Week 5: The Connection Between For-Profit Prison Corporations & Migrant Detention Policies
Though many political pundits and others attempt to separate the two, there is a direct connection between immigration policies and mass incarceration. Issues of immigration detention, as they relate to the prison industrial complex, are best explained through the lens of private or for-profit prisons.
In 2016, the Migration Policy Institute found that private prison contractors reap sizeable profits from detaining immigrants. Private prison corporations house nearly two-thirds of all detained migrants in funded detention centers, introducing a direct profit from changes to immigration policy that essentially propel the rate of incarceration.
Best stated by the American Friends Service Committee, “mass incarceration fuels the proliferation of for-profit prisons while for-profit prison corporations encourage policies that increase the number of people behind bars.”
Especially on brand for our nation’s well-deserved title of, “incarceration nation,” Congress imposes a detention bed quota, requiring immigration and customs enforcement(ICE) to jail a predetermined number of migrants solely because of immigration status. Those who are considered under this quota include, but are not limited to asylum seekers, undocumented persons arrested for immigration status violations, and green card holders with previous criminal convictions for which they’ve already served their time. More on the immigration detention quotas can be found here.
Spoiler alert: like all prison facilities, privately run centers are horrendous. In most cases, private facilities hire fewer staff members, require less training, are not required to implement programming deemed essential to incarcerated individuals, and make more money depending on the number of people within their centers.
In countless books and news articles concerning the incapacitation of migrants, language and other rhetoric can stifle conversation. The term “immigration detention” is often used to refer to the government practice of incarcerating individuals as they wait for decisions on their immigration cases. In context, however, it is important to reiterate that most facilities are literal prisons or jails run by private corporations in contract with ICE.
Notably, there is a current movement by two individuals, Carols Hidalgo and Sylvester Owino, to refer to such facilities as “prisons” and “jails” as to not erase them from conversations surrounding mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex. According to Freedom for Immigrants, Hidalgo and Owino were previously held for three years in immigrant prisons.
Statistics to Know
- Private prisons account for 20% of all federal prisoners held in detention and their profits are soaring in the wake of immigration arrests
- Every state in the U.S. has at least one facility that ICE has used to detain individuals. Texas, California, Arizona, Georgia, and Louisiana are the top five states with the largest number of people in immigration detention per day.
- The number of people in immigration detention/immigrant prisons has increased under every presidential administration for more than 25 years
- According to the Migrant Policy Institute, in 2016, nearly three-quarters of the average daily immigration detainee population was held in facilities operated by private prison companies — a sharp contrast from a decade ago when most were held in local jails and state prisons.
- Reported in 2018 data collection from the American Immigration Council, for many, the length of detention is significantly longer in privately operated and remotely located facilities.
Terms & Definitions
private/for-profit prisons: prison facility run by a third party that is contracted by a government agency. Since 1977, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has paid private companies to build and operate prisons to ease capacity in government-run facilities. The three biggest players in the private prison business are CoreCivic, GEO Group, and Management & Training Corporation (MTC).
immigration and customs enforcement (ICE): a law enforcement agency within the Department of Homeland Security, created in 2003 as part of the government’s reorganization following the September 11 attacks. The two primary components include homeland security investigations as well as enforcement and removal operations. Technically, ICE does not patrol American borders, as that is the role of their sister agency, the United States Border Patrol.
Who to Follow
Freedom for Immigrants, an organization devoted to abolishing immigration detention, while ending the isolation of people currently suffering from the profit-driven system. They maintain the most up-to-date maps of the U.S. immigration detention system, keeping track of more than 200 prisons and jails.
Detention Watch Network, a national coalition building power through collective advocacy, grassroots organizing, and strategic communications to abolish immigration detention in the United States.
RAICES, the largest immigration legal services non-profit in Texas, focusing on underserved immigrant children, families, and refugees.
Justice Policy Institute, a national nonprofit organization that changes the conversation around justice reform and advances policies that promote well-being and justice for all people and communities. They’re dedicated to reducing the use of incarceration and the justice system by promoting fair and effective policies.
Tings Chak, a self-described internationalist, activist, and artist trained in architecture. She spent the last decade as a migrant justice organizer in Toronto, Canada and authored a graphic novel, UNDOCUMENTED: The Architecture of Migrant Detention, which explores the role and ethics of architectural design and representation in mass incarceration.
For Private Prisons, Detaining Immigrants is Big Business, The New York Times
Profiting from Enforcement: The Role of Private Prisons in U.S. Immigration Detention, Migration Policy Institute
Detained, Then Violated, The Intercept
The Myth of the Criminal Immigrant, The Marshall Project
Capitalizing on Mass Incarceration: U.S. Growth in Private Prisons, The Sentencing Project
The History of Racial Injustice: For-Profit Detention Centers, Equal Justice Initiative
How for-profit prison corporations shape immigrant detention and deportation policies, American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)
How Trump Inherited His Expanding Detention System, The Marshall Project
Graphic Novel: UNDOCUMENTED- The Architecture of Migrant Detention Centers, Tings Chak
Next week’s topic: the education crisis behind bars
Candice is a graduate student studying incarceration and human rights at Columbia University. She holds dual degrees in Criminology and Communication Arts and Sciences from Penn State and abides by a personal motto, “change the narrative.”