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Reuters Attacks Prisons For Pricing on Goods Prisoners Receive Free

A Reuters story [1] on conditions in private prisons did not even wait until the headline to begin its bias.

Above the headline is a kicker headline that reads [1]: “Trump effect,” even though President Trump has nothing do with the allegations in the story, all complaints about policies and protocols in place, and even strengthened, under the Obama administration.

But then, the story, entitled, “$11 toothpaste: Immigrants pay big for basics at private ICE lock-ups,” [1] by Michelle Conlin and Kristina Cooke, has had its accuracy challenged on a variety of grounds.

Conlin and Cooke charge in the piece [1] that private prison companies, such as Geo Group, Inc., of Boca Raton, Fla., and CoreCivic, based in Nashville, have gone out of their way to “harbor cheap labor to lower operating costs and boost profits,” based on accusations by immigration activists groups, including the Southern Poverty Law Center.

To this end, these companies allegedly pay prisoners $1 a day, then take back all or most of that money by charging exorbitant prices for personal products at the prison commissary. As part of the strategy, they “deliberately skimp on essentials, even food, to coerce detainees to labor for pennies an hour to supplement meager rations.”

It checks a lot of liberal boxes. ICE bad. Private prisons evil. Illegal immigrants mistreated. But there are problems with the narrative, and they began with the lead, wherein Duglas Cruz, an illegal immigrant housed by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement near Los Angeles, finds himself in a dilemma.

“He could content himself with a jailhouse diet that he said left him perpetually hungry. Or he could labor in the prison’s kitchen to earn money to buy extra food at the commissary,” Reuters wrote [1]. But his $1-a-day salary at the privately run Adelanto Detention Facility “did not stretch far.”

A can of tuna in the prison commissary costs $3.25, Reuters reported [1].

Only, he doesn’t need to buy tuna from the commissary either. Detainees receive three meals a day, approved by registered dieticians and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, the statement said [2]. GEO Group said it gave Reuters a list of the specific meals and portions it provides to prisoners, but reporters chose to omit any reference to this to further the narrative.

The story then goes on to quote former detainee Wilhen Hill Barrientos, saying you “either work for a few cents an hour or live without basic things like soap, shampoo, deodorant and food.”

But aim.org reviewed a list of all the free [3] hygiene products provided on demand and found bar soap, shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrushes, razors, lotion, combs, hair ties, toilet paper and feminine products were listed.

Elsewhere in the story [1], prisoners complain about a 10 percent fee charged when families contribute to the commissary accounts of prisoners and fees for long distance phone calls. But these are done through outside vendors [2], which contract directly with ICE and  set the prices and fees, and prison operators receive no profit from them.

ICE is involved only because Congress put it in charge of detaining [1] those caught entering illegally or awaiting asylum hearings, then re-established standards for voluntary prison work, commissaries, remittances and telephone calls, and lining up vendors to fill these needs. In fact, the Voluntary Work Program that ICE [4] says must be offered at all detention facilities appears to be designed to ward off boredom. “The negative impact of confinement shall be reduced through decreased idleness, improved morale and fewer disciplinary incidents,” according to the ICE standards. 

There is no plan to force prisoners to participate in the labor program or shop at the commissary.

Still, the Reuters story says [1] 11 U.S. senators, including Elizabeth Warren, sent letters to GEO Group and Core Civic “lambasting the ‘perverse profit incentive at the core of the private prison business.’”

“High commissary prices have long been a complaint of prison reformers,” Reuters wrote [1]. “But for immigrant detainees, many of whom borrowed money or drained savings to reach the United States, the prices are particularly prohibitive.”

But the needs, as CoreCivic said in its statement, [1] are met.