In late 2012, I issued a Freedom of Information Act request for records pertaining to the deaths of inmates in the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ privatized, immigrant-only facilities. For years I’d heard stories about neglect inside these prisons, but access to the facilities is limited and thus the accusations have been hard to confirm. For more than a year, the BOP delayed answering my request, until 2014 when I filed a federal lawsuit to compel the BOP to release the records. In 2015, BOP released more than 9,000 pages of healthcare records that it had received from its contractors. These pages are the medical files for 103 men who died inside our nation’s immigrant-only contract prisons.
Medical doctors reviewed the files and independently rendered judgments on the adequacy of medical care, for each case. In 25 cases, at least two reviewers identified inadequacies that likely contributed to premature death of federal inmates held in contract prisons. Below is a FAQ to guide understanding of this largely unknown, complicated prison system, and the troublingly poor care provided inside it.
What are these prisons?
The federal prison system currently includes 11 prisons called Criminal Alien Requirement facilities. They are distinct from the rest of system for two reasons. First, private companies manage day-to-day life inside, including medical care. Nearly every other Bureau of Prisons facility is operated directly by the BOP and its staff. Second, the prisoners inside all have one thing in common: They lack US citizenship.
The prisons are also distinct from immigration detention centers, where federal authorities hold immigrants pending deportation. Rather, the inmates are people who have been convicted of federal crimes and who also happen to be noncitizen immigrants. They are all men; women are mainstreamed into the regular system.
Why do we have them in the first place?
Many of the men held in these immigrant-only prisons are incarcerated for crimes anyone could commit—drugs, fraud, burglary, etc. But 40 percent of them in 2014 were locked up on immigration-related crimes for which only noncitizens can be convicted. Mostly, they are guilty of a crime called “illegal reentry,” or crossing the border after having already been deported.
For decades, returning to the United States after a previous deportation has been a criminal offense. Yet until the 1990s, the crime was rarely prosecuted. Instead, border crossing was treated as a civil matter; the consequence was deportation, not prosecution. In the late 1980s, Congress began a decade-long process to expand criminal penalties for border crossing, and by 1996, returning after deportation was punishable by years of imprisonment.
In the 1990s, Congress also began allocating unprecedented resources to the southern border, eventually expanding the border patrol more than fivefold. Arrests for reentry began to rise. Between the early 1990s and 2004, border prosecutions rose from fewer than 4,000 a year to 31,000. Then in 2005, George W. Bush’s administration exploded the number.