The dangers of co-mingling prisons, detention centers and politics

In an interview last May on NPR, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen compared the Trump administration’s “Zero Tolerance” policy to the same policy experienced by incarcerated Americans every day in this country who are separated from their children.

“If you break the law, you will be prosecuted. It’s no different than what we do every day in every part of the United States when an adult commits a crime,” Nielsen said. “We’re following that same policy at our borders.”

And she’s absolutely correct. In fact, we have a long history of state-sanctioned family separation that continues as a widespread practice today — particularly in our justice system, where approximately 2.7 million children have a parent behind bars.

And the fastest growing group of prisoners?


According to a report by the Prison Fellowship, there has been a 14-fold increase of women in prison since 1970, and 80 percent of them are single mothers.

Whether guilty or innocent, men and women often spend weeks, months and sometimes years in prison awaiting trial for non-violent crimes, losing their jobs, homes and custody of their children before they’ve even had a chance to plead their case.

The fact is, the current “law and order” approach isn’t new either. It was echoed by President Nixon in the late 1960s, as well as Presidents Reagan and Clinton and their attempts to combat the drug war by creating massive prison expansions to keep up with the demands of higher incarceration rates.

In addition to prisons, in 2014 the U.S. government massively expanded its detention centers for immigrant families. According to reports from the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) and Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC), between October 2014 and September 2015, the U.S. government apprehended 68,334 children accompanied by a parent at the southwest border — a 361 percent increase since the previous year. Keep in mind that more than half of all the children who entered into family detention facilities in that time were six years old or younger.

And that was before the “Zero Tolerance” posture first taken  by past Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which compounded the problem by demanding enforcement without the necessary resources to do so humanely — a situation that still continues.

But this is not a problem that is unique to the Trump administration, although its poor handling of it has made it uniquely terrible.

When the Obama administration began detaining families in large facilities back in 2014, for-profit correctional corporation GEO Group answered the call with the Karnes Detention Center in Texas, which broke ground at that site last year in order to double its capacity.

Another detention center was opened by Correction Corporation of America (CCA) in 2015 that holds 819 mothers and 1,000 children in a lock-down style facility.

Both GEO Group and CCA have had facilities closed in the past (Artesia Detention Center and Hutto Detention center, respectively) due to allegations of abuse and poor living conditions — only to re-open somewhere else with a government contract.

In a new paper written by Oregon State University sociology professor Brett Burkhardt and published this week in the journal Criminology & Pubic Policy, Burkhardt draws a clear line connecting private-run prisons and detention centers to politics and special interests.

In it, Burkhardt notes that “The big picture view of this industry shows that companies operating private prisons and detention centers shape politics and policies...”

While I think we all agree that our borders should never be a revolving door, particularly in  an era with the constant threats of global terrorism and illegal drugs, one must ask who stands to benefit most from an ever-expanding system of prisons and detention centers.

And whether tax dollars given to corporate prisons and detention centers is money well spent — or money spent in order to  pretend that all is well. 


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