Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute and the Puffin Foundation.
About a mile from the center of Ocilla, Georgia, a two-stoplight town nearly 200 miles south of Atlanta, sits a bleak boxy building surrounded by barbed-wire fencing. A hand-painted sign reads “Irwin County Detention Center.” With 1,200 beds, this private prison is the largest employer in Irwin, a county of 10,000 people. For years it did good business, bringing much-needed jobs to this impoverished part of south Georgia.
But by the middle of 2009 the prison sat nearly half empty. It needed more inmates to keep the business afloat. The facility’s private management company, and the county, began to court today’s most lucrative detention market: Immigration and Customs Enforcement, otherwise known as ICE.
ICE runs the world’s largest immigration detention system, relying heavily on local jails and private facilities in far-flung communities like Irwin County. Rather than operating them itself, the agency leases beds from local jails or contracts with private corporations, such as Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group, billion-dollar companies that spend millions on federal lobbying to ensure that the market stays strong. Private companies also inspect and monitor prospective and contracted prisons on ICE’s behalf. These entities are responsible for the health and welfare of more than 33,000 immigrant detainees each day. Immigrants who are detained before deportation can spend anywhere from a few hours to years in custody.
Deportations have reached record levels under President Barack Obama, and demand for detention facilities has increased. Starting in 2002, ICE had funding for 19,444 beds per year, according to an ICE report. Today, ICE spends about $2 billion per year on almost twice the number of beds.
ICE’s reliance on facilities like the Irwin County Detention Center has put small rural towns at the center of one of today’s most contentious policy arguments—how to enforce immigration law. A yearlong investigation by The Nation shows how much politics has come to rule detention policy. Even as Georgia and Alabama passed harsh new immigration laws last year designed to keep out undocumented immigrants, documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that politicians from both states were lobbying hard to bring immigrant detainees in. ICE succumbed to the pressure, sending hundreds of detainees to the financially unstable facility in Georgia that promised to detain immigrants cheaply. That promise came at the expense of the health, welfare and rights to due process of some 350 immigrants detained daily in Ocilla.
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Last June, Irwin County Commissioner Joey Whitley sat in his office in Ocilla. He had a lot on his mind. A brutal drought had raged for weeks, drying out the fields in this farming community. The county was negotiating an increasingly slim budget. And the detention center was on the verge of default.
The county’s survival was deeply intertwined with the detention center. Five years earlier, Irwin County had helped the owners secure funding to renovate the prison, in return for what officials thought would be a steady flow of revenue. Instead, the facility was now more than one-third empty and over $750,000 behind on its taxes. Profits were nowhere to be found. About a hundred jobs were at risk.
The end of the legislative session that May had created another problem. Nathan Deal, Georgia’s Republican governor, signed HB 87, one of the toughest immigration laws in the country. Thousands of migrant workers who traveled to the fields each year had bypassed Georgia altogether. Irwin County felt the impact. Local businesses, like the laundromat and the grocery store, were hurting because Latino residents were afraid to leave their homes. Meanwhile, millions in crops were at risk.