How Private Prisons Game the Immigration System
Heat rises from the border road as a Border Patrol agent sits at an observation point along the international border separating San Luis, Arizona, from San Luis, Sonora, Mexico. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Thirty years ago in January, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), now the biggest operator of private prisons in the world, opened its first prison, a federal immigrant detention center in Houston, Texas. Three Decades of Service to America, a page on the company’s website, features a video interview with the company’s founders looking back on that first contract. “We saw this big ol’ sign, ‘Olympic Motel,’ made an offer to lease the motel for four months,” recalls Don Hutto, who chuckles with fellow co-founder Tom Beasley, the former chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, as they remember hastily converting the building and staffing it with family members. The night of Super Bowl Sunday, “we got our first day’s pay for eighty-seven undocumented aliens,” says Hutto, who even fingerprinted the inmates himself.
Three years after the company’s first contract in 1983, according to Southern Changes magazine, the company spent some $100,000 lobbying the state of Tennessee to secure a correctional facility privatization bill, which helped propel the business to financial success. Last year, the company brought in $1.7 billion in revenues, about a quarter of which came from contracts with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and federal Bureau of Prisons to incarcerate non-citizens in the United States.
For a company that began and later thrived by imprisoning immigrants, the federal immigration policy overhaul expected this year presents both opportunities and challenges.
Should these congresspeople really be making decisions on immigration reform when they've taken so much money from the corporations who stand to gain from stricter enforcement measures?
On the one hand, a pathway to citizenship and legal reforms sought by advocates could reduce the number of immigrants detained by CCA and its competitors in the private prison industry. “Private prison corporations have an enormous stake in immigration reform,” says Bob Libal, a prison reform advocate with Grassroots Leadership. “A reform that provides a timely pathway to citizenship without further criminalizing migration would be a huge hit to the industry,” he says.
On the other hand, Libal observed that a bill with increased security measures “could be very profitable” for the industry. Legislators and the Obama administration could adopt a plan that mirrors Republican proposals for an “enforcement first” approach, which include increased police powers, new mandatory detention and sentencing laws, further militarization of the border and proposals for more prisons and detention officers.
Damon Hininger, the chief executive of CCA, sounded an optimistic note when asked about the impact of reform on an investor call earlier this month, noting, “There’s always going to be a demand for beds.”
In recognition of the profits at stake, the prison companies have invested in key legislators leading the reform process—although the companies are coy about their purpose, denying that they are attempting to influence Congress’s deliberations.
Their lobbying efforts are nothing new. CCA and other large private prison companies have forged ties with political insiders by spending huge sums on lobbying firms, campaign contributions and grants to friendly think tanks. An analysis by the Associated Press last year found that the three major private prison corporations—CCA, the Geo Group, the industry’s largest two companies, along with a smaller company, the Utah-based Management and Training Corporation—spent roughly $45 million over the past decade to influence state and federal government.
The private prison industry has cultivated support from Republican leaders on immigration policy, from Senator Marco Rubio, the “face of comprehensive immigration reform,” to the right edge of the House Republican caucus, a review by The Nation has found.
Unlike other stakeholders involved in today’s process, prison companies have stayed away from the headlines, and have told reporters that they are not planning to engage.
Pablo Paez, a vice president for corporate relations with the Geo Group, e-mailed The Nation to say that his company “has never directly or indirectly lobbied to influence immigration policy.” Correction Corporation’s spokesperson, Steve Owen, echoed that position, telling The Nation that his company does not lobby on any “sentencing or detention enforcement legislation” and “will not take a position on or advocate for or against any specific immigration reform legislation nor will our government relations team on our behalf.” Management and Training Corp. did not respond to a request for comment.
Regulatory filings and lobbying documents, however, undercut the industry’s claims of neutrality.
CCA, in a 2011 SEC filing, warned investors that “any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.”
Last year, disclosures with the Senate show that the company tapped one of its lobbying firms to begin monitoring immigration policy issues.
“Immigration reform laws which are currently a focus for legislators and politicians at the federal, state and local level also could materially adversely impact us,” notes the Geo Group’s 2011 annual report, which specifically cited the “relaxation of criminal or immigration enforcement efforts.”
Both companies may be wary of engaging publicly on immigration reform this year given the backlash over their involvement with recent anti-immigrant laws in the states. In 2010, Arizona enacted SB1070, a measure that centers on a requirement that local police to arrest and charge anyone found without proper immigration documentation. The bill, developed in consultation with private prison lobbyists through a group called the American Legislative Exchange Council, spawned copycat laws in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Utah and South Carolina.
Asked on an investor call about the effects of the Arizona law shortly after its passage, Wayne Calabrese, then the chief operating officer of the Geo Group, said, “I think people understand there is still a relatively low threshold of tolerance for people coming across the border and those laws not being enforced.… And that to me at least suggests there’s going to be enhanced opportunities for what we do.”
The association with the wave of state-level enforcement laws—prison companies hired local lobbyists and donated generously to many of the state lawmakers behind the Arizona effort in particular—generated unwanted attention on the industry. It also set off nationwide protests, including a demonstration at the Nashville, Tennessee, headquarters of CCA.
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The private prison industry grew quickly thanks in no small part to its close ties to politicians and its ability to take advantage of right-wing trends, starting with the privatization wave in the eighties and on to the politics of crime, terrorism and immigration.
The money spent on influencing lawmakers has coincided with a sharp increase in immigrant detention and deportation. Immigrant detention costs taxpayers about $2 billion a year, and private prisons are increasingly tapped by the federal government to house the over 400,000 undocumented immigrants detained annually, a number that has more than doubled over the last decade. In 2012 alone, the two publicly traded prison companies, CCA and Geo Group, took in over $441.9 million in federal contracts to house so-called “criminal aliens” for the federal Bureau of Prisons. That year, the two companies combined netted $296.9 million in revenues from ICE contracts. These figures could grow or shrink depending on the details of the immigration reform overhaul debated in the coming months.
As immigration talks began formally in January with the so-called “Gang of Eight” negotiations in the Senate, legislators close to the industry were quick to promote policies that are in line with what critics call “the business of detention.”
Texas Senator John Cornyn, the number-two Senate Republican, was one of the first high-profile lawmakers to throw cold water on talks to create a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, calling such an idea a non-starter. Cornyn said that enforcement would be his foremost priority. We have to do “everything we can to secure our southwestern border,” Cornyn declared.
Cornyn’s idea of “robust” border security was made clear in an amendment he offered during debate over a supplemental spending bill three years ago. Cornyn’s amendment called for $3 billion to be spent on a mix of drones, border security guards and funding for 3,300 beds for immigrant detention over two years, as well as 500 additional detention officers. In 2005, Cornyn’s immigration reform legislation called for 10,000 new ICE detention beds.
Last August, federal government officials confirmed that the cost to taxpayers to detain an immigrant is approximately $164 a day. Cornyn’s approach would balloon the roughly $18 billion spent already on federal immigration enforcement measures.
Cornyn received $24,750 from private prison political action committees and their registered lobbyists in the last cycle. The political action committees of CCA and the Geo Group bet on a GOP-led Congress this year, and over the course of the past two years collectively gave over $380,000 to Republican candidates and committees, nearly six times the amount given to Democrats. The bulk of the money went to the National Republican Campaign Committee and other Republican leadership committees.
CCA’s PAC cut checks to hardliners like Representatives Lamar Smith and Jim Sensenbrenner, senior Republican lawmakers on the pivotal House Judiciary Committee who sponsored harsh enforcement-only legislation the last time Congress attempted immigration reform. As Seth Freed Wessler of Colorlines reported, House Judiciary Committee members have already hinted that they will again demand that “mandatory detention and deportation of anyone the government labeled a member of a gang, even if they’ve never been convicted of a crime” as a requisite for reform this year. Critics say such measures amount to racial profiling and sending young men of color to prison simply for whom they associate with in school or where they live.
The Geo Group’s PAC also gave $50,000 to the Mitt Romney Victory Fund, to support a presidential candidate who campaigned against “amnesty” and pledged to induce the undocumented to “self-deport.”
To Cornyn’s left within the GOP are Senators John McCain of Arizona and Rubio of Florida, both members of the Senate’s “Gang of Eight.” Although neither has dismissed a pathway to citizenship like their colleague Cornyn, McCain also seeks a strong set of enforcement proposals before any legalization system is put into place.
According to a source close to the reform discussions who spoke with The Nation, McCain has been adamant that any reform overhaul include a law that enshrines the so-called “Operation Streamline” program that enforces criminal penalties for every undocumented immigrant caught entering the country from the southern border. The program, initiated in 2005 by the George W. Bush administration, has continued to be enforced by the Obama administration, and is the main reason the number of immigrants in the criminal justice system has surged in recent years.
Before these guidelines, most undocumented immigrants were sent to civil deportation proceedings. Now, any undocumented immigrant arrested at the border automatically faces criminal charges, with six months in jail for their first illegal entry into the country, and up to twenty years for their second arrest for illegal entry following deportation. This policy, the Detention Watch Network notes in a 2011 report, has played a significant role in fueling the spike in incarcerations for migrant communities. The federal Bureau of Prisons has largely outsourced these types of criminal incarcerations to the Geo Group and CCA.
Currently, Operation Streamline exists as agency policy, not statute. McCain’s attempt to codify the “zero tolerance” rules as a condition for immigration reform would amount to a coup for the private prison companies, which currently manage thirteen detention centers for the BOP. An amendment previously sponsored by McCain in 2010 called for $200 million to the Department of Justice to expand Operation Streamline.
McCain, the Columbia Journalism Review reported, has collected over $30,000 in campaign contributions from CCA.
Rubio, a Cuban-American with broad support among conservative activists and a regular voice in Spanish-language media, is perceived as the politician most likely to set the parameters for reform. He has been featured in national media as the de facto leader for his party in finding a middle ground with Democrats and President Obama on a pathway for citizenship.
Rubio, however, has indicated that he would favor a system that forces currently undocumented immigrants in America to wait more than twenty years before applying for citizenship, while immediately enacting a set of enforcement measures. What this means is that for some 11 million undocumented immigrants a work permit or provisional documentation would be awarded only after they pay back taxes and a penalty fee, pass background checks that may include minor offenses and meet other yet-to-be-determined requirements. This approach, though hailed as a shift away from the GOP’s nativist positions of recent years, could leave millions of people in legal limbo as law enforcement is charged with a greater mandate to arrest those without documentation.
Rubio has his own ties to private prisons. In his bid for the US Senate in 2010, the Geo Group, which is based in Boca Raton, gave $33,500 to political action committees supporting his candidacy, and the company’s chief executive personally donated $4,800.
In 2011, Rubio co-sponsored another McCain bill to steer taxpayer funds to Operation Streamline.
Peter Cervantes-Gautschi, director of the Enlace Institute, says he believes that “Rubio’s positioning on reform is linked to his ties to the private prison industry.” Cervantes-Gautschi, who organized a divestment campaign against private prisons, noted, “Rubio’s guideline would produce more opportunities” for those seeking to profit from immigrant detention.
To fully appreciate the scope of industry’s potential influence over Rubio, one must look beyond mere campaign contributions to the man guiding the senator’s every move in the immigration reform process.
Cesar Conda, Rubio’s chief of staff and reportedly the architect of the senator’s immigration reform outreach, maintains financial ties to the Geo Group’s main lobbying firm, Navigators Global, a company he cofounded in 2003. Although Conda left the business in 2011 to lead Rubio’s staff, financial disclosure forms show that Conda has received up to $100,000 from a “stock buy-out agreement” of his ownership units from the firm, an arrangement a Rubio spokesperson said “is being paid out over time.”
Conda did not respond to a request for comment. Since 2011, the Geo Group has paid Conda’s former firm $220,000 for lobbying services.
Payments to current and former congressional insiders are a big part of how the private prison lobby wields influence.
The two largest for-profit prison corporations currently retain six outside lobbying firms and forty federal lobbyists, most of whom are former staffers to powerful politicians. Some are former lawmakers. Former Republican Representative Jim McCrery of Louisiana, who regularly antagonized any legislation he viewed as too friendly to immigrants while in office, is now at a firm called Capitol Counsel as a lobbyist for Geo Care, a Geo Group healthcare subsidiary; Vic Fazio, a former Democratic Representative from Northern California and former chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is a lobbyist for CCA through his law firm, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP.
In 2008, former Senator Dennis DeConcini, a Democrat from Arizona, joined Correction Corporation’s board of directors.
The industry’s hired guns have helped win political victories large and small.
In 2008, a bill called the Private Prison Information Act, which would require for-profit prisons to comply with most public record requests relating to the their operation of federal prisons, gained bipartisan backing and appeared poised to pass out of a House subcommittee.
Calls for more transparency have followed the private prison industry as news reports and lawsuits have revealed a striking pattern of violence, sexual abuse, inadequate staffing, medical neglect and death in facilities across the country. Investigations by the American Civil Liberties Union found multiple immigrant deaths at facilities managed by CCA. Grassroots Leadership has documented several instances of sexual abuse and mysterious deaths at immigrant detention centers managed by the Geo Group.
Alarmed that the bill was gaining momentum, CCA dispatched several executives along with Fazio to meet with the sponsor of the legislation, Representative Tim Holden of Pennsylvania. A consultant who worked to pass the bill told The Nation that Fazio pressured Holden to drop support for the measure. The consultant recalled being invited by Holden’s staff for a meeting about the bill, and his surprise to find Fazio in the congressman’s office when he arrived for the meeting. Fazio and other CCA officials, the consultant said, took control of the meeting and berated advocates of the legislation.
In the end, Holden did not bother showing up to the hearing about his own bill and it died in committee. Holden, who lost his seat last year in the Democratic primary, could not be reached for comment.
In 2006,CCA paid the law firm Akin Gump, along with Fazio, $200,000 to lobby on “immigration reform legislation” as Congress made its last attempt at a federal overhaul. In May of 2006, John Ferguson, then the CEO of the company, told investors that immigration reform could produce “significant expansion of border enforcement efforts, which should result in a substantial increase in the population of illegal detainees.” One financial analyst associated with the company that year predicted the immigrant detention “market” was worth $250 million over twelve to eighteen months due to Bush’s enforcement actions.
The dynamics of immigration reform during that period can be viewed as massive victory for the private prisons. The Bush administration attempted to placate its right-wing base by enacting a series of policies to militarize the border and send more immigrants to jail, through new criminal procedures and increased ICE raids. The bipartisan attempt to create a pathway for citizenship was scuttled by right-wing lawmakers, many of whom are reprising that role this year. Senator Cornyn, who played an important role in opposing a comprehensive approach to reform in 2006, has even more influence this year given his position as ranking member on the Senate subcommittee that deals with immigration.
Five days after making his enforcement first position on reform clear at a conference hosted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation in January, Cornyn was back in DC celebrating his birthday with a fundraiser co-hosted by CCA lobbyist Rob Chamberlin.
A fundraiser announcement posted by the Sunlight Foundation shows Chamberlin among several hosts of Cornyn’s party at Hill Country BBQ, a Texas-style restaurant near Pennsylvania Avenue. Over the last year, Chamberlin’s firm, McBee Strategic, made more money than any other firm in Washington, DC, on behalf of a private prison interest.
“Who’s asking for more prisons?” asks Roberto Lovato, a co-founder of Presente.org. “There’s no polls that show that Latinos, immigrants, average citizens want more prisons or the enforcement-first mentality, so that shows that these politicians are listening to the prison lobbyists, not voters.”
Want to learn more about the representatives who have benefitted from the private prison corporations’ largesse? Check out this slide show of five congresspeople in the pockets of the industry.