President Obama announced the end of the use of private, for-profit prisons by the Federal Bureau of Prisons in light of abuses by prison companies and safety and security problems that are worse than government-operated facilities. The decision impacted 22,000 federal prisoners, or 12 percent of the total, according to the Justice Department inspector general.
That was then, this is now. The private-prison industry donated heavily to Trump, and now they are cashing in their chips.
As Political Dig reported, the Obama administration’s decision to end the contracts with private companies was due to the abuse and mistreatment of prisoners by GEO Group. In 2012, a federal judge referred to a GE-operated prison as a “cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions,” according to The International Business Times. In 2014, the head of the Mississippi prison system was charged with accepting bribes from private prisons and pleaded guilty. The GEO Group donated $250,000 to Trump’s inauguration activities, as USA Today reported, while a GEO Group subsidiary also gave $225,000 to Rebuild America Now, a pro-Trump super PAC. The Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan watchdog group, filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) alleging that in giving to the Trump super PAC, the GEO Group violated a federal law barring political contributions from government contractors, as VICE News reported. CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America or CCA) also contributed $250,000 to Trump.
In February, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Obama ban on private prisons was reversed. The GEO was awarded a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for a $110-million, 1,000-bed detention facility in Conroe, Texas, with an expected annual revenue stream of $44 million, according to Political Dig. Politico had reported that in October, GEO Group hired two former Sessions aides to lobby in favor of federal prison outsourcing to for-profit industry.
The Trump victory will increase the profitability of immigration detention centers as well. New Department of Homeland Security (DHS) guidelines require ICE and border patrol agents to detain all undocumented immigrants that are caught, a departure from the “catch and release” policy allowing immigration officials to release people and order them to reappear for court hearings. Private detention centers account for 65 percent of DHS facilities, according to USA Today. The new DHS guidelines requiring detentions of the undocumented serve to expand bed capacity for these ICE facilities operated by GEO Group and CoreCivic, as The Intercept noted. According to CNN, stocks for these companies have soared 100 percent since the election of Donald Trump.
Private prisons are lucrative, as the warehousing of poor, Black and brown bodies is big business. A report from The Public Interest found that six Wall Street banks finance the two industry leaders, CoreCivic and GEO Group. The banks include Wells Fargo, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, BNP Paribas, SunTrust and U.S. Bancorp. These banks profit by providing loans, credit and bonds to these companies. In turn, these prison corporations benefit from financing by operating as real estate trusts, which helps reduce their taxes. “CCA and GEO Group have relied on debt financing from banks to expand their control of the criminal justice and immigration enforcement systems by acquiring smaller companies that provide ‘community corrections’ services, like residential reentry and electronic monitoring,” the report said. At the end of June 2016, GEO had a total of $1.9 billion in debt, while CoreCivic had $1.5 billion.
Placing public services and functions in the hands of private actors for the purpose of making a buck is fraught with potential pitfalls, not the least of which is the potential exploitation of human beings. In the case of prisons for profit, modern-day slavery has emerged. For the first time in history, a class-action suit alleges that a private prison company violated anti-slavery laws. Tens of thousands of immigrant detainees allege they were forced to work for $1 a day or without pay at the Denver Contract Detention Facility, which is operated by the GEO Group, under contract with ICE, as The Washington Post reported. First filed in 2014, the suit received class-action status in March and could encompass as many as 60,000 plaintiffs, including past and current immigrant detainees.
Slavery and imprisonment are interconnected. For example, the 13th Amendment bans involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Similarly, private prisons trace their origins to the slave trade. For example, in 2000, GEO Group contracted with the federal government to build a prison on the site of one of North Carolina’s largest slave plantations. Around 1,200 Black inmates from the District of Columbia would be imprisoned at the location where some of their ancestors were likely enslaved years earlier. During the slave trade, private prisons were an important part of human trafficking in D.C. — slave dealers’ torture chambers that they were — with the nation’s capital serving as a major hub in the trading of Black people in the 19th century.
Even after slavery ended in name, the institution continued in practice through the convict lease system, where states leased out Black convict labor to private contractors, including ex-plantation owners. The Jim Crow regime rounded up Black men on trumped-up charges and leased them out to build the railroads, pick cotton and work in the mines. Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, and Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm, were actual slave plantations before they became state prison farms. Given that the modern-day private prisons — like the plantations and work farms of an earlier era — were filled with Black people deprived of their rights and forced to work for free, this is a distinction without difference.
In the age of Trump, private industry will continue to maintain its historical role of exploiting Black people and imprisoning them for profit.