President Trump's policy of jailing Latin American refugees for indefinite periods of time is delivering huge profits to one of his biggest financial backers: the for-profit prison industry.
The companies, many of which contributed to Trump's 2016 campaign and his inauguration ceremony, reportedly raked in billions of dollars in public funds in fiscal 2018 alone. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency told the Daily Beast that its agents were transporting an average of 44,892 migrants to privately-owned or operated jails on a daily basis.
ICE records show that 19 of the prisons received a total of $807 million from U.S. taxpayers between October 2017 and December 2018. The figure does not included data from other for-profit jails. 71% of all incarcerated migrants are in private facilities.
GEO Group operates 17 lockups, which housed about 11,000 migrants in fiscal 2017. The company charged the government an average of $101 per day for each prisoner. This fiscal year, taxpayers are projected to fork over $2.3 billion to CEO Group. That would provide an excellent return on investment for the firm, which donated $281,360 to the Trump campaign.
In 2004, CEO Group reported $120,000 in expenditures related to lobbying Congress. Two years later, it spent $1.2 million. Another large private prison operator, CoreCivic, committed $10 million from 2008-14 to lobby a House appropriations subcommittee for migrant-jail funding. The two companies gave a combined $500,000 to Trump's presidential bid, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
The payoff began shortly after the new administration took office in January 2017, and profits soared earlier this year when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that authorities would jail everyone caught crossing the Mexican border. The policy applied not only to undocumented immigrants entering the country illegally, but also to those lawfully applying for asylum.
The administration asked Congress for funding to cover the cost of maintaining 2,500 beds for refugee families at three facilities, the largest two of which were run by private companies. The firms get paid for every bed, whether or not they are being used.
The Department of Human Services later indicated it was willing to finance 15,000 additional beds, each with a price tag of $318.79 per day, for families awaiting asylum hearings. Under previous administrations, the government released such migrants with monitoring devices like ankle bracelets.
The true cost of imprisoning people who flee poverty and violence in their homelands is unknown. Obtaining “basic information about immigration detention and how private prison companies are profiting from it (is) incredibly difficult,” Mary Small of Detention Watch Network, an immigrant-rights group, told the Daily Beast.
She explained: “Even though billions of taxpayer dollars are being obligated to private prison companies, the contracts between them and the federal government aren't publicly available, so we don't know how much these companies are being paid, how many people they're holding or how long their contracts last.”
Small said “this culture of secrecy — bolstered by revolving door politics and political contributions — has paved the way for a rapid and reckless expansion of the detention system.”
The companies, in return for all the money they receive from the government, are running scandalous facilities. Detainees, including young children separated from their parents, often end up in crowded cells and cages. A group of prisoners at a CEO Group jail in Colorado sued the company for forcing tens of thousands of refugees to perform various jobs for just one dollar a day.
Another class-action suit, levied against a CEO Group facility in Colorado, accuses the firm of “systematic and unlawful wage theft, unjust enrichment, and forced labor.” The plaintiffs allege that prisoners use their paltry wages to pay for “basic necessities, including food, water and hygiene products.”
Emily Ryo, who teaches law at the University of California, told the Daily Beast: “To the extent that the industry is in the business of expanding the system so they can make more money off holding more immigrants that can be confined, and doing everything possible to profit off of it by labor processes like getting detainees to work and paying them a dollar a day, there is very little distinction you can draw between slave labor and what they're doing.”
Considering the profits to be made, it comes as no surprise that private companies are reluctant to release inmates before they are forced to do so. They keep migrants behind bars an average of 87 days, compared to the typical 33.3-day term in a public prison.
Conditions in private jails are often substandard, there are frequent suicides and other deaths, and the children suffer trauma that will haunt them the rest of their lives. Human Rights Watch reported that poor health care is responsible for half of the deaths.