Recently, we got some big news: The U.S. Department of Justice says it will reduce and eventually end its use of private prisons. This would shut down a dozen prisons that house more than 22,000 people convicted of federal crimes. All but one of these prisons house a specific category of inmate: people who are not U.S. citizens.

In light of this news, we’re revisiting an hour of Reveal that investigates medical negligence in private 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 roadblocks prison officials encountered when they tried to intervene.

For years, journalists and advocates raised questions about medical care inside private federal prisons for noncitizens, especially in the wake of riots that inmates said were sparked by medical negligence. Investigative Fund 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, in a new investigation from Wessler, we hear about why the Federal Bureau of Prisons didn’t act sooner to end these medical care problems. He got 20,000 new pages of internal reports that show the bureau knew for years about serious medical failures. We follow Wessler as he talks to former prison officials who were stymied when they tried to do the right thing.

Finally, we turn to one reason these prisons were created in the first place. A shift in government policy has drastically increased the 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.



Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.

Track list:

  • Camerado, “True Game (Reveal show theme)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Mountains, “Tilt” from “Centralia” (Thrill Jockey)
  • Jim Briggs, “The Prisons (part 1)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Jim Briggs, “The Prisons (part 2)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Jim Briggs, “The Prisons (descent)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Heathered Pearls, “Beach Shelter” from “Loyal” (Ghostly International)
  • Podington Bear, “Constellation” from “Music for Video” (hush)
  • Tim Koch, “Salamander” from “Cornelius Drive, Laid-Back Pop, Technology, Cinematic Suspense” (Ghostly Songs)
  • A Silver Mt. Zion, “”13 Angels Standing Guard Round the Side of Your Bed from “He Has Left Us Alone But Shafts Of Light Still Sometimes Grace The Corner Of Our Rooms…” (Constellation)
  • VYVCH, “All in All (No Voices)” from “Numb (No voicemark edits)”
  • VYVCH, “Take It Back” from “Stonerman in Drunk York”
  • VYVCH, “Gravity Bong” from “”Stonerman in Drunk York
  • VYVCH, “In the Darkness” from “Stonerman in Drunk York”
  • Burial, “Rough Sleeper” from “Truant / Rough Sleeper EP” (Hyperdub)
  • KILN, “Fyrepond” from “Dusker” (Ghostly International)
  • Jim Briggs, “A Dark Closure” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • KILN, “Rustdusk” from “Dusker” (Ghostly International)
  • KILN, “Tigertail” from “Dusker” (Ghostly International)

Julia B. Chan worked at The Center for Investigative Reporting until June, 2017. Julia B. Chan is a producer and the digital editor for Reveal's national public radio program. She’s the voice of Reveal online and manages the production and curation of digital story assets that are sent to more than 200 stations across the country. Previously, Chan helped The Center for Investigative Reporting launch YouTube’s first investigative news channel, The I Files, and led engagement strategies – online and off – for multimedia projects. She oversaw communications, worked to better connect CIR’s work with a bigger audience and developed creative content and collaborations to garner conversation and impact.

Before joining CIR, Chan worked as a Web editor and reporter at the San Francisco Examiner. She managed the newspaper’s digital strategy and orchestrated its first foray into social media and online engagement. A rare San Francisco native, she studied broadcasting at San Francisco State University, focusing on audio production and recording. Chan is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Stan Alcorn is a former senior 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.