Private prisons profit off detained immigrants
Lobbying, political donations by owners amount to millions
MIAMI – The U.S. is locking up more illegal immigrants than ever, generating lucrative profits for the nation’s largest prison companies, and an Associated Press review shows the businesses have spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying lawmakers and contributing to campaigns.
The cost to American taxpayers is on track to top $2 billion for this year, and the companies are expecting their biggest cut of that yet in the next few years thanks to government plans for new facilities to house the 400,000 immigrants detained annually.
After a decade of expansion, the sprawling, private system runs detention centers everywhere from a Denver suburb to an industrial area flanking Newark’s airport, and is largely controlled by just three companies.
The growth is far from over, despite the sheer drop in illegal immigration in recent years.
In 2011, nearly half the beds in the nation’s civil detention system were in private facilities with little federal oversight, up from just 10 percent a decade ago.
The financial boom, which has helped save some of these companies from the brink of bankruptcy, has occurred even though federal officials acknowledge privatization isn’t necessarily cheaper.
This seismic shift toward a privatized system happened quietly. While Congress’ unsuccessful efforts to overhaul immigration laws drew headlines and sparked massive demonstrations, lawmakers’ negotiations to boost detention dollars received far less attention.
The industry’s giants – Corrections Corporation of America, The GEO Group, and Management and Training Corp. – have spent at least $45 million combined on campaign donations and lobbyists at the state and federal level in the last decade, the AP found.
CCA and GEO, who manage most private detention centers, insist they aren’t trying to influence immigration policy to make more money, and their lobbying and campaign donations have been legal.
“As a matter of long-standing corporate policy, CCA does not lobby on issues that would determine the basis for an individual’s detention or incarceration,” CCA spokesman Steve Owen said in an email to the AP. The company has a website dedicated to debunking such allegations.
Advocates for immigrants are skeptical the lobbying is not meant to influence policy.
“That’s a lot of money to listen quietly,” said Peter Cervantes-Gautschi, who has helped lead a campaign to encourage large banks and mutual funds to divest from the prison companies.
The detention centers are located in cities and remote areas alike, often in low-slung buildings surrounded by chain-link fences and razor wire. U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents detain men, women and children suspected of violating civil immigration laws at these facilities. Most of those held at the 250 sites nationwide are illegal immigrants awaiting deportation, but some green card holders, asylum seekers and others are also there.
The total average nightly cost to taxpayers to detain an illegal immigrant, including health care and guards’ salaries, is about $166. ICE confirmed the cost only after the AP calculated that figure and presented it to the agency.
That’s up from $80 in 2004. ICE said the $80 didn’t include all of the same costs but declined to provide details.
In 1996, Congress passed a law requiring many more illegal immigrants be locked up. But it wasn’t until 2005 – as the corrections companies’ lobbying efforts reached their zenith – that ICE got a major boost. Between 2005 and 2007, the agency’s budget jumped from $3.5 billion to $4.7 billion, adding more than $5 million for custody operations.
Dora Schriro, who in 2009 reviewed the nation’s detention system at the request of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, said nearly every aspect had been outsourced.
“ICE was always relying on others for responsibilities that are fundamentally those of the government,” said Schriro, now the New York City Correction Commissioner. “If you don’t have the competency to know what is a fair price to ask and negotiate the most favorable rates for the best service, then the likelihood that you are going to overspend is greater.”
Private companies argue they can save Americans money by running the centers more cheaply.
Pablo Paez, a spokesman for Boca Raton, Fla.-based GEO, said in an email his company supports public-private partnerships which “have been demonstrated to achieve significant cost savings for the taxpayers.” He declined to answer specific questions.
A decade ago, more than 3,300 criminal immigrants were sent to private prisons under two 10-year contracts the Federal Bureau of Prisons signed with CCA worth $760 million. Now, the agency is paying the private companies $5.1 billion to hold more than 23,000 criminal immigrants through 13 contracts of varying lengths.
CCA was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2000 due to lawsuits, management problems and dwindling contracts. Last year, the company reaped $162 million in net income. Federal contracts made up 43 percent of its total revenues, in part thanks to rising immigrant detention.
GEO, which cites the immigration agency as its largest client, saw its net income jump from $16.9 million to $78.6 million since 2000.
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