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Immigration center critics say detainees at risk
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CCA at a glance
Founded: 1983
Headquarters: Nashville, Tenn.
Number of facilities: 60-plus (44 are company-owned)
Number of employees: 17,000 (approximate)
Estimated sales, 2008: $1.6 billion
Net income: $145 million
Profit margin: 9.2 percent

Source: CCA; Forbes magazine

Civil liberty and prisoner rights advocates say immigration detention facilities like the one run by a private company in midtown Gainesville are operated at a level of secrecy and lack of accountability that has led to preventable deaths.

The government agency with oversight over immigration detention, however, says policies are in place to provide detainees with adequate care and make information available to the public.

The Corrections Corporation of America leases the old Hall County Jail on Main Street to house up to 500 suspected illegal aliens who are being detained by the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency pending deportation. The detainees are brought to the Gainesville facility from several locations, many from the Charlotte, N.C., region.

The company pays the county $2 million a year to lease the building and house ICE detainees in an agreement between ICE, Hall County and CCA.

The New York Times has uncovered instances of 10 questionable immigrant detention deaths in other facilities across the country, some operated by CCA. Those cases, some of which involved apparent medical neglect, were initially not included in ICE public records of in-custody deaths, and the newspaper found instances in which agency employees with direct knowledge of the cases denied knowing about them when questioned by reporters.

The newspaper’s reporting was assisted by the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. David Shapiro, a staff attorney for the project, said the group has used federal Freedom of Information Act requests to "try to pry these documents loose from the government. The goal is to bring greater transparency and accountability to conditions and deaths in immigrant detention."

Shapiro cited the case of Felix Rodriguez-Torres, a 36-year-old Ecuadoran who died after pleading for medical care at a CCA facility in Arizona. Torres had a highly treatable form of testicular cancer that went undetected and untreated, Shapiro said.

"Private prisons do create a tension between the bottom line and basic execution of government function, like medical care of detainees," Shapiro said. "And certainly some of the problematic deaths of people in immigration detention have been in private facilities."

CCA said in an e-mailed statement to The Times this week that management and staff at the North Georgia Detention Center in Gainesville "work very closely with our government partner (ICE) and the federal agency that provides health care at the facility to ensure that all detainees receive appropriate access to care."

"The facility is held accountable by ICE to detention standards as well as those of the American Correctional Association," company spokesman Steve Owen said.

Ivan Ortiz, a spokesman for ICE, said over the past four months, the agency has made "significant progress in improving detainee medical care — implementing new standards to improve access, case management and record-keeping."

Ortiz said ICE will soon begin using a new medical classification system to assess detainee health conditions when they are processes into a facility.

He also said ICE is committed to being "fully transparent" in its detainee operations.

"This administration will not accept or tolerate any willful misrepresentation of information, and that is why ICE has taken aggressive steps to increase transparency," Ortiz said.

The agency has a procedure of notifying local news media of detainee deaths, and requires immediate notification of ICE headquarters with a "significant incident report," Ortiz said. The Office of Inspector General is required to investigate each death, he said.

Jackie Esposito, policy coordinator for the Washington, D.C.-based Detention Watch Network, said incidents involving CCA were not isolated, pointing to a government report on a company facility in San Diego where abuses were uncovered.

"Their bottom line is cost-efficiency, not protecting human rights, and the government is turning a blind eye to it," Esposito said.

ICE announced last fall it was assigning agents to directly supervise facilities on-site. But Esposito said ICE supervisors were only placed in a "handful" of the largest detention facilities. There were 25 managers assigned, but there are some 350 detention facilities across the country, she said.

"It sort of defies logic to say that just a handful of facilities need this oversight and the 325 others will have to make do on their own," she said.

It could not be determined if the Gainesville location has a day-to-day operations supervisor from ICE.

Esposito said one of the biggest problems her organization has with immigration detention is the lack of binding, enforceable standards governing the network of private and public facilities.

"There can’t be any accountability, because there are no consequences if the official ... engages in misconduct," she said.

The ACLU’s Shapiro said despite the reforms announced last fall, "a lot of concrete action has been lacking."

"There’s not nearly as much oversight and transparency as there should be, and the result is putting people at risk of suffering and death," Shapiro said.

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