What Fuels Private Prisons
Undocumented immigrants remain trapped in America's incarceration system

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By Bennet Souter

This article was originally published in GPR’s Spring 2017 Magazine

Since the inauguration, there has been a multitude of changes across the nation, including dramatic increases in the stock prices for the top two private prison corporations in America, the GEO Group and Correction Corporation of America (CCA). These publicly traded corporations are incentivized to generate revenue at the expense of the incarcerated, and with less political will behind the war on drugs, the industry is turning towards a new source of income: undocumented immigrants.

The United States did not achieve the highest prison population and the highest incarceration rate in the world overnight. Due to changes in drug and sentencing laws in the 1980s, the United States saw a dramatic increase in incarceration. This increase resulted in need for additional prison space. In order to prevent more taxation on citizens, federal and state governments turned to private prisons. Private prison corporations are able to save money in two ways: they are not bound by governmental regulations, and can procure funds quickly rather than waiting on lengthy appropriations processes from the government.

The transition from state-run facilities to private corporations is known as the prison industrial complex – a phenomenon described by the Washburn Law Journal as “an enterprise whereby lawmakers and undocumented immigrants are commodified as raw materials for private profit.” With this burden lifted off of the federal government, prison privatization has left the responsibility of federal inmates in the hands of private companies.

The formula follows a basic supply and demand model, but in reverse. A greater supply of prisoners results in an increased demand for prison space. Yet like any business, the primary goal for these companies is to earn revenue. Their profit comes from charging the state or federal government a daily rate, per person incarcerated, to cover investment and operational costs. This profit model, where the ‘social good’ doesn’t enter the equation, begs the question whether private prison corporations are ethical and in line with our country’s values.

The United States has recently seen a drop in prison populations as a result of many states reforming their incarceration laws in order to relieve prison populations. However, CCA and GEO Group have found a new target population that will keep prison space at a high demand – undocumented immigrants. There are several instances that link private prison corporations with lobbying for anti-immigration policies. In 2010, Arizona passed SB 1070, which authorized police to request the immigration status of someone who has been arrested when there is “reasonable suspicion” that they are not residing in the United States legally. Not only did this permit racial profiling, but it also created an incentive for the private prison industry to lobby for similar policies nation-wide. Their losses from a waning war on drugs could easily be replaced by increased incarceration of undocumented individuals.

A study conducted by scholars Karina Saldivar and Byron Price from the Central European Journal of International and Security Studies found that CCA and GEO Group spent 90 percent of their lobbying dollars in states that proposed similar anti-immigration legislation. The data showed that from 2003-2012, of the $2,234,754 million CCA spent on lobbying, over 90 percent was sent to states with copycat bills mirroring SB 1070. Similarly, 93 percent of GEO Group’s $3,243,561 million spent on lobbying was also sent to those states. These findings imply that the private prison industry sees anti-immigration legislation as a means of protecting the industry’s bottom line.

In August 2016, the Obama Administration announced that it would begin to phase out the use of private prison corporations. Then deputy attorney general Sally Yates cited that the inmate population had decreased since 2013 and that “private prisons compared poorly to our own bureau facilities.” She predicted that by May 2017, the Bureau of Prisons would house only 14,200 inmates in for-profit prison corporations—a 15,800 inmate decrease from 2013.

However, President Trump is unlikely to decommission the private prison industry. With Trump having campaigned on immigration policies that would incarcerate thousands of undocumented immigrants, the demand for prison space will increase dramatically. It is no wonder that the stock values of GEO Group and CCA have increased exponentially since the election. Regardless of political affiliation, the truth of the matter is rooted in basic economics—as long as there are private prisons, these corporations will have a stake in lobbying any legislation that promotes incarceration.

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