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Private Prison Firms Reap Large Profits from Immigration Detention

Federal immigrant detention has long been a boon to private prison companies Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group, the nation’s two largest private prison firms, both of which trade on the New York Stock Exchange. Much of that success is the direct result of lobbyists employed by the private prison contractors.

Between 2011 and 2012, CCA and GEO spent over $4,350,000 competing for federal prison contracts. Many of those contracts involved the detention of undocumented immigrants. While that may seem like a lot of money, the two companies netted $1.4 billion in detention contracts from the federal government in 2011 alone. The more prominent lobbying firms that represent CCA include Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLP; McBee Strategic Consulting, LLC; Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, Inc.; and Sisco Consulting, LLC.

According to their 2015 annual reports, both CCA and GEO Group receive over 40% of their gross revenue from the federal government – and a large amount of that revenue is from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), for immigrant detention.

Grassroots Leadership and Detention Watch Network, both non-profit organizations that oppose prison privatization, reported that over half of ICE detention facilities are operated by private contractors. Those private prison firms thus have a financial interest in the continued criminalization and incarceration of undocumented immigrants.

 “At the federal level, initiatives related to border enforcement and immigration detention with an emphasis on criminal alien populations as well as the consolidation of existing detainee populations have continued to create demand for larger-scale, cost efficient facilities,” stated George Zoley, CEO of the GEO Group.

In its most recent annual report, CCA acknowledged that immigration reform “could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities” to house detainees.

Consequently, the two private prison corporations have spent large sums on lobbyists to protect their interests. CCA spends most of its money lobbying the House and Senate on issues that include “the construction and management of private prisons and detention facilities”; “monitor[ing] immigration reform” and “provisions related to ICE detention.” It paid over $2 million to lobbyists in 2011 and 2012 to lobby for a Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill, specifically with respect to “provisions related to ICE detention; as well as the House of Representatives and the Senate on homeland security issues related to the private prison industry.”

Over the same 2011-2012 time period, GEO forked over more than $220,000 for three lobbyists to represent its interests on issues related to “alternatives to detention.” GEO also has a financial interest in such “alternatives” – in 2011 the company purchased BI Incorporated, which provides GPS monitoring of offenders, including released immigrant detainees.

CCA is the largest private prison company in the U.S; it operates over 70 facilities in 20 states and the District of Columbia with a total capacity of 80,000-plus beds. The $970,000 spent by CCA in lobbying in 2012 appears to be money well spent. The Tennessee-based company netted $570.2 million from the federal government alone that year. According to CCA’s self-reported political activity and lobbying data, it spent $1.1 million in political contributions in 2014 plus “approximately $2.6 million in fees and other payments related to lobbying at the Federal, state, and local levels.”

CCA and GEO Group stand to benefit tremendously from the immigration reform legislation introduced by the bipartisan “Gang of 8” senators and President Obama, which thus far has remained stalled in Congress. That may explain why the two private prison companies gave 13 members of the House and Senate more than $5,000 in campaign contributions, 13 members of the Senate and one member of the House more than $20,000, and 25 members of the House and Senate $5,000 through their lobbyists. At least five of those federal lawmakers sit on the House or Senate budget committee. While the immigration reform bill has failed to pass, CCA and GEO continue to profit from immigration detention contracts, particularly at so-called family residential centers.

These facilities, sometimes referred to as “baby jails,” are infamous for detaining women and children in prison-like conditions while they await hearings before an immigration court. In July 2015, a federal judge ordered the release of women and children held in family detention centers, including the CCA-operated South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas and the GEO-run Karnes County Residential Center, also in Texas. No action has been taken yet as the district court’s ruling is being appealed.

A few months later, in September 2015, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released a report on human rights abuses within immigration detention facilities. The bipartisan Commission found that immigrant women and children were being held in detention in violation of their fundamental rights.

Both CCA and GEO Group announced greater profits than anticipated in their 2016 first-quarter earnings reports. GEO experienced a 19 percent spike in revenue to $510 million during the first quarter, while CCA reported a five percent increase from the previous year’s first quarter, or almost $450 million in gross revenue.

“Our financial performance was driven primarily by stronger than anticipated demand from our federal partners, most notably Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” CCA CEO Damon Hininger said in a May 4, 2016 press release.

Both companies credited most of their financial success to the operation and expansion of immigrant family detention centers in Texas.

“It’s sickening to hear CCA and GEO brag about their profitable quarter to shareholders. That money is made off the suffering of mothers and children who came to the U.S. for refuge,” said Cristina Parker with Grassroots Leadership.

According to an article published by The Atlantic on May 6, 2016, the average stay at the Dilley facility is about three weeks, while some immigrant detainees had been held up to a year. Over 50 percent of the detainees were minors, with an average age of nine.

It is not only the detainees who are paying the heavy price of detention. It costs taxpayers approximately $160 per day to house each detainee at the Karnes facility, and $300 per day at the Dilley facility – which only serves to further enrich CCA and GEO Group, and the companies’ stockholders.

Sources:,, www.globe­,,,,,

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