Could a private prison in Berks turn Trump’s immigration policy into a for-profit venture?

By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher, ACLU of Pennsylvania

One of Pennsylvania’s two for-profit prisons — for now. Photo via Philly.com.

 With Pennsylvania’s troubling record of sending more kids to prison for life thann any other state; of shielding body camera footage from the public; of indefinitely placing people into solitary confinement; and other blatant civil rights violations in the name of criminal justice, you might be surprised to know that Pennsylvania is not overrun with private prisons.

That’s right. Much attention has been given — by me, even — to the river of salivation flowing from the mouths of private prison CEOs and investors as President Donald Trump took office and promised to round up, incarcerate, and deport every single one of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. But those rounded up in Pennsylvania by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have been detained in institutions run by government entities, not companies. Those include the Pike and Clinton County Correctional Facilities, the York County Prison, and the Berks Family Residential Center — all operated by government employees.

But things may be changing in Pennsylvania.

In Berks County, leaders have been actively discussing how to pay for a new county jail — a project that could cost as much as $158 million. In a discussion last week, county commissioners said, according to WFMZ, that “privatization needs to at least be an option for the sake of the taxpayers.”

No, it doesn’t.

You don’t need to read Shane Bauer’s 36,000-word Mother Jones cover story about working undercover in a private prison to know how bad they are. You don’t need to fully understand the extent to which the rapes of female detainees at a CoreCivic property in Taylor, Texas, represented the failure of the private detention industry. You don’t need to revisit the “kids for cash” scandal over judicial kickbacks at the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas to understand the pollution of privatizing systems of incarceration: These prisons are chronically understaffed, often poorly constructed, dangerous, and prisoners receive even less in the way of treatment and rehabilitation than they would in a government-run prison.

And while the jail privatization discussion in Berks does not involve housing detainees on behalf of ICE yet, it’s more than conceivable that it might. The numbers that have emerged about ICE’s Pennsylvania operations indicate it’s arresting more people and deporting fewer. If that trend continues, ICE is going to need more space. Berks County Prison sits a half-mile from ICE’s Berks Family Residential Center. Executives with GEO Group or CoreCivic might suggest the jail lend a helping hand — at taxpayer expense, of course.

That Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system is largely devoid of private prisons is a favorable note in a foul cacophony: While commonwealth-based ICE officers round up undocumented residents at record numbers — often taking them from their children and families and friends — at least they’re not currently doing so at the behest of CoreCivic’s or GEO Group’s stockholders. CoreCivic operates zero prisons in Pennsylvania; GEO Group runs only two — one on behalf of Delaware County, the other for low-level offenders with the federal Bureau of Prisons. Compare that to Texas, where GEO operates nine prisons in the Rio Grande region alone, three on behalf of ICE.

ICE’s increasing arrests within the commonwealth are appalling, just like virtually every other effect of the Trump Administration’s caustic rhetoric, contentious policy decisions, and appointments in the name of profit-seeking.

Let’s not add another note to that foul cacophony.

IN OTHER NEWS
(Criminal justice news deserving of an in-depth look.) 

No justice, no police. Illustration from the Post-Gazette.
  • Post-Gazette: “Flawed reforms alienate good cops and prolong a crisis”

“In an April interview, Emily Sussman of the Center for American Progress stated that Department of Justice investigations establish systemic corruption before imposing decrees. But in 1997 DOJ did not interview a single Pittsburgh officer, did not allow the police union (the Fraternal Order of Police) any input and ignored a 10-year performance audit by the city controller that largely contradicted their investigation (of which there is no written record). The federal action was based on 66 uncorroborated ACLU complaints. Five years and millions of Pittsburgh tax dollars later, only five cases went to court: cops 2, plaintiffs 3. One plaintiff got $3,000 and the other two got nothing. Federal judges in Torrance, Calif., and Columbus, Ohio, dismissed DOJ ‘investigations’ without trials.” (Of note: This author, a retired Pittsburgh cop and Allegheny County detective, is speaking today — Friday, September 15, at 1 p.m. — at a Duquesne University seminar.)

  • Take Care: “More Empty Threats: The Trump Administration’s Latest Attack on Sanctuary Cities”

“Nowhere has Congress authorized the Attorney General to impose his new conditions on Byrne JAG funding. The purpose of the Byrne JAG program wasn’t to conscript state and local police into enforcing federal immigration law. It was to provide federal grants, mostly based upon set formulas, to support state and local decisions about policing and public safety. Whatever you think of the Byrne JAG program, and there are reasons to think that it ‘gets used for some truly terribly practices,’ there is no clear authorization in the Byrne JAG statute for the Attorney’s General’s conditions.” (Hattip: Dylan Cowart, ACLU-PA’s new Legal Fellow in Pittsburgh)

  • UPDATE: On the shooting of Christopher Mark Thompkins

Last month, we called your attention to the case of Christopher Thompkins, who was shot and killed by Pittsburgh police on his front porch in January. Information about the investigation into that shooting has been nonexistent in the nearly eight months since it occurred, and we called out Allegheny County’s district attorney, Stephen A. Zappala, Jr., for not being more transparent about what’s going on. To his credit, Zappala has now spoken out, and what he’s said is surprising. From this morning’s Post-Gazette:

“Mr. Zappala said his office has for years has had a relationship with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police that allowed his investigators access to and control of the scene of a fatal officer-involved shooting. But he said that did not happen after 57-year-old Christopher Mark Thompkins was shot Jan. 22 inside his home on Finley Street. ‘On that particular matter, the city unilaterally changed their relationship with my office,’ Mr. Zappala said. ‘I’m not satisfied we were able to get on scene in a timely fashion and talk to people who could give us evidence. The matter is being investigated, but we are using a different mechanism.’”

In other words: There may be a grand jury investigating this case. Stay tuned.

THE APPEAL — The Appeal is a weekly newsletter helping to keep you informed about criminal justice news in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. If you’d like to receive this weekly newsletter, you can subscribe here.

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