Immigrants in the Shadows: Warehousing Noncitizens in Our Nation’s For-Profit Prison System

By Scott Kelly, Columbia Law School Social Justice Fellow, ACLU of Pennsylvania


By definition, a “for-profit” corporation has only one goal: to make money for its shareholders. For Coca-Cola, that means selling cans of soda. For ExxonMobil, that means drilling oil wells.

And for The GEO Group, Inc., that means putting immigrants behind bars.

You heard that right: The same way Coca-Cola profits when someone buys a two-liter, GEO Group makes money when an immigrant is thrown into prison—often for no other crime than crossing the border in search of a better life.

You see, GEO Group is one of three private companies that run the 13 federal prisons for nonviolent immigrant criminals, called “Criminal Alien Requirement” (CAR) prisons. And one of GEO Group’s CAR prisons—a 1,495-bed low security facility called Moshannon Valley Correctional Center—is located right here in Philipsburg, PA.

That’s why the report that the ACLU and its Texas affiliate released today is a must-read. Representing the culmination of four years of investigation, Warehoused and Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped In Our Shadow Private Prison System describes the rampant prisoner abuse and lack of accountability at five CAR prisons in Texas—including two operated by GEO Group.

The report catalogues in grim detail what happens when the profit motive collides with our penal system: prisoners languish in overcrowded, chronically understaffed facilities, while GEO Group and its ilk rake in billions in annual revenue and millions in executive payouts.

And the problem is only getting worse: dating back to 2009, more people have entered the federal prison system for immigration offenses than for violent, weapons, and property offenses combined.

Here are some of the most startling findings from the report:

    • Excessive Use of Isolation

      The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) routinely negotiates contracts with private prison companies that incentivize excessive use of isolation cells (called “the SHU”). For example, the contracts for the two CAR prisons in Texas operated by GEO Group—Big Spring and Reeves—contain clauses requiring that these overcrowded prisons set aside 10% of their bed space as isolation cells. To compare: confining 10% of the prisoners in CAR facilities to isolation represents almost twice the rate of isolation in facilities run by the BOP itself, even though the majority of the BOP-run prisons are higher-security.

      This isolation quota encourages the excessive—and often arbitrary or malicious—use of the SHU. At Big Spring, staff frequently placed prisoners in isolation for months at a time while they carried out never-ending “investigations” into disciplinary infractions. A recent wrongful death suit filed against the Reeves CAR prison even alleged that the facility had a policy of using the SHU to punish prisoners who repeatedly asked for medical attention or filed grievances. The lawsuit pointed to this policy as responsible for the death of a prisoner named Reyes Garcia Rangel, who committed suicide after being confined to the SHU and denied his psychotropic medications.

    • Limited Access to Rehabilitative Programming

      CAR prisons are not contractually required to provide the programming, drug treatment, and work opportunities offered in most federal prisons, in spite of the fact that studies overwhelmingly show the efficacy of such programs. As a result, prisoners housed in these facilities often face years of boredom and idleness—years that could have been spent bettering their lives and preparing for life after release.

      BOP justifies this policy by reasoning that rehabilitating people who face deportation wastes resources. Not only is this thinking callous but it’s also deeply flawed: many prisoners in CAR facilities may have a legal right to stay in the country, including valid claims for asylum and derivative citizenship. And assuming that deported immigrants won’t try to enter the country again ignores the strong pulls of economics and family that brought many people to America in the first place.

    • Inadequacy of Medical Care

      The report documents the widespread failure of CAR prisons in Texas to meet the medical needs of prisoners. A lack of oversight and accountability has combined with cost-cutting pressures to create a perfect breeding ground for medical negligence. In one extreme example detailed in the report, the prison staff at Reeves placed an epileptic prisoner in the SHU because the facility didn’t have an infirmary. The man, Jesus Manuel Galindo, pleaded continually with guards to adjust his medication but reported in letters to family that the “medical care here is no good and I’m scared.” Tragically, the day after Mr. Galindo wrote those words, he went into a seizure and perished unattended in his cell.

      In a series of internal documents, BOP officials even acknowledged the systemic inadequacy of medical care at Reeves, writing that the “[l]ack of healthcare has greatly impacted inmate health and wellbeing” and that the private prison had mismanaged the treatment of HIV patients. Similarly, prisoners at Big Spring complained of the chronic understaffing of medical personnel. Aware of many of these problems, BOP officials nonetheless chose to renew the contracts of all CAR facilities in 2010, because the Bureau didn’t want to lose “credibility as a solid customer” of the private prison industry.

    • Lack of Accountability and Transparency

      CAR prisons aren’t subject to the oversight and transparency that applies to other federal prisons. For example, under the Freedom of Information Act, federal agencies like BOP must disclose their records to the public upon request. But CAR prisons are exempt from FOIA, meaning that the most basic details about how these facilities operate are often unknown. The BOP even fights to shield the information it has on CAR prisons from the public, citing FOIA Exemption 4, which permits withholding the “trade secrets” of private companies.

      Nor do many BOP policies—called “program statements”—apply to CAR prisons, including those related to important issues like the filing of grievances and attorney visits. This leaves companies like GEO Group to set their own policies—the proverbial fox guarding the hen house. It’s unsurprising that prison officials turn around and use this discretion to further restrict access to their facilities—for example, by prohibiting NGOs from touring their prisons or conducting interviews.

Read the full report and you’ll understand why the practice of contracting out prisoners to for-profit companies must stop. The ACLU is also calling for an end to the criminalization of immigration, which has served only to line the pockets of the for-profit prison industry at the expense of taxpayer dollars and the dignity of immigrants. Short of ending these practices, the federal government should at the very least subject CAR prisons to greater transparency and oversight.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania is investigating the CAR prison here in our own state: GEO Group’s Moshannon Valley Correctional Center. As detailed in the Texas report, GEO Group has a record of abuse and mismanagement at both of the CAR prisons it operates in Texas. We ask that anyone with information about the conditions and practices at Moshannon Valley Correctional Center please contact us to share your stories. Only with your help can we shed light on another one of our nation’s shadow prisons.

Email us at or call 877-PHL-ACLU (877-745-2258) if you live in the eastern half of the state or 877-PGH-ACLU (877-744-2258) if you live in the western half of the state.

Scott KellyScott Kelly joined the ACLU in February of 2014. He is a recent honors graduate of Columbia Law School, where he received the Milton B. Conford Book Prize for the best essay on jurisprudence.