A Subprime American Way of Fighting the Depression


The New York Times (27/12, "Dependent on Jail, Immigrants Fill Cells with Their Own" by Nina Berstein) reports out of Central Falls, NJ: "Few in this threadbare little mill town gave much thought to the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility, the maximum security jail beside the public ball fields at the edge of town. Even when it expanded and added barbed wire, Wyatt was just the backdrop for Little League games.

"Then people began to disappear: the leader of a prayer group at St. Matthew’s Roman Catholic Church; the father of a second grader at the public charter school; a woman who mopped floors in a Providence courthouse.

"After days of searching, their families found them locked up inside Wyatt – only blocks from home, but in a separate world.

"In this mostly Latino city, hardly anyone had realized that in addition to detaining the accused drug dealers and mobsters everybody heard about, the jail held hundreds of people charged with no crime – people caught in the nation’s crackdown on illegal immigration. Fewer still knew that Wyatt was a portal into an expanding network of other jails, bigger and more remote, all propelling detainees towards deportation with little chance to protest.

"If anything, the people of Central Falls saw Wyatt as the economic engine that city fathers had promised, a steady source of jobs and federal money to pay for services like police and fire protection. Even that, it turns out, was an illusion.

"Wyatt offers a rare look into the fastest-growing, least-examined type of incarceration in America, an industry that detains half a million people a year, up from a few thousand just 15 years ago. ‘The system operates without the rules that protect criminal suspects, and has grown up with little oversight, often in the backyards of communities desperate for any source of money or work.’

"Last spring The New York Times set out to examine this small town of 10,000 and its big detention center as a microcosm of the nation’s new relationship with immigration detention, which is now sweeping up not just border-jumpers and convicted felons but foreign-born residents with strong ties to places like Central Falls. Wyatt, nationally accredited, clean and modern, seemed one of the better jails of the system, a patchwork of county backups, private prisons and federal detention centers where government investigations and the new media have recently documented substandard, sometimes lethal conditions."

A Rare Growth Industry

"Last summer, a detainee died in Wyatt’s custody. Immigration authorities investigating the death removed all immigrants this month – along with the $101.76 a day the federal government paid for each one. In Central Falls, where many families have members without papers, a state campaign against illegal immigrants spread fear that also took a toll; people went into hiding and businesses lost Latino customers in droves. Slowly the city awoke to its role in the detention system; and to the pitfalls of the bargain it had struck.

"In a sinking economy, immigration detention is a rare growth industry. Congress has doubled annual spending on it in the last four years, to $2.4 billion approved in October as part of $5.9 billion allotted for immigration enforcement through next September – even more than the Bush administration had requested.

"Seeking a slice of that bounty, communities like Farmville, VA, and Pahrump, NV, are signing up with developers of new detention centers. Jails from New England to Mexico have already made the crackdown pay off – for the private companies that dominate the industry, for some investors and, at least in theory, a city so strapped that the state pays for its schools.

"As the City Council President William Benson Jr. put it, ‘The more inmates they have, the more money we get. Nobody knows exactly who’s down there,’ he said. ‘I hear some are Arab terrorists.’

"The mystery is in some ways understandable. Though immigration detainees made up one-third of the daily population and a majority of the 4,200 men and women who moved through Wyatt’s 722 beds in a year, most were from other states, and those from Rhode Island did not remain long.

"Some were legal immigrants who had served time for serious crimes. But increasingly they were the kind of people who in the past would not have been arrested – people without papers, similar to some of the people who play, cheer and live within Wyatt’s shadow.

"Anthony Ventetuolo Jr., one of Wyatt’s developers and now the jail’s chief executive, said that who the inmates were made no difference to the jail, which was run like a business, under strict standards. ‘I’m not interested in getting involved in the politics of immigration,’ he said. ‘All we do is detain people that our clients tell us to detain.’

"Over 10 years, Maynor Cante, 26, hardly glanced at the jail he passed as he hurried between home, to jobs and St. Matthews Church, where he led a prayer group.

"He was 13 when he left Guatemala in 1997, snaking across the Mexican border to join seven older siblings, legal residents who had spent years scraping new lives out of the industrial ruins of Rhode Island’s Blackstone Valley. Caught in Texas, the teen-ager was let go pending a hearing, like so many under the ‘catch and release’ policy that prevailed while the nation’s boom times demanded cheap immigrant labor. When he failed to turn up in court, a deportation order was issued.

"A decade later, Mr. Cante spoke near-fluent English, and had spent thousands of dollars to legalize his status. Mornings, he cleaned a factory for $8 an hour. Evenings he worked at his nephew’s new clothing shop on Dexter Street, one of several Latino businesses that had revived a bleak stretch of vacant storefronts.

"Then, early one morning as he headed out the door for his cleaning job, five immigration agents hustled him into a van. That night as frightened relatives tried to find him, he was delivered to Wyatt in chains.

"Perhaps the greatest frustration, inmates said, was their inability to make sense of what was happening to them. ‘Why am I here in jail?’ asked one Central Falls mechanic who had been seized at immigration headquarters when he went to check why his green card application was taking so long. Wyatt guards had no answers. ‘They tell me, "Sorry guys, but we’re not immigration."’

But what are they? The answer seems to be the deep shadow of the depression that is casting a hysterical shadow over the US.


– from Economic Reform, January 2009