exclusively non-citizens; and they are low-custody institutions with lesser security requirements than the medium and maximum-security institutions run directly by BOP."
Five of the BOP's 13 CAR prisons are in Texas. The prisons, and their capacities, are in Pecos (3,636); Big Spring (3,485); Raymondville (2,981); Post (1,896); and Eden (1,550).
Among the most disturbing conclusions in the report are that the federal government provides incentives for the private prisons to hold prisoners in solitary confinement.
"Private prison contracts negotiated by BOP and BOP's not-yet-awarded solicitations for new private prisons provide incentives that keep facilities overcrowded and place excessive numbers of prisoners in isolated confinement," the report states. "One current solicitation and each of the Texas CAR contracts reviewed for this report require the prisons to use 10 percent of their bed space as isolation cells - nearly double the rate of isolated confinement in BOP-managed institutions."
The federal government, and the private prison industry, use the "private contracts" to duck scrutiny and public records law, the ACLU says: "(T)hese private prisons operate in the shadows, effectively free from public scrutiny. By statute, most of their records are exempt from the open records laws that apply to other federal prisons. Meanwhile, as detailed in this report, BOP fails to subject its private prison contractors to adequate oversight and accountability, and it fights to avoid public disclosure of basic information about these prisons."
The "Findings" section in the report's Table of Contents lists a catalogue of abuses:
"Prisoners are subject to shocking mistreatment and abusive conditions;
"Prison staff use extreme isolation arbitrarily and abusively;
"BOP policies encourage overcrowding and enforced idleness;
"Delayed and inadequate medical care causes needless suffering;
"Excluding non-citizen prisoners from family contact policies punishes them and their U.S.-based families alike;
"CAR prisons operate in the shadows;
"BOP fails to subject CAR prisons to adequate oversight and accountability;
"Isolation from attorneys, legal services, and advocacy organizations impedes external reform efforts;
"BOP assists private prison companies' efforts to block transparency."
On an average day, more than 25,000 people are incarcerated in the private immigration prisons.
The ACLU recommends that the Bureau of Prisons and its governmental overlord, the Department of Justice:
Stop incentivizing solitary confinement;
Actually oversee the prisons;
Reject contract bids from companies with documented histories of abuse;
"Stop spending taxpayer money to shield basic information about private prisons from public disclosure as 'trade secrets';" and
Stop expanding the use of private, for-profit contractors.
It also urges the Justice Department to investigate the private prisons that the ACLU investigated in the report;
return to previous policies that treated entering the country without inspection as a civil, not a criminal, offense;
and close FOIA loopholes that exempt private prisons from public scrutiny.
The ACLU report is unlikely to have much effect in the halls of Congress. On the day it was released, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., was defeated in a Republican primary by a right-wing challenger who made Cantor's supposed softness on immigration the major issue in his campaign.
Cantor, a seven-term congressman in a safe Republican district, was expected to replace John Boehner as Speaker of the House when and if Boehner resigned.
Cantor's defeat Tuesday made immigration reform an even more toxic subject than usual, and is expected to scare off Republicans, and Democrats, from suggesting any more immigration reforms this year.