Why Immigrants Are Dying in Private Federal Prisons

Federal prisoners are shipped off to privately-run prisons with potentially deadly medical care.

By Hady MawajdehFebruary 8, 2016 1:00 pm, , , ,

The Federal Bureau of Prisons, a subdivision of the U.S. Department of Justice, is responsible for dealing with people who are accused of violating federal law. The BOP regulates public federal facilities as well as those owned by private companies, including the privately-run prisons solely for low-security non-citizens who have committed federal crimes.

But the BOP’s standards for the private and public prisons are not the same, especially when it comes to medical care. Some prisoners are dying because of it.

Seth Freed Wessler is an independent reporter with the Investigative Fund and Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. He’s been looking into these immigrant prisons for The Nation and the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal.

“These are just about the only federal criminal prisons that have been privatized,” Wessler says.

He says 40 percent of inmates in the non-citizen prisons are held for a crime for which only immigrants can be found guilty – crossing the border without papers.

“More people are now prosecuted criminally for crossing the border than are prosecuted in the federal system for drugs,” Wessler says. “Those prosecutions are helping to fill up these separate criminal prisons.”

And these privately-run immigrant-only prisons are all across the nation, with the most – four – in Texas. A few of them hold 4,000 people each, Wessler says.

“These prisons operate under a less stringent set of rules than the rest of the federal prison system,” Wessler says. “The BOP implements dozens of rigorous standards in its own prisons. Only some of those apply to these prisons.”

The logic behind these differing standards is that the fewer rules, the less expensive it will be to operate these prisons. The result, Wessler says, is that prisoners in these facilities aren’t receiving the same kind of care.

The companies that own these facilities often contract with third-party medical providers, but the medical personnel hired to care for inmates aren’t properly trained. Wessler says doctors he spoke with in his reporting said that the care in these facilities was “very often inadequate.”

Licensed vocational or licensed practical nurses bear the brunt of medical responsibility in these prisons. They undergo only one year of training, are less expensive to employ and are meant to act in a supporting role to nurses in hospitals or nursing homes. They are often set up to operate in positions that they’re not equipped to provide, Wessler says.

“There are weeks on end where those are the only people that prisoners are seeing when they’re complaining of illness,” he says. “In some cases prisoners don’t see doctors at all. … In some cases prisoners are dying as a result.”

“One of the things that doctors said is that they felt that in many cases these licensed vocational nurses were operating on the edges, or on the margins, of what they are allowed to do,” Wessler says.

There are serious questions about why BOP rules aren’t broadly applied to all federal prisons, whether public or private, for citizens or non-citizens.

“These are federal prisoners. They’re wards of the federal government,” Wessler says. “But they’re being handed over to private companies that are operating under less rigorous rules and operating sometimes outside of the rules that they’re required to follow.”