color photograph of an outdoor protest. two people hold a large cardboard sign with white handwritten text that reads "Free them all"
BROOKLYN, NY, UNITED STATES - 2021/03/13: Participant seen holding a box of empty promises at the protest. Pro-immigration activists joined undocumented immigrants and community members from New York and New Jersey at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn for a rally to reject the empty promises of the Democratic Party and demand permanent protection for the 11 million undocumented immigrants who live in this country. (Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Nilson Barahona-Marriaga celebrated what at the time appeared to be the 2021 closure of Georgia’s Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC), a notorious facility where the Georgia-based community organizer was detained during the height of the pandemic and where women were subject to unnecessary gynecological procedures without their full and informed consent. 

Recent realizations—namely that ICDC transitioned from a facility that detains immigrants to one that incarcerates citizens and non-citizens alike—pushed him to think of organizing differently. In Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody, Barahona-Marriaga was in the belly of the detention system beast. He spent 13 months across ICDC and Stewart Detention Center, a Lumpkin, Georgia, facility considered one of the deadliest detention centers in the nation, where nine people have died since 2017. Once free from custody in November 2020, the Honduran immigrant formed his own organization, the ICE Breakers, with the goal of helping to shut down individual detention centers like ICDC. Now, years later, he wants to focus on cutting private prison companies’ purse strings.

“The people inside will continue to suffer until we cut the resources going to these detention centers,” Barahona-Marriaga said. “We need to go after these private companies that are hurting people. These companies find a way to always benefit by digging one hole to cover another hole.”

In effect, Barahona-Marriaga is describing the “carceral carousel,” the subject of a new report by the same name released today by Detention Watch Network and the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) that sheds light on the highly adaptive nature of the prison-industrial complex. “The Carceral Carousel” complicates the idea of a decarceration win by urging advocates to delve deeper and follow the story of jail, prison, and detention center “closures.” Rarely do these facilities actually shutter. Instead, they pivot to incarcerate a different population—even when “contracts are terminated because people have documented outrageous abuse and abysmal conditions … those concerns evaporate when a new agency takes over that same jail space,” according to the report. 

ILRC senior managing attorney Grisel Ruiz told Prism that one of the goals of the new report is to help deepen the understanding that immigrant detention and mass incarceration “overlap at every juncture.” 

“If we’re fighting to close an immigration detention contract, one where the local sheriff is renting beds out to ICE, we need to think big picture and reach out to our criminal system allies to ask if there is anything that we can do to support work to also reduce the incarcerated population,” Ruiz said. “Because if that immigration contract ends and those beds are then just filled with people in the criminal system, is that really a win?”

“Shuttled between different cages”

The concept of “crimmigration” is not new. Coined by legal scholar Juliet Stumpf and long popularized by scholars like César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, crimmigration is the intersection of criminal and immigration law. Setareh Ghandehari, the advocacy director of Detention Watch Network and co-author of “The Carceral Carousel,” said that because the connections between the criminal system and immigration run deep and historically, a significant portion of people in ICE detention are funneled through the criminal legal system. One reason is because local law enforcement voluntarily helps ICE increase its interior immigration enforcement by sharing data with the federal immigration agency and facilitating the arrests of people who would otherwise be free to return home. 

“What essentially happens is that people are shuttled between different cages,” Ghandehari explained. “It’s like serving a separate sentence for an offense you’ve already served time on—except now you may also get deported.” 

Barahona-Marriaga is a member of the unfortunate club who understands the crimmigration system all too well. A DUI stop in the fall of 2019 led to his detainment. A local judge gave him a bond, which should have allowed him to return home to his family, but ICE issued a detainer request in his name. It still makes the husband and father angry to think of the money his wife frantically gathered for his bond and release, only for him to be transferred to ICE custody. 

“I have flashbacks, and I think of all the people in detention whose families are going through the same thing right now. Maybe they don’t have money to pay bills or to put food on the table, maybe they don’t have a roof over their heads because they paid a bond for no reason,” said Barahona-Marriaga. 

Allowing families to pay bonds as part of the criminal legal system—only to have their loved ones transferred to the detention system—is basically a money grab, Barahona-Marriaga explained. Instead of letting his anger about the system calcify into something dark and wholly unhelpful, he uses it as fuel for activism and to better understand the crimmigration system. It’s clear to him that private prison companies like GEO Group, LaSalle Corrections, and CoreCivic gain the most from immigrant detention. Less clear to the public is how these same companies prop up the criminal legal system—and how astute they’ve become at “recycling cages,” according to the new report from Detention Watch Network and ILRC.

Just days after his inauguration, President Joe Biden issued an executive order to end the federal Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) reliance on private prison companies. The order was celebrated as an important step. However, the agency with the largest reliance on privately operated facilities in the federal system was not included in the order: ICE. 

Through a series of case studies, “The Carceral Carousel” details just how quickly both ICE and private prison companies leapt to action, making the most of Biden’s failure to loosen the private prison industry’s multi-billion dollar grip on the detention system. 

In one of the most glaring examples, GEO Group previously contracted with BOP to run Pennsylvania’s Moshannon Valley Correctional Center. When Biden’s order came down, GEO Group began immediately marketing Moshannon Valley to ICE, according to the report. By September 2021—just eight months after Biden issued his order—ICE was using Moshannon Valley to detain immigrants.

In another case study, the report details how Louisiana provides one of the most clear-cut examples of just how effectively prisons and jails are recycled between local law enforcement agencies and ICE. 

The 2017 Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Package encompassed 10 criminal system reform bills, some of which were intended to reduce the number of people in criminal custody by reducing certain mandatory minimum sentences and expanding probation and parole eligibility. This was no small feat in a state once known as the “world’s prison capital” because it had the highest incarceration rate in the world. While Louisiana’s incarcerated population has dropped since the reforms, rates of detainment in the state have skyrocketed. “The Carceral Carousel” reports that in 2019, ICE either started or expanded immigration detention at eight for-profit jails in Louisiana, adding to the five ICE detention centers already in operation. The “new” detention centers are actually a mix of old state prisons and local jails, all operated by private prison companies—including six that LaSalle Corrections operates.

Jails and prisons are also shifting into immigrant detention centers. In 2019, advocates in California successfully pushed the Orange County Sheriff’s Department to end its contract with ICE. The county’s contract allowed ICE to detain up to 958 immigrants across two county jails for an estimated annual revenue of $42 million. But the termination of the ICE contract only led to increased incarceration. About a year after terminating its contract with ICE, Orange County approved using $261 million to build the capacity to detain 900 more people with mental health conditions at one of the county jails previously used to detain immigrants. 

All along the federal system, there are also examples of ICE, BOP, and U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) recycling facilities and contracts to toggle between detention and incarceration. 

Ghandehari said the organizing work that goes into getting ICE contracts terminated should not be diminished. Rather, she wants “The Carceral Carousel” to drive home the point that the detention system immigrants rights advocates are fighting against are “big, multi-pronged, and capable of shapeshifting.” 

“This means lasting change requires working hand-in-hand with our comrades fighting mass incarceration,” Ghandehari said. “It also means strategizing together in new ways.”

Just transitions?

Narrative change is at the heart of the work Barahona-Marriaga wants to do with the ICE Breakers, which, in particular, includes uplifting the voices of people directly impacted by the immigration system. More recently, this also means speaking out against the criminal legal system. 

Barahona-Marriaga is based in the Atlanta area, where there is a growing movement to stop the proposed police tactical training compound known as Cop City. In recent weeks, the ICE Breakers has also become a vehicle for Barahona-Marriaga to take a stand against Cop City. The organizer said these efforts come from the understanding that “we are all connected.” 

“We can’t stay silent when people are suffering,” Barahona-Marriaga said. “These systems connect us all, and they hurt us all. They hurt everyone in the community—and by ‘community’ I mean the entire community, not just my immigrant people.” 

“The Carceral Carousel” lays out a “crucial piece of the decarceration puzzle”: transitioning economies reliant on incarceration toward sustainable, well-paying industries that provide work for communities. This concept—known as “Just Transition”—is rooted in the climate justice movement, which identified the need to phase out industries that harm workers, community health, and the planet while providing pathways for workers to transition to other jobs. 

A very effective narrative strategy for private prison companies has been positioning prisons and detention centers as “job creators.” In rural communities that suffer from disinvestment and have been abandoned by industry, prison and detention center positions are sought-after jobs because they are often the only form of steady employment in the region—nevermind that these jobs also have high turnover rates because they offer low pay, few benefits, and stressful and traumatic work environments.

If we can get away from our reliance on caging people and instead begin thinking more creatively about investing resources in things that are actually good and healthy for all of our communities, we can begin building toward a world that is better for all of us.”

Grisel Ruiz

The media has aided the narrative that mass incarceration and detention are necessary economic drivers. Take The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for example. The newspaper produced more than half a dozen reports detailing the reproductive injustices and other abuses that took place at Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia. However, a September 2021 piece by staff writers Jeremy Redmon and Lautaro Grinspan (an immigrant who covers immigrant communities) argued that closing ICDC would “cheer activists” and “harm a rural community’s economy.” 

The reporters were given an exclusive tour of the facility, and they gave ample space in the article to ICDC officials, including Warden David Paulk, who said the private prison company that oversees the facility, LaSalle Corrections, provides “safe, secure, and humane surroundings.” 

There is no pushback against this statement even though it doesn’t stand up to basic fact-checking, given the history of in-custody deaths, physical abuse, and sexual abuse inside LaSalle’s facilities. 

Ghandehari said no amount of harm inside facilities run by private prison companies leads federal agencies to stop contracting with them because the federal government isn’t interested in protecting the people it detains and incarcerates. 

“In these instances, the federal government’s sole interest is incarcerating people, and there is plenty of money to be made by private companies to help in that mission,” Ghandehari said. “These systems feed off of each other. Ultimately, that’s why it’s not enough to just focus on the conditions inside particular facilities or to only focus on immigrant detention or mass incarceration.” 

For Ruiz, this is where the concept of Just Transition can be particularly useful. When rural and low-income communities question what prisons and detention centers bring to their region, it becomes apparent that private prison companies are simply preying on them. 

“This report doesn’t claim to have all of the answers,” Ruiz said. “But I hope a takeaway is that communities can begin to see that what they need is well-paying jobs and investment and infrastructure and that prisons and detention centers don’t bring these things. If we can get away from our reliance on caging people and instead begin thinking more creatively about investing resources in things that are actually good and healthy for all of our communities, we can begin building toward a world that is better for all of us.” 

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.