Jailing the American Dream

Profits, poverty, and injustice collide in borderland prisons

| March-April 2010

  • West Texas Prison

    image by Eric Kayne / www.erickayne.com

  • West Texas Prison

The following is part of a series of articles on prisons and over-incarceration in America. For more, read  Getting Smart on Crime and  Busting Out . And to listen to an UtneCast interview with the author of this story, Tom Barry, at utne.com/Crimmigration 

County clerk Dianne Florez noticed it first. Plumes of smoke were rising outside the small West Texas town of Pecos. “The prison is burning again,” she announced.

About a month and a half before, on December 12, 2008, inmates had rioted to protest the death of one of their own, Jesus Manuel Galindo, 32. When Galindo’s body was removed from the prison in what looked to them like a large black trash bag, they took two prison workers hostage, set fire to the recreation center, and occupied the exercise yard overnight. Using smuggled cell phones, they told worried family members and the media about poor medical care in the prison and described the treatment of Galindo, who had been in solitary confinement since mid-November. During that time, fellow inmates and his mother, who called the prison nearly every day, had warned authorities that Galindo needed daily medication for epilepsy and was suffering from severe seizures in the “security housing unit,” which the inmates call the “hole.”

I arrived in Pecos on February 2, shortly after the second riot broke out. I had driven 200 miles east from El Paso through the Chihuahuan Desert.

Pecos is the seat of Reeves County in “far west” Texas and home to what the prison giant GEO Group calls “the largest detention/correctional facility under private management in the world.” The prison, a sprawling complex on the town’s deserted southwest edge, holds up to 3,700 prisoners. Almost all are serving time in federal lockup before being deported and are what the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) call “criminal aliens.”

Although the term “criminal aliens” has no precise definition, its broadening use reflects a trend in dealing with immigrants. With the post-9/11 creation of DHS and its two agencies—Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP)—a wide sector of aliens increasingly became the focus of joint efforts by immigration and law enforcement officers. ICE’s Criminal Alien Program, working with local police, began targeting for deportation both legal and illegal immigrants with criminal records. And CBP’s Border Patrol began to turn over illegal border crossers to the justice system for criminal prosecution, instead of, as in the past, simply deporting them. Many criminal aliens are long-term legal residents of the United States and are also the parents, children, or siblings of U.S. citizens and lawful residents.

Bob Bennett
2/5/2010 4:22:39 PM

My first arrest occurred in 1985, in Los Angeles. At the time I was considering which of three Universities at I had been accepted to study Physics to attend. I had been diagnosed with epilepsy when I was about 11 years old. I had some seizures the previous day, and realized my behavior was becoming somewhat strange. After contacting my doctor, who asked me to come in. After getting on my bicycle, I noticed a police car coming down the block. As my father had been a highly decorated police officer, who had been shot in the line of duty, and I had no previous negative interactions with police I approached the car to ask for help. They assumed I was on illegal drugs and started swinging their nightclubs before I had a chance to say a word, and jailed me for assaulting an officer. The brutality had just begun. Later I was to find out how corrupt the justice system, at least in California, is. The first thing a public defenders tells a client is "plea no contest and I can get you out of jail by tomorrow." This encourages crime, as most who are arrested have committed some crime, and take this as an indication that crime is good. Should a person claim that they are not guilty, then they find out that covering up of police abuse is the first duty of public defenders, the second is to assist the prosecutor obtain convictions. Conviction rates, according to The Criminal Justice Profile,rose from 81% in 1981 to 98.6% in 1988. It is no suprise abuse is everywhere.

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