The Trump administration’s decision to vastly increase the number of immigrants held in prisons has proven controversial. It’s also big business.
The vast majority of people jailed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are held in private facilities. The two companies that manage over half of the private prison contracts in the U.S., CoreCivic and GEO Group, earned more than $4 billion in 2017. Both have spent millions of dollars on lobbyists and campaign contributions, ostensibly to ensure that Washington continues to favor the $2 billion detention system.
Last year, ICE detained an average of 44,892 people every day, and this year, that number is north of 53,000. The number of families apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border increased by 300 percent this fiscal year. The Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Fund requested a budget increase to cover the detention of 60,000 people per day.
The future of private prison companies did not look bright back in 2016, when the Department of Justice announced that the federal government would begin slowly reducing, and ultimately eliminating, its use of private prisons. At the time, the DOJ said there was no evidence that these facilities saved money, and that private prisons had higher rates of health and safety concerns and prisoner mistreatment.
But then Donald Trump became president. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Obama administration’s guidance, and overnight, the prices of shares of both major prison companies skyrocketed. Their stocks remain between 20 and 25 percent higher than before Trump took office.
Immigration detention is handled in civil courts because entering the U.S. illegally is a misdemeanor. The Trump administration’s handling of this matter, including the detention of an unprecedented number of people, has come at a high cost to taxpayers. GEO Group and CoreCivic are making a windfall detaining an unknown number of asylum seekers, those awaiting hearings in immigration court, and those identified for removal. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has $475 million worth of contracts with GEO Group, and $280 million with CoreCivic, according to USAspending.gov.
CoreCivic CEO Damon Hininger is bullish about the company’s prospects. This is “the most robust kind of sales environment we’ve seen in probably 10 years, not only on the federal side with the dynamics with ICE and Marshals, but also with these activities on the state side,” he said at an investor conference in June in New York.
Although a controversial national ICE detention bed quota was removed by Congress in 2017, an underlying network of quotas remains written into local detention contracts, according to Detention Watch Network. These quotas require ICE to pay for a minimum number of beds at key detention centers, most of which are involved with private prison corporations, ensuring their profit stream.
Private prisons are pricey. While a bed in a government facility costs around $100, a bed in a private facility costs $148.43 per day, according to ICE estimates in a 2019 budget proposal.
The GEO Group and CoreCivic have used some of the taxpayer money they have received to hire an army of lobbyists to continue the flow of government largesse. GEO Group spent $1.56 million on lobbying in 2018, and CoreCivic spent $1.23 million, according to Open Secrets. GEO Group also contributed $275,000 to pro-Trump super PAC Rebuilding America Now in 2016.
Both companies say they are not influencing policy.
“It’s important to note that, under long-standing policy, CoreCivic does not advocate for or against legislation or policies that determine the basis for or duration of an individual’s detention,” CoreCivic said in a statement.
In a statement to The American Conservative, ICE spokesperson Britney L. Walker said, “Ensuring there are sufficient beds available to meet the current demand for detention space is crucial to the success of ICE’s overall mission. Accordingly, the agency is continually reviewing its detention requirements and exploring options that will afford ICE the operational flexibility needed to house the full range of detainees in the agency’s custody.”
However, there are other, far less expensive options for immigration enforcement that have proven to be extremely effective, says Lars Trautman from the center-right R Street Institute. These include ankle-bracelet monitoring and access to legal representation.
“In a lot of these cases, especially with asylum seekers, there’s no need to detain them at all in the first place. In previous administrations, they were released with bracelets to ensure their return to immigration proceedings. A lot of the growth in these detainments really boils down to heavy-handed policies that Trump has enacted,” says Trautman.
Despite the Trump administration’s claims to the contrary, asylum seekers are not flight risks. They actually appear for immigration court proceedings at very high rates: in 2018, the Department of Justice found that 89 percent of all asylum applicants attended their final court hearings, and when families and children have access to legal representation, the compliance rate reaches nearly 98 percent.
According to a Mother Jones report, ICE has started to detain asylum seekers at three especially problematic for-profit immigration detention centers: CoreCivic’s Adams County Correctional Center, LaSalle Correction’s Catahoula Correctional Center in Louisiana, and the GEO Group’s South Louisiana ICE Processing Center. One of these facilities had three inmates die as a result of poor medical treatment. As Mother Jones noted:
Conditions at the Adams County prison have been particularly bad. Complaints by inmates there about inadequate medical care, staff mistreatment, and rotten food contributed to a 2012 riot that left one guard dead and more than a dozen people injured. The Justice Department announced in May that it would stop using the prison. ICE has decided to fill that void.
ICE had the capacity to detain only about 2,000 people in Louisiana and Mississippi at the start of Donald Trump’s presidency. But contracts signed with private prison companies in the past year have pushed ICE’s capacity in those states above 10,000 people. The horrifying conditions uncovered by Mother Jones at the Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana and by The Nation at Adams County helped push Barack Obama’s Justice Department to move to end its use of private prisons. Since June, ICE has started sending asylum seekers to both of those prisons.
In an effort to cut costs, for-profit prisons often hire fewer guards and less medical staff than state and federal prisons. As a consequence, private prisons had 28 percent more inmate-on-inmate assaults and are more dangerous, according to a 2016 Justice Department report.
A Detention Watch Network report found:
Although CCA and GEO have gone to great lengths to hide information about their medical staffing, the limited information available does indicate that there are frequent and long-term vacancies for contractually-required positions, creating a dangerous administrative limbo which allows facilities to pass inspection while also saving money on personnel costs.
That report details four fundamental problems with the use of for-profit prisons: they seek to maximize profits by cutting costs and often critical services at the expense of people’s health, safety, and overall well-being; they are not accountable, and do not suffer any consequences when they fail to meet the terms of their contracts; they exert undue influence on government officials and push to maintain and expand the immigration detention system; and they are not transparent.
As with for-profit prisons that incarcerate Americans, the use of private prisons to detain asylum seekers and immigrants creates perverse incentives to continue and expand the practice.
Unfortunately, the exact number of people that ICE is holding within the for-profit prison system is impossible to accurately pinpoint. Freedom of Information Act requests do not apply to private prisons, and ICE and CBP haven’t been forthcoming with information on the extent of their partnerships with private corporations.
The public still lacks “incredibly basic information about immigration detention and how private prison companies are profiting from it,” says Mary Small of the Detention Watch Network. “Even though billions of taxpayer dollars are being obligated to private prison companies, the contracts between them and the federal government aren’t publicly available, so we don’t know how much these companies are being paid, how many people they’re holding, or how long their contracts last. This culture of secrecy—bolstered by revolving door politics and political contributions—have paved the way for a rapid and reckless expansion of the detention system.”
Barbara Boland is The American Conservative’s foreign policy and national security reporter. Follow her on Twitter @BBatDC.