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Under Pressure, Some Politicians Return Private Prison Campaign Cash

by Steve Horn

The 2018 election cycle saw a surge in the number of candidates and lawmakers promising to forego campaign donations from private prison operators such as Nashville-based CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) and The GEO Group, headquartered in Boca Raton, Florida. The catalyst appears to have been public backlash to the Trump administration’s controversial policy, implemented in the summer of 2018, that resulted in the forced separation of parents and children held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which contracts with private companies to operate detention facilities.

Making the Pledge

Of ten members of the U.S. House of Representatives who pledged not to take private prison money, eight were Democrats. U.S. Rep. John Conyers, who returned $1,000 in donations, and House Speaker Paul Ryan, who gave back $5,000, were retiring members of Congress, who usually return unused funds contributed to their campaigns or to an aligned political action committee (PAC). Oklahoma U.S. Senator James Lankford was the only Republican not retiring to return a private prison contribution – in his case, $2,500. 

During June 2018 alone, four GOP politicians or their aligned PACs accepted donations from private prison firms: Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, who defeated the incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill; Michigan Rep. Mike Bishop, who lost his seat to Democrat Elissa Slotkin; Alabama Rep. Martha Roby, who defeated Democrat Nathan Mathis; and Indiana state Rep. Tom Saunders, who ran for re-election unopposed.

In August 2018, the Tuscon, Arizona office of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) announced that it had received promises from three state gubernatorial candidates to return any donations from private prison contractors and their lobbyists. AFSC, a nonprofit working to “reduce the size and scope of the criminal punishment system,” said Democratic candidate David Garcia had signed on to the group’s effort, #MakeThePledge. Garcia beat out two other Democrats who also made the pledge, Steve Farley and Kelly Fryer, but he lost the general election to incumbent Governor Doug Ducey.

Democratic lawmakers in other states have made similar pledges, including U.S. House members Eric Swalwell and Karen Bass of California, Ted Lieu of Hawaii, Danny Davis of Illinois, Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, Hakeem Jeffries of New York, David Price of North Carolina, Filemon Vela of Texas and Denny Heck of Washington. New Mexico Rep. Ben Ray Luján rejected private prison contributions for his own campaign, though he accepted $10,000 from GEO Group’s PAC on behalf of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which he leads.

Minnesota U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar said she rejected private prison donations, too. Fellow Democratic senators Chris Coons of Delaware and Dick Durbin of Illinois also pledged to reject such contributions. New York Senator Kristin Gillibrand said she not only would reject private prison money but also called for ICE to be abolished – a cry echoed by fellow New Yorker and newly-elected U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

However, in California’s state assembly, at least four Democrats have accepted private prison cash. Senate President pro tempore Toni G. Atkins took $4,200 from GEO Group as well as $4,000 from another ICE contractor, Northrop Grumman. The two companies combined gave $1,500 to Assemblyman Todd Gloria, and CoreCivic donated $1,000 to Assemblywoman Susan Eggman. Assemblymen Evan Low apologized for accepting $4,200 from GEO Group in 2016 and donated those funds to charity.

State Democratic Parties Take a Stand

In July 2018, the California Democratic Party foreswore contributions from private prison companies and their affiliated PACs and lobbyists. According to chairman Eric C. Bauman, all such donations received by the party since he was elected chair will be donated to groups working on immigration-related issues.

“One of the most important issues to California Democrats is fundamental reform of our criminal justice system, particularly with respect towards the abuses and violations of constitutional rights that occur in private prisons,” Bauman said in a statement. “The private prison system represents so much of what is wrong with our criminal justice system, and accepting donations from companies that profit from the systemic injustices and suffering that results from them is incompatible with the values and platform of our Party.”

In Florida, the Miami-based Dream Defenders, a nonprofit aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement, extracted a similar pledge from the Florida Democratic Party, which passed a resolution in July 2018 not to accept private prison money, on a vote of 774 to 61. Similar pledges were made by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum and three of the opponents he beat in the primaries: Gwen Graham, Chris King and Philip Levine. 

“I think the whole thing was just a sign of the hypocrisy of the leadership of the party,” said Rachel Gilmer, an activist with Dream Defenders. She lamented that “some people think it’s OK to speak out against such policies while at the same time being deeply in bed with a company that works with politicians to put more people in jail.”

After the Florida Democratic Party resolution passed, two prominent members of the state’s congressional delegation announced they also would swear off donations from private prison firms. U.S. Rep. and former Florida Governor Charlie Crist was joined in that pledge by fellow Representative and former DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz.

Another U.S. House member from Florida couldn’t get away from her ties to CoreCivic fast enough. A July 2018 news report for The Young Turks Network by journalist Alex Kotch revealed that Rep. Lois Frankel, a Democrat, held a small amount of the company’s stock. Explaining she had previously been unaware of the investment made by her financial adviser, Frankel sold off her CoreCivic shares.

Donations Become Less Bipartisan

“I believe private prisons ought to be illegal in the state of Florida,” stated Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum. “They should not exist.” 

Gillum lost to his Republican opponent in the November 2018 election, Ronald DeSantis, with the help of a $100,000 contribution made to a DeSantis-associated PAC by GEO Group. The firm had previously made a $50,000 donation to DeSantis in March 2017 while he was serving as a U.S. Representative for Florida.

GEO also provided $45,000 to a PAC aligned with the successful campaign of Republican Ashley Moody for Florida’s Attorney General in 2018. Ron Book, a lobbyist for the firm, donated $2,000. GEO Group has supported the campaigns of both the state’s U.S. senators, most recently Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Bill Nelson in 2010, who lost his bid for re-election. 

One PAC affiliated with then-Florida Governor Rick Scott received $125,000 from a GEO Group subsidiary, while another received $78,000 from the company’s founder and CEO, George Zoley. 

About 12 percent of Florida state prisoners are housed in privately-run facilities, an increase of more than 200 percent since 2000. GEO Group operates five of those prisons.

With almost a half-billion dollars in contracts, GEO is ICE’s largest private contractor. The $5.6 million that the firm has given to Republican candidates dwarfs the $1.3 million it donated to Democrats, all since 2000. 

In 2016 alone, GEO Group made political contributions totaling $380,790, mostly to Republican candidates. That was also true of the $114,700 donated by CoreCivic that year. A third private prison firm, Utah-based Management & Training Corporation, gave $62,650 to members of Congress in 2016.

During the 2018 election cycle, 58 Republican congressional members took in $337,200 from private prison companies, their PACs or lobbyists. The Republican National Committee accepted $242,500. Additionally, CoreCivic and the GEO Group each donated $250,000 to President Trump’s inauguration fund.

Pragmatism v. Ideological Purity

Likening his initial decision to accept private prison contributions to “[taking] the devil’s money to do God’s work,” California Assemblyman Low acknowledged that “a lot of activists who are pure in their ideology are [not] comfortable” with a Democratic lawmaker accepting donations from businesses at odds with progressive policies and politics.

“But that’s the reality in the governing world that we’re faced with,” he added.

Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, which opposes prison privatization, countered, “The moment is one where you have to ask: If you are taking these contributions, does it mean you are in support of these policies the administration is enacting that enrich these companies?” 

“Let’s be clear,” he added, “these companies don’t give these contributions out of the goodness of their hearts. It’s their way of ensuring their interests are met.”

The 2016 platform of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) included a promise to “fight federal, state, and municipal contracts with for-profit prisons and private detention centers.” Yet the DNC, its Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and Democratic members of Congress have accepted donations from private prison firms and their lobbyists.

Campaign finance records indicate that through May 2018, 23 congressional Democrats received a total of $52,750 in donations from CoreCivic and the GEO Group during the 2017-18 election cycle. The DCCC accepted $10,000 from GEO Group’s PAC in November 2017 plus over $350,000 from four lobbyists associated with CoreCivic or GEO.

Texas U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, a Democrat, defended his decision to accept a $2,500 contribution from GEO Group’s PAC, saying, “It does not matter who is in charge of the [detention] facilities, whether it is the government or the private sector. Whoever can do a superior job should handle the particular facility.”

With $88,900 in contributions from GEO Group and CoreCivic since 2012, Texas U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar has accepted the most private prison money of any Democrat in the House of Representatives – including at least $16,500 during the 2017-18 election cycle, an amount bested by only one Republican congressman, fellow Texan John Culberson. Cuellar represents a district that includes three privately-run ICE detention centers located along a section of I-35 north of Laredo known as “detention alley.”

“I have never allowed a contribution of any size to influence my opinion, period,” Rep. Cuellar stated. “The fact is that GEO is one of the largest employers in my district and plays an important role in maintaining our public safety.”

Ohio U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan holds second place among House Democrats behind Cuellar for accepting private prison cash, though he returned a $2,500 check received from CoreCivic during his 2018 campaign. The company operates the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Ryan’s district. 

Among Democrats in the U.S. Senate, Montana’s Jon Tester has taken money from GEO Group and CoreCivic since 2016, while New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich gave a CoreCivic contribution he received to charity. Heinrich’s office said he “does not support the private prison industry.” Both Tester and Heinrich won their re-election campaigns last year.

“People refuse to hold Democrats accountable because they feel like they’re the lesser of two evils – and that argument is garbage,” stated Nancy Cardenas-Pena, Texas director for policy and advocacy at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, who lives in Rep. Cuellar’s district. “It’s harmful because it means we’re shielding certain people from being accountable for their actions.”

Business as Usual

In 2016, a GEO Group subsidiary donated $225,000 to Rebuilding America Now, a PAC chaired by then-Florida Governor Scott and aligned with the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. A complaint filed by the Campaign Legal Center over that donation is pending before the Federal Election Commission, which bans companies from donating to federal political campaigns when they have U.S. government contracts. GEO has claimed it complied with that restriction because the contribution was made by a subsidiary that isn’t a government contractor. [See: PLN, Oct. 2018, p.30].

“The law is hopelessly behind the practice,” noted Frances Hill, a campaign finance law expert who teaches at the University of Miami.

Just two-and-a-half years ago, in August 2016, both GEO Group and CoreCivic were watching their stock prices plummet after the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) announced it planned to phase out contracts with private prison companies. A review by the U.S. Department of Justice had determined the BOP was not realizing savings from private prisons, which had higher levels of violence and other problems. [See: PLN, Oct. 2016, p.22]. That order was reversed in 2017 once President Trump took office. 

“Certainly both parties have been guilty in presiding over the expansion of mass incarceration and the expansion of immigrant detention,” stated Grassroots Leadership director Bob Libal. “But [the Trump administration] has forced [elected officials] who were quiet or complicit about the injustices of previous administrations to take a stand, if for no other reason than not to be associated with it.” 

PLN contributing writer David Reutter contributed to this article.


Sources: NBC News, CNN, New York Times, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Palm Beach Post, Orlando Weekly, AFSC,,,,,,,,,, Miami New Times

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