The Deportation Corporation
Last year, the federal government deported roughly 400,000 people, the highest number of deportations in U.S. history.
A generous portion of these poor saps came through a brand new private processing and detention facility located right here in the High Desert. Operated by Geo Group — remember that name — the prison is now the largest immigrant detention center in California. And it’s located only a few miles my house, on the edge of a miserable little suburb city by the name of Adelanto.
Adelanto means “progress” in Spanish.
According to the town’s official biography, Adelanto was founded by Earl H. Richardson, inventor of the first electric iron, the Hotpoint. His outfit, the Hotpoint Electric Heating Company, later merged with GE and churned out electric irons by the hundred of thousands. The invention made Richardson rich. It also gave the kindly old bespectacled gentleman visions of grandeur. His dream: to buy land way out in the Mojave Desert, lay the foundation for the first master-planned community in Southern California and sell it off piece by piece to veterans returning from trenches of World War I.
For some reason, the vets had no interest in living hundreds of miles from civilization, preferring instead to convalesce in bungalows on the beaches of Venice and Santa Monica. But Adelanto wasn’t a total loss for Richardson. World War II broke out, and the federal government took a bunch of land off his hands to build what would later become the George Air Force Base. Adelanto remained a military support settlement until the base closed in 1992.
The city has grown since then, tripling in size since the late 1980s. Now, Adelanto is a cheap suburb of Victorville. There’s no shape or organization to it, no master planning in sight—just patches of subprime subdivisions, apartment complexes and warehouses scattered in the desert. All that growth didn’t bring prosperity; it only accelerated the city’s slide into corruption, poverty and violence.
In 1997, Adelanto’s police chief was convicted of embezzlement and sent to jail. That same year, one police officer was convicted of child molestation, while two others were found guilty of beating and torturing suspects in their custody. In one case, they hauled someone in on a drug offense, attempted to beat a confession out of him and, when the guy started bleeding on the floor, made him lick up his own blood. One of the officers — Thomas Boyd Chandler — then threatened the suspect that he’d be shot and buried in a hole in the desert if he squealed to anyone about the enhanced interrogation techniques used on him in custody. To drive the point home, Chandler took a bullet from his gun. “This bullet has your name on it,” he warned.
Despite a shakeup, in 1998, both Adelanto’s sitting mayor and the city attorney were convicted felons. And a grand jury investigation found evidence of election fraud and rampant corruption.
“This is one of the most crooked places on Earth,” said 20-year resident Roger Ayers told the Associated Press in 1998. The AP article noted that the town had a bingo parlor and a strip club, but no restaurants or supermarkets.
Adelanto was also being infiltrated by the Taiwanese mafia, which was operating an ammunition factory in the area.
Here’s the Associated Press again:
Federal and county law enforcement officials have questioned the opening of J.J. Ammo Inc., a bullet factory with connections to China. A principal in the firm, Wah Nien "Johnny" Chiang, is a Taiwan native who authorities say is tied to Asian organized crime. "We're well aware of Johnny Chiang and that he's making ammunition out in Adelanto. We're not sure why," said Sgt. Tom Budds, who heads the Asian organized crime unit of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
Chinese-Taiwanese mafia churning out bullets in Adelanto? I guess anything’s possible out here on the frontier of SoCal’s suburban sprawl.
Today, of the 32,000 people who call Adelanto home, nearly 60 percent are Latino and a large number of those are undocumented. Per-capita income is just under $12,000—nearly three times lower than California average. One out of every three people live under the poverty line, and 5.4 percent of the population is what the good folks at the census bureau classify as “institutionalized.” Which is just a bureaucratic way of saying that one out of 20 Adelanto residents is currently rotting in jail—at a rate that’s five times higher than the national average. That’s not surprising: until recently Adelanto had been home to three prisons: one county, one city and one private.
After the real estate bubble popped, Adelanto teetered on the verge of bankruptcy. By 2010, the city was essentially out of money, and had only $100,000 in its reserve fund. On top of everything, California started releasing nonviolent prisoners to relieve the state’s overcrowded penitentiary system. And that meant Adelanto was on the verge of losing a major source of revenue: a city-owned minimum security facility that housed state inmates and brought in nearly $2 million in pure profit. But there was a way out…
As luck would have it, a private prison company called Geo Group happened to be in the market for a detention facility located in Southern California.
California might have been downsizing its prison population, but the federal government was ramping up its deportation operations and needed private contractors to handle the logistics of housing and processing immigrants. Geo Group—the second-largest private prison company in America, with roughly 60 facilities and 40,000 souls under its care—was always eager for more business, and Adelanto’s prison was exactly what it needed to get in on the action.
In 2010, Adelanto sold its prison to Geo Group for lump payment of $28 million. As part of the deal, Adelanto helped the new buyer secure a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), for which the city negotiated an additional payout of $50,000 a year from Geo Group.
Geo quickly expanded the facility to hold 1,300 inmates, making it the largest private deportation center in the state California. It projected an annual revenue stream of $42 million (at a rock bottom rate of $99 per detained immigrant per day). And according to its cushy contract with ICE, Geo was guaranteed a 75-percent minimum occupancy rate, meaning that the feds agreed to pay the private prison company $36 million a year to run its Adelanto facility, whether it contained immigrant detainees or not. All this, of course, is being funded by hardworking American taxpayers.
Remember Adelanto’s majority Latino population, a large number of whom are undocumented? Now, they suddenly find themselves living in the shadow of the largest deportation center in the state, dedicated to concentrating and kicking out people just like them. A speeding ticket is enough to initiate deportation these days, and it doesn’t matter if the immigrant has children or family here: recent stats show that a quarter of people deported are parents with children who are U.S. citizens.
Be afraid, be very afraid.
Geo Group’s Adelanto project was still in the works when I lived out here in 2009, so last week I decided to take a drive out and see how the finished product looks.
It was right around sunset time, and everything was awash in an orange-red light radiated out from behind the San Bernardino Mountains. Geo’s Adelanto facility is located on Ranchero Rd, on the western edge of Adelanto. Just one block past the prison, the asphalt ends and the street turns into a dirt road that disappears into the desert on horizon.
The road leading to the prison was mostly empty. A big rig or a truck rumbled past once in a while. Warehouses flanked the prison complex. There was some sort of pump substation across the street, and a big cluster of high-voltage transmission cables and transformers a little farther down. A gentleman’s club sat on a lot behind the prison, in sight of its fortified courtyard. Two dancers stood out back by the club’s service entrance, smoking and looking out at the brightly lit detention center in front of them. Other than that, there was nothing but desert scrub and Joshua trees for miles around.
At first I passed the prison completely, mistaking it for a cluster of warehouses. It was only when I saw the high metal fence surrounding an outdoor area lit up with blinding flood lights that I realized what I was looking at.
I doubled back and parked on the side of the road across the sprawling prison complex.
There were a couple of blue “Geo Group” signs. Shuttle busses of various sizes were clustered in a side parking lot. A dozen or so cars were parked in the lot out front, and two or three people were slowly walking toward the main entrance.
If I didn’t know otherwise, I never would have guessed that I was looking at the largest deportation facility in California. It could have been anything: a distribution hub, a warehouse or a large office complex. Hell, it could have even passed for a community college.
Unlike the imposing slab structures of federal prison complex a couple of miles to the east, the bland nondescript facade of Geo’s detention facility masked its brutal function, and gave no indication about the dark and bloody history of the company that ran it.
Y’see, Geo Group isn’t just any private prison operator. It started life as a subsidiary of the Wackenhut Corporation, the shady quasi-government security company founded in the 1950s by former FBI agent and fervent McCarthyite George R. Wackenhut.
Wackenhut packed his company with rightwing generals, John Birch Society leaders and future leaders of the military-security establishment, including William Casey and Frank Carlucci. He fashioned Wackenhut Corp into a modern version of the Pinkerton Agency, providing various security and espionage services to both the government and private clients.
It has defended U.S. Embassies all across the world, protected domestic nuclear facilities and currently guards our nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve. In the 1960s, Wackenhut spied on antiwar activists, infiltrated protest movements and compiled dossiers on 2.5 million suspected dissidents. Mining companies hired Wackenhut goons to serve as strikebreakers.There’s even a good chance Wackenhut was involved in transferring chemical weapons from the U.S. to Saddam Hussein in 1990, as reported in a 1992 SPY Magazine investigation titled “Inside the Shadow CIA.”
“It is known throughout the industry that if you want a dirty job done, call Wackenhut,” a retired FBI special agent William Hinshaw told SPY. In the 1980s, George Wackenhut opened up a new subsidiary, the Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, to take advantage of new and exciting lucrative business opportunity: private prisons.
We can go down a deep rabbit hole chasing Wackenhut’s spook connections. But the main thing to note is that the company feeds on and profits from military conflict, social unrest, economic hardship, paranoia and fear. And its private prison operations are simply the newest outgrowth of that business model.
With Wackenhut’s history as a violent rightwing paramilitary organization, it’s track record in prison management quickly became littered with corpses, broken bodies and rape victims. It racked up such a bad rep that the company was forced to change its name from Wackenhut to Geo Group.
There are too many incidents to list here. But a recent Department of Justice investigation into Geo’s Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility near Jackson, Mississippi, gives a glimpse of the kind of conditions inmates face in Geo’s for-profit prisons.
Here are few tidbits, courtesy of the Southern Poverty Law Center:
Guards frequently doused young men with pepper spray as a first response, rather than a last resort. Youths were routinely sprayed simply for refusing verbal commands, such as failing to remove their arms from food tray slots while locked in their cells – something they sometimes did to get attention for medical emergencies… .
… Fights were common, occurring almost daily. Cell doors could be easily rigged to remain unlocked, allowing youths to leave their cells and enter others at will. Guards were often complicit in attacks. Weapons were readily available. Emergency call buttons in the cells didn’t work… . In addition, guards “frequently and brutally react to low-level aggression” – such as using profanities or reacting too slowly to an order – by “slamming youth head first into the ground, slapping, beating, and kicking youth,” the DOJ found…
… Some guards apparently saw their charges as sexual prey. Sexual misconduct between staffers and youth occurred on a monthly basis – “at a minimum,” the DOJ found. But GEO did little or nothing to prevent it, other than firing those caught in the act – like the female guard who yelled “close the door” at another guard who saw her engaged in intercourse with a youth in a medical department restroom…
… Violence by youths and guards wasn’t the only problem. Neither were the gang affiliations of some guards. Or the grossly inadequate medical and mental health care. Or the proliferation of drugs and other contraband. Or the lack of educational and rehabilitative programs. Or the wild overuse of pepper spray on passive youths.
Indeed, the DOJ found that sexual abuse – including brutal youth-on-youth rapes and “brazen” sexual misconduct by prison staffers who coerced youths – was “among the worst that we have seen in any facility anywhere in the nation.”
Geo Group is very aware just how much it depends on a harsh, punitive criminal and immigration laws for survival.
Here’s how Geo described its position to investors in a 2012 10K filing:
In particular, the demand for our correctional and detention facilities and services, electronic monitoring services, community-based re-entry services and monitoring and supervision services could be adversely affected by changes in existing criminal or immigration laws, crime rates in jurisdictions in which we operate, the relaxation of criminal or immigration enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction, sentencing or deportation practices, and the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by criminal laws or the loosening of immigration laws. For example, any changes with respect to the decriminalization of drugs and controlled substances could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, sentenced and incarcerated, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them. Similarly, reductions in crime rates could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences requiring incarceration at correctional facilities. Immigration reform laws which are currently a focus for legislators and politicians at the federal, state and local level also could materially adversely impact us.
Geo Group is candid about all this. It has to be: In 2011, the company depended on the deportation of immigrants for 14 percent of its business. Something like 88 percent of its $1.6 billion in revenues that year came from federal and state government agencies. And that’s what so troubling about President Barack Obama’s promise to enact “meaningful” immigration reform. After Obama took office, Geo’s stock price rebounded from a low of about $10 a share in 2009 to nearly $33 in January 2013, tripling over the course of Obama’s first term. And here’s the frightening thing: the stock price didn’t even budge last week, after Obama announced his intent to push through immigration reform by the end of spring this year.
This means one of two things: Either the multibillion dollar hedge funds and private equity firms that own 97% of Geo Group’s stock don’t know what they’re doing. Or they know exactly what they’re doing, and are confident that — despite the bipartisan rhetoric around a kinder, gentler, less deporty immigration system — Geo Group’s deportation facility in Adelanto is still looking forward to a long, prosperous future.