It’s almost impossible to spot from the outside. Besides the cameras located on the corners of the building and a tiny sign posted next to the nondescript front door, there’s nothing distinguishing 182-22 150th Avenue from the warehouses and shipping companies nearby in Jamaica. It, too, was once a warehouse, but it is now the Queens Detention Facility, a privately run prison used by the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS).
According to a spokesperson for the USMS, the Queens Detention Facility is operated by the GEO Group, the second largest private prison company in the world, under a contract with the Marshals. It currently houses approximately 210 detainees. The facility is classified as medium/minimum security and most individuals held there await trial while remanded to the custody of the U.S. attorney general.
Last year, Mayor de Blasio announced support for a plan to close Rikers Island and New York City’s pension funds divested $48 million from privately run prison companies, including the GEO Group. At the time, Controller Scott Stringer said in a statement, “With Donald Trump in the White House, we’re seeing more and more industries try to profit from backwards policies at the expense of immigrants and communities of color. But because of this major new step, we are demonstrating that we will not be complicit.”
But amid national attention on the private prison industry and the local conversation about reforming the New York City criminal justice system, the Queens Detention Facility has garnered little recent attention. Besides a smattering of press coverage when officers were caught smuggling drugs last April, there have been no public comments or discussion of this facility for years.
Back in 2011, after there were reports of hunger strikes and mistreatment at the facility, then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio asked US Attorney General Eric Holder for an investigation of the facility. He told CBS at the time, “We only know one thing, that GEO Group has a horrible track record. So much so that other governments have told them they could not operate in their nation.” It’s not clear whether an investigation occurred; City Hall did not respond to requests for comment.
The facility was converted to a prison just before 1997, when the Wackenhut Corrections Corporation (it later changed its name to GEO Group) acquired the property and began operation under a contract with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which became part of the new Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2002. It operated as an ICE detention center until 2005, when ICE’s contract expired. It began operation as a detention facility for the Marshals in 2008. Among the Marshals’ duties are capturing federal fugitives and housing and transporting federal prisoners.
ICE currently holds detainees at a similar facility adjacent to Newark Airport in Elizabeth, New Jersey, which recently came into the spotlight amid ICE roundups and President Trump’s zero tolerance policy. Earlier this month, ICE arrested 91 people in New Jersey raids and a congressional delegation visited the facility in Elizabeth and met with detained individuals who had been separated from their families.
Anwen Hughes is deputy legal director at Human Rights First, a nonprofit pro-bono law firm that represents immigrant asylum seekers. She worked regularly with clients housed at the Queens Detention Facility when it still operated under ICE and currently works with clients detained at the Elizabeth Facility.
The Queens Detention Facility is very similar to the Elizabeth Facility, says Hughes. Like the Queens Facility, the Elizabeth Facility is also run by a private prison company, CoreCivic—the world’s largest private prison company, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America.
“These are both buildings that were initially constructed to house goods rather than human beings. The modifications have been fairly minimal. There’s still a noticeable lack of natural light and air. Certainly, that was the case at the Wackenhut facility [Queens Detention Facility] up until 2005,” she says.
According to construction records filed with the Department of Buildings, no significant modifications were made since the facility began housing detainees for the USMS.
Officials at the Queens Detention Facility and officials at GEO Group’s headquarters declined to comment.
Private prison companies have long been accused of providing poor living and working conditions for detainees and employees, respectively, although publically run institutions, like Rikers, have notoriously poor track records as well.
A study published in February by Human Rights First found maggots in the food and in the showers of the Elizabeth facility. The study also found a lack of bathroom privacy, lack of meaningful outdoor recreation, and unsafe water. In addition, medical care is often inadequate or delayed.
A 2016 US Inspector General audit found worse safety and security conditions in private prisons compared to public ones, backing up the Obama Administration’s decision to phase the facilities out. President Trump reversed that move within a month of taking office.
It’s hard to say what current conditions are like at the Queens Detention Facility. It met or even exceed the standards of a 2015 Prison Rape Elimination Act Audit. (However, Hughes says the current audit regime in detention facilities is insufficient).
In 2014, a “warden of the year” award was given to Queens Detention Facility Warden William Zerillo by the Aleph Institute, which “provides crucial financial, emotional and spiritual assistance to thousands of shattered families,” according to its website.
According to the USMS’s standards for detention facilities, detainees must be provided with access to the outdoors daily. At both the Elizabeth and Queens facilities, there is a small outdoor area that is covered with a thick metal grate. “As one detainee once said to me, ‘I didn’t see what was outdoors about it,'” says Hughes.
The building appears to have 10 open violations with the city’s Department of Buildings, many of which involve the facility failing to perform elevator inspections.
There are currently three lawsuits pending against the GEO Group in state Supreme Court. In each case, current or former inmates allege negligence within the Queens facility. One plaintiff, Don Johnson, claims to have been injured in a fall because of “dangerous, defective, trap-like and unsafe conditions.” Another plaintiff, Joel Vasquez, alleges that the base of a negligently unsecured volleyball set landed on his right foot and caused injury.
“Private prisons like the Queens Detention Facility are rooted in an industry that capitalizes on the maltreatment of our inmates,” said Public Advocate Letitia James in a statement.
According to its website, the Boca Raton, Florida-based GEO Group operates 96,000 beds in 141 prisons, detention facilities and re-entry centers around the world,
The Washington Post reported that during the 2016 election, a GEO subsidiary gave $225,000 to a pro-Trump super PAC. GEO gave an additional $250,000 to the president’s inaugural committee. In addition, the group has spent over $2 million lobbying the government since the beginning of 2017 and has spent $100,000 lobbying the City of New York during that same period, according to public filings.
Multiple reports indicate that the private prison industry expects to profit greatly from the administration’s crackdown on immigration and drug offenders. According to the New York Times, George Zoley, chief executive of the GEO Group, made $9.6 million in 2017, practically doubling his earnings in 2016.
In April 2017, GEO secured a $110 million contract to build and operate a new immigration detention center for ICE north of Houston, Texas.
People who live or work in the area around the Queens site might have some sense of the facilities’ use, but little relationship with it. The manager of New Castle Deli and Grocery, from which there’s a view of the prison one block away, says he delivered food there once and that the correctional officers sometimes stop by for lunch.
A worker at an adjacent shipping company says he knew exactly what the building was, but that he hardly ever sees anyone coming or going—he only hears the shouting of inmates from within the covered recreational area’s walls.
“I regularly come across people who live in the area in which these facilities are and have no idea that, for example, they exist,” says Hughes.
Mark McMillan, district manager of the local Queens Community Board 13 says that in his experience, no one has ever brought up this facility at a Community Board meeting.
“You wait, you don’t see people coming in and out. And at least you don’t see anyone escaping or anything like that,” he says. “So it’s out of sight, out of mind.”
Its location right next to JFK facilitates transfers for the USMS but makes it incredibly difficult for counsel or family members to visit detainees.
“You could get to by subway, bus and or dollar van, but it’s certainly a schlep, and for lawyers, it was a bit of a disincentive,” says Hughes. “You’re spending lot of time going to and fro and if you’re charging clients for your time—even if it’s just a flat fee for the case—you have to budget into that. You have a lot of dead time during transport.”
According to a copy of the contract between the Marshals Service and the GEO Group obtained by MuckRock, the operating agreement expired this past January. However the Marshals’ spokesperson says that the contract for the facility has been extended through September 2018 and a new one is being drafted currently.