For the past two weeks, I have written two columns on the biggest private prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the Geo Group (GEO), to expose their efforts to elevate their profits by working to keep laws on the books that will maximize the number of prisoners in this country (one in 100 people, the highest in the world). They were successful by making certain that they had well-placed lobbyists and former employees to keep their product (the number of prisoners) high to keep beds filled in public prisons that they managed and private prisons that they owned. It was even part of the business plan that they filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
But few realize that this push to privatize prison management or the actual prisons started in 1990 with the CCA and its first contract with the federal government to manage federal immigration detainees – many who have not committed any crimes other than being in this country illegally. From the nonprofit Detention Watch Network:
Although the number of privately managed immigration detention beds has grown drastically since 1996, corporations have actually dominated the field for more than two decades. In fact a contract between the INS [now defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service] and the newly formed Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) gave birth to the private prison industry itself in 1983. Since then, dozens of other companies have emerged to compete for government contracts not only in detention operations, but in peripheral industries such as prison construction and correctional officer services.
CCA and other private prison companies saw that the large and unresolved undocumented immigration problem (around 12 million people) in our country was a big potential to continue to grow the number of beds they manage in federal detention centers. However, it was an uncertain “product” as national politicians waxed and waned on immigration enforcement in the decade of the 1990s.
However, things began to look up when the next millennium gave us the 9/11 tragedy and a whole new potential group of detainees. From Detention Watch Network:
On a Third Quarter 2001 conference call with analysts, Steven Logan, CEO of Cornell Industries[now part of the private prison company Geo Group], spoke openly about his intention to capitalize on post-9/11 enforcement fever: “It’s clear that since Sept. 11 there’s a heightened focus on detention … more people are gonna get caught. So I would say that’s positive … with the focus on people that are illegal and also from Middle Eastern descent in the United States there are over 900,000 undocumented individuals from Middle Eastern descent … that is a population, for lots of reasons that is being targeted… The Federal business is the best business for us and … Sept. 11 is increasing that business.”
But alas, 9/11 didn’t prove to be the boom for detainees as planned, but then the Great Recession hit and gave the companies new hope for more detainees:
In its 2007 Security and Exchange Commission filing, CCA acknowledged: “We are dependent on government appropriations … The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws.” In the current political climate, however, the projections about the viability of immigration detention as a business investment are relatively sanguine. As James Hyman, president of Cornell Companies (a company purchased in 2010 by GEO Group), told a prospective investor curious about a possible downtick in enforcement and detention: “We do not believe we will see a decline in the need for detention beds particularly in an economy with rising unemployment among American workers.”
This time, the private companies got their economic projections right, and by the end of the first decade of this century, business has been good. Statistics from the Immigration Forum:
The expansion of the immigrant detention system has benefitted the private prison industry. Corrections Corporations of America (CCA) is the largest [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] ICE detention contractor. It operates a total of fourteen ICE-contracted facilities with a total of 14,556 beds. GEO Group, Inc., the second largest ICE contractor, operates seven facilities with a total of 7,183 beds. In 2010, CCA and GEO reported annual revenues of $1.69 billion and $1.17 billion respectively. Furthermore, GEO recently purchased BI Incorporated, a company that has lucrative government contracts with ICE to administer its alternatives to detention program.
It is important to note that the people in these detention centers are not all hardened criminals who are looking at long sentences for serious crimes. The people at Detention Watch Network, a consortium of more that 80 groups describe the characteristics of many of these people who are serving in our federal detention prisons:
The U.S. government detained approximately 380,000 people in immigration custody in 2009 in a hodgepodge of about 350 facilities at an annual cost of more than $1.7 billion.
- Immigrants in detention include families, both undocumented and documented immigrants, many who have been in the US for years and are now facing exile, survivors of torture, asylum seekers and other vulnerable groups including pregnant women, children, and individuals who are seriously ill without proper medication or care.
- Being in violation of immigration laws is not a crime. It is a civil violation for which immigrants go through a process to see whether they have a right to stay in the United States. Immigrants detained during this process are in non-criminal custody. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is the agency responsible for detaining immigrants.
- The average cost of detaining an immigrant is approximately $122 per person/ per day. Alternatives to detention, which generally include a combination of reporting and electronic monitoring, are effective and significantly cheaper, with some programs costing as little as $12 per day. These alternatives to detention still yield an estimated 93% appearance rate before the immigration courts.
- Although DHS owns and operates its own detention centers, it also “buys” bed space from over 312 county and city prisons nationwide to hold the majority of those who are detained (over 67%). Immigrants detained in these local jails are mixed in with the local prison population who is serving time for crimes.
- About half of all immigrants held in detention have no criminal record at all. The rest may have committed some crime in their past, but they have already paid their debt to society. They are being detained for immigration purposes only.
While the private prison companies may have already begun to saturate the market of detainees coming into federal detention centers, note above that county and city prisons hold the majority of over 67 percent of the detainees. If this industry was able to get local and state law enforcement to find and trap more undocumented immigrants, there would be more local prisons filled with detainees to manage.
But the federal government has not been as aggressive in rounding up potential detainees as many lawmakers in states have wanted. So, groups of states, including Arizona, turned to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the now notorious nonprofit library of template laws favored by many conservatives, to make a law that allows state and local governments to also get into the capturing of undocumented immigrant business.
The now famous Arizona law, SB 1070, was the result of the effort by Arizona state legislators (including the main author, State Sen. Russell Pearce, a member of ALEC, along with 35 other Arizona state legislators); some law enforcement; the current Arizona governor; and other interested parties like the private prison companies. This new law, which has been passed in five other states and has been introduced into many other state legislatures, has many provisions to allow state and local law enforcement to usurp the federal authority and take on detaining immigrants themselves.
However, one of the provisions, dubbed “breathing while Latino” by none other than a Fox News anchor, “is a requirement that state and local law enforcement officials must try to determine the immigration status of people they come into ‘lawful contact’ with whom they have reasonable suspicion to believe are in the U.S. illegally. This has led to claims the law will be enforced through racial profiling of Hispanics.”
This law has been recently challenged in the Supreme Court and no decision has yet been made, but Arizona has already been working to implement it in order to find and detain more immigrants even though the Obama administration has tried to make Arizona cease and desist because of the challenge to federal jurisdiction and a fear that the law will result in unfair racial profiling.
The private prison industries were very involved with getting this law passed in Arizona and other states and opened up their lobby money to see if this market could be expanded to give them more business and maximize their profits for their stockholders. (By the way, this is what their charter is for their business, just like any other business that does contracts with government, from health care to defense contracts.) So, they set out to secure the law in Arizona with the main champion of this law, State Sen. Russell Pearce.
They didn’t have too much to worry about because of a intertwining of their former employees and the governor’s office that was also heavily pushing this new law.
From Prison Legal News:
Pearce is the primary sponsor of Arizona’s controversial Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act (SB 1070 / HB 2162), which was signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer in April 2010 …
A little over a week after Pearce introduced the Support Our Law Enforcement Act on the floor of the state Senate as SB 1070, CCA enlisted Highground Consulting, one of the most influential lobbying firms in Phoenix, to represent its interests in the state.
Lobby disclosure forms filed with the Arizona Secretary of State indicate that Maricopa County also employed the consulting firm during the time of the bill’s formation.
Highground’s influence extends into Governor Brewer’s office. The firm’s owner and principal is Charles “Chuck” Coughlin, Brewer’s top advisor and campaign manager.
In addition to Coughlin, CCA has further ties to the office of the Governor. State lobby reports reveal that Gov. Brewer’s current spokesman, [Paul] Senseman, had been lobbying Arizona lawmakers as CCA’s chief lobbyist in the state as an employee of Policy Development Group, Inc., yet another influential Phoenix consulting firm, from 2005 to late 2008. Senseman was appointed as Brewer’s spokesman in January 2009 – fresh off the job with CCA. Senseman’s wife, Kathryn, remains employed by Policy Development Group, which still lobbies the state on behalf of CCA.
So, in 2005 and 2006, while Arizona lawmakers – many of them ALEC members – were drafting provisions of what would eventually become the “Breathing While Brown” law (incorporated in HB 2577), Governor Brewer’s current director of communications was lobbying on behalf of the largest private prison company and operator of immigrant detention facilities in the nation.
To fully appreciate the intertwining of all these players and to show that a picture is worth a thousand words, Kelly Sullan did an impressive diagram of how it all connected, to accompany this story by Beau Hodai at In These Times.
Ironically, as I checked the ICE maps to see where the major US ICE detention centers are located, I saw one of the local prisons in my county has been rented out to the federal government as an ICE detainee center in Richmond, California – about four miles from where I now sit. This facility, while still owned by the county, lists several private contractors to help them supply and run the facility.
So, if the US Supreme Court upholds this law, it will be valid in other states where similar laws have passed and other states will be emboldened to pass their own laws. The private prison industries will have more lobbying and influence peddling to do with self-dealing governors, state legislators and their employees. It promises that business will be good as states and local governments will round up more and more of the 12 million undocumented immigrants for the private prison industry. This industry and the government players who push deals through for their “market” will see this large potential “raw material” of humans to find and detain for profit. Unchecked, it promises to be good for their business, but very corrupt and bad government for our country.