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Joliet article _ Guzman family Scoville photo

Courtesy of Satsuki Scoville and Emily Guzman.

Pedro Guzman said his experience in an immigrant detention center changed his family forever.

Joliet flirts with hosting corporate detention center in face of human rights objections

by Tara Kadioglu
Dec 06, 2012

CCA spending

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Data from shows U.S. Department of Homeland Security's spending on Corrections Corporation of America over the years.

JOLIET photo sign

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Joliet's city manager says Joliet would gain jobs and revenue if it hosts an 800-bed private immigrant detention center. But activists and locals are speaking in opposition for human rights reasons.


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Joliet resident Maurice Hare said he would oppose an immigrant detention center in his hometown, because he thinks immigrants should be treated better. "It's just wrong," he said.

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Joliet residents explain what they think about a possible immigrant detention center coming to their city.


Related Links

ICE 2011 Detention StandardsCity of JolietFedSpending.orgACLU on immigrant detention centers

Some activists would prefer to improve existing detention center, rather than see new facilities created

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says its 2011 detention reforms are fueling its hunt for new reform-tailored private detention centers, according to a press release. But some activists do not want new and improved centers. They would rather continue improving the old ones. 

Corrections Corporation of America is working with ICE so Illinois can have a new reform-minded detention centers, it says.   

CCA spokesman Steve Owens cited an “evolution in the process in terms of the types of facilities” they hope to provide, improving living conditions, staff treatment of immigrants and immigrant access to lawyers. 

Sister JoAnn Persch of the religious order Sisters of Mercy in Evergreen Park was involved in championing the immigration reforms in Washington, D.C. She considers the reforms themselves to be a success. 

But of the plan for new centers, she is skeptical.  

Persch says a new center could interrupt her grassroots activism to improve McHenry County Jail’s detention conditions for immigrants.  

Persch spends time visiting detainees there with her fellow nuns. She says the presence of the nuns has softened McHenry’s approach to detention.  

“McHenry has built a whole wing and hired staff to take care of the immigrants,” she said of how her work with the jail has improved their program.  

She worries a new center will disrupt those improvements, rather than make things better.  

“Now if CCA comes in and fills 800 beds, [McHenry's] going to lose their population.” 

Persch said CCA would “have to show [its] care is better.”  

But judging these new centers may be premature. While ICE spokeswoman Gail Montenegro would not take interview questions, Owens said so far ICE has only opened one new center tailored to the reforms, in Texas. He was not sure of the facility’s name, but an ICE press release in March of this year said Karnes County Civil Detention Center was the first tailored to the reforms. 

Northwestern political science professor Jackie Stevens said this center showed improvement in only one area: Internet access for detainees who need to find a lawyer.  

Pedro Guzman said that in the 18 months he was detained at a Corrections Corporation of America immigrant detention center, the staff treated him “like dirt.”

“I’d wake up in the morning crying in my bed, and I’d go to sleep with my headphones,” he said. “It was the only way I could find some peace. I would listen to jazz, soul, Spanish music, NPR…everything.”

“It was a really messed up place,” he said. “It’s still a messed up place to be. I don’t understand how it’s humane to run it.”

Compounding Guzman’s difficulties was the isolation of the center, which kept him 10 miles from his wife and infant son.

Guzman was held in the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and CCA, the company that owns Stewart, are scouting for a location to build an 800-bed immigrant detention center in Illinois.

If CCA and ICE find a location, it will be Illinois’ first immigrant detention center to be owned by a major corporation.

Joliet’s city manager, Tom Thanas, is in preliminary talks with CCA and ICE about Joliet possibly hosting the facility. Human rights activists are opposing the center, citingCCA’s reputation on detainee treatment. Detention Watch Network recently compiled state reports on the country’s 10 worst immigrant prisons, and at least two of the facilities are CCA owned: Stewart and Houston Processing Center in Texas.

ICE recently reformed its detention standards in 2011 to improve detainee treatment,including raising standards and training on how staff members interact with the detainees. Staff treatment of detainees during his 2009 to 2011 detention was one of Guzman’s major complaints.

“They’re making jokes about your hair, making jokes about your height, making jokes about the way you speak English,” said Guzman, who came to the United States from Guatemala at age 8. “They would say, ‘You don’t speak English, you speak Spanish.’ They would joke, ‘You’re on the wrong side of town. This is not Mexico.’ They always make jokes like that.”

“They would joke about your private parts, which they would see,” he said. “There was no privacy. They can see who’s taking a shower, they can see when you go and take a dump, they can see everything. We’re talking about a man’s private parts, you know?”

Gail Montenegro, ICE’s spokeswoman in Chicago, would not answer questions on the possible center in Joliet, however she e-mailed a press release saying that ICE’s search for a new center in Joliet was to open a place with a clean slate under the new 2011 standards.

ICE “has identified a need for a civil immigration detention facility within the greater Chicago area,” the release says. “This proposed facility is part of the agency’s long-term nationwide effort to reform the current immigration detention system by improving the conditions of confinement.”

Part of the reform involves a more central location to improve detainee access to families and legal services. The release did not mention the daily interactions between staff and detainees.

CCA spokesman Steve Owens also said the reforms meant the new center would improve access to legal services and families.

“It’s all intended to make it a civil environment, not criminal,” he said. “These people are going through a civil process.”

Owens defended CCA’s treatment of detainees.

“All of our existing facilities that we partner with ICE on follow the detention standards to treat detainees with dignity and respect,” he said. “That may be more difficult to accomplish in local county jails, where they are designed as correctional facilities. In our facilities we operate, which are detention facilities, we already follow those detention standards.”

Jackie Stevens, an expert on immigrant detention, disagreed with Owens’ assessment.

“CCA is horrible,” the Northwestern political science professor said. “In all the places with which I’m familiar where they have contracts, they have just a terrible track record with just the general treatment of the people held there.”

Some, including Stevens, see a conflict of interest between the corporate nature of the facility and detainee treatment.

“The conflict is that they’re trying to save money and they’re not interested in protecting civil rights,” she said.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement holds detainees in a mix of federal detention centers, county jails it contracts with and centers owned by private companies. Most detainees apprehended in Illinois are held in one of six regional county jails contracting with ICE — Illinois’ Jefferson and McHenry county jails, Wisconsin’s Dodge and Kenosha county jails and Kentucky’s Boone County Jail. The rest go to the one privately run immigrant detention center in the state: Pulaski County’s 215-detainee Tri-County Detention Center. ICE contracts with the jail, but Tri-County contracts with a private company, Paladin Eastside Psychological Services, Inc. to run the jail.

The American Civil Liberties Union website says that in 2011 the Department of Homeland Security held "a record-breaking 429,000 immigrants in over 250 facilities across the country, and currently maintains a daily capacity of 33,400 beds."

Joliet resident Joshua Rivera — who said the issue is personal for him, as his stepfather was deported — said he would oppose a CCA facility because of its commercial nature.

“They’re just doing it to make money,” he said. “I think it’s wrong. I just think [detainees] deserve to be treated better,” he said.

Sister JoAnn Persch, a Roman Catholic nun of the Sisters of Mercy order, said CCA is "making money on the backs of the detainees. You can buy stock in the corporation. They get over $100 a day per detainee."

“It’s a money-making deal,” said Persch, an Evergreen Park-based activist for immigrant detainee rights. “Now I’m not saying that county jails don’t make money, they do but not to the extent CCA can by being on the stock market.”

CCA did not respond to a query about their per detainee fee, but the ACLU has said holding a detainee costs taxpayers $122 to $164 a day.

Thanas, Joliet’s city manager, said the facility’s corporate nature is one of its attractions for his city.

“Joliet’s no different than most other communities,” he said. “We’ve suffered through the recession … and we have a relatively high unemployment rate in Joliet. So that’s why we have to look at all options, even though there’s very vocal opposition.”

“Since the facility would be privately owned, it would generate substantial real estate taxes,” he said. “We haven’t quantified financial impact on Joliet other than the fact that it would create several hundred construction jobs, several hundred permanent jobs, probably a six-figure revenue stream for our school district.”

Although no official negotiations between CCA, ICE and Joliet have taken place, Thanas said he has already been bombarded at City Council meetings, something he said motivated him to do independent online research on the human rights issues.

“I’ve read a lot over the last month or so about the allegations that are made as far as what this does to families that are thrown in the process of ICE proceedings,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of research on the private company, CCA; allegations that have been made against it. … There’s a lot of interesting articles out there, both pro and con.”

Human rights concerns prompted the village of Crete to reject a proposed CCA facility earlier this year. But Joliet is different. The city’s claim to fame is in being a prison city, home of the Joliet Correctional Center from 1858 until it closed in 2002, and its appearance in Hollywood movies such as “The Blues Brothers” and “Natural Born Killers.”

“We are very comfortable with the correctional facility culture,” Thanas said. “So looking at another opportunity [to host a prison] is not something that is foreign to us.”

Stevens, the immigrant detention expert, said “It’s true that there might be more sympathy and money behind pushing to have it sited there. So it would make the fight against it that much more difficult.”

James Nicholson, a longtime Joliet resident, said while he empathized with the human rights concerns surrounding immigrants, he would still favor a new facility.

"If we had one," he laughed, "more jobs, basically."

"Personally I wouldn't mind having one here. We're known as a place for prisons anyway, right? I mean that's just the way it is. Since Al Capone days,” Nicholson said. “I mean, I was in the service one time, back in '65 down in San Antone. Guy says, 'Oh, you from Joliet. That's where the prison at, huh?"

But Guzman, who was granted asylum in May 2011, said being at a CCA facility changed his life forever. He was allowed at most one visit a week, through a glass wall. He often only got one or two a month because his wife and son had to drive 10 hours to visit. So he scrambled for other ways to stay connected with his son.

“We’d play hide and seek on the phone,” Guzman said. “I’d count to 10 and go, ‘Where’s Logan? Is he behind the couch? Is he behind the bed? And Emily would say, ‘No, he’s not behind the bed.’”

Guzman also sent Logan letters and drawings. But Logan is not the same — the family still goes to therapy to deal with the impact of his father’s extended absence.

“He still has separation anxiety,” Guzman said. “He’s sleeping with us in our bed.”

“He’s afraid when I go to work all day and he doesn’t see me. He asks, ‘Daddy, are you coming home tonight?’”