Private prison companies are cashing in on immigrant detainees

May 26, 2015 · 4 min read

The U.S. is on an anti-immigration streak. And it’s good for business.

Holding cell at Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, WA. Photo/Seattle Globalist

An unprecedented number of immigrants are being held in detention centers. And that’s helping private prison companies fill their coffers with cash.

More than half of federal criminal prosecutions are related to immigration. That means hundreds of thousands of immigrants every year are locked up in detention centers while they await a deportation hearing.

Though the enforcement and deportation system is run by the government, today 62 percent of the detention centers are operated by private companies. People are sent to these centers for the crimes of crossing the border (a misdemeanor) or crossing the border for a second time (a felony). They are detained as they await a court hearing under the theory that otherwise they might flee. The cost per detainee is about $119 each day, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. That’s as much as $2 billion in taxpayer money per year.

Courts are overwhelmed by the backlog of cases. Prisons are overcrowded. And the people inside the centers aren’t doing so well either — there’s complaints of abuse by guards and a hunger strike at a family facility.

Source: Detention Watch Network

And the private prison industry is lobbying hard to keep immigration policies as they are.

The two largest prison companies, the GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), give money to legislators and help write draconian immigration policies like SB1070 in Arizona, potentially sending hundreds of thousands of immigrants to the prisons these same companies profit from.

These two publicly-traded companies, and others like them, need tough immigration enforcement to make profit and satisfy their investors. It’s been that way since 9/11, when government policies on immigration were overhauled, forming the Department of Homeland Security. More people than ever were detained. The pace has only quickened during Obama’s term:

The change in immigration policies came at the perfect time for the private prison companies, many of which were on the verge of bankruptcy.

CCA first struck a deal with the government for a prison in 1983. It was the Reagan years – when privatization and mass incarceration gave birth to the prison industrial complex. Mandatory minimums put more people found guilty of non-violent drug crimes in prison for longer terms. Companies like CCA and GEO thrived, and zealously built new prisons.

But that reckless speculation hurt the companies in the late 90s when the economy hit a bump. Crime dropped. They had too many empty beds. Their stocks crashed. CCA’s value dropped 83 percent.

But the companies (and their investors) don’t appear to have learned from tying the number of incarcerated people to their bottom line. Money continues to tempt. They continue to profit by signing government contracts to imprison more people. And fortunately for them, anti-immigration hysteria is providing new waves of funding.

One executive, Steve Logan, admitted as much to investors in 2001: “I think it’s clear that with the events of Sept. 11, there’s a heightened focus on detention, both on the borders and within the U.S. [and] more people get caught. So that’s a positive for our business.”

Both GEO and CCA are multi-billion dollar companies today. They continue to profit by filling beds in their facilities, whether they be detention centers or regular prisons. In GEO’s recent quarterly report it boasts to its shareholders:

Translation: More people are coming into our prison. That means $$$$!

Do people awaiting deportation hearings need to be locked up in order to ensure they attend a court hearing? Data suggests otherwise. Most are not criminals. And there are alternatives to detention, like GPS tracking devices that are effective and cheaper: $8 per day compared to $119 per night.

So one question remains: Do we really want our taxpayer dollars paying for private companies to lock up immigrants?

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