As the Industry Declines, Private Prisons Form Advocacy Group

As the Industry Declines, Private Prisons Form Advocacy Group

The U.S. private prison industry saw its stock prices reach new highs a few months after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, whose tough-on-crime rhetoric and hostility to immigrants encouraged investors. But since then, the industry has seen those prices plummet amid a growing campaign against privatized corrections that’s targeting not only the companies’ operation of prisons and immigrant detention centers but also the bankers who finance it. In August, for example, the last remaining banker for Florida-based GEO Group announced it was cutting ties with the company, which together with Tennessee-based CoreCivic has lost access to over $2 billion in credit lines and term loans as a consequence of the campaign.

Last week both companies released their third-quarter results, with CoreCivic reporting gains in revenue and earnings, which it attributed in part to “the activation of multiple new state and federal contracts.” GEO Group also reported that it was “very pleased” with its latest results, though during a call with investors company founder and CEO George Zoley acknowledged volatility in its equity and debt markets caused by “a handful of our financial institutions discontinuing future financing,” which he blamed on a “false narrative” around its role in running immigrant detention centers.

In an effort to push back harder against its critics, the private prison industry recently launched a new trade group called the Day 1 Alliance to defend it in the halls of power and court of public opinion. Besides GEO Group and CoreCivic, which operate prisons and other correctional programs throughout the South, the advocacy group also includes the Management and Training Corporation of Utah, which runs two dozen correctional facilities in eight states including Florida, Mississippi, and Texas.

The Day 1 Alliance claims to be “bringing some honesty and common sense back to the conversation about the role of contractors in America’s criminal justice and immigration systems,” according a tweet from its national spokesperson, attorney Alexandra Wilkes. Her hiring suggests it will also be bringing an aggressive approach to the industry’s defense.

Wilkes previously worked for America Rising, an Arlington, Virginia-based opposition research group that has come under fire for its tactics. Founded by Mitt Romney’s former presidential campaign manager, the organization operates a super PAC that spreads negative stories about Democratic elected officials and candidates, as well as an arm that houses a video library with materials it sells to GOP candidates and groups. Leading donors to the super PAC include billionaire Dallas banker Daniel Andrew “Andy” Beal; manufacturing mogul George Andrews of Orlando, Florida; and billionaire equity firm founder John W. Childs of Vero Beach, Florida, who is fighting charges of solicitation of prostitution stemming from a recent criminal investigation into human trafficking in his state’s massage parlors.

Wilkes served as the America Rising PAC’s executive director from July 2017 until December 2018, and then as senior vice president of the America Rising corporation until leaving for the Day 1 Alliance. During Wilkes’ tenure, America Rising branched out from focusing on elected officials and candidates and turned its attention to career employees at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who criticized President Donald Trump and/or EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt — an effort that has been called a “witch hunt.”

Among those America Rising targeted, as the New York Times reported, was an EPA employee who spoke up at a private lunch near the agency’s Washington, D.C., headquarters and said she feared the nation was headed toward environmental catastrophe. Another was an EPA staff member from Seattle who sent a letter to Pruitt raising concerns about the agency’s direction. In a third instance, the group went after an EPA staffer from Philadelphia who attended a rally where he protested against agency budget cuts. In each case, Allan L. Blutstein, a Virginia attorney working with America Rising, submitted requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for copies of emails written by the staffers that mentioned either Trump or Pruitt, or any communications with congressional Democrats critical of the agency.

The group has also employed trackers to videotape climate activists including Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, and Tom Steyer, the billionaire investor and Democratic presidential candidate. More recently, America Rising has been involved in submitting FOIA requests for the emails of officials at the EPA and NOAA who supported Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and other Democrats, as Mother Jones reported.

During Wilkes’ time there, America Rising was also implicated in the scandal over a Republican super PAC distributing the top-secret federal security clearance application of Democratic congressional candidate Abigail Spanberger of Virginia and using it against her during her successful 2018 challenge to incumbent GOP Rep. Dave Brat. As the New York Times reported, the Congressional Leadership Fund affiliated with former House Speaker Paul Ryan said America Rising had obtained the completely unredacted document through a FOIA request filed with the U.S. Postal Service, where Spanberger, a former CIA operative, briefly worked for the Postal Inspection Service. It turned out that the Postal Service had improperly divulged Spanberger’s file to the group, which returned it upon request.

Even before the formation of the Day 1 Alliance, the private prison industry had been dramatically stepping up its political influence efforts. It more than doubled its spending on lobbying at the federal level between 2012 and 2018, from $1.58 million to $3.8 million, according to OpenSecrets.org. It also contributed a record $1.6 million to federal candidates, parties and outside spending groups during the 2016 election cycle — nearly three times what it gave in 2014 and more than double its 2012 contributions.