In Spite of Feds’ Order, the Private Prison Industry Thrives

Numerous contracts with the government ensure the continued success of private corrections giants.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents frisk a detained immigrant at a processing center in Camarillo, California. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)
Aug 19, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Within hours of the U.S. Department of Justice’s announcement on Thursday that it would phase out its use of privately operated federal prisons, the stocks of two of the largest private corrections companies plummeted by 40 percent. While the publicly traded companies, The GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America, took a hit, the multibillion-dollar industry remains largely intact—in no small part because of the numerous contracts it maintains with the Department of Homeland Security. Despite countless complaints and known abuses, for the tens of thousands of immigrants housed in privately run detention centers or subject to electronic monitoring facilitated by these companies, the scourge of privatization is far from over.

“These private companies are so embedded in the detention and deportation of immigrants in this country,” said Silky Shah, codirector of Detention Watch Network, an immigration advocacy coalition. “Ending that relationship would require an overhaul of the system.”

The directive from Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates to the Bureau of Prisons to either cease its contracts with the companies or “substantially reduce” the number of privately operated beds will affect 13 of the 122 federal prisons, or 22,660 prisoners. Yates’ memo cited a lack of safety, security, and cost savings in the BOP’s privately operated prisons. The GEO Group and the Corrections Corporation of America’s stock prices dropped lower than they had over the last three years following the memo’s release, in spite of numerous investigations, lawsuits, and other reports of violence and filthy conditions at privately run facilities.

Eleven of the 13 federal prisons affected exclusively house noncitizens, more than half of whom are incarcerated for illegally entering or reentering the country and who will ultimately be deported. The vast majority of private prisons are operated at the state level.

For immigrants detained by the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement, however, the Justice Department’s directive holds no binding weight. Today, 62 percent of beds in the roughly 250 detention centers overseen by DHS are operated by for-profit corporations. These facilities, which house nearly 25,000 immigrants awaiting deportation or whose cases are pending, have repeatedly come under fire from advocates for cultivating unsafe and abusive environments.

Jennifer Elzea, acting press secretary at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, would not comment on the Justice Department’s announcement, but she told TakePart by email that the agency “remains committed to providing a safe and humane environment for all those in its custody.”

In spite of taking a hit in the market, The GEO Group and the Corrections Corporation of America have defended the safety of their facilities.

“The [inspector general’s] findings simply don’t match up to the numerous independent studies that show our facilities to be equal or better with regard to safety and quality, or the excellent feedback we get from our partners at all levels of government,” Jonathan Burns, director of public affairs at CCA, said in an emailed statement.

A press release from GEO expressed disappointment at the announcement and echoed CCA’s sentiment as it affirmed the company’s commitment to working with government partners to “ensure safe and secure operations at all of our facilities.”

Burns also emphasized that CCA continues to work with the government, providing “innovative opportunities we’ve been exploring in recent years in a proactive effort to meet their evolving needs,” adding that the Bureau of Prisons only accounts for 7 percent of the company’s business.

Meeting those “evolving needs” has in part led to the expansion of services—such as electronic monitoring and family case management for asylum seekers—offered to the government by private corrections companies.

“Electronic monitoring is not an alternative; it’s just a different form of detention,” said Shah. “They’ve expanded the system, and DHS now just has a bigger scope of custody. These tools really incentivize and perpetuate detention.”

Relying on companies like GEO to manage electronic monitoring and case management of immigrants is problematic, Shah argues, because of the “perverse incentives” the industry has to ensure profits for itself and to fill detention beds.

Rather than contracting with private companies to track and manage immigrants whose cases are pending or who are awaiting deportation, Bethany Carson, an immigration policy researcher and organizer for Grassroots Leadership, suggests alternatives such as community-operated housing. Casa Marianella—one such shelter in Austin, Texas—works with asylum seekers and recently arrived immigrants, housing them and providing services for those who don’t have friends or family to stay with.

“This alternative is not on the taxpayer dollar and is much less invasive for immigrants who come here seeking a better life,” said Carson.

In spite of the small number of facilities affected, Carson and Shah stand by Yates’ memo as a sign of progress for immigrants and advocates who’ve been pushing back against these corporations for decades.

“If different agencies start cutting contracts, it’s going to be increasingly harder for these companies to be viable,” said Carson. “This is huge for immigrants incarcerated in the BOP’s system.”