How Private Prisons Profit From the Criminalization of Immigrants


How a nation uses its power to deny a person’s freedom has always been a critical measure of authoritarian rule. Massive incarceration based on race, ethnic origin or nationality, political beliefs, class, sexual orientation, age or other inherent characteristics is a form of tyranny.

Yet few people realize that this is happening on an enormous scale here, in the United States of America. Immigrants make up the latest market for a booming private prison industry.

The U.S. locks up the highest percentage of its population in the world—730 per 100,000, nearly two and a half million people. Although it has only 5% of the population, 25% of the world’s prison population is behind bars in the U.S.

It wasn’t always like this. This huge growth in the prison population has taken place just over the past two decades, when the imprisonment rate per capita surged by 45%.

It’s not that the U.S. experienced a major crime wave. The opposite is true. Crime and especially violent crime steadily decreased over the same period. Two factors–the lock-up of mostly poor, black or Latino recreational drug users and of immigrants–now account for more than 80% of people behind bars in our country. Draconian drug prohibitionist policies and new laws that criminalize undocumented immigrants have flooded the nation’s prisons.

In other words, while actual behavior in society improved overall, the U.S. government broadened the criteria for depriving people of their most fundamental liberties. This wide net now traps more men, women and children than at any other time in history.

There’s a reason for that.

For-Profit Prisons and the Criminalization of Immigrants

In the mid-eighties, the U.S. government began to outsource jailing people. The first contract, in 1984, went to Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), still the largest for-profit prison company in the country. Private prisons moved into communities left behind by the globalized economy. Heavily subsidized by taxpayer money even before receiving public contracts, they built thousands of cells throughout the country.

Then they had to fill those cells. How do you drum up business if you’re a for-profit prison industry? By making sure there’s a steady stream of prisoners. For every human being sent behind their bars, CCA or the second giant in the industry GEO Group, make approximately $122 a day, per head. CCA reported $1.7 billion in gross revenue last year, nearly half from government contracts.

That’s a powerful incentive to lock people up. In recent years, the most effective strategy for “market expansion” in the private prison industry has been to criminalize immigrants.

Latinos, the New Prison Majority

A series of recent laws have redefined undocumented immigration from an administrative infraction to a felony led to the creation of scores of migrant detention centers, built and run by the private prison industry. Operation Streamline, a policy begun in 2005, mandates that nearly all undocumented immigrants crossing the Southern border in certain areas be prosecuted through the federal criminal justice system.

Grassroots Leadership report on Operation Streamline shows that federal districts along the Texas-Mexico border have spent more than $1.2 billion on the criminal detention and incarceration of border-crossers since the program began in 2005, with more than 135,000 migrants criminally prosecuted in these two border districts under two sections of the federal code that make unauthorized entry and re-entry a crime. The report found a 2,722% increase in prosecutions for entry, and a 267% increase in prosecutions for re-entry, compared to corresponding data for 2002.

As a result, Latinos now make up the majority of people sent to federal prison for felony crimes, with sentencing for newly defined immigration felonies like illegal border crossing or aiding in border crossing accounting for the increase. While Latinos were 50.3% of those sentenced in 2011, they make up only 16% of the overall population. ICE now sends 400,000 immigrants a year to detention centers. Increased sentencing for non-violent immigration and drug offences has also driven the number of women in prison up by 800 percent.

The round-up of immigrants means that half of immigrant detainees spend time in prison compared to just a quarter a decade ago. This human bounty hunting shatters lives and families and costs taxpayers billions of dollars, much of it paid to the private prison industry.

Lobbying for Lock-up

It’s not surprising that for-profit prison companies have lobbied hard in Congress to maintain their cash cows—the drug war and the criminalization of immigrants.  The CCA 2010 Annual Report clearly states the need for criminalization to continue by warning its investors:

“The demand for our facilities could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, 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.”(p.19)

The report notes that three federal governmental agencies accounted for 43% of total revenues in fiscal year 2010 ($717.8 million)—the Bureau of Prisons (15%), Immigration and Customs Enforcement-ICE (12%) and the US Marshalls Service (16%). It concludes, “We are dependent upon the governmental agencies with which we have contracts to provide inmates for our managed facilities.”

An AP story found that the private prison companies spent more than $45 million in lobbying and campaigns in the last decade. According to a Justice Policy Institute report, CCA spent an average of $900,000 a year on federal lobbying over the past decade. That figure doesn’t count state lobbying, where private prisons participate actively, or campaign contributions.

When Arizona passed SB1070 to increase police power to detain anyone suspected of not having immigration papers, 30 of the bill’s 36 legislative co-sponsors were found to have received significant campaign contributions from private prison companies.

A People’s Movement Against Private Prisons

Peter Cervantes-Gautschi, Director of Enlace, notes, “Of immigrants in the federal prison system, nearly half are in for things not even considered crimes six years ago.” He states that only 5% of immigrants behind bars are there for what would normally be considered a crime.

He adds, “People who are in for re-entry aren’t criminals—these are people coming back to see their children, coming back to visit a sick relative. It’s creating a great deal of human suffering and causing huge problems in our communities and schools. Our families are being broken up by this ridiculous policy.”

Enlace, an organization that works for the rights of low-wage workers, coordinates the National Prison Divestment Campaign. Using a “follow-the-money” strategy for understanding and confronting the influence of the private prison industry, it built a coalition of more than 130 national, state and local organizations “to convince shareholders (individuals, banks, hedge funds, etc.) to divest their funds from the prison industry so that we can make an impact on the prison business and reduce the power of CCA and GEO to lobby for laws that imprison our communities.”

The coalition has already scored some big victories, including cancellation of a for-profit detention center in South Florida, divestment by the hedge fund Pershing Square and by the United Methodist Church, and the divestment of a third of its GEO holdings by Wells Fargo following a campaign against WF  Banking on Immigrant Detention. Resident organizations have stopped detention center projects in communities from Georgia to Illinois.

Their message has been simple: “Stop funding incarceration for profit.” The coalition is gearing up for another National Day of Action on Dec. 13. This time the focus will be on members of Congress sitting on the budget committees. Constituents are calling on their representatives to discontinue life support to the for-profit prison industry and direct scarce public funds their communities’ basic needs and services.

Laura Carlsen is the Director of the CIP Americas Program.

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