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Private Prison Profits Drive Increase in Immigrant Detentions

by Derek Gilna

Although most of the discussion in the past several months has been the continuing decrease in the number of prisoners in the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to slightly more than 200,000, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) actually confines more than twice as many,  approximately 400,000 individuals each year. The evidence shows that much of the pressure to maintain high

The two powerhouse private prison operators, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group, spend millions of dollars every year to lobby local, state, and federal correctional decision-makers, which has undeniably led to steadily increasing revenues for both organizations.

In the period from 2004 and 2014, CCA and GEO spent  $18 million and $4 million, respectively with $8.7 million and $1.3 million to lobby members of Congress. Most of this money found its way into the coffers of Congressmen who would later vote on Department of Homeland Security appropriations.

These appropriations bills contain language that almost guarantees the profits of the private prison operator,  mandating in 2010 that DHS "maintain a (daily) level of not less than 33,400 detention beds." This "bed mandate" or "bed quota" has since increased to 34,000. It is no surprise that there has been a significant increase in immigration prisoner counts, doubling from 230,000 in 2005 to 440,000 in 2013. Thus, the companies get paid even if the bed is empty.

While most attention has focused on the BOP, state, and local prisoner counts, immigration detention and deportation figures, after a slight decrease in the past year, have again begun to increase, and with it, the abuses for which private prison operators have been severely criticized.  The National Immigrant Justice Center and Detention Watch Network have documented many failed inspections and an epidemic of sexual assaults at private prison facilities.

The Commission on Civil Rights has also noted that there have been many unnecessary deaths in private prison facilities and that many of these facilities have failed to meet accepted standards of operation in providing adequate of health care, protecting LGBT people from abuse, providing nutritious food in sufficient quantities, and granting prompt access to legal services.

Many private prison operators have declined to even release immigrants who have already  successfully established that they have a well founded fear of persecution in their countries of origin. The same private prison companies that have boosted the number of immigrant detentions have also successfully marketed ankle bracelets that enable them to collect revenue even when the immigrant is not in its facility.

Private prison executives such as Shayn March, vice president and treasurer of GEO, still sees a bright future for private prison operators despite pressure for a change in mandatory minimum sentencing and general criminal justice reform, stating that the U.S. will continue to "attract crime," and boost "correctional needs," adding that the reason prisoner counts have increased, because "there's just been a lot more crime...No one is committing a lot of crime in poor countries because, well, who are you going to steal from?"  However, the newest DOJ statistics show that the trend of decreasing crime rates continues, indicating that perhaps the nation's correctional decision makers might want to scrutinize correctional appropriate bills a little more closely and as suggested by several prominent individuals, consider ending the steady revenue private prison operators have enjoyed over the past decade.

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