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Detainees put away cleaning supplies on Tuesday, July 10, at Otay Mesa Detention Center. CoreCivic, the second largest for-profit prison company in the country, owns the Otay Mesa facility where a majority of undocumented immigrants are being held pending trial. Photo by Shana Thompson
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Private prisons play a large role in current immigration policy



REGION — The following are two stories of undocumented immigrants living in North County, each unique in its own way but disturbingly similar.

A young man driving home from his job as a manager of a popular, independently-owned neighborhood market is followed off his freeway exit by two Border Patrol agents. He’s arrested for being undocumented and imprisoned at the Otay Mesa Detention Center for more than a month before his first hearing.

Concerned friends and neighbors raise money for an attorney, so he’s able to post bail and return to his family, but the judge tells him that he can’t leave the country, drive or work until his next hearing. At his second hearing he’s told the same thing: no driving or working. Because he can no longer support himself, he’s forced to move in with a family member until his third hearing.

He doesn’t know if he’ll be allowed to stay in the U.S. where he’s lived for years; the country where he has family, good friends and is active at his church; the country he calls “home.”

Similarly,  an older man, who’s worked for a local landscaping company for years, suddenly heard a knock on his door one night. When he opened the door, two Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrest him for being undocumented. He’s deported within a few days, leaving his family behind. Several weeks later, he’s reportedly back in North County, working for the same company.

Rumors are that he paid people to smuggle him back across the border so he could reunite with his family and go back to work. He lives now in the shadows, looking over his shoulder every day, worried that he’ll be deported again.

While these stories are difficult to hear, incidents like this have been happening long before the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policies.

Deportations increased drastically in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies, primarily because of changes to the laws and the interpretation of the word “deportation.” But under the Donald J. Trump administration, undocumented immigrants are being arrested during routine traffic stops or worse, as in the case of the landscaper, arrested at their homes.

The Otay Mesa Detention Center is home to many detainees waiting to find out their fate. Photo by Shana Thompson

One of the primary reasons more undocumented immigrants are being arrested, detained and deported is because of a law passed during Obama’s tenure that’s come to be known as “bed mandate,” or “bed quota.”

The law, passed in 2009 as part of a congressional appropriations bill, requires ICE to maintain 34,000 immigration detention beds on a daily basis. The quota has increased steadily since the law was passed. No other law enforcement agency in the U.S. is subject to a statutory quota on the number of people it must hold in detention. And most, if not all of the detention facilities where undocumented immigrants are being held are for-profit prisons. Otay Mesa is one.

According to a June 24, 2018 article in the San Diego Union Tribune, Otay Mesa — the only immigration detention facility in San Diego County — is planning to expand by 35 percent. Expansion plans were initiated in 2015. The facility, like all the others in the U.S. that house undocumented immigrants, contracts with the federal government.

CoreCivic, the second largest for-profit prison company in the country, owns the Otay Mesa facility. CoreCivic was called CCA (Corrections Corporation of America) until the Nashville-based company was sued in 2016 by the federal government for operating inadequate, unclean and unsafe facilities. Amid tumbling stock prices and the announcement that the Department of Justice would stop using private prisons, president and CEO Damon T. Hininger released a statement saying: “Rebranding as CoreCivic is the culmination of a multi-year strategy to transform our business from largely corrections and detention services to a wider range of government solutions. The CoreCivic name speaks to our ability to solve the tough challenges facing government at all levels and to the deep sense of service that we feel every day to help people.”

Despite the fact that the Department of Justice said that it would no longer house prisoners in for-profit prisons, ICE extended its contract with CCA that same year.

Trump’s announcement shortly after he took office that he was going to be even tougher on immigration changed the fortunes of for-profit prisons like CoreCivic. A March 10, 2017, article in The New York Times stated that CoreCivic’s stock prices climbed 120 percent since Trump’s inauguration.

Money most definitely talks when it comes to privately owned prisons. CoreCivic donated $250,000 to Trump’s presidential campaign, as well as to other Republicans. The company spends $3 to $4 million annually on lobbying.

But despite the lavish budgets, private prisons like CoreCivic don’t adequately care for detainees. A federal review conducted in 2016, which resulted in the lawsuit mentioned earlier, found that “… contract prisons incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facilities.”

All of the contract prisons that representatives from the BOP visited were cited for one or more safety and security deficiencies, including administrative infractions such as improper storage of use-of-force video footage, as well as more serious or systemic deficiencies such as failure to initiate discipline in more than 50 percent of incidents reviewed by onsite monitors over a six-month period.

The review also stated that regarding health services, there was no checklist in place that included observation steps to verify that inmates receive certain basic medical services.

Two deaths have occurred at the Otay Mesa detention facility, one on May 1, 2016. Igor Zyazin, a 46-year-old Russian man, told a nurse practitioner that he had a heart condition and was taking medication for it (according to the ICE report). He was transferred to the Otay Mesa Detention Center for medical care and died the next day.

Amanda Sluss Gilchrist, a spokeswoman for CoreCivic told a reporter for The Tribune: “CoreCivic does not provide medical or mental healthcare services or staffing at Otay Mesa. The federal government’s ICE Health Service Corps is solely responsible for contracting, staffing and oversight of any medical and mental health services provided at Otay Mesa.”

According to family members, the store manager who was detained at Otay Mesa for more than a month fell ill during his first few days in detention.

ICE officials at the Otay Mesa facility did not respond to our request for an interview.

Sarah Verschoor contributed to this report.