When Alma Hernandez and a friend were detained after a routine traffic stop in June 2010 because they were undocumented, they were sent to a Corrections Corporation of America facility in Eloy, and then transferred to a CCA prison in El Paso, Texas. Then they were transferred yet again, to a CCA facility in Louisiana.
It was seven weeks before Hernandez's family was able to pay the bond. Stuck in Louisiana after their release, the two women were forced to ask friends and family to help again with $400 for the 28-hour Greyhound bus ride back to their children and families in Tucson.
After her experience with private prisons, Hernandez said she wanted to learn more about the company. That's when she and others in the immigrant-rights group Corazón de Tucson discovered that former Democratic U.S. Sen. Dennis DeConcini is on the CCA board of directors.
Other groups, including Derechos Humanos and No More Deaths, met with DeConcini and a CCA representative on Jan. 31 and demanded that he resign from the company's board.
"I got involved with this because of this personal experience," Hernandez said. "My parents brought us here when we were very young. My children are U.S. citizens, and I want them to have a bright future without this oppression hanging over our community."
Hernandez said that during the meeting with DeConcini, she told him about abuses she witnessed and experienced, including a lack of food, which forced prisoners to buy from the prison commissary; issues with medical care; and problems with guards and staff. According to Hernandez, DeConcini wanted more documentation. "He said he couldn't speak for the workers because he doesn't have contact with the workers," Hernandez said.
Raúl Alcaraz Ochoa, also with Corazón de Tucson, said that although the ultimate goal is to get DeConcini to resign from CCA, they also want to educate the community on private prisons and how they have been used to detain immigrants. The group also is involved in a national campaign to pressure Wells Fargo Bank to divest from GEO Group, another private-prison company with facilities in Arizona.
"Basically, we met with (DeConcini) to tell him about our campaign," Ochoa said. "We asked him to resign from the board. ... We know he is directly profiting from being on the board of CCA. He's directly making money off the backs of people in the (immigrant) community and the devastation of families in this community."
Ochoa said that after meeting with DeConcini, the coalition sent letters to attorneys at his Tucson law firm in early February, explaining the campaign and saying that some protest actions might take place outside the firm's building.
In March, DeConcini responded with a letter defending his involvement with CCA. He wrote that the letter sent to law-firm employees was "based on inaccurate information" about CCA. The coalition's letter included information about a lauded NPR report that linked proponents of SB 1070 and the private-prison industry—which stood to profit from an increase in the detainment of undocumented migrants.
In his letter, DeConcini included a copy of an NPR clarification on its October 2010 report, issued Feb. 22, 2012. DeConcini wrote that the clarification explains that "CCA did not participate in the drafting of the SB 1070 legislation. In view of the truth and facts as they actually exist, I am also writing to ask you to end your threats towards me personally and my law firm, because of my service on (CCA's) board."
The NPR clarification states that the report "didn't mean to suggest that CCA wrote the language of SB 1070."
DeConcini also included with his letter a short editorial he wrote calling for SB 1070 to be repealed that was published in The Arizona Republic.
When DeConcini talked to the Tucson Weekly, he said the meeting with representatives of Corazón de Tucson and the other groups included a representative from CCA. "A couple (of people) were quite civil and genuine," while others, DeConcini said, had their minds made up about CCA.
DeConcini said he made it clear that CCA is prohibited from making donations to political campaigns—although a campaign-finance report shows dozens of contributions from lobbyists who work for CCA and other private-prison companies to former State Sen. Russell Pearce, the main architect of SB 1070.
"The reality of it is that (CCA lobbyists) very well may give money, and I'm sure they do. I used to be a lobbyist. But CCA has a clause that prohibits the company from giving donations to politicians," DeConcini said.
As an example, he mentioned CCA lobbyist Jaime Molera. "He did give money to candidates, but not at our direction.
"I've been involved in prison reform a long time, and as I explained to the coalition group ... government has failed to provide humane and constitutional standards for prisoners," DeConcini said, adding that private prisons are needed to help states with strapped resources, similar to how the federal government uses contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Last month, the Tucson office of the American Friends Service Committee issued a report on financial and security issues surrounding private prisons in Arizona (See "No Disclosure," Feb. 23), including CCA. The report also mentions the fact that private prisons do not have to operate transparently and comply with public-records requests.
DeConcini said he hasn't read the report, but he knew that CCA reps reviewed it. "I've been told we have much information that disputes (the report)—not that atrocities have not occurred. When they do, (people) are held responsible."
Regarding transparency issues, DeConcini said: "I'm concerned only that CCA, as any corporation, complies with all of the laws that are required. I'm satisfied from my review that they do. ... We are not a public entity."
Ochoa said some UA-student groups are organizing a campaign to call for DeConcini's CCA resignation because of his position on the Arizona Board of Regents. The Corazón members heard that DeConcini recruited another regent, Anne Mariucci, to join the CCA board. Ochoa said she should expect to be targeted in the campaign, too.
DeConcini confirmed that he suggested Mariucci to the board of directors of CCA, along with two other possible candidates.
Rachel Winch, a member The Restoration Project at Casa Mariposa, another group asking DeConcini to resign from the board, said that despite his reluctance, it's the right thing to do.
"I believe it is immoral that people are profiteering off this," she said.
David Mendez contributed to this story.