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Immigration crackdown creates opportunity for prison company

By GETAHN WARD, The Tennessean | May 22. 2006 10:13PM

At the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas, there's a playground for children and murals painted on the walls. There's carpet on the floors of detention cells but no locks on the doors.

The second detention facility in the nation designed to house families, the center is part of a push by U.S. immigration authorities to detain rather than release illegal immigrants awaiting deportation.

The location is owned and run by Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America, which, like other private prison operators, is bracing for an increase in business from measures to curb illegal immigration. The Hutto Center opened last week under a contract with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

"We do expect there'll be an increased need for detention beds," said John Ferguson, chief executive with CCA, citing the spotlight on immigration including legislation being discussed in Congress.

Opportunities being eyed by private prison operators include:

• The 2007 federal budget calls for 6,000 new detention beds for ICE, which doesn't build prisons but contracts space from county and other governments and from private operators such as CCA.

• CCA and its rival The GEO Group are among bidders vying to build and run a 2,800-bed U.S. Marshals Service detention Center in Laredo, Texas, to serve a federal court loaded with immigration cases.

• Under the second phase of ICE's secured border initiative, the agency is tracking down 600,000 undocumented immigrants who are fugitives from the immigration system. If caught, some are expected to go through the prison system before deportation.

The broader ICE initiative includes ending a "catch-and-release" approach, under which people from countries other than Mexico who are caught trying illegally to cross the border are released and asked to return for a deportation hearing at a later date. Only 10 percent to 20 percent return. Under the new initiative, they would be detained until an expedited hearing, at which the government seeks to return them to their own countries.CCA's 500-bed Hutto Center will house immigrant families caught within 100 miles of the border with Mexico or Canada or of a coastal border after being in the United States for 14 days or less. Families are now generally released pending a court hearing.

"Now we have a center that can hold families for removal back to their respective countries," said Ernestine Fobbs, spokeswoman for ICE, a part of the Department of Homeland Security. Berks County, Pa., has the only other such center nationwide.

At Hutto, families will be housed based on age or sex of children and whether they include fathers or have mothers only, Ferguson said. Most detainees are expected to be single mothers with one to two children between the ages of 6 and 12, according to CCA officials.

CCA, the industry's leader, has more than 5,000 beds available, including space at a company-owned Georgia prison in contention for a deal from the federal Bureau of Prisons to house 1,200 non-U.S. citizens serving crime sentences.

The company also is trying to create more room for growth. It plans to spend $38.9 million on a 722-bed expansion of its 480-bed Webb County Detention Center in Laredo, Texas, which could be expanded again if it wins the 2,800-bed U.S. Marshals contract.

CCA generates nearly 40 percent of its annual revenue from federal contracts - 16 percent from the Bureau of Prisons, 15 percent from the U.S. Marshal Service and 8 percent from ICE. Last year, the company housed 1,200 ICE inmates who had to be moved out of Florida because of Hurricane Wilma.