Prison contractors making profits, giving campaign donations
In 1984, Corrections Corporation of America opened the nation’s first private immigrant detention center, a 350-bed “processing center” in Houston, reports Texas Prison Bid’ness. Since then, private immigrant detention centers spread rapidly across the state and country.
The business of detaining immigrants has been lucrative for private contractors and expensive for the U.S. government. In 2009, the U.S. detained some 380,000 people at about 380 facilities, some of which were unlisted and/or unmarked, at a cost of more than $1.7 billion, according to the Detention Watch Network, a national coalition of organizations advocating for reform of the immigrant detention system.
That same year, CCA posted $1.67 billion in total revenue; GEO Group generated $1.04 billion; and Cornell Companies, which will be acquired by the GEO Group later this year, reported $412.4 million in revenue.
While posting record profits, companies have forged ties to those who can influence regulation and determine funding for facilities. Prison contractors’ PACs give money to federal lawmakers — many on committees concerned with appropriations or related to immigration — as well as to officials in state government.
“Private prison corporations are driven by greed and profit in complete disregard of the human costs associated with immigration detention,” said Jacki Esposito, policy coordinator for the Detention Watch Network, in an e-mail. “Yet the evidence is clear–private prison corporations possess an immensely more powerful voice in Washington than the average person living in the United States.”
In 2008, Stokely Baksh and Renee Feltz, then Columbia University graduate students, started the online publication The Business of Detention to detail all facets of the private detention system, from immigrants’ experiences to CCA’s ties to political leaders. They concluded that companies like CCA were giving to lawmakers who could, on some level, help their profits.
Today, CCA and other private prison companies are contributing to both Republican and Democratic incumbents and candidates, according to the Federal Elections Commission. Those receiving contributions from private prison PACs this election cycle include Democratic U.S. Reps. Ciro Rodriguez, Henry Cuellar and Chet Edwards, as well as GOP U.S. Reps. John Carter and Lamar Smith.
According to information compiled by FollowTheMoney.org, a nonprofit organization that keeps a database of statewide campaign financing, private prison PACs have given to more than 20 state lawmakers.
Many officials receiving direct contributions from these PACs have a connection to the detention business, including Cuellar, who chairs the federal Subcommittee on Border, Maritime and Global Counterterrorism and represents Congressional District 28, containing one of the largest immigrant detention centers in the country, managed by the GEO Group.
Connections exist among private prison companies, lawmakers and immigration policies. That doesn’t create conflicts of interests, said Cuellar, who has previously said detention is a necessary part of immigration law.
“Detention centers in my district perform a vital public safety service,” Cuellar said in an e-mail. “In my 20 years of legislating, the policy decisions I’ve made rested on the integrity of the policy presented before me.”
Esposito argues otherwise, saying the connections are troubling, particularly in light of complaints lodged against private contractors, for causes ranging from lack of medical attention, to rape and deaths.
“It is troubling that our elected representatives would accept campaign contributions from PACs associated with private prison corporations notorious for human rights violations,” said Esposito.
The exchange of contributions for political influence in Washington, D.C., is “how it works,” said Robin Powers, director of research and special projects at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics.
“Members always say that contributions have nothing to do with their votes, but, obviously, it’s a problem. Lawmakers always deny it,” Powers said.
(Photo: Flickr Creative Commons/PearlyV; Image by Matt Mahurin)