Trump’s Expansion of Immigrant Detentions and Support of Private Prisons Cannot Be Ignored
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By Sylvia Longmire
Contributor, In Homeland Security
Few issues have been as controversial in minority and immigrant communities as the growth of private prisons in the United States. The overlapping of interests between the prison system and the U.S. government is referred to as the prison industrial complex (PIC), and numerous questions have been raised about the ability of government agencies to craft policies free of the influence of for-profit prisons.
However, President Donald Trump’s reversal of his predecessor’s policies to reduce or eliminate the use of private prisons, combined with his plans to expand the detention of illegal immigrants, is once again shining a spotlight on inappropriate relationships between private corporations and the White House.
A History of Prison Privatization
The privatization of at least part of the penitentiary and prison system goes back to the 19th century, with efforts to self-finance prisons and make money by splitting profits from prison labor. However, even back then, corners were cut to reduce costs, introducing corruption into management and negatively affecting the care of the prison population.
Despite this, the system continued to flourish. Fast forward to 1979 – President Carter signed the Justice System Improvement Act, which laid the foundation for the Prison Industries Enhancement Program. This lifted the ban on interstate commerce in goods made by prisoners and helped usher a new age of prison privatization, spearheaded by corporations such as the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and Geo Group.
President Obama’s Policy
In August 2016, the Department of Justice—under former President Obama’s purview—announced it would end its reliance on for-profit prisons after a new study indicated they were less safe than public prisons, poorly run, and did not provide the cost savings they claimed. Despite the fact the policy change would only affect 195,000 prisoners in federal facilities, as opposed to the more than 2 million prisoners housed in privately run state and local prisons and jails, prison reform and minority group advocates celebrated the move.
The PIC has been widely criticized by these groups as a system that unfairly targets racial minorities for arrest and imprisonment in order to fill prison beds and meet prisoner intake quotas—in other words, to effectively turn a profit. In 2014, CCA and Geo Group had a combined revenue of $3.3 billion, according to The New York Times.
Sessions Reverses Obama’s Order
Many were disappointed but few were surprised when on Feb. 23, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed Obama’s order, putting CCA and Geo Group back on the federal prison map. After shares of both companies fell by 40 percent after Obama’s announcement last August, CCA’s stock (now known as CoreCivic) jumped 43 percent the day after Trump’s inauguration, while Geo Group’s rose by 21 percent. According to CNN Money, stocks in both companies have risen in value by over 100 percent since Election Day.
Again, this should come as no surprise, considering that Geo Group contributed $673,200 to Trump’s campaign and political action committees supporting Republican candidates through the end of September 2016. In an email to The Huffington Post in October 2016, GEO Group spokesman Pablo Paez denied that the company’s support for Trump was based on his favorable view of the private prison industry.
What makes this policy reversal even more disturbing is the Trump administration’s recent plans to expand the detention of illegal immigrants awaiting hearings as part of deportation proceedings. According to documents received by MSNBC, Asylum Division Chief John Lafferty said in a town hall with DHS staffers last month that the agency had already located 20,000 beds for the indefinite detention of immigrant seeking asylum, representing a nearly 500 percent increase from current capacity. Andrew Free, an immigration lawyer in Nashville who represents clients applying for asylum, told MSNBC, “If implemented, this expansion in immigration detention would be the fastest and largest in our country’s history.”
Families Forced to Choose
The policy is meant to fulfill Trump’s campaign promise to end the DHS policy of “catch and release,” which generally has allowed non-criminal immigrants to live in the U.S. without status while waiting to appear before an immigration judge. This policy has come under fire because sometimes the wait can be 3-5 years, and many immigrants never show up for their hearings.
One of the more controversial aspects of the plan is a break from the current policy of keeping families together. Instead, it would separate women and children (who are now most likely to be released after apprehension) after they’ve been detained — leaving mothers to choose between returning to their country of origin with their children or being separated from their children while staying in detention to pursue their asylum claim.
According to the meeting notes obtained by MSNBC, Lafferty also told staffers that the division has to commit more resources to border detention facilities, that officials plan to oversee facility expansion and the opening of new facilities, and that the division is currently working with Congress to get additional funding to pay for the expansion. The majority of these detention facilities are overseen by CoreCivic (formerly CCA).
The proximity in time of the decisions to continue using private prisons and to expand the detention of illegal immigrants using detention facilities run by the same corporations cannot be ignored. Nor can the significant financial contributions made by the corporations to the Trump campaign and other politicians be dismissed, as they are likely to influence policy decisions that significantly and negatively affect both racial minorities and illegal immigrants seeking asylum in the United States.
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