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One of President Joe Biden’s first executive orders directed the Department of Justice to wind down its contracts with private companies for prisons and pretrial detention. In light of this news, we’re revisiting an hour of Reveal, reported in collaboration with Type Investigations and The Nation Magazine, that investigates medical negligence in private federal prisons for noncitizens and the shift in immigration enforcement that gave rise to these prisons in the first place. In a new segment, we learn about the implications and limitations of Biden’s order.

For years, journalists and advocates raised questions about medical care inside private federal prisons for noncitizens, especially in the wake of unrest that inmates said was sparked by medical negligence. Type Investigations reporter Seth Freed Wessler obtained extensive medical files that showed the truth of those prisoners’ complaints. In our original investigation, Reveal’s Stan Alcorn and Wessler tell the story of an emblematic medical disaster.

Next, we turn to one reason these prisons were created in the first place. A shift in government policy drastically increased criminal enforcement of immigration laws, making immigration offenses the most prosecuted category of federal crime. Alcorn explains how these prosecutions work and why they became so prevalent through the story of one man, tracked down by Wessler.

Finally, to understand the context and implications of Biden’s executive order, host Al Letson speaks to Silky Shah, executive director of the Detention Watch Network, an organization that has tried for years to end immigration detention. 

This show has been updated with new reporting, based on a show that originally aired Feb. 6, 2016. 

Dig Deeper

Read the original investigation: Medical neglect can be fatal in privatized immigrant-only prisons

Read the follow-up investigation: Federal officials ignored years of internal warnings about deaths at private prisons

Credits

Reported by: Seth Freed Wessler and Stan Alcorn | Produced by: Stan Alcorn and Nomin Ujiyediin | Lead producer: Stan Alcorn | Edited by: Esther Kaplan, Susanne Reber and Kevin Sullivan | Production manager: Amy Mostafa | Production assistance: Brett Simpson | Mixing, sound design and music by: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda | Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Episode art by Anna Vignet | Special thanks: Type Investigations | Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan | Host: Al Letson

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

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Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Al Letson:The week President Joe Biden took office, he signed a record 22 executive orders, many of them to undo actions taken by Donald Trump, like ending the Muslim travel ban and canceling the Keystone XL pipeline. Biden also called for the Department of Justice to stop renewing contracts with private companies that run prisons and pre-trial detention centers.
Joe Biden:A step we started to take at the end of the Obama administration and was reversed under the previous administration.
Al Letson:The step the Obama administration took was directed specifically at those private federal prisons, most of which are used to hold non-citizens convicted of federal crimes. People locked up inside have protested for years over poor conditions and medical negligence.
Audio:This is New at 10. An FBI affidavit details what happened during an almost eight hour deadly riot.
Audio:Housing units set on fire, inmates violently shaking the fence …
Audio:… then they told us they want the public to know the reason they’re doing this is because an inmate was sick, and they don’t believe he was given the proper medical care.
Al Letson:Even with the news coverage, the public didn’t really know what was going on inside these prisons until Seth Freed Wessler of Type Investigations sued the federal government. He got an extensive set of prison medical files, and in partnership with Reveal and The Nation magazine, he started to piece together life inside these prisons.
Al Letson:Today we’re going to bring you that investigation from 2016. Seth teamed up with Reveal’s Stan Alcorn. They begin in Big Spring, Texas, a town on the edge of oil country where one of these private prisons and a regular government-run prison sit side-by-side.
Stan Alcorn:If you want to know what’s going on inside a prison, you can’t just walk in the front door and look around. But in the case of Big Springs private federal prison, you can get a pretty good look at the soccer fields.
Audio:[Spanish].
Stan Alcorn:From the road through a couple barbed wire fences, you can see men in khaki and white streaming out of a squat tan building, playing soccer, walking in pairs around the track. The a short guy by the soccer goal? He’s playing an accordion.
Seth Freed Wess…:I’ve been looking into what happens in these prisons for years. This is the closest I’ve gotten to getting inside.
Stan Alcorn:From here, Seth and I can see clues about what makes this prison different from the government-run prison next door. The inmates are mostly speaking Spanish. Again, they’re all non-citizens. The sign out front says GEO Group, Inc. That’s the private company hired by the Federal Bureau of Prisons to run the place. But inside the prison, and especially when it comes to medical care, the big difference is in the rules they have to follow.
Seth Freed Wess…:Generally speaking, when prison experts talk about the Bureau of Prisons, they say that it’s the best functioning prison system in the United States. But the kinds of rigorous policies that the Bureau of Prisons has developed to regulate staffing patterns and what kinds of workers do what in the provision of medical care, those rules aren’t applied to the BOP’s private prisons.
Stan Alcorn:Seth wanted to find out how that effects patients, so he filed a public record request that got him over 9,000 pages of medical files and internal investigations covering the entire history of these private prisons for non-citizens.
Seth Freed Wess…:With handwritten notes from nurses and doctors, they’re literally detailing minute by minute what’s happening inside of medical clinics inside of these prisons.
Stan Alcorn:Seth had doctors read all these files, and they found a pattern. Cases where lower standards and less qualified, less expensive workers came together to produce a medical disaster. Seth and I came to Big Springs to tell the story of one of those cases.
Stan Alcorn:But to understand what happened, it helps to start before things went wrong when the guy in charge of healthcare was Dr. John Farquhar. Between 2010 and 2014, he was the one doctor for the more than 3,000 inmates.
Dr. John Farquh…:Well, technically, I worked a 40 hour week, but you can’t practice medicine on a 40 hour week.
Dr. John Farquh…:That’s me.
Stan Alcorn:Dr. Farquhar has rigid posture and a military haircut.
Dr. John Farquh…:Hello.
Stan Alcorn:And at 85 years old, he’s still practicing medicine full time, seven days a week if he needs to.
Dr. John Farquh…:I’ve always had a seven day approach to medicine, and I didn’t see anything unusual about that.
Stan Alcorn:But he was unusual when compared to the other doctors in the prison files.
Seth Freed Wess…:He was writing more notes than just about any other doctor in any of the other prisons. He was there all the time.
Stan Alcorn:Whereas, in other private prisons for non-citizens, medical notes were being written and medical decisions were being made by low-level medical workers, often licensed vocational nurses with only a year of training.
Seth Freed Wess…:And then I started reading what he was writing.
Stan Alcorn:Some of Dr. Farquhar’s notes start normally by describing someone’s symptoms or vital signs, but then they just go off, railing against his bosses, especially when they blocked him from transferring inmates out who were too sick to take care of in his limited prison clinic.
Seth Freed Wess…:In one case he wrote: “This man will almost certainly die,” and that the Bureau of Prisons would, he wrote, “rush to find someone to blame, blithely ignoring the casual and repeated ways he has been dumped onto Big Spring.”
Dr. John Farquh…:There’s times when I was critical. I’m a critical person, starting with myself.
Seth Freed Wess…:He actually wrote at one point: “I feel bad for his shabby care.”
Dr. John Farquh…:Well, I stand by that statement. I don’t know who it’s about, and I can’t comment on any single record of any person, but there are times when the care was not what I wanted for any patient, period.
Stan Alcorn:He told us there was constant pressure to keep costs down. For instance, early on, his higher-ups told him to look at the number of times that prison had paid for an ambulance to take an inmate to the hospital.
Dr. John Farquh…:They said, “Is there a way that we can cut this down?” And I said, “Probably yes.”
Seth Freed Wess…:I could imagine that could result in a pressure to not call when somebody really needs to go to the emergency room.
Dr. John Farquh…:That’s always the risk. That’s why professional judgment takes professional training and professional experience because you can’t leave it up to anybody.
Stan Alcorn:When Dr. Farquhar was clinical director, he was the one making those decisions. He was effectively always on call, and doctors who reviewed the medical files said he seemed to be doing as good a job as he could. But after four years, he said he was very tired, and he quit.
Seth Freed Wess…:And then not long after he left the prison, there’s a case that exhibits all of the problems that he was worried about.
Stan Alcorn:The case of Nestor Garay. Back in 1998 when he was 25, Nestor came from Mexico City to wine country, Napa Valley, California.
Seth Freed Wess…:It’s beautiful here.
Stan Alcorn:Where he moved in with his parents, Alvara and Indi.
Enrique Garay:[Spanish].
Stan Alcorn:Seth and I visited them at their house just a couple blocks from the natural food stores and bike shops of Main Street, St. Helena. When Nestor first moved here, he was like peas in a pod with his younger brother Enrique.
Enrique Garay:They say when we answer the phone we sound the same and we smile kind of the same.
Stan Alcorn:They worked out at the gym together, and they worked together at the Sunshine Food Market. Nestor was in the cheese section. Enrique cut meat. But while Enrique went on to get a better job, buy his own house and become a US citizen, Nestor just stayed in the same bedroom in his parents’ house.
Enrique Garay:He was very strongly attached to my mom and dad. Yeah, to be with them is like a pet. He wanted to be with them the whole time, but in a good way because Nestor was a good son and all that regardless his addiction.
Stan Alcorn:His addiction. It started with alcohol but turned to meth. He started dealing to support his habit, sold to an undercover cop, and was sentenced to five years in prison. And because he’d never become a US citizen, at 41, he ended up in the private GEO Group prison for non-citizens in Big Spring.
Stan Alcorn:His parents have stacks of letters Nestor sent them from prison, each of them with a hand-drawn and colored cartoon on the envelope.
Alvara Garay:[Spanish].
Stan Alcorn:There’s a jack-o-lantern for Halloween, an orange cat with a bow on its head opening a gift for Christmas.
Alvara Garay:Indi.
Stan Alcorn:His dad, Indi opens one.
Indi Garay:[Spanish] Texas.
Stan Alcorn:The letter starts: “Just to say hello and tell you all is well in Texas.”
Indi Garay:[Spanish].
Stan Alcorn:And then, early one Thursday morning, Indi told us they got a phone call.
Indi Garay:[Spanish].
Stan Alcorn:It was Nestor’s cellmates, calling from inside the prison in Big Spring-
Indi Garay:[Spanish].
Stan Alcorn:… with bad news.
Idineo Espinoza:[Spanish].
Stan Alcorn:Seth tracked down three of these cellmates, including Idineo Espinoza.
Idineo Espinoza:[Spanish].
Stan Alcorn:Speaking by phone from Mexico, Idineo says it all started when he and the other men in the cell were asleep.
Idineo Espinoza:[Spanish].
Stan Alcorn:At 1:00 in the morning, Nestor starts moaning.
Idineo Espinoza:[Spanish].
Stan Alcorn:Idineo says Nestor is trying to speak, but he can only make signs with his hands. Idineo and the other cellmates carry him to a lower bunk and realize he’s wet himself. They open the door and tell the guard outside that Nestor needs medical attention.
Idineo Espinoza:[Spanish].
Stan Alcorn:Idineo says about a half hour later a nurse arrives. It’s Licensed Vocational Nurse Gary Austin, the only medical professional at the prison that night. It’s his note that begins the medical file. It says, quote, “Upon arriving to inmate room, inmate lying on bottom bunk looking straight ahead but not responding to name.”
Stan Alcorn:He writes that Nestor’s sweaty. He has a weak grip on one side, and his cellmates think he’s had a seizure. The cellmates are told to carry Nestor downstairs to the building’s bare-bones clinic. And there, instead of calling 911, Gary phones the physician assistant who’s on call that night, Russell [Amareaux].
Stan Alcorn:Russell’s at home asleep, but he wakes up and over the phone makes two key decisions. First, he tells the nurse to give Nestor Dilantin, an anti-seizure medication, and then when Nestor can’t swallow the pills, the notes show he gives a new order. Quote, “Send back to unit and place on mattress on floor.”
Stan Alcorn:So the cellmates are asked to carry Nestor back upstairs, but Idineo says …
Idineo Espinoza:[Spanish].
Stan Alcorn:The cellmates said no.
Idineo Espinoza:No. [Spanish].
Stan Alcorn:He says, “He needs professional medical attention. Ask for a helicopter, an ambulance that can take him to a clinic so he can get the care he needs.”
Idineo Espinoza:[Spanish].
Stan Alcorn:Ultimately, Nestor isn’t returned to their cell, so the cellmates go to sleep thinking Nestor was taken to a hospital.
Idineo Espinoza:[Spanish].
Stan Alcorn:Idineo says the next day they find out what happened.
Idineo Espinoza:[Spanish].
Stan Alcorn:Nestor was just brought to another cell nearby and was left on a mattress on the floor until the morning shift arrived. By now, five hours had passed since Nestor started moaning, and he’s transformed. He can’t move his right side, his attempts to speak have become smacking sounds. The morning shift nurse, a more highly trained registered nurse calls the prison’s clinical director, a doctor, and they send Nestor to the nearest ER where a CAT scan shows a massive stroke.
Stan Alcorn:He’s then helicoptered to the Midland Memorial Hospital. We wanted to find out what happened to him there, so Seth and I went to the hospital and tracked down the neurologist who treated him that day.
Seth Freed Wess…:Hi, Doctor. How are you?
Dr. John Foster:Hi. How are you? Good.
Stan Alcorn:Dr. John Foster.
Seth Freed Wess…:If someone comes in having just had a massive ischemic stroke, how soon would they need to come in here for you to be able to do anything for them?
Dr. John Foster:Well, to be anything aggressive to them, within three hours.
Seth Freed Wess…:So as each hour passes-
Dr. John Foster:Each minute.
Seth Freed Wess…:Each minute.
Dr. John Foster:Each minute you have thousands of brain cells die.
Seth Freed Wess…:And if someone does come in five hours later, what can you do at that point?
Dr. John Foster:For us, there ain’t nothing.
Stan Alcorn:Nestor’s parents say the prison finally called them that afternoon, but they didn’t tell them that Nestor had had a stroke, much less the details they’d heard hours earlier from the cellmates. So the next day as they were preparing to fly to Texas, Nestor’s dad Indi called the prison to get more information.
Indi Garay:What was the captain name?
Stan Alcorn:His granddaughter recorded some of the call.
Speaker 12:[Spanish].
Indi Garay:I don’t know. No sure. It depends. You know how is Nestor?
Speaker 12:I haven’t heard nothing today.
Indi Garay:Aw.
Stan Alcorn:In the hospital Nestor was shackled to the bed, and two prison guards were keeping watch when his family arrived, his dad Indi, his brother Enrique and his mom Alvara.
Translator:When we got there, I restrained myself. I didn’t want to scream. I didn’t want to yell because I really felt that my son could hear me. I didn’t want him to hear me upset.
Alvara Garay:[Spanish].
Enrique Garay:As soon as my mom start talking to Nestor, my mom hugged Nestor and Nestor cry. That’s something I’m never going to forget. Somehow he was still there.
Stan Alcorn:But the doctors told him that tear was just a reflex; Nestor was already gone. He was brain dead. His body was just being kept alive by the life support.
Translator:I mean, look at the cruelty here. It wasn’t until after they took him off life support that they took the shackles off. It was as if they were saying, “If you’re still alive, then you’re under my control.”
Stan Alcorn:The prison did its own internal review of what happened to Nestor Garay, and we got a copy. It found diagnosis was delayed, treatment was inappropriate, documentation was unacceptably incomplete. When Nestor didn’t get better, the nurse or the physician assistant should’ve contacted the prison’s doctor or top nurse.
Stan Alcorn:In other words, many things went wrong. But according to the four physicians we had independently review the medical file, the right thing to do was simple:
Dr. Carolyn Mar…:Call 911 is what he should’ve done.
Stan Alcorn:That’s neurologist Carolyn Martin.
Dr. Carolyn Mar…:If he had gotten there right away, he would’ve had a chance of survival. Not getting there right away his chance of survival was really terrible. The prisoner was right; they should’ve called 911.
Stan Alcorn:One reason they didn’t call 911 could be the level of training of the only medical professional at the prison that night, Gary Austin. He’s only a licensed vocational nurse or LVN.
Roberta Lavin:LVNs are essentially supervised so they are not working independently.
Stan Alcorn:Roberta Lavin is a nursing professor who used to work at a government-run federal prison. She says LVNs are usually supervised by a more highly trained registered nurse. While the higher level nurse would know how to help someone with a gunshot wound, say, an LVN would help after they’d been stitched up when it’s time to give out the next dose of painkillers.
Roberta Lavin:Or it’s time to change that bandage.
Stan Alcorn:She says to put LVNs alone on overnights at prisons responding to emergencies may save money, but it endangers inmates.
Roberta Lavin:Having a person who has a more narrow scope of practice and is less prepared to deal with emergencies, what you’re doing is you’re putting barriers between that person who may have a medical emergency and the care.
Stan Alcorn:You don’t see this barrier to care in the government-run federal prisons. They have rules that specify what LVNs can do. But those rules don’t apply to these private prisons. In a statement, GEO Group said they strive to meet all the same standards, practices and policies of government-run federal prisons, but after interviewing corrections officials and reviewing thousands of pages of medical files, Seth found something different.
Seth Freed Wess…:We see over and over again low level medical workers, often licensed vocational nurses, are providing the bulk of medical care. Doctors who reviewed the files raised questions about whether those licensed vocational nurses were operating beyond the kind of care that they’re trained to provide.
Stan Alcorn:Seth got the medical files of 103 men who all died in these private federal prisons for non-citizens, and doctors who reviewed those files and additional evidence said 25 of those men likely died as a result of inadequate medical care that they got in prison.
Seth Freed Wess…:One of these cases, a man named Claudio [Fejarlos Asedo] was seen repeatedly over and over again complaining of headaches and back pain and nausea and was only ever treated with ibuprofen and Tylenol and sent back to his bed. He’s nearly only seen by LVNs.
Stan Alcorn:In fact, there’s no record of him ever being sent to the prison doctor. After nearly two years of this, he’s finally sent out to a hospital, where within days he dies of an AIDS-related brain infection. Doctors who reviewed the files said he should’ve been diagnosed with HIV long before.
Stan Alcorn:That case happened at another private prison for non-citizens about two hours west of Big Spring called Reeves. That prison was investigated by the inspector general of the Department of Justice, a watchdog for the Bureau of Prisons. We described Claudio’s medical treatment and death to the inspector general himself, Michael Horowitz.
Michael Horowit…:It certainly doesn’t surprise me what you’re saying. [crosstalk].
Stan Alcorn:His review didn’t look at the use of LVNs, but it look at the number of total medical staff. It found that in 34 out of 37 months, the prison had failed to meet the minimum required by its contract.
Michael Horowit…:I think it raises two concerns: How does it impact individual inmates and what does it mean for their health and safety? And the second is: Why was it happening for 34 out of 37 months? Why wasn’t that caught before we showed up?
Stan Alcorn:He’s asking not just why this company was breaking the rules, but why the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which is supposed to enforce the rules, failed to notice any problems for three years straight.
Stan Alcorn:Since Nestor’s death, his parents have kept his bedroom in their Napa Valley home the way he left it.
Translator:I’ll be honest with you. We sleep in this room.
Stan Alcorn:They sleep surrounded by Nestor’s things.
Alvara Garay:[Spanish].
Stan Alcorn:His mom Alvara shows us Nestor’s pants in the dresser, his hat on the door.
Alvara Garay:[Spanish].
Stan Alcorn:She picks up a pair of his gym shorts from the closet, smells them before she puts them back.
Carlos Garay:His clothes, I think we should get rid of it, give it someone who needs it, but we want to keep him too.
Stan Alcorn:That’s Nestor’s older brother Carlos, and he wants to help his family move on, but he also wants to know why his brother wasn’t taken to the hospital sooner.
Carlos Garay:I can make a list of people that were involve, but who’s really responsible? Who’s the boss? So I want an answer from the person who contracts these companies, and I want an answer from the warden.
Stan Alcorn:The Federal Bureau of Prisons, which contracted GEO Group to run the prison, wouldn’t agree to an interview and didn’t respond to written questions. The GEO Group and its medical subcontractor, Correct Care Solutions, said because of privacy concerns they were unable to comment on individual medical files. Gary Austin, the licensed vocational nurse who was at the prison that night, didn’t return our messages.
Stan Alcorn:But Russell Amareux, the physician assistant who the medical file says gave the order over the phone to send Nestor back to his cell instead of a hospital …
Russell Amareux:Hi.
Seth Freed Wess…:You Mr. Amareux?
Russell Amareux:I could be. And who are you?
Seth Freed Wess…:My name is [crosstalk] …
Stan Alcorn:Seth and I visited his house in a condo complex 40 minutes outside Big Spring, Texas.
Russell Amareux:Let me ask you guys a question. How’d you find out about me?
Stan Alcorn:At first he refused to speak with us.
Russell Amareux:… and if you’re not supposed to talk. That’s one of the problems with the prison system. [crosstalk] …
Stan Alcorn:But eventually, he let us into his kitchen and spoke for several hours because he wanted the world to know about all the other factors that he said prevented the medical staff at Big Spring from doing their jobs as well as they should.
Russell Amareux:There would’ve been a more aggressive care for that patient and other patients too if we had better training, better staff. It’s just so many things are wrong there.
Stan Alcorn:He explains the decisions he made the night Nestor died, decisions doctors and the prison’s own review said were wrong by pointing to a failure of communication. He says all the information he had was what he was told over the phone by Gary Austin, the licensed vocational nurse at the prison. Gary wrote in the file that Nestor was unresponsive and had a weak grip, but Russell says he was told something different.
Russell Amareux:He was up and communicating. It just, he was not real lucid.
Stan Alcorn:And he pins that miscommunication on Gary’s lack of training, the fact that he was an LVN, also called an LPN.
Russell Amareux:You had an LPN right out of school, new in corrections, trying to make an assessment. He did not have the skills. I don’t blame them as a person. I blame the management system that puts them in that position.
Stan Alcorn:It’s easy to blame the person, and the four physicians who reviewed Nestor’s file and the prison’s own review did find faults with both Gary, the LVN, and Russell, the physician assistant. But if you blame only the person, you let the system that put them in that position off the hook. And the system that Russell describes is one that puts its staff and its inmates in a position that’s always just one mistake away from a catastrophe.
Russell Amareux:Basically, what you have in essence is people that are under-trained doing jobs that they shouldn’t be doing. We do not have an infirmary for 24 hour observation. Charts are often temporarily lost for a couple of days or a week or so.
Russell Amareux:So the companies that I work for all the way up to BOP and they’ve got the model of how the place is supposed to be run, and they seem to allow it. I know you want to ask me what would I do to correct the problem. I’d close this whole facility down, and I’d start over again.
Al Letson:That story from Seth Freed Wessler of Type Investigations and Reveal’s Stan Alcorn. Closing down that facility seemed farfetched when we aired this show five years ago, but that’s exactly what President Biden is now calling for. The contract is up in November, and the Bureau of Prisons has been told not to renew it. Seth called up Nestor’s brother, Enrique, to see what he and his family thought about that news.
Enrique Garay:I’m glad they’re doing something about it.
Al Letson:But the change he hopes for is both bigger and more basic.
Enrique Garay:I just hope that after what happened to my brother, I just hope they have more medical available. Just treat all their people with decency; treat them as humans.
Al Letson:After the break, we turn to the question of where these prisons came from in the first place. It’s a story of a major shift in criminal justice policy and also a story of a father risking everything for his sons. That’s coming up next on Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
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Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Al Letson:Today we’re revisiting an investigation from 2016 into private prisons that hold non-citizens convicted of a federal crime. A lot of the time that federal crime is crossing the border illegally.
Al Letson:Former President Trump was infamous for prosecuting parents and separating them from their children, but prison time for crossing the border didn’t start with Trump. It was ramping up through the Bush and Obama administrations as a part of a policy called Enforcement with Consequences.
Al Letson:One man who lived with those consequences before the Trump era was Eloy Flores. In 2016, Seth Freed Wessler of Type Investigations and Reveal’s Stan Alcorn spoke to him. Stan asked how many times he crossed the border.
Eloy Flores:Maybe like 20 times, almost.
Stan Alcorn:So it’s almost like once a year.
Eloy Flores:Yeah, pretty much once a year. One, two times a year.
Al Letson:Like most people in his situation, there really wasn’t any legal way for Eloy to immigrate to the US, so he made the decision to cross the border without papers.
Eloy Flores:To get a visa in Mexico, you got to be a rich man or get bank accounts and houses and good jobs.
Al Letson:When Eloy first crossed, he said, he’d never even had a job. He was a teenager looking to escape from the slow, violent divorce of his parents. So New Year’s Eve, 1990, he and six other guys waded across the Rio Grande naked.
Eloy Flores:Naked, yes. You got to get naked, and you got to get you clothes on top of you head. That way they don’t get wet.
Al Letson:They get to the other side, Brownsville, Texas, dry off and put their clothes back on and walk to a K-Mart parking lot. There, they squeeze into a beat-up Mustang of Eloy’s best friend. But then the car won’t start.
Eloy Flores:So we got to get off the car and we’ve got to push it, the car, and behind us across a Border Patrol. They didn’t even pay attention to us. He just cross by.
Stan Alcorn:You mean they could clearly see you?
Eloy Flores:We are in the road. If I wait till I tell you another times I’ve crossed the border, this is nothing. From 1990 to 2005, I think they were the easy ones. From 2006 to today is really hard to cross the border.
Al Letson:The story of how it got hard for Eloy is also the story of how those private prisons got filled. In a little bit, we’re hear how Eloy is doing today, but first, we’re going to listen to our original story from 2016. It starts in that beat-up Mustang. Here’s Stan Alcorn.
Stan Alcorn:After they got the car started, Eloy and his best friend drove all the way from Brownsville, Texas to Silver Spring, Maryland. That’s where Eloy got his first job, standing outside a 7-Eleven at dawn waiting for contractors to pull up in their trucks looking for workers.
Eloy Flores:We are like 150 guys waiting for one truck or two trucks. You are lucky if you get to jump on the truck. Because if he asking for painter, everybody was a painter. If he asking for a carpenter, we are a carpenter. How they fit the guys, right there. So as soon as the truck show up, man, you got to be ready and you got to jump on the truck.
Stan Alcorn:This is how he spent his first few years in Maryland, jumping into truck beds, digging holes, painting houses.
Eloy Flores:I have no holidays, no Christmas, nothing. No stop, no stop. Working every day, every day, every day. I was workaholic. Workaholic because I want to get better, better, better, better.
Stan Alcorn:And his life did get better and better. He started his own painting company. He got married and had kids. He even bought a house in Baltimore County with woods in the back yard. Whenever he wanted to take a break, he’d just go to Mexico and then sneak back to the US.
Eloy Flores:Yeah, it was real easy. You can cross the border easy.
Stan Alcorn:It was so easy, he did it once a year through the ’90s. And then in 2008, he and his whole family went back for a few years. He wanted his four kids, who grew up in Maryland and are US citizens, to experience their parents’ country and learn their parents’ language. Their stay in Mexico was supposed to end in 2011.
Eloy Flores:It was time to go back because all my children, they speak Spanish 100%. My older son, he’s need to be go to the university. So it was time to go back.
Stan Alcorn:Eloy and his wife planned to hire a human smuggler to help them cross the border, and then the kids would follow legally on a plane.
Eloy Flores:It was part of my plan. But I didn’t make it because I find to cross the border is really, really hard.
Stan Alcorn:In the two decades since he waded across the river to Brownsville, things had changed. The number of Border Patrol agents had increased five-fold pushing the places to cross way out into the desert.
Stan Alcorn:Seth and I walked a tiny part of one of those routes in West Texas. It’s a flat plain of sand and creosote bushes.
Seth Freed Wess…:Was he by himself?
Stan Alcorn:No.
Stan Alcorn:This is roughly where Eloy and his wife were caught tracked down by footprints in the sand, they think. And then …
Stan Alcorn:Security?
Stan Alcorn:This is the Border Patrol station in Del Rio, Texas, where we walked through the process with spokeperson Enrique Vasquez.
Enrique Vasquez:And you’re in our processing area.
Stan Alcorn:Half the room is made up of holding cells, and the other half looks like a grim metallic version of airport passport control.
Enrique Vasquez:It’s similar. They come up here. You interview them. You get their name, you get their basic information.
Stan Alcorn:And then the agent sends almost every crosser to be criminally prosecuted for illegal entry. It’s a program called Operation Streamline. It started here in Del Rio in 2005, but was soon adopted elsewhere on the border. To explain why it exists-
Enrique Vasquez:I’ll let you step in on this [inaudible].
Stan Alcorn:… he turns to agent Joshua Spriggs from the Border Patrol’s prosecution office, who says the idea is to create more of a deterrent than a simple deportation.
Joshua Spriggs:The desired outcome is that we’ll affect them wanting to come back again illegally, meaning they know now if I go they’re just going to send me right back. Did it have the desired effect? Oh, he’s back again, so it didn’t.
Enrique Vasquez:So it’s not enough.
Joshua Spriggs:So we need to try and find something else to maybe influence his decision to try and come back legally next time instead between the ports of entry.
Seth Freed Wess…:And do you track that?
Enrique Vasquez:I’m sure we track everything. I mean, we have numbers for it. I don’t have a number for you, but to say that it’s effective, I would say yes.
Stan Alcorn:The Border Patrol used to point to statistics showing that border crossers who were prosecuted were less likely to cross again, but they’re now scrapping that measure because an agency watchdog pointed out they weren’t checking if the effect lasted more than a year. Still, this policy of using the threat of prison time as a kind of psychological border wall, this is why Eloy and his wife were sent to federal court.
Bailiff:Order in the court. All rise.
Stan Alcorn:This is a recording we got of the hour and a half in court for Eloy, his wife, and 82 other people charged with illegal entry. The voices you hear are from attorneys, a Spanish-English interpreter and Magistrate Judge Victor Garcia. The defendants who fill the jury box and even the benches for the public are silent, except for the jingle of their chains.
Judge Victor Ga…:And now will you please stand up so I can [inaudible].
Eloy Flores:All the immigrant, we looking around.
Judge Victor Ga…:Your right hand, please?
Eloy Flores:Everybody’s locked up from the ankles, the knees, waist and each other.
Stan Alcorn:They’re all wearing identical jumpsuits and what look like paper surgical masks over their mouths. Eloy says the they could only see each other’s eyes.
Eloy Flores:That is why we are like a numbers now. We’re not person. We are numbers.
Judge Victor Ga…:You are guaranteed a set of rights. You will asked to waive them so that I can take your plea. These are your rights. Listen closely. [crosstalk].
Stan Alcorn:This is how the streamline program works. In order to prosecute nearly every first time crosser, nobody gets a separate proceeding. They’re all processed as a group.
Judge Victor Ga…:Yes or no, do you want to plead guilty today?
Stan Alcorn:Courts have decided it would violate due process to have them answer questions in unison, so instead the judge points to them one at a time.
Judge Victor Ga…:Yes or no?
Male:[Spanish].
Stan Alcorn:Which takes a little more than a minute per question.
Speaker 26:[inaudible] all.
Judge Victor Ga…:Okay.
Stan Alcorn:The one place where each individual gets attention is for sentencing because the sentences depend on the defendant’s criminal history, which usually means have they tried to cross the border before.
Judge Victor Ga…:Mr. [Colderone], now you’re going to be the first one of many that I have today. Did you have a conviction for illegal entry?
Stan Alcorn:The more time someone’s been caught and convicted for crossing in the past, the more jail time he gets this time.
Judge Victor Ga…:You got eight days the first time. You’re getting 12 months the second time. It’s up to two years the third time.
Stan Alcorn:That’s time he’ll spend in a US prison before being deported back to his home country. After a few cases, these sentences start to blend together.
Judge Victor Ga…:Guilty or not guilty?
Speaker 27:Guilty.
Stan Alcorn:But for Eloy, Judge Garcia decides to give a little speech.
Judge Victor Ga…:You have been prosecuted for being a bad person or because you do not have good reasons. Most of the people here, not all of them, have very good reasons to cross: to work, to support their families, to better educate their kids, sometimes to pay off debts. The problem that you have like all others is you did not have permission to enter.
Judge Victor Ga…:But because you have a prior conviction, to be consistent and fair, the sentence I gave you is because you have a prior conviction, not because you’ve done something wrong to the United States yet. You don’t have permission to enter, so you have to do four months in prison.
Judge Victor Ga…:The only reason it’s four months is because maybe after you do that long in prison, you will not return. I don’t know that. I cannot stop you from coming back, but I can tell you what will happen if you do and that you’re going to be in prison.
Judge Victor Ga…:I know four months is a long time considering you need to get back to your children. Your wife is here as well. But it’s a lesson for everybody else that you cannot cross. Those days are over. You understand?
Translator:Yes.
Judge Victor Ga…:Is there anything else you want to tell me?
Translator:No.
Judge Victor Ga…:Thank you. Jesus Garcia Franco. Did you [inaudible] …
Stan Alcorn:Seth and I visited Atlacomulco, a small town north of Mexico City. It was supposed to be Eloy and his family’s temporary home, but they’ve now been here for eight years. Their main source of income is an internet café, sandwiched between a tortilla factory and an office supply store.
Eloy Flores:Yeah, this is my own, my shop I designed myself, and I built everything you can see.
Stan Alcorn:Eloy built little wooden cubicles with saloon doors for the computers. But when we visited, none of them were occupied. Eloy’s oldest son, Eduardo, was manning the front desk.
Eduardo Flores:Basically, we just take turns. Right now is my turn.
Stan Alcorn:When he’s not working, Eduardo’s studying engineering at a local Mexican college. As a US citizen, he could go to college in the States, but it would be a huge expense, and his parents are just scraping by as it is.
Eduardo Flores:Right now they’re both here and we’re happy, but happiness isn’t helping us pay for food, paying for our school, our tuitions, because university’s hard. I mean, it’s hard and I’m going to a public university.
Speaker 28:All right. Now, let’s go. We can do [inaudible].
Speaker 29:We can what?
Stan Alcorn:In two years when Eduardo turns 21, he can try to sponsor his parents for a green card so they could move to the US legally. But because of their history of crossing the border and living in the US without authorization, they’d likely be barred from the country for six more years. So even though last time he ended up spending four months in a private prison in Big Spring, Texas, Eloy is talking about crossing the border again.
Eloy Flores:It’s not for me anymore. Now is for my sons. They are US citizen. My older son, he always dream about study over there, so that’s why I feel guilty because I failing not crossing the border.
Seth Freed Wess…:Does the threat of being locked up in prison, does that make you think twice?
Eloy Flores:Make you think twice, but not stop it. Being locked up is only be a slowdown. Sooner or later, we be there. I see a lot of friends, they’re being locked up. They spend six or four months, they already in USA. So America is spending a lot of money to give you a lesson that don’t work.
Stan Alcorn:Criminal prosecutions of border crossing started to rise in the ’90s when the federal government launched what it called “prevention through deterrence.” John Klassen became the head federal prosecutor in Midland, Texas in 2003.
John Klassen:Illegal immigration was, I don’t know if it was skyrocketing, but there was certainly on the upswing. So there was a lot of discussion: “Well, how can we stop it or reduce it significantly? What are some things that we might try?”
Stan Alcorn:The Border Patrol got more funding and more agents. Operation Streamline started, prosecuting more people for illegal entry. John says he was told by his superiors to prosecute as many people as he could for illegal reentry, a felony charge for crossing the border after being deported. He says it was all kind of an experiment in discouraging not only the people they sent to prison but everyone those people knew.
John Klassen:The idea is the word would spread, that they would go back to their home areas in Mexico and they would tell everybody else, “Man, it’s not worth it because if you cross, you’re going to end up spending a few months in jail, and it stinks. Therefore, don’t come.”
Stan Alcorn:More than 70,000 people were prosecuted for immigration offenses in 2015. That’s nearly twice as many as a decade earlier. In fact, more people were prosecuted for crossing the border than all other categories of federal crime; drugs, weapons, white collar crime combined. But it’s still only a fraction of the more than 300,000 people apprehended by Border Patrol.
Stan Alcorn:And in general, why not prosecute everyone?
John Klassen:Because you can’t possibly. I mean, if we were to prosecute every minute immigration offense, it would take up all of federal prosecutors’ time, and we would not be able to devote our attention to other very serious criminal behavior which we’re charged with addressing.
Stan Alcorn:Three years after that interview, President Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, would vow to do just that.
Jeff Sessions:If you cross the border unlawfully, even a first offense, well, we’re going to prosecute you. If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law. If you don’t want your child to be separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally. It’s not our fault.
Eloy Flores:Yeah. If you cross the border, you separatable on your child, on you kid. I know about that.
Stan Alcorn:I called Eloy in March after Joe Biden took office. He says he never did try to cross the border during the Trump years, so he’s still in Atlacomulco, though he’s no longer running that internet café.
Eloy Flores:So I got my own company in construction.
Stan Alcorn:Ah.
Eloy Flores:The way I was working in US, now I’m working here, same thing.
Stan Alcorn:Of course, the money isn’t the same, which is one reason his oldest son, Eduardo, is still there too.
Eduardo Flores:Same house, same everything. Not much has really changed.
Stan Alcorn:Is it the same bedroom?
Eduardo Flores:Yeah, same bedroom, different sheets and different blankets. That’s the same, man.
Stan Alcorn:Since he couldn’t afford college in the US, he’s been finishing his degree in computer engineering at that local university while also working with his dad.
Eduardo Flores:Since he’s taught me how to do everything from electricity to plumbing to drywall and paintings, I have a lot of other skills too than my engineering degree, so that’s a plus.
Stan Alcorn:He hopes that all that is enough to get a job back in the US, where he’d make enough money to rebuild a life there, maybe even get a master’s degree, even though it would mean leaving his family in Mexico.
Eduardo Flores:You know that you may make a lot of plans in life, but sometimes your plans don’t always go the way you want to. I’ve tried to … How do I say this? Do what I can with what I got.
Stan Alcorn:He doesn’t think of Mexico as home. It’s just where he is, in his old room with a new poster on the wall that says [Spanish], “Just keep going.”
Al Letson:That was Reveal’s Stan Alcorn with Seth Freed Wessler of Type Investigations. After the break, we talk to someone who’s spent years trying to dismantle the systems that lock up immigrants. You’re listening to Reveal.
Al Letson:Do you want to know more about how we do what we do? Well, our weekly newsletter takes you behind the scenes. Our investigations change laws, minds and, sure, we like to say it, the world. Be among the first to read them. Just text “newsletter” to 474747. You can text “stop” at any time, standard data rates apply. Again, text “newsletter” to 474747.
Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Today we’ve been talking about how private prisons are used to hold non-citizens convicted of federal crimes.
Silky Shah:A lot of the concern is that when you’re looking at the federal system of incarceration, the system is racist by design.
Al Letson:That’s Silky Shah, executive director of the Detention Watch Network. She says those private prisons don’t offer the same services as ones run by the government.
Silky Shah:Rehabilitation services, job training, et cetera, and re-entry services. So the idea is we don’t have to expend resources on these individuals because they’ll ultimately be deported.
Al Letson:But Shah says these prisons are just one piece of a larger puzzle. She points to ICE detention centers, a whole system of jails for holding people not because they’ve been charged with committing a crime, but just because the government is trying to deport them. The Detention Watch Network wants to shut all these facilities down.
Al Letson:President Biden’s recent executive order on private prisons doesn’t do that. It’s focused on the Department of Justice. That means it affects the jails and detention facilities run by private companies for the US Marshal Service and the private prisons that hold people convicted of federal crimes for the Bureau of Prisons, or BOP.
Al Letson:In 2016, Obama’s deputy attorney general, Sally Yates, sent a memo to the BOP telling them to wind down their contracts with private prisons. But then Trump came into office and reversed that decision.
Silky Shah:The memo that happened in 2016 said that these facilities would be phased out in five years. Ultimately, the reversal meant that none of these facilities ended up shutting down. It was as if prior to August 2016, everything was the same. Like we’re just going to continue to use these segregated facilities for immigrants. We’re going to continue to target immigrants for prosecutions for crossing the border without documentation.
Al Letson:So now, once again, we’ve got a president saying that it’s time to stop contracting with private prisons. Does it feel like 2016 all over again?
Silky Shah:In 2016, I think there wasn’t a lot of visibility about the facilities that Bureau of Prisons uses for immigrant incarceration. So it was interesting to see this response from President Obama, Sally Yates at the time to say, “Okay, wow. We were sort of gearing up to say how are we going to get these facilities shut down,” and then all of a sudden there was this call to close.
Silky Shah:Four years later, so much has happened. You had the 2018 family separation, zero tolerance policy that led to families being separated because these migrant prosecutions. You had the uprisings last summer that really called the question the role of incarceration and policing in our society.
Silky Shah:So for Biden to come out and say, “Okay, I’m going to do this executive order on private prisons,” it’s a good and important start, but it’s so limited in terms of the scope of what could happen. There’s a few things that I would name that are disappointing about this order in particular.
Silky Shah:One is that the order says, “not renew.” The previous memo said we’re going to phase out in five years, regardless of what the contract says. This one said “not renew,” and you have a lot of contracts that are longer than four years, and we don’t know what’s going to happen in four years.
Silky Shah:The other thing is that it only includes the Department of Justice, which was true in 2016. But when you look again at the last four years and what Donald Trump stood for and focused on in terms of xenophobia and racism and the expansion of immigration detention, and immigration detention specifically being where you have 80% of people held in private prisons, this order doesn’t extend to that.
Silky Shah:So it’s only focused on BOP incarceration and also US Marshals incarceration, which is important, absolutely. But to have a real impact on the federal use of private prisons, you have to include ICE detention.
Al Letson:It seems to me that what’s happening is that the Biden administration is dismantling parts of the infrastructure, but the infrastructure is still there. So in four years from now if we get another president that disagrees with Biden’s direction, they could reverse it and we’d be right back in the same situation. Is that an accurate summary?
Silky Shah:Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right. I think we could definitely see a reversal. I think that’s a question on all of these things. I believe ultimately the more we can do to dismantle, the more we can do to get some of these facilities to close down, the harder it’s going to be for a new administration to come in and roll back.
Silky Shah:Then additionally, I think there’s a real need to shift some of the laws and policies. I think when you look at this segregated system for immigrants in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons, ending the prosecution of migrants for entry-related offenses is really key to getting permanent change on this.
Al Letson:So in the past, the Bureau of Prisons has ended contract with prisons, only to have them turn into immigration detention centers. On [inaudible] call, one of these private prison companies said that they’ll be able to recommission these facilities for their clients like local or state governments. Could that happen with these prisons?
Silky Shah:Absolutely. And this happens a lot between Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE facilities and BOP or US Marshals facilities where there’s just sort of a turnover. So again, there is a huge concern that Biden not including ICE detention means that a lot of these facilities could become ICE detention centers.
Silky Shah:I do think that private prison companies are going to start really putting pressure, we’re already seeing this in places like Alabama, for states to take on more private contracts. I think that’s a real question, especially in states that are more committed to incarceration or committed to private incarceration.
Al Letson:As somebody who’s working in the trenches on these issues, what do you see the future being as far as what are the dangers that we’re headed towards?
Silky Shah:I think we are in a place where, at least in the federal government, there’s some actual desire to move to some degree away from the inherent racism of this system. I think there’s so much to do on that front.
Silky Shah:I think one of the risks here though, is when you’re looking at incarceration and, quote/unquote, “alternatives,” a lot of the things that the federal government is putting out there are potentially more surveillance tactics in the immigration detention context, a lot more ankle monitors being used as an “alternative,” quote/unquote, to detention.
Silky Shah:So I think as we move forward, just really ensuring what does it mean to be free. What does liberty mean in this context and ensuring that the systems that we put in place aren’t something that furthers those restrictions on liberty and freedom?
Al Letson:Silky Shah is the executive director of Detention Watch Network. Thank you so much for joining us.
Silky Shah:Thank you so much for having me on.
Al Letson:That story was produced by Nomin Ujiyediin. Today we focused on prisons for non-citizens. But another huge issue facing the Biden administration is how to handle the surge of people crossing the US-Mexico border and the detention of unaccompanied minors. Nearly half of those children come from Guatemala. Next week we visit a small village in Guatemala to see why people are fleeing and why plans to address the root causes of migration have failed. That’s next week on Reveal.
Al Letson:This week our lead producer was Stan Alcorn. A huge thank you to Type Investigations and reporter Seth Freed Wessler. Esther Kaplan and Suzanne Reber edited our investigation. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager is Amy Mostafa. Score and sound design by the dynamic duo, J. Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man, yo, Arruda. They had help this week from Claire Mullen, Brett Simpson, Joe [Plord] and Amita Ganatra. Our digital producer is Sara Mirk.
Al Letson:Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund and the Inasmuch Foundation.
Al Letson:Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson and remember, there is always more to the story.
Audio:From PRX.

Stan Alcorn is a reporter and producer for Reveal. His radio work at Reveal has won awards including a Peabody Award, several Online Journalism Awards, an NABJ Salute to Excellence Award, and a Best of the West Award, as well as making him a finalist for a Livingston Award for Young Journalists. He previously was a reporter for Marketplace, covering business and economic news – from debit card fees levied on the formerly incarcerated to the economic impact of Beyoncé's hair. He has helped launch new shows at Marketplace, Slate, and WNYC; contributed research to books by journalists at Time and CNBC; and reported for outlets including NPR, PRI's The World, 99% Invisible, WNYC, FiveThirtyEight, Fast Company, High Country News, Narratively, and Digg. He is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California office.

Seth Freed Wessler

Seth Freed Wessler is an independent journalist and senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. He is the recipient of a 2014-15 Soros Justice Media Fellowship.

Esther Kaplan is executive editor of Reveal, leading the organization's investigative reporting. She previously was editor-in-chief of Type Investigations, where she was part of teams that won three Emmy Awards, a Polk Award, a Peabody Award and an IRE Medal. She has written for Harper's Magazine, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Nation and many other publications. She is the author of “With God on Their Side: George W. Bush and the Christian Right” (New Press) and was a 2013 fellow with the Alicia Patterson Foundation. Earlier in her career, Kaplan was a senior editor at The Nation; features editor at Poz, the national AIDS magazine; communications director at Communications Workers of America Local 1180; and a host of “Beyond the Pale,” a weekly radio program covering Jewish culture and politics on WBAI in New York. She began her journalism career as an assistant editor at The Village Voice, where she became a regular contributor. Her writing has won the Molly National Journalism Prize, the Sidney Award, the Clarion Award and other honors. Kaplan is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Susanne Reber is the executive editor of Reveal, a nationally broadcast public radio show, and the co-founder of the Peabody Award-winning radio program. Prior to joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2012, Reber formed and led NPR's first Investigations Unit, which won multiple Peabody Awards, a Polk award, a Robert F. Kennedy Award and others during her tenure. Prior to moving to the U.S., Reber spent 23 years at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., where she held various editorial leadership roles, including deputy managing editor of National Radio News and executive producer of CBC's Michener Award-winning Investigative Unit from 2003 to 2009. Reber graduated from the University of London with a bachelor's degree in German and French language and literature. She earned her graduate diploma in broadcast journalism from City University London. Reber is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Amy Mostafa is the production manager for Reveal. She is pursuing a master's degree in journalism with a focus on audio and data at the University of California, Berkeley, where she is a Dean’s Merit Fellow and an Islamic Scholarship Fund scholar. She has reported on science, health and the environment in Anchorage for Alaska Public Media and on city government in Berkeley and San Francisco for KQED. Her work also has appeared on KALW and KALX.  Mostafa holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and public policy. She is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office. 

Jim Briggs III is the senior sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. He supervises post-production and composes original music for the public radio show and podcast. He also leads Reveal's efforts in composition for data sonification and live performances.

Prior to joining Reveal in 2014, Briggs mixed and recorded for clients such as WNYC Studios, NPR, the CBC and American Public Media. Credits include “Marketplace,” “Selected Shorts,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “The Longest Shortest Time,” NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio” and “Soundcheck.” He also was the sound re-recording mixer and sound editor for several PBS television documentaries, including “American Experience: Walt Whitman,” the 2012 Tea Party documentary "Town Hall" and “The Supreme Court” miniseries. His music credits include albums by R.E.M., Paul Simon and Kelly Clarkson.

Briggs' work with Reveal has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2016) and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (2018, 2019). Previously, he was part of the team that won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for its work on WNYC’s hourlong documentary special “Living 9/11.” He has taught sound, radio and music production at The New School and Eugene Lang College and has a master's degree in media studies from The New School. Briggs is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Fernando Arruda

Fernando Arruda is the sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. A composer and multi-instrumentalist, he contributes to the scoring, recording, editing and mixing of the weekly public radio show and podcast. Prior to joining Reveal, Arruda toured as an international DJ and taught music technology at Dubspot and ESRA International Film School. He co-founded a film scoring boutique called Manhattan Composers Collective and worked at Antfood, a creative audio studio geared toward media and ad spots. Arruda worked with clients such as Marvel and Samsung and ad agencies such as Framestore, Trollbäck + Company, Buck and Vice. Arruda releases experimental music under the alias FJAZZ and has performed with many jazz, classical and pop ensembles such as Krychek, Dark Inc., the New York Arabic Orchestra and Art&Sax. His credits in the podcast and radio world include NPR’s “51 percent,” WNYC’s “Bad Feminist Happy Hour” and its live broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The Hitchhiker.” Arruda has scored extensively for theatrical, orchestral and chamber music formats, some of which have premiered worldwide. He holds a master’s degree in film scoring and composition from NYU Steinhardt. Arruda is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Kevin Sullivan is the executive producer of Reveal’s public radio show and podcast. He joined Reveal from the daily news magazine show “Here & Now,” where he was senior managing editor. There, he helped lead the expansion of the show as part of a unique partnership between NPR and WBUR. Prior to radio, Sullivan worked as a documentary film producer. That work took him around the world, with stories ranging from reconciliation in Northern Ireland to the refugee crisis during the war in Kosovo.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sullivan launched an investigative unit for CBS in Baltimore, where he spearheaded investigations on bioterrorism and the U.S. government’s ability to respond to future threats. He also dug into local issues. His exposé of local judges found widespread lax sentencing of repeat-offender drunken drivers. Other investigations included sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, and doctors who sold OxyContin for cash. Sullivan has won multiple journalism awards, including several Edward R. Murrow awards, a Third Coast / Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition award and an Emmy. He has an MBA from Boston University.

Sullivan is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Al Letson is a playwright, performer, screenwriter, journalist, and the host of Reveal. Soul-stirring, interdisciplinary work has garnered Letson national recognition and devoted fans.