In May, Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp told the Marietta Daily Journal that when it comes to private prisons, “It’s good to have some competition out there.”
The State of Georgia contracts with the two largest American private prison companies, GEO Group and CoreCivic, which operate four private facilities there. Both companies face lawsuits over alleged neglect and abuse of immigrant detainees, including from plaintiffs from a Georgia CoreCivic detention center.
GEO Group and CoreCivic have a clear favorite in the race for Georgia governor. According to state campaign finance records and federal IRS reports, the two private prison giants have combined to donate nearly $24,000 directly to Kemp’s campaign and close to $480,000 to independent and party groups that have spent millions of dollars backing Kemp.
On the other side of the governor’s race is Democrat Stacey Abrams, whose campaign has accepted no money from GEO Group, CoreCivic, or individuals who work for these companies. Abrams is campaigning to end private prisons and cash bail in the state. The ACLU recently launched an $800,000 ad campaign backing Abrams and promoting her criminal justice reform platform.
In an interview with Marietta Daily Herald, Abrams said she would end state contracts with private prison companies, which currently detain nearly 8,000 inmates.
“I do not believe in the privatization of justice,” Abrams said. “There is a profit motive behind private prisons that is anathema to the core of who we are as Americans.”
Abrams’ brother resides in a state prison, she says, and prison issues are “very personal” for her.
“Because we don’t endorse candidates, some people wonder why the ACLU would run an ad or inject itself into a candidate’s race,” Faiz Shakir, national political director of the ACLU, told Sludge. “If you care about reforming our prison and criminal justice system, how can you not get involved in educating voters about these issues when people most need to know what’s at stake? We’re trying to build a voting force for civil rights on issues like these that don’t get enough conversation in campaigns, relative to actual impact they have on lives and money.”
Private Prison Cash
GEO Group has donated the maximum allowed amount of $6,600 to the Kemp campaign. The company’s CEO George Zoley gave an additional $6,600 to the campaign, and GEO Group’s CFO donated $1,500. GEO gave $45,000 to the Georgia Republican Party—which has spent heavily to aid Kemp, including an ad attacking Abrams for “coddling criminals”—while giving no money to the state’s Democratic Party. CoreCivic has donated $9,100 to Kemp’s campaign.
This election cycle, GEO Group has given $200,000 to the national Republican Governors Association (RGA), a 527 political organization which had spent over $2 million on TV, radio and digital ads benefiting Kemp as of Wednesday. The RGA also donated $750,000 to the Georgia Republican Party. CoreCivic has given $201,000 to the RGA.
GEO Group has given $5,400 to the Republican State Leadership Committee, a 527 group mainly focused on state legislatures, state supreme courts and redistricting efforts, which has spent close to $1 million on mailers opposing Abrams and state Democrats. CoreCivic has committed $26,000 to the RSLC.
Both companies are major political donors in both state and federal elections, giving mostly to Republican candidates and committees. This year CoreCivic has donated $110,000 to the Democratic Governors Association (DGA), which has donated close to $3.9 million to the Georgia Democratic Party and has spent roughly $147,000 on research. GEO Group hasn’t given to the DGA this year but contributed $10,350 in 2017. Neither company gave to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
“Historically, CoreCivic has contributed to both Democratic and Republican candidates and organizations,” Amanda S. Gilchrist, director of public affairs at CoreCivic, told Sludge. “Our company generally supports those who are supportive of—or at least open minded—about public-private partnerships and the flexibility and cost-effectiveness we provide.” Gilchrist did not answer specific questions about why the company donated to Kemp and what it may want from the candidate should he become governor.
GEO Group, the ACLU of Georgia and the Abrams and Kemp campaigns did not respond to a requests for comment.
The Georgia Department of Corrections began contracting with GEO Group and CoreCivic (formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America) in 2010. The Department says that inmates at the four private facilities “work on full-time details.”
In 2017, a CoreCivic-operated prison in the state put an an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) inmate in solitary confinement for encouraging other inmates to stop working, according to a report from The Intercept. The International Covenant on Civil Rights considers forced or compulsory labor in prisons akin to slavery.
In her Marietta Daily Herald interview, Abrams said forced prison labor diminishes inmates’ humanity.
“People who are in prison have committed crimes and should be held accountable. But that accountability does not diminish their humanity, and private prisons allows us to diminish their humanity by treating them as commodities instead of treating them as people,” Abrams said.
Plaintiffs sued GEO Group earlier this year for forcing inmates to work for $1 per day or less. A group of 18 Republican members of Congress, including some of the caucus’ most far-right members such as Matt Gaetz, Steve King, and Paul Gosar, wrote a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions supporting GEO Group and claiming the work program’s purpose was to “enhance detention operations and services through detainee productivity” and to “reduce the negative impact of confinement through decreased idleness, improved morale, and fewer disciplinary incidents.”
According to usaspending.gov, GEO Group has two ongoing federal contracts with the U.S. Department of Justice for detention services in Georgia totaling nearly $312 million. Sludge has filed an information request regarding the two companies’ contracts with the State of Georgia.