Welcome to Immigration Jail, Where Toothpaste Costs $11

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As if the immigration news this week hasn’t been dystopian and depressing enough, Reuters published a report on Friday detailing all the ways private prison conglomerates are squeezing free labor and extra cash out of immigrants seeking asylum.

Reuters reported on several detention centers like the Adelanto Detention Facility in California, owned by the two billion-plus dollar corporation GEO Group, where inmates like Duglas Cruz can “choose” to work for as little as $1 a day in order to buy extra food and accessories. And how much, exactly, does that $1 get you?

A can of commissary tuna sold for $3.25. That is more than four times the price at a Target store near the small desert town of Adelanto, about two hours northeast of Los Angeles. Cruz stuck with ramen noodles at 58 cents a package, double the Target price. A miniature deodorant stick, at $3.35 and more than three days’ wages, was an impossible luxury, he said.


It doesn’t sound like much of a choice, either:

Immigrants and activists say facilities such as Adelanto, owned by Boca Raton, Fla.-based Geo Group Inc (GEO.N), the nation’s largest for-profit corrections company, deliberately skimp on essentials, even food, to coerce detainees to labor for pennies an hour to supplement meager rations.

Geo Group spokesperson Pablo Paez called those allegations “completely false.” He said detainees are given meals approved by dieticians, the labor program is strictly voluntary, and wage rates are federally mandated.


It’s not just GeoGroup. CoreCivic, another billion-dollar private prison operator, operates the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, GA. This is what its commissary prices look like, as well as the fees that families have to pay so their loved ones can put money into commissary funds in the first place (emphasis mine):

Those basics can add up. Reuters viewed a copy of the center’s commissary price list. It shows detainees are charged $11.02 for a 4 oz. tube of Sensodyne toothpaste, available on Amazon.com for $5.20.

Dove soap priced at $2.44 at the commissary is available for just over a dollar at Target. A 2.5 oz tube of Effergrip denture cream that sells for $4.99 at Walmart is $7.12 at the commissary.

Fees are pricey too. Vioney Gutierrez, a former detainee at Geo Group’s Adelanto facility in California, said 10 percent of the money her family spent to fund her commissary account was consumed by fees.

“When my daughter put in $40, I got $36,” said Gutierrez, 37. A native of Mexico, she said she spent six months at Adelanto in 2018 after asking for asylum at a port of entry. She is currently out on bond and staying with family in Oregon while she awaits the outcome of her deportation case.

It’s not like either are hurting for cash. Reuters reported that ICE pays a per diem of roughly $62 per each detainee at Stewart, which brought in $38 million in revenue for CoreCivic last year. In addition, the stock prices of both companies have skyrocketed since Trump’s election—around 30 percent, according to Reuters.

This is standard practice at American prisons. In 2016, the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative estimated that prison commissaries all over the country brought in about $1.6 billion every year year. But the imprisonment of immigrant detainees—many of whom were legally seeking asylum—and subsequent price-gouging of them is bringing new light to the issue.


In November, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and 10 other Senate Democrats (including Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Jeff Merkley, all of whom have announced or are rumored to be considering presidential runs) sent letters to CoreCivic, GEOGroup, and Nakamoto Group, slamming them for what the Homeland Security Office of Inspector General reported were instances of mistreatment and abuse at detention facilities, including spoiled and moldy food and a lack of access to basic hygiene products—such as toothpaste.

“These private prison companies are profiting off of what is essentially a company-store scenario,” Southern Poverty Law Center lawyer Meredith Stewart, who filed a class action on behalf of detainees last year, told Reuters. Seems like an administration which hates both migrants and workers is totally fine with that.