The Winners in Immigration Control: Private Prisons

The prison industry's profits have doubled from the government's increased spending on detaining undocumented immigrants. And that may be one reason the prisons, in turn, spend so much on lobbying.
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Jeff Topping/Reuters

What if immigration reform advocates used financial arguments to make their case? Ask 10 individuals how they feel about the immigration debate, and you'll get a range of responses combining humanitarian, employment, population, or economic concerns. You probably won't hear about the hefty price tag of the immigration control battle, nor the profits that private prisons are making off the government's expenditures, nor the alternatives to detention that might pair more humane treatment with cost effectiveness.

Since 2003, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement was created and government crackdowns on undocumented aliens increased, private prisons have gained business, with industry profits more than doubling.

The prisons' gain is the government's loss - the profits are being generated from spending on immigration detention, which has also doubled over the past eight years. The National Immigration Forum reported earlier this month that the cost of detaining an immigrant averages $159 a day.

"There are alternatives to detention that are much less costly," said Andrea Black, executive director of Detention Watch Network, an immigration advocacy group. "It can cost $12 a day in an alternative detention program."

Immigrant advocates are battling private prison interests by pushing for wider use of these other options. The question is whether those alternatives will be adopted. The government now spends more than $2 billion a year on immigration detention, while spending only $72 million on alternatives to detention.

"Between 2007 and 2009, when earnings for the S&P dropped by 28 percent, ours grew by 18 percent," said Damon Hininger, CEO of Corrections Corporation of America, during a conference call with investors in May 2010.

So far this year, CCA has spent nearly $1 million on lobbying, according to government disclosure records. The company is publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange and is worth $4 billion. Private prisons say their lobbying efforts are aimed at promoting their services, not shaping immigration policy.

"We've worked in partnership with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement...for 30 years to help safely and humanely house detainees at a savings to taxpayers, and we will continue to work with them in whatever capacity they need," CCA spokesman Steve Owen said in an email.

But immigrant advocates say the private prison industry is always lobbying for more detention beds. And the consequences of government spending on prison beds can be profound, said Bob Libal, director of Grassroots Leadership, an immigration advocacy group.

Congress has appropriated funds to pay for housing 34,000 illegal immigrants a day, and ICE officials "interpret that as a mandate to fill those beds regardless of what the situation outside is," said Libal. "It keeps people in detention and helps [companies'] bottom line, because half of those 34,000 beds are operated by private prison corporations."

At present, prisoners serving a sentence for an immigration offense in the federal prison system are one of the nation's fastest-growing prison populations, according to data from the Bureau of Prisons. Meanwhile, just about every state's prison costs go over budget. In 2010 New York, Illinois, Texas, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Missouri were more than 20 percent over their corrections budgets, a study by the Vera Institute of Justice found.

Several pending immigration bills would increase the number of incarcerated immigrants even more.

The Corker-Hoeven Amendment in the Senate immigration bill - the one approved in June - would dramatically increase enforcement at the border, upping border spending by $45 million a year, and thus indirectly leading to more incarcerations. The Senate bill would also convert more immigrants from the civil system to the criminal system, which means they would be held longer.

The House has five pending immigration-related bills of its own. One, called the SAFE Act (Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement), would make it a federal crime for illegal immigrants to be in the U.S., and calls for mandatory detention if local police suspect someone might be undocumented. 

What if the alternatives to incarceration that reform advocates find more humane are also more budget-friendly?

One alternative to immigrant detention is intensive supervision programs run by corporations. The GEO Group Inc., a private prison company, uses a combination of ankle GPS monitoring systems and home visits to keep tabs on a suspected illegal immigrant without putting them in prison.

Community-based support programs are another option to consider. A pilot program by Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services works with ICE to find immigrants in deportation proceedings who would most benefit from release. Participants receive a number of services - including housing, case management and legal representation.

The goal is to facilitate long-term integration to society, including compliance with immigration mandates. The voluntary program is specifically focused on individuals seeking protection in the U.S. and offers such services as medical and mental health care, financial advice, language classes, and civics classes.

"Our primary goal is not enforcement, rather providing client-centered services that foster independence and self-sufficiency for people starting a new life in the U.S.," Anna Campbell, national network coordinator of the program, called Access to Justice, said in an email.  

The program served nearly 100 people in 2012 and is on track to do the same this year. The program's efficacy is still to be determined - hard data is not available because most of the participants' legal cases have not yet concluded.

Black, of the Detention Watch Network, said the goal of incarceration is to make sure immigrants show up for their court hearings. But if cheaper alternatives are just as successful at achieving that goal, how much money might we save by employing them on a larger scale?

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Aubrey Pringle is a writer based in Chicago. 

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