Immigration Detention is Profitable for Private Prisons

The stocks of two of the world´s largest prison companies declined in late summer of 2016 after the Obama administration announced it would stop using them to incarcerate most of the people in immigration detention.

The decision came on the heels of years of complaints about conditions inside the centers and a 2016 report by the Inspector General of the US Department of Justice concluding the contract facilities had more safety and security incidents per capita than government-run facilities. In 2013, approximately 15 percent of the federal inmate population, or nearly 30,000 people, were confined in private prisons according to federal reports.

In August 2017, the Department of Justice instructed the US Bureau of Prisons to reduce its use of private prison beds. Under the Obama Administration, the federal inmate population declined for the first time in thirty decades, in part because of revised sentencing guidelines, and less reliance on contracted detention facilities.

All that changed with the election of Donald J. Trump.  A month after President Trump was inaugurated, the new Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed the Obama Administration decision and directed the Bureau of Prisons to “return to its previous approach” of contracting with private detention centers.

Just days after after President Trump was sworn in, the White House issued an executive order authorizing the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hire ten thousand additional immigration officers. The department  has looked to the private sector to fill those positions.

The stocks of two of the largest private prison contractors - CoreCivic (formerly known as Corrections Corp. of America) and Geo Group -- skyrocketed in the month after President Trump’s inauguration and have continued to grow.

Watch SoCal Connected's explainer: 'Economic Impact of Immigrant Labor'

In June 2018, a spokesman for Core Civic, Pablo Páez, told Reuters that the company "does not advocate for or against legislation or policies that determine the bases or duration of an individual´s detention" and added that it doesn’t "enforce immigration laws or policies.”

A network of shelters that handle thousands of unaccompanied kids and children who have been separated from their families at the border -about 100 shelters in 17 states, according to the Department of Health and Human Services- are mostly run by private corporations as well.

Defense contractors are involved in the management of the new facility in Tornillo, Texas, also known as a "tent city" that is housing teenagers separated from their families and which opened in June.

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Immigration enforcement: a boon to private prisons

There is an abundant opportunity in border protection, an area in which the U.S. government has been increasing spending nonstop for almost two decades.  The U.S. Government has spent $263 billion on immigration enforcement since 1986, according to a report by the American Immigration Council. That kind of spending has no precedent in the history of the country.

Detention is a big part of that, particularly since 2009 when Congress first passed a mandate to maintain funding for no less than 33,400 detention beds, known as the "detention bed quota".

That quota has since increased to 34,000 and the Trump Administration is seeking to up it yet again.

Since its implementation in 2009, the immigration bed quota have increased the private share of the immigrant detention industry, according to a report by Grassroots Leadership, an activist group critical of the industry.

At least 62 percent of the ICE immigration beds in the United States are now operated by for-profit prison corporations and nine of the ten largest ICE detention centers are private, according to that report.  

The two private prison companies have also benefited from the opening of family detention centers after the surge in migrants from Central America started happening in 2014.  Core Civic runs the South Texas Center Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, and Geo Group runs Karnes County Residential Center.

Both are set to continue benefiting from the expansion in family detention.

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