The Business of Detention

Brent Finnegan -- August 21st, 2009

As a follow-up to the Brandywine immigrant detention center story, I did a brief Q&A with Patrick Lincoln, organizer with the People United. Lincoln has done some of his own research of the proposed detention center, slated to be constructed in nearby West Virginia.

BF: When did you first hear about the Brandywine facility?

PL: I heard about the facility the week of July 13th, when the DNR article was first published. That next week I traveled to Pendleton County to do interviews with the secretary of the County Commission, Karen Pitsenbarger (quoted in the articles that have come out), Liz Warner, Exec. Director of the Chamber of Commerce and Shawn Hershberger, Exec. Director of the Pendleton County Economic Development Authority, who has most been in relationship with GSI and is the entitiy trying to get letters of support signed.

BF: What are the similarities (or differences) between the Brandywine and Farmville facilities?

PL: The primary similarities of both proposals center around the fact that they involve a for-profit corporation, with little to no previous involvement in detention, building and running an immigrant detention facility in rural, economically depressed areas.

Differences play out in terms of where the initiative came from. In Farmville it was the town council that subcontracted Immigrant Centers of America after negotiations with ICE, whereas in Pendleton County the private company, GSI, has spearheaded the effort in convincing local authorities.

In Pendleton there’s even less oversight from local government – there’s no zoning code in the whole county for example. So even if Pendleton County Commission was opposed to the facility it’s not certain they would even be able to prevent it from being built (in contrast, in Farmville the decision makers are definitely the town council).

Liz Warner, Executive Director of the Pendleton County Chamber of Commerce, speculated that letters of support are being gathered by GSI to be submitted to Sen. Byrd in order to prove that Pendleton is the best location for the facility. So this would leave one to believe that Sen. Byrd and ICE have had some discussion about a facility being built somewhere in West Virginia, but this is just speculation, and hopefully something FOIA requests can clear up. Hershberger did tell me that State Delegate Harold Michaels was involved, in advocating this as a job creator for his district.

BF: What have you learned about GSI? There’s not much info about them available online. Who are they?

PL: I only know what’s online – they are a shipping and warehousing company with offices in Winchester and the Virginia Beach area.

BF: Why should people in Harrisonburg care? How might this affect us, or people we know?

PL: There are virtually no recent immigrants in Pendleton County (total population of 7,000. 95% white, less than 1% foreign born). Where are these detainees going to come from? Many will come from the Shenandoah Valley (confirmed by Hershberger and Warner) where in the Harrisonburg-Rockingham County Regional Jail alone 40 prisoners on immigration violation are held daily, according to Sheriff Farley.

These are our community members – parents of students in our schools, people we see in the grocery store, workers at local factories – often facing long periods of incarceration in horrible conditions for violations [on par with] having made a mistake on your tax return. This affects us because, whether we like it or not, we are a community of immigrants. This affects us because we have to decide whether we think it’s morally defensible to put someone in prison in order to make money.

BF: It seems like there has been far less media coverage and protest of the Brandywine facility (when compared to the Farmville facility). Why is that?

PL: Both the media coverage and protest of the facility in Farmville were directly related to organizing in communities around the state, associated with The People United and Mexicans without Borders. The lack of protest, up to this point, mostly reflects organizational capacity, and trying to think strategically around where we can actually have an impact when many of these decisions are coming from pretty high up.

We’ve spoken recently about the need for political education and base-building. In terms of political education we need to reframe this debate to thoroughly include both the roots of immigration to this country and the forces really driving immigrant detention. Some good information on this second piece can be found in a report from Justice Policy Institute, starting on page 19. But essentially we need to be looking at the fact that corporations are jumping on the detention bandwagon for their own profit, mostly since after 9/11 when the private prison industry was slagging and just as mass detention was occurring. Are these the forces we want driving policy that affects real human beings, families all over the country? So we’ve been thinking about political action that comes with this educational component.

BF: Do you think ICE wants or needs this?

PL: Even with immigrant detention expanding, or at least not in any way slowing, under the Obama administration, it’s hard to believe that ICE needs two similarly sized facilities within the same region.

One important thing to remember is that ICE has no contract to place detainees in either one of these facilities, and if they sign one it won’t be until doors are literally opened. Companies are acting on this as any speculative market, and as such there’s bound to be some kind of a bubble. But we think ICE is hoping at least one of the facilities will get their financing good and straight and be operational. But you never know, one of the other key things to be looking at is – how much does the “if you build it they will come” phenomena play into it. For example, ICE is increasingly looking at home monitoring and other alternatives to detention because facilities are so full. But what if more are built?

I’ve heard from many who do national work that ICE is a many headed hydra and that some in upper echelon are motivated by a desire to increase detention to the extent that some immigration reform is forced – regardless of whether it’s reform that guarantees any rights, or just essentially legitimizes the shadow economy of underpaid immigrant labor. But immigration reform is a whole ‘nother can of worms.

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2 Responses to “The Business of Detention”

  1. “We won’t come unless we’re wanted,” George Barlow, head of GSI Professional Corrections, said …

    There’s another story about the Brandywine facility in today’s DNR.

    One commenter on the story (claiming to be from Brandywine) is vehemently opposed to the construction.

  2. Carrie says:

    “This affects us because we have to decide whether we think it’s morally defensible to put someone in prison in order to make money.” The real problem comes not when people break laws, but when laws break people. This sounds like an instance where laws will break people.

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