HOUSTON TO HOST WORLD’S FIRST MUSEUM DEDICATED TO THE PRIVATE PRISON INDUSTRY
It has taken him 31 years and fighting a denied entry visa to get here, but this modern day Horatio Alger is determined to honor the legacy of the place that inspired him to turn his life around.
Houstonians probably can’t count the number of times they have driven past the Olympic Hotel on I-45 North between Tidwell and Parker, but the pair of non-descript two-story buildings give little reason to take even a second glance, much less to file it away in the memory banks. It is yet another ugly, seedy motel on one of the ugliest roads in a city that, let’s be honest, isn’t known for its looks. You might have seen it a million times yet never even registered that you saw it.
“The universe [is] a place of wonders,” writes Salman Rushdie, “and only habituation, the anesthesia of the everyday, dull[s] our sight.”
What few people realize, though, is that the Olympic Motel is the site of the world’s very first private prison and the birthplace of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the world’s first and largest for-profit prison operator. When CCA founders Tom Beasley, T. Don Hutto, and Doctor R. Crants won a contract from the Immigration and Naturalization Service to house 87 undocumented workers in 1983, the Olympic Motel in our own back yard is where they first set up shop while they finished building their Houston Processing Center.
The trio of visionary entrepreneurs saw that harsher drug laws and stricter sentencing guidelines were swelling the nation’s prison population with non-violent offenders, and even though the crime rate was declining, the prison population doubled between 1975 and 1984. It was a market ripe for growth, and as Beasley noted, prisons could be sold “just like you were selling cars, or real estate, or hamburgers.”
And they were right. Since 1983, the incarceration rate in the United States has gone up by 500%, and since 1994, the number of people locked up in for-profit prison facilities has increased by 1,664 percent. The US is by far the world’s largest jailer. Though we claim only 5% of the world’s population, the Land of the Free incarcerates 25% of the world’s prisoners-head and shoulders above even Russia and China-with per capita incarceration rates higher even than Iran and North Korea. Profits at CCA run more than $1.7 billion annually.
The New Horatio Alger
Jesús Cruz was a 24-year-old laborer from El Salvador who had overstayed his student visa when he was picked up in an immigration raid at his workplace.
“El Salvador was a mess back then,” Cruz says. “We had all these military guys coming back from their trainings at the School of the Americas [at Fort Benning in Georgia]. That priest, Archbishop [Oscar] Romero, and those American nuns got raped and killed by the CIA-sponsored death squads. The death squads were killing whole villages, even infants.”
“But hey,” Cruz shrugs, “there’s two kinds of people in the world: winners and losers. I decided I wanted to be a winner. I applied to the School of the Americas” (SOA).
Cruz did not get in, however. He was near-sighted and asthmatic. His first choice, the US Army’s School of the Americas (since renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHINSEC) rejected him. SOA, the Harvard University for dictators and torturers, accepted only the most physically (and mentally) fit cadets. Luckily, he had applied to ITT Technical Institute as a backup, and his second choice welcomed him with open arms.
“I wanted to go to a private school for sure,” Cruz says. “That was one thing that I knew for sure, even early on. All private, all the way.”
After graduating from ITT with his Bachelors in Business Administration, however, Cruz found himself mired in insurmountable debt.
“I owed US dollars, greenbacks, to the World Bank for my student loans,” he says, “so I had to earn greenbacks. I never could have paid back my loans making Salvadoran colóns back home.”
So Cruz overstayed his student visa to earn dollars, he claims, to pay back the student loans he owed in dollars. He got a job as a builder in Houston’s heady, early 1980s boomtown days. Things were going good for him: he was chipping away at his debt, sending a bit home, and enjoying his bachelorhood…until an immigration raid at his jobsite. After being put through the wringer in INS-run facilities while awaiting deportation proceedings, he became one of the original 87 inmates that arrived at the Olympic Motel on January 22, 1984 where none other than his future hero, T. Don Hutto, took his fingerprints.
A SLATE WIPED CLEAN
Despite having lived in the US for almost five years, Cruz had never stayed at a motel until he was brought to the Olympic.
“The motel, the ‘motor hotel,’ is like a symbol of North America,” he says. “It means freedom, movement, the open road. It’s the perfect symbol. Route 66! Go west! New beginnings!”
“It was way better than a jail,” Cruz’s eyes glaze over with nostalgia. “Sure, we had to clean our own rooms, but it was just like any other motel with a very high chain-link fence and doors that locked on the outside. The pool was filled with sand but if you had a quarter you could put it in the vibrating bed. We had pillow fights…”
“There were 87 of us, all from all over,” Cruz recalls. “It was like a party. We would play cards and talk about living without papers in the US. It was fun. It’s not like any of us were violent criminals or anything. They were all pretty nice guys.”
“Except for a few of us.” He looks at his hands. “There was this one guy at the end of the hall. He was always screaming, crying, yelling like he was being tortured, even when he slept. He kept us all awake all through the night. They put all the screamers in the same area at the other end of the building, but they still kept us up all night.”
Instead of being discouraged by his deportation, though, the plucky, enterprising Cruz forged on ahead. Finding inspiration in his own Stateside captivity and noting the opportunities for incarceration that the ongoing Salvadoran Civil War offered (torturers needed chambers, after all, and the disappeared disappeared to someplace, of course) Cruz founded his own chain of private prisons in El Salvador.
“It was a goldmine,” Cruz recalls. “It was a privatizer’s dream, a completely unregulated free market.”
In the US, companies like CCA had to use the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the American Correctional Association (ACA), and other front groups to lobby Congress and state legislatures to pass stricter laws with harsher sentences to boost their occupancy. In El Salvador, on the other hand, Cruz took advantage of arbitrary arrests and indefinite detentions to boost his business. Despite being denied admission to the School of the Americas, Cruz was benefitting from lessons on counterinsurgency taught to El Salvador’s military elite by the US military paid for by the American taxpayer. It was the perfect business plan!
Needless to say, with that enterprising spirit in that unregulated environment, it didn’t take Jesús Cruz long to bounce back from his deportation and quickly earn a fortune.
“We didn’t have guaranteed, contractual minimum occupancy requirements like the US prison companies have, where their jails have to stay 90-100% full whether the crime rate rises or falls,” Cruz explains. “We still don’t! But for those years during the Civil War-peasants, teachers, students, union organizers, journalists, priests, human rights advocates, everybody-everybody got a taste of our hospitality! And I learned it right here, in Houston, at the Olympic Motel.”
COMING BACK TO GIVE BACK
The idea to establish a museum at the site of the world’s very first ever privately owned, for-profit detention facility came to Jesús Cruz several years ago, but it wasn’t easy to accomplish. The first hurdle for this deportee was getting a visa to re-enter the States, 30 years after being sent home.
“First they denied me because of my 1984 deportation,” Cruz says, “then they said I had to pay back my student loans. Of course, I had more than enough money for that, even with all the fees and interest, but it was still a lot of running around and paperwork for my lawyers.”
The paperwork dragged on longer than Cruz had hoped, so he missed his goal of opening the museum’s doors by the 30th anniversary in January 2023, but he looks forward to celebrating the 31st on site.
Cruz says he is most excited about setting up the special exhibit on what used to be called “convict leasing,” which was one of the precursors to private prisons and temp (temporary employment) agencies. After the Civil War, Southern farmers faced a shortage of affordable labor, so they began “renting out” convicts from local prisons to help out on the farms, and as wardens and other government officials began to recognize the potential benefit to the state, they passed stricter laws with stricter penalties to grow the prison population that could then be rented out-instead of costing money, jails could now mint money.
“T. Don Hutto is my hero,” he says of the former Arkansas prison director who went on to become one of the three original founders of CCA. “Hutto managed to turn a profit in a public prison while he was in Arkansas, can you imagine?”
“It’s not enough that Hutto has only one facility named after him. There should be a statue of T. Don Hutto in every town square.”
Cruz is further saddened to learn that the Hutto facility in Taylor, Texas was downgraded in 2023. It no longer imprisons whole families, just females.
“This is a travesty of justice,” Cruz shakes his head. “Hutto deserves better.”
TROUBLE IN PARADISE
Critics of the industry say that introducing the profit motive to incarceration is a perversion, that prison companies care for one thing only, profit, and they cut back on things like staffing, guard training, rehabilitative programs such as classes and psychological/drug/alcohol care for prisoners which would reduce recidivism, and medical care. Additionally, these companies have an incentive to increase the prison population by lobbying for harsher laws, longer, stricter prison sentences, and deny parole. And in regards to privatized immigrant detention, critics say the worst part is that people are being imprisoned for civil, not criminal, violations.
“Society has many legitimate reasons to send someone to prison-to deter potential criminals, to keep criminals from committing crimes, to rehabilitate crminals, etc. If these are legitimate reasons, then why should someone not profit from this?
“It takes many things to build and run a prison. It must be built, first, then it requires security, food, laundry, medical care, maintainence, and the administration of all these things,” says Cruz. “We in the private prison industry provide solutions that combine public sector oversight with private sector efficiency.”
Still, the industry has been rocked by many scandals. In Texas, a female prisoner in the CCA-run Dawson State Jail gave birth to a premature infant girl in a toilet with no medical help after requesting a pregnancy test for three weeks. The infant lived only four days. In Pennsylvania in 2023, two judges were found guilty of accepting bribes from officials at a privately-run juvenile detention facility-they were sentencing kids to harsh juvenile sentences for the pettiest of “offenses” — such as drawing a funny picture of the vice principle or being accused of throwing a piece of meat at their mother’s boyfriend — that destroyed many kids’ lives, leaving them with a criminal record, and even pushed one such juvenile to suicide.
In light of these and many other scandals, many states are reconsidering their relationship with private jailers. Last year, the Ohio docked CCA nearly $500,000 because of an audit that revealed inadequate staffing, unacceptable living conditions, and delays in medical treatment at the Lake Erie Correctional Institution. Just this summer, Idaho took back management from CCA of the Idaho Correctional Center, which is also called the Gladiator School for its reputation of violence, because of problems caused by understaffing.
Regardless, CCA’s stock has doubled in value since 2023 and Cruz sees hope in the current refugee crisis on the border, and not just for private prisons but for all manner of industry.
Indeed, detaining undocumented immigrants is the most promising sector in the private detention business at present. Despite a decreased flow of undocumented immigrants across the border in the years since the economic downturn, more immigrants are being detained for longer periods. As incarceration rates have risen, so have profits for CCA and the Geo Group. The White House has a budget request pending in Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency spending to confront the current crisis, of which $879 million would go toward detaining and removing adults traveling with children.
“This new kids refugee crisis is going to be great for everyone,” Cruz believes. “I call it the Children’s Crusade because these kids are going to save a lot of people. Not just CCA and the Geo Group, who will be housing the people, but also Bi Incorporated, which supplies ankle bracelets to ICE, CSI Aviation, which operates deportation charter flights, General Dynamics Information Technology, which is supplying case-management services, and Lionsbridge Technologies, which provides translation services. And then there is this huge new 2,400 bed refugee family detention center they’re building in South Texas. Pay day!”
“When you look at the big picture,” Cruz explains, “it’s amazing how all the pieces click like clockwork in the grand scheme.
“In the late 1970s, when I came up, US foreign policy made El Salvador unlivable for people like me, so we came north as refugees. When we got here, we wound up in rough neighborhoods where we found strength in numbers, formed gangs like MS-13, and maybe started dealing drugs to survive. Under the harsher laws that were passed thanks to companies like CCA and their lobbyists, these young men spent long sentences in prison, where they became hardened criminals, before being deported back to El Salvador. Now they are there with North American guns fighting with each other over supply chains to send drugs to North America and creating this whole new children’s refugee crisis.”
“It’s amazing,” he repeats, “the master plot of master-minds. So much money to be made at every turn. The sky is the limit!”
James A Gondles, Jr., Executive Director of the American Correctional Association, will be appearing with Cruz at the museum’s ribbon cutting ceremony.
A version of this article will appear in Voices Breaking Boundaries upcoming catalog for their ongoing Borderlines series.
More information on CCA and private prisons can be found here, here, here, and here.