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Locking Up Immigrants Is Big Business

Brave New Films recently posted a brief cartoon explaining the lucrative business of privatized prisons housing detained immigrants.

The clip explains how three large corporations–GEO Group, Management and Training Corporation, and the Corrections Corporation of America–make close to $5 billion a year by treating imprisonment like any other commodity to be sold on the free market.

“You just sell it like you were selling cars or real estate or hamburgers,” said CCA founder Thomas Beasley, former chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party whose company has helped lead the charge for privatized prisons over the last few decades.

The dominant motive behind selling a hamburger or car, of course, is to make as much profit as possible. So it is with privatized prisons. Imprisoning more immigrants, African Americans, Latinos, and other people of color and poor people means making prison owners and investors more money, which has led many to question whether increasing the number of private prisons, in a nation with around 2.3 million in jail or prison and the highest rate of incarceration in the world, is sound public policy. Should the decision to lock a person up for years and potentially shatter his or her life be guided by the same motives as selling a consumer item?

CCA seemed to recognize that their bottom line might not always line up with the goals of sound public policy in their 2005 annual report [PDF]:

The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.

In order to ensure such changes to criminal and immigration law are not implemented, CCA and other private prison corporations have taken aggressive steps to ensure that locking people up remains lucrative. Nowhere was this clearer than the revelation last year that private prisons had been a driving force behind Arizona’s draconian SB 1070–even writing the majority of the bill through the American Legislative Exchange Council, a secretive “front group” that pushes free market legislation which frequently benefits the council’s corporate members.

The bill, as the Brave New Films clip explains, is a huge boon for private corrections corporations because it makes anyone who law enforcement officials even suspect of being an undocumented immigrant a target for arrest. The more jails fill up with people suspected of violations of immigration law, the more cash companies like CCA and GEO Group rake in–even if a citizen is wrongly arrested and eventually released. Prisoners always make money ($200 a day, according to the clip) for corporations, whether those prisoners have committed a crime or not.

In his expose on CCA and SB 1070 for In These Times, Beau Hodai quoted Wayne Calabrese, CEO of GEO Group, who summed up private corrections corporations’ thinking on bills that work to criminalize immigrants:

"[T]he opportunities at the federal level are going to continue at pace as a result of what's happening. I think people understand there is still a relatively low threshold of tolerance for people coming across the border and those laws not being enforced," Calabrese said. "And that to me at least suggests there are going to be enhanced opportunities for what we do."

Judging by the $5 billion figure given in the BNF clip, “enhanced opportunities” likely refers to the incredible amounts of money made to lock immigrants and poor people of color up and tear them away from their families for reasons ranging from the sensible to the absurd. As long as private corporations are able to run our nation’s prisons, the conflict between good public policy and those “enhanced opportunities” will continue to exist.

Micah Uetricht is a staff writer with Campus Progress. You can follow him on Twitter @micahuetricht.

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