Joe Biden’s recent executive order reinstating the Obama administration’s plan to phase out federally operated private prisons reflects only one small part of the struggle against incarceration and immigrant detention. The order doesn’t affect private immigrant detention centers (which Biden’s pre-election platform also singled out for closure). Shutting down private prisons alone, moreover, will not address the crisis of mass incarceration. But it is nevertheless essential that private prisons like the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin be closed—and not just when the GEO Group’s contract runs out years from now, but immediately.
The horrors of the past year and the courageous organizing efforts of immigrants locked up in Baldwin have made this very clear. “This place is unbelievable to humankind,” one person incarcerated at North Lake told us last spring. “We’ve begun to be sentenced by death,” another said. Our playlist of recorded calls from the facility in 2020 includes testimony from multiple hunger strikes and reports of medical neglect, staff refusing to take COVID concerns seriously, vindictive use of solitary confinement and water shutoffs, sick people disappearing from units with no one knowing their fate, guards using pepper spray to force the ending of a peaceful strike, and more.
Between April and November 2020, prisoners at North Lake launched at least six separate hunger strikes to demand adequate food, medical care, and an end to racist abuse, in part due to the Bureau of Prisons’ and the GEO Group’s utter mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis. This has resulted in at least two deaths at the facility so far. Terrible working conditions have led staff to quit in large numbers, making the atmosphere even more chaotic.
In an article from January, Village President Jim Truxton of Baldwin acknowledges none of this. He praises GEO and claims that “none of [his] friends and acquaintances complain that they feel they’re in danger.” But Truxton personally profits from this immigrant incarceration, because, by his own admission, he owns GEO stock. His statements and the GEO Group’s claim that Biden’s executive order is “a solution in search of a problem” are obscene.
People who have experienced the immense violence of this facility, along with their families and loved ones, have been trying to alert the world ever since they got there. In addition to the testimony of the many calls and letters NDCM has received, Felipe De La Hoz detailed this pattern of violence in an August 2020 article for The Intercept. The article describes the life and illness of Félix Repilado Martínez, who wrote “I need to see the doctor soon is possible” a month before he died from complications of COVID-19. GEO lied about the circumstances of his death. His blood is on their hands.
In the fight against the carceral state, closing private prisons is just the beginning. But there’s no question that facilities like North Lake need to be closed.