Private Prison Companies Foresee Increased Profits as Ruling Limits Immigrant Detentions

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, which have profited heavily from contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to lock up undocumented immigrants - including mothers and children seeking asylum from Central American countries - are predicting more such contracts at the state and federal level in 2015. (Photo: SEIU)Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, which have profited heavily from contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to lock up undocumented immigrants – including mothers and children seeking asylum from Central American countries – are predicting more such contracts at the state and federal level in 2015. (Photo: SEIU)

Just before a federal court in Washington granted a preliminary injunction to temporarily halt the Obama administration’s policy of incarcerating asylum-seeking mothers and children as a deterrent to other potential migrants, two major private prison corporations released their projections for 2015 earnings, and are betting on increased profits this year.

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, which have profited heavily from contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to lock up undocumented immigrants – including mothers and children seeking asylum from Central American countries – are predicting more such contracts at the state and federal level in 2015.

In a recent conference call for shareholders and investors, GEO Group reported fourth quarter 2014 net income earnings of $38.1 million, up from $27.6 million in 2013, and while CCA’s profits dropped, from $47.47 million last year to a reported $30.01 million in fourth quarter earnings this year, both companies are expecting increased profits in 2015 as for-profit immigrant jails expand across South Texas and nationally.

“The court spoke clearly last week,” said Peggy Morton. “There is only one right move left for the administration: To free the families.”

During the call, CCA officials noted that its new immigrant family jail in Dilley, Texas, has already generated more than $21 million in revenue in the last quarter of 2014. The jail is expected to officially become the nation’s largest immigrant detention facility, as the population is anticipated to swell to fill its 2,400-bed capacity this spring – up from its current 480-bed capacity. As a result, in coming months, advocates expect detainees’ access to legal counsel to become even more limited than it is currently.

GEO Group also reported, during the call, that its $36 million expansion of the immigrant family jail at Karnes County to a capacity of 1,158 beds would earn the company $21 million in 2015.

The recent court order to limit detention of asylum-seeking families is a victory for immigrant-rights advocates in an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) class-action lawsuit on behalf of asylum-seeking mothers and children from Central America who have fled violence, including rape and death threats, and are currently incarcerated in jails such as the ones at Karnes and Dilley. Despite the decision, though, advocates warn that the injunction isn’t likely to slow the expansion of such private family detention camps.

US District Judge James Boasberg ordered federal officials on February 20 to halt the detention of asylum-seeking immigrants “for the purpose of deterring future immigration to the United States, and from considering deterrence of such immigration as a factor.” The ruling puts the Obama administration’s policy on hold pending a later hearing.

“The ACLU ruling is a terrific first step, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the government can’t detain families for other reasons. They just can’t use [deterrence] justifications,” said Bob Libal, executive director of the Austin-based Grassroots Leadership, which works to end for-profit incarceration.

Representatives from Grassroots Leadership pointed out that the Obama administration can continue to incarcerate asylum-seeking families from Central American countries by suggesting the families are a threat to national security.

“What we’ve said is that what the [Obama] administration should do is immediately cancel the expansion plans of the Karnes facility and the Dilley facility … in the wake of this ruling,” Libal said. “It makes no sense, when the court has undermined the basic tenets of the mass family detention policy, for the administration to be continuing to funnel money into the expansion plans for these two facilities.”

Texans United for Families (TUFF) is also joining Grassroots Leadership in calling for the Obama administration to close the immigrant-family jails at Karnes and Dilley and to prioritize release of undocumented families by focusing on community-based alternatives to incarceration. “The court spoke clearly last week,” said TUFF’s Peggy Morton in a press release. “There is only one right move left for the administration: To free the families.”

Despite calls for the closure of the two immigrant-family jails in South Texas, the private prison corporations responsible for their management touted their bottom lines and their continued plans for expansion of the privatized family camps.

GEO Group recently acquired LCS Corrections Corporation, increasing its total capacity to 73,473 beds at its 66 for-profit jails across the United States.

According to members of Grassroots Leadership who were on the recent conference call with representatives from GEO Group, company officials were confident about their continued ability to capitalize on re-entry services, despite federal criminal justice reforms, saying they plan to make additional annual investments of $5 million to GEO Group’s “GEO Care” subsidiary projects focusing on re-entry services. Additionally, GEO Group is planning on another $5 million in revenues from new federal electronic monitoring contracts.

But immigrant-justice advocates point out that despite both CCA and GEO Group’s claims to invest in rehabilitation services, last year both companies thumbed their noses at shareholder resolutions to invest 5 percent of their profits in rehabilitation services.

Meanwhile, Congress remains at an impasse over whether to continue funding the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), after Senate Democrats rejected multiple Republican funding proposals tied to a repeal of President Obama’s November executive actions on immigration, which offer temporary deportation relief to more than 4 million undocumented immigrants.

The House passed a last-minute measure that will keep DHS running an additional week just two hours before the deadline Friday night, narrowly avoiding a partial shutdown. The vote gives lawmakers more time to wrangle over President Obama’s immigration action on the hill.

Meanwhile, even as the president has offered undocumented immigrants protection from deportation, his administration has simultaneously relied on expanding for-profit, immigrant family jails across South Texas to incarcerate many of the Central American women and children arriving in the United States as part of a recent migrant influx. US Customs and Border Patrol reported that 68,541 unaccompanied children and 68,445 families were apprehended by immigration officials along the Mexican border last year.

An analysis released this week from Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) found that immigration judges overwhelmingly choose to deport undocumented women and children who do not have legal representation. The analysis showed that judges made this choice 98.5 percent of the time – whether or not the women and children “passed” the “credible fear” interview key to determining whether their asylum claim is valid. Grassroots advocates and non-governmental organizations have continually pointed to inadequate access to legal counsel at for-profit, immigrant family jails as one reason to close them.

Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch, an attorney with Hines & Leigh who is representing asylum-seeking clients currently detained at the Karnes immigrant family jail on a pro bono basis, told Truthout she wasn’t surprised by the TRAC figure.

“If [an asylum-seeking woman] gets all the way to that final hearing without a lawyer, it is virtually impossible for her to prove and win her case without representation,” Lincoln-Goldfinch said, outlining that judges receive packets filled with hundreds of pages of evidence including expert testimony, witness testimony, medical records and police records from the woman’s home country that the detained woman does not have access to before she sees an immigration judge.

Lincoln-Goldfinch determined the recent court order limiting detention of asylum-seeking families would change some aspects of detention in crucial ways, allowing many undocumented women and children to be released on bond by drastically reducing the need for undocumented families to seek a bond re-determination hearing before an immigration judge.

Because ICE policy has been a no-bond policy, a bond re-determination hearing has been routine for jailed asylum-seekers, but Lincoln-Goldfinch expects that because the recent ruling bans ICE from using deterrence as a reason to deny bond, more asylum-seekers will be granted bond after they go through a “credible fear” interview. (Unless ICE continues to deny bond for another reason). Lincoln-Goldfinch said bond amounts may remain high and are often connected to the jail’s current capacity told hold detainees.

“Unfortunately, it really seems like ICE sets these bonds based on bed space. So when they’re trying to fill the beds, the bonds are higher. They’re between $7 and $10,000, and when they’re running out of space the bonds are between $3 and $5,000,” Lincoln-Goldfinch told Truthout. “The fluctuations … seem to be directly related to whether they’re trying to fill bed space that they’re paying for.”

The nation’s two largest private prison companies are hedging that those payments will keep coming and that their profits will continue to climb. Yet these profit-boosting and cost-cutting measures do not come without resistance. Those who are directly impacted by the corporate logic of incarceration are pushing back at privatized detention camps across South Texas – in one case, completely taking over a private prison in a full-scale uprising.

Detainees at the Willacy County Correctional Center seized control of a part of the prison on Friday, February 20, after initially refusing to attend their work assignments that morning. Wielding pipes and sharpened mops and brooms, they broke out of their quarters, demanding better medical care in a display of power that took Willacy prison guards, the Texas Rangers, the FBI and the US Border Patrol two days to subdue. Prison officials are now reportedly transferring the 2,800 detainees to other jails after the multiple fires set by the prisoners destroyed parts of the Willacy prison.

According to an ACLU report on conditions at the Willacy prison released last year, lack of access to adequate medical care has long been a problem there. The recent uprising is the third protest at Willacy since 2013. Detainees told the ACLU that the tents that serve as their living quarters, holding up to 200 men at a time, are infested with bugs and that the jail’s toilets often overflow.

The Willacy prison is run by another private prison corporation, Management & Training Corporation (MTC), in contract with the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). MTC won its 10-year, half-a-billion-dollar contract with BOP only a month after ICE terminated a previous contract with MTC, after a series of reports of sexual and physical abuse at the same facility were made public.

“It comes as no surprise that what happened [at Willacy] happened,” Libal told Truthout. “At the same time, the private prison corporations are thinking … [the contract for the Willacy prison is] an incredibly lucrative thing.”