When it comes to personalities, President Joe Biden’s kind demeanor is a stark contrast to President Donald Trump’s abrasiveness. But when it comes to their immigration law enforcement policies, both embrace prisons, just like former President Barack Obama did before them. Under democratic and republican presidents, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency regularly locks up hundreds of thousands of people every year. To do this, ICE relies heavily on the problem-prone private prison industry to confine migrants. With private interests spread across the immigration prison system, cost-cutting in search of greater profits has created deadly risks, and there are people invested in this industry who might not even know that they play an important role.
Two weeks in the life of Kamyar Samimi highlight the deadly downside of prison profiteering. Four decades after arriving in the United States, ICE agents arrested Samimi, a green card holder since 1979, in 2017, claiming a 12-year-old conviction for possessing drugs made him deportable. Inside the private immigration prison in suburban Denver where he was held, Samimi’s health rapidly plummeted. He started suffering mentally too. At one point, he attempted suicide. Staff put him on suicide watch and sent him to a “designated suicide watch cell” to receive “constant, one-on-one monitoring.” Despite that attention, two days after Samimi tried to drink water from the toilet in his cell, a nurse left messages for the prison’s doctor, recommending Samimi be sent to a nearby hospital. The doctor never called back. He says he never got the messages. Eventually, a supervising guard, alarmed by Samimi’s poor condition, called for an ambulance. By then it was too late. Samimi didn’t survive another hour. He died 15 days after his arrest by ICE.
For Samimi, two weeks of imprisonment meant death. But to the GEO Group, the private prison company that operates the Colorado facility, it meant dollars. Together with CoreCivic and a handful of smaller private prison corporations, the private prison industry holds people for ICE while the government decides if they will be allowed to remain in the United States. With bipartisan support stretching across presidential administrations, ICE gets a substantial detention budget—$2.8 billion in 2022 alone.