US private prisons remain unaccountable despite immigrant deaths

For thousands of illegal immigrants in the US being held in jails all over the country there is no way out, as their cases seldom make it to court. Over the last seven years, 110 detainees have died in the facilities.

In an industrial part of Elizabeth, New Jersey, the state's largest jail for the undocumented are kept full courtesy of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Detainees inside are rounded up for deportation, but for Boubacar Bah it was a death sentence.

“Mr. Boubacar Bah allegedly slipped in the shower, and had a traumatic head injury and was manifesting all kinds of signs of traumatic head injury. He was treated as kind of acting out,” told American Civil Liberties Union’s attorney Vanita Gupta.

On a grainy surveillance video obtained by the ACLU dated February 1, 2007, it is quite visible that the 52-year-old is pleading with guards for medical help but was put in solitary confinement instead.

“He was actually placed in solitary for acting out. As oppose to being treated as a medical patient,” said Vanita Gupta.

In solitary confinement and suffering for more than 12 hours, Bah was finally admitted into emergency brain surgery. He reportedly suffered multiple brain hemorrhages and a skull fracture.

“When family members finally found out, it was too late for them to do anything for Mr. Bah,” described Gupta. Bah was in a coma for four months before dying.

Boubacar Bah
“He was a father, he was a husband. I knew him for years. He was a tailor, working hard, just doing his job and going home,” said Moussa Dia, Boubacar Bah’s friend from New York.

Nearly three years later, Moussa Dia is still waiting to find out how his friend died.

“He had never been arrested. He never done nothing wrong. We want to know what happened to him. He was a human being,” Moussa Dia believes.

To US officials, Bah – a Guinean immigrant – was a criminal, living in New York for roughly eight years with an expired work visa. In 2006, Bah paid a visit to his native land under a special green card program. On his way back, however, he was detained and locked up by ICE officials.

The US government agency has seen an upswing of bad press in recent years over its handling of immigrant detainees. According to ICE, 110 immigrants have died in detention since 2003, but for all the controversy there is an absence of accountability.

Attorney Vanita Gupta informed that “Right now, the ICE is only accountable to itself. It engages in self-policing. Therefore, third parties cannot sue to enforce their own internal standards.”

An estimated 380,000 immigrants were imprisoned in America last year, which is up 300% from a decade ago.

Regardless of the deaths, incarceration can still be profitable, at least for the Corrections Corporation of America. The nation’s largest private prison provider is subcontracted by ICE to operate more than 60 facilities, including the New Jersey jail where Boubacar Bah was imprisoned.

“It is part of the prison industrial complex in this country, and the growth of prisons and the growth of private prison contractors that get these very meaty contracts by the government and they are making a lot of money running these facilities,” explained Gupta.

The CCA’s revenue in 2008 was reportedly just under $1.6 billion. The ICE meanwhile is requesting a budget increase from Washington: $5.8 billion dollars for the next fiscal year.

When it comes to the loss of Boubacar Bah's life in ICE’s Elizabeth prison in New Jersey, the agency’s official line is “case still pending.”