With immigration reform being debated in Congress, we’ve been paying close attention to how S 744, the bill that has passed the Senate, would affect immigrant detention and incarceration. The more money that Congress spends on criminalizing, arresting, and imprisoning immigrants, the more money for-profit prison companies stand to make.
It’s no secret that private prison companies already find big business in detaining immigrants. Of the 34,000 people that Immigration and Customs Enforcement is mandated to detain every day – more than 400,000 total last year – half are in private prisons. A third of total profits for GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America, the two largest private prison operators, came from the federal government last year, adding up to $1.4 billion; the Federal Bureau of Prisons alone currently holds $5.1 billion in contracts with private prison companies.
Provisions throughout the bill, which passed through the Sentate last week, expand programs like Operation Streamline that funnel immigrants into the criminal justice system. According to the Congressional Budget Office, S 744 could add 14,000 new beds to the federal prison system. If 80% of those beds go to the private sector, as some analysts expect, for-profit prison companies could make off with $1.28 billion in new federal contracts.
For-profit private prison companies have been exploiting the unjust, inhumane practice of immigrant detention since 1983, when CCA got its first contract to run the Houston Processing Center. While CCA celebrates three decades of private prisons, the HPC has been named as amongst one of the ten worst detention centers in the nation by the Detention Watch Network’s Expose and Close campaign.
With comprehensive immigration reform on the horizon, for-profit prison companies stand to gain or lose a lot of business, and executives and investors know it. In 2011, CCA stated in its annual earnings report that immigration reform “could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them." That same year, GEO CEO George Zoley told investors that
At the federal level, initiatives related to border enforcement and immigration detention with an emphasis on criminal alien populations as well as the consolidation of existing detainee populations have continued to create demand for larger-scale, cost efficient facilities.
The billions that GEO and CCA make from immigrant detention are a pretty good return on the millions they’ve spent lobbying the federal government. Our own research into lobbying disclosure information revealed that the two companies have spent at least $4.3 million in the last two years alone, $45 million over the last decade. Campaign contributions have been aimed at legislators with the most influence on immigration reform: McCain, Rubio, Alexander, and Corker. GEO Group even hired ICE former assistant director, David Venturella, as the executive vice president of Corporate Development. Venturella probably knows something about getting numbers up -- he made a splash at ICE by encouraging officers to keep their deportation figures as high as possible.
Spokespeople from GEO and CCA have avowed that the companies don’t pay all those millions to influence policy; all they want to do is “sit in the room” and promote their services. Official filings state otherwise: GEO's own disclosure reports lobbying on “issues related to comprehensive immigration reform” and “issues related to alternatives to detention within ICE.” As immigration reform legislation moves to the House, we need to keep a close eye on whether it benefits immigrants and taxpayers or private prison corporations - it can't do both.