Private Prison Co. Again Accused of Human Rights Abuses

A publicly traded company that runs private prison facilities across the country is again facing accusations of human rights abuses against inmates in its facilities.

Immigrants at a Washington State detention center run by the GEO Group, Inc. are being held in conditions that violate both international and U.S. law, says a new report released by the Seattle University School of Law and the human rights group OneAmerica.

The report concludes that immigrants at the Northwest Detention Facility, including refugees and asylum seekers, are being held in "an atmosphere of intimidation" which includes verbal abuse, sexual harassment, strip searches, and poor to non-existent mental and physical health care.

While the Northwest Detention Facility in Tacoma, Washington is overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) it is run the GEO Group.

This is not the first time GEO has been accused of violating the rights of inmates in its care.

In 2000, when the company was known as Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, the U.S. Department of Justice sued them over "excessive abuse and neglect" of inmates at the Jena Juvenile Justice Center in Jena, Louisiana. The suit was settled without a trial, said U.S. Attorney David R. Dugas, and later that year the state terminated the company's contract to run the facility.

Two years later, three former employees were found guilty of civil rights conspiracy and obstruction including lying to investigators, in the aftermath of the beating of an inmate in a New Mexico facility.

And last October, the Texas Youth Commission removed inmates from one of the company's juvenile facilities after an official visited and determined the conditions were "unsafe."

Despite this, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently granted GEO a five-year, multi-million contract extension with the state.

Schwarzenegger's office referred ABC News to the California Department of Corrections, which oversees the contract, for comment. The department said that GEO, which currently operates four facilities in the state, has scored well on state audits thus far.

According to ICE, GEO owns and operates immigration detention centers in Denver, Miami and Jena, Louisiana, in addition to the Tacoma facility.

A spokesman for the GEO Group declined to speak about the report, stating, "As a matter of policy our company does not comment on third party allegations."

In preparing the report, SU law students interviewed 41 current detainees, including 16 refugees. They also interviewed immigration attorneys whose clients have been housed in the facility, and were given two official tours.

The report states that many detainees are not given adequate amounts of food, are pressured to sign papers they do not understand, and are prevented from openly discussing their cases with attorneys.

ICE disputes the allegations in the report, saying it contains "numerous inaccuracies and vague references." The agency sent ABC News a detailed statement refuting specific allegations, including overcrowding, excessive strip searches and lack of due process. (click here to read full response from ICE)

"ICE was never given the opportunity to respond to the accusations before the report was released," wrote ICE Public Affairs Officer Tim Counts.

The report, titled "Voices from Detention," details an incident last August when several hundred detainees at the facility fell ill with abdominal pain and diarrhea from food poisoning.

According to the report, the law requires medical staff to be available around the clock, but detainees were told they had to wait until the clinic opened in the morning to receive care.

"It was only because of the large volume of complaints that the administration eventually called the clinic staff to come in earlier," stated the report.

ICE responded to those allegations saying that each detainee's needs are first triaged in a face-to-face encounter. "Those who are in need of immediate attention will be sent to the medical unit right away for evaluation and immediate treatment. Those whose situations are less urgent will receive treatment at the appointed time," said an ICE statement.

Even when there isn't a medical rush, the report quotes detainees saying that if they want to see the facility's doctor, they are forced to literally stand in a line for up to four hours.

ICE rejected that allegation saying there are both holding cells and seats where detainees can wait for treatment.

"No one is required to stand in line for any length of time. If there is a delay in receiving non-urgent medical treatment, detainees are returned to their pod until the medical staff can see them," said ICE's statement.

On December 13, 2006, detainee Jesus Cervantes-Corona died at the center, but the report states that that "the full circumstances of his death have not been disclosed by ICE or GEO."

"The bottom line is that there are serious violations of international human rights standards and constitutional due process standards at the facility," said Pramila Jayapal, Executive Director of OneAmerica.

"We don't believe this is just an isolated case, this follows a pattern of what's happening around the country," said Jayapal.

Jayapal points to recent news reports detailing detainee deaths in Texas and Southern California.

"The problem is that there is no legally binding or enforceable standard that governs immigration detention," said Jayapal.

Elenor Acer, Director of the Refugee Protection Program for Human Rights First, agrees, saying that the report reflects "a national problem" of non-criminal detainees being held in penal facilities without adequate safeguards. Human Rights First was not involved in preparing the report.

In May, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced the Detainee Basic Medical Care Act, which would require the Department of Homeland Security to "establish timely and effective health care" and to keep track of all detainee deaths. The bill is currently before the Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Menendez called the "systemic problems" in the immigration detention system "atrocious and unacceptable."

"At some point, this becomes more than a legal issue – it becomes a human rights issue," said Menendez in an email to ABC News. "We must hold onto our moral ground as a beacon of democracy and a leader in human rights around the world. We must secure our country while protecting the dignity of all human beings."

Immigration detention has become big business in the past decade. According to the report, the number of people in immigration detention centers has tripled, from 95,000 in 2001 to 300,000 in 2007. On any given day, nearly 30,000 immigrants are detained, up from just 5,000 in 1994.

"The surge in detention is an enormous problem," said Jayapal. "As long as we can't ensure constitutional protections are provided, we should not be detaining people."

Julia Dahl is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Salon, The Columbia Journalism Review and Guernica, among others.

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