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A guard at the Northwest Detention Center, which is operated by private prison corporation GEO Group, on contract from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (Photo: Alex Stonehill)

A guard at the Northwest Detention Center, which is operated by private prison corporation GEO Group, on contract from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (Photo: Alex Stonehill)

'Profiting From Misery': Private Prison Corporations Driving Harsh Immigration Policies

Companies spent millions in lobbying on immigration issues that led to a spike in incarceration levels and, in turn, boosted corporate profits

Sarah Lazare

Private prison companies are spending millions of dollars to lobby the U.S. government for harsher immigration laws that, in turn, spike corporate profits by driving up incarceration levels, a new report from the national social justice organization Grassroots Leadership reveals.

Entitled Payoff: How Congress Ensures Private Prison Profit with an Immigrant Detention Quota, the report's release on Wednesday coincided with a renewed hunger strike at a privately-run immigrant detention center in southern Texas, where asylum-seeking mothers incarcerated with their children report inhumane conditions, including sexual assaults by prison guards and staff.

According to the report, for-profit companies are capturing an ever-increasing share of this immigrant detention center "market." In 2009, 49 percent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention beds were run by for-profit companies. Today, that number stands at 62 percent.

Now 90 percent of the largest ICE detention centers in the U.S. are privately operated, the study finds.

Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, both notorious for human rights violations, dominate this rapidly growing industry, operating 72 percent of privately-operated ICE beds. This has brought the companies a windfall in profits: together they made nearly almost $478 million from ICE detentions in 2014 alone.

According to the report, it is no coincidence that these companies are benefiting from federal policies: both have aggressively lobbied the U.S. government over issues that "affect their bottom line." For example, between 2008 and 2014, the private prison corporation CCA shelled out $10,560,000 during periods when "they lobbied on issues related to immigrant detention and immigration reform," the researchers state. Furthermore, GEO spent nearly half a million dollars between 2011 and 2014—a time when they lobbied directly on issues of immigration.

A bulk of this lobbying has taken aim at the DHS Appropriations Subcommittee—which created controversial "bed quota." Established in 2009, this policy has been interpreted as a mandate to contract and fill more than 33,000 beds every single day.

"Since its implementation, the quota has become a driver of an increasingly aggressive immigration enforcement strategy," notes the report. "The immigrant detention system has expanded significantly since the implementation of the quota, and the percent of the detained population held in private facilities has increased even more dramatically."

Report coauthor Bethany Carson declared in a press statement, "The immigrant detention quota is taxpayer-financed insurance for private prison corporations that the government will maintain their bottom line at all costs. Now, we are seeing those same corporations invest millions in the Congressional committee that created that insurance policy for them."

Carson added, "Congress’s vast immigrant detention system is tearing apart families and communities, and creating an enormous profit from human misery."

These policies have a harrowing human toll.

Marichuy Leal, who was born in Mexico and raised in the United States, was detained for nine months in CCA-run Eloy Detention Center in Arizona. In the report, she described being sexually harassed, intimidated, and discriminated against while in CCA custody because of her identity as a transgender woman. This included being placed in solitary confinement.

"Trans women and the LGBT community aren’t safe in detention centers," Leal told researchers. "I wasn’t safe. We’re asking for help...but ICE and CCA...just punish us."


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