WASHINGTON ― When Donald Trump was running for president, the private prison industry in the United States was down for the count. An undercover reporter exposed abuse at a private prison in Louisiana. A report from the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General found private prisons had higher rates of assault than regular prisons.
The Obama administration announced in August that it was phasing out the use of private prisons to house federal inmates; private prison stock subsequently plunged. And Trump’s foe, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton — who had received donations from private prison lobbyists — said she was “glad” to see the end of private prisons. “You shouldn’t have a profit motivation to fill prison cells with young Americans,” she added.
Then Trump won.
In his first 100 days, Trump has failed to fulfill the populist promises of his campaign, while industries like Wall Street have made big gains. But the private prison industry in the U.S. — which is heavily dependent on federal contracts from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Marshals Service — has had one of the biggest turnarounds of all, winning Justice Department approval, new and extended contracts, and an administration that is expected to bolster the demand for a lot of detention beds.
The Obama administration’s 2016 directive to reduce and ultimately end the use of privately operated prisons on the federal level “put these companies on the defensive in a way that we had not seen for at least 15 years,” Carl Takei, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union’s national prison project, told HuffPost. “But now, we face a total reversal of that situation.”
In February, Attorney General Jeff Sessions withdrew the Obama-era directive, claiming that it “impaired the [Bureau of Prisons’] ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.” One day after that announcement, CNN reported that the stocks of CoreCivic (previously called Corrections Corporation of America) and GEO Group, the two largest private prison operators, were up 140 percent and 98 percent, respectively, since Trump’s election.
“The attorney general’s announcement in February validated our position that the DOJ’s previous direction was not reflective of the high-quality services we have provided,” said Jonathan Burns, a spokesman for CoreCivic.
But the wins for private prison operators go further than the Trump administration’s reversal of the Obama administration’s memo, which technically only applied to a sliver of federal prisons, not state lockups or immigration detention facilities.
The Trump administration is also expected to implement tough-on-crime policies and large-scale deportations. Just this month, Sessions announced plans to weigh criminal charges for any person caught in the U.S. who has been previously deported, regardless of where they’re arrested.
CoreCivic does not draft legislation or lobby for proposals that might determine the basis or duration of a person’s incarceration, the company spokesman told HuffPost.
But private prison operators acknowledge that “new policies, priorities under the new administration [have helped create] an increased need for detention bed space,” as J. David Donahue, GEO Group senior vice president, told investors in February.
Donahue said his company was having ongoing discussions with ICE about its capabilities, which included “3,000 idle beds and 2,000 underutilized beds.” In April, GEO Group announced it had been awarded an ICE contract to build a new 1,000-bed detention center in Texas.
CoreCivic also announced a contract extension in April at a 1,000-bed detention facility in Texas. The company cited “ICE’s expected detention capacity needs” and “the ideal location of our facility on the southern border” as reasons ICE might extend its contract even further.
The Department of Homeland Security has identified 33,000 more detention beds available to house undocumented immigrants as it ramps up immigration enforcement, according to an internal memo obtained by The Washington Post and dated April 25.
“We can expect that the private prison industry will get rich off of any push by the Trump to expand the number of people in federal custody,” the ACLU’s Takei said.
“If you’re determined to lock everybody up as long as possible, whether they’re dangerous or not, you need a place to put them and lots of money to pay for it.”
In February, Trump re-emphasized his support for Kate’s Law, backed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), which would establish a five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence for undocumented immigrants who re-enter the United States after being convicted twice for illegal re-entry. The ACLU has estimated that even the most limited version of Kate’s Law would require nine new federal prisons.
Sessions has also tapped Steven Cook, who previously headed a group that opposed the Obama administration efforts to implement sentencing reforms, for a key role in a task force that will re-evaluate how the federal government deals with crime. This suggests that the Trump administration is planning to fulfill its promises to prosecute more drug and gun cases federally.
“If you’re determined to lock everybody up as long as possible, whether they’re dangerous or not, you need a place to put them and lots of money to pay for it,” said Molly Gill, director of federal legislative affairs at FAMM, a group that opposes mandatory minimums.
Although the federal prison population has declined in recent years, federal prisons are still over capacity. Congress “does not seem to have much of a taste for building new prisons,” Gill noted, so “private prison contractors could make up the difference.”
Private prison critics claim that the industry has an incentive to spend less money on inmate services, as well as sufficient staffing, which can have disastrous human rights consequences including reliance on solitary confinement, poor mental health care, and violence. Private prisons are also not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, which means any misconduct is often shrouded in secrecy. (The CoreCivic spokesman said “the comments raised by critic groups are misinformed and neglect the history of our company.”)
A spokesman for GEO Group told HuffPost that the company believes the Obama administration decision to phase out private prisons last August “was based on a misrepresentation” of an Inspector General report that he said demonstrated that privately run facilities “are at least as equally safe, secure, and humane as publicly run facilities and in fact experienced lower rates of inmate deaths.”
In fact, investigators found that in “most key areas, contract prisons incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable [Bureau of Prisons] institutions.” (At the time, GEO Group said higher incidents numbers could be chalked up to better reporting.)
Civil rights advocates, nonetheless, have deep concerns. “Handing control of prisons to for-profit companies is a recipe for abuse and neglect,” Takei argued. “We expect that even greater reliance on private prisons will lead to similar problems, but on a larger scale,” he added.