Martin Acosta, a Salvadoran imprisoned at a private contract prison in Reeves, Tex., for his illegal re-entry into the United States, complained of abdominal pain in the summer of 2010. In 20 visits to the infirmary he had seen a doctor only once. By the time he saw one in December, he could no longer eat. In the hospital they found a massive tumor in his abdomen. He died in January.
Jesus Enrique Zavala Montes, 28, serving five months for illegal entry, arrived at Taft prison in California with a record of attempted suicide. He was sent to solitary confinement for “protective custody,” awaiting a psychiatrist, who did not come. He hanged himself. These stories, recounted in Seth Freed Wessler’s “Separate, Unequal, and Deadly” (The Nation, 2/15), are about only two of the 137 immigrants who died in 11 for-profit prisons between 1998 and 2014. These prisons, which are distinct from immigration detention centers, were built as more undocumented immigrants were charged with serious crimes, mostly drug-related. They now house approximately 23,000 people.
Federal rules for government-run prisons require educational programs, addiction treatment, health care and rehabilitative services. When a retired doctor volunteered at a contract prison, he discovered that to raise profits they skimped on services, kept sloppy records, failed to provide doctors or well-trained nurses and refused his requests to transfer patients to hospitals that might save them.
The problems with for-profit prisons are well documented—a lack of oversight, a commitment to shareholders rather than the public good. In “Wardens From Wall Street: Prison Privatization” (2000), the Catholic Bishops of the South called for “the end of all for-profit prisons.” How many deaths will it take for us to see the wisdom of their recommendation?