Under the Donald Trump administration, the U.S. has more than doubled its spending on services from one of the biggest private prison companies in the world, with the majority of that spending going towards the detention of immigrants across the country.
In the first 11 months of fiscal year 2019 alone, the U.S. has seen more than $595 million in obligated spending dedicated to The GEO Group, a Florida-based for-profit correctional institutions company operating prisons around the world, according to the U.S. government’s federal spending website.
The total is more than double the nearly $260 million that the U.S. government obligated to The GEO Group under the Barack Obama administration in 2014, five years ago, with the amount dedicated to the private prison company seeing a sharp spike in President Donald Trump’s first year in office, 2017, and steadily increasing over the following two years.
Overall incarceration rates on the decline
The surge in funding for The GEO Group, which has faced international scrutiny over its treatment of inmates—and in particular, of immigrant detainees—comes as the incarceration rate in the U.S. continues to fall.
In April, reports released by the Department of Justice revealed that the imprisonment rate in relation to the U.S. population had fallen to its lowest point since 1997, sinking to just 440 inmates per 100,000 residents in 2017.
That decrease has come “despite [the Trump administration’s] best efforts,” however, Kara Gotsch, the director of strategic initiatives at The Sentencing Project, an organization advocating for prison reform, told Newsweek.
“At the end of the Obama administration, the Department of Justice had announced a phasing out of private prisons,” she noted. “But, with the Trump administration, he appointed Jeff Sessions as attorney general and they quickly reversed that phase-out.”
While Sessions has long since been ousted at the White House, his efforts to undo the Obama-era order to roll back federal reliance on private prisons have persevered. A January 2018 memo leaked last year showed the Justice Department had even gone so far as to seek to identify inmates to transfer out of government facilities and into privately run prisons.
Still, Gotsch said, the number of inmates held in federal prisons across the U.S. has been on the decline.
Where is the money going?
So, why the boost in spending on a for-profit prison company like The GEO Group? Immigrant detention appears to be the answer.
Of the $595 million the U.S. has obligated to The GEO Group in fiscal year 2019, in excess of $323 million, or more than 53 percent, was money obligated from the budget of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which oversees the detention of immigrants held under federal custody.
“Most of that money is going to ICE detention, which isn’t surprising,” Gotsch said.
While rates of federal imprisonment are going down overall, under the Trump administration, communities across the country have seen widespread “targeted enforcement operations,” with some raids leading to the arrests of hundreds of people at a time.
“When the Trump campaign came into office on a wave of nativism and xenophobia and a war on immigration, the [private prison] market was revived,” Judy Greene, a criminal justice policy analyst and the founder of Justice Strategies, a nonprofit research organization focused on cost-effective approaches to criminal justice and immigration reform, told Newsweek.
However, Greene warned, companies like The GEO Group could suffer in the long-run due to their role in helping the Trump administration enforce its hardline immigration policies.
“Their participation with this extraordinarily harsh immigration enforcement regime has tarnished their image with the public to a [significant] extent,” Greene said.
This past year, Greene noted, a number of major banks have sought to distance themselves from the private prison industry, including firms like The GEO Group, with banks including Wells Fargo and SunTrust refusing to provide future financing to private prison giants.
“They are now pulling back from financing these companies and so it’s a very troubling picture for [firms like The GEO Group],” she said. “I should think they are quite worried.”
And with a number of 2020 Democratic candidates, including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, throwing their support behind calls to end private prisons and “exploitation for profit.”
In a June Medium post, Warren said that, if elected, she would bring the practice of “private profiteering off cruelty” to an end.
“The government has a basic responsibility to keep the people in its care safe—not to use their punishment as an opportunity for profit,” Warren wrote.
“If we have, you might call it a regime change,” Greene said, adding that companies like The GEO Group could be “looking at the end of the federal market.”
For Gotsch’s part, however, even if a newly elected leader were to bring about an end to the use of private prisons, that would not solve the U.S.’s “mass incarceration problem.”
“I feel like people are missing the boat if they think that…if you get rid of the private prisons, you won’t have a mass incarceration problem,” she said.
“I’m opposed to the use of private prisons because I don’t think anybody should be profiting off of incarceration,” she said. But, even if the government’s reliance on them were to come to an end, “we would still have racial disparity… we would still have unfair systems from policing to the courts…All that is still in place…All of that still has to be reckoned with.”
“You have to think about mass incarceration as a whole,” Gotsch said. “I’m always asking, ‘when is it appropriate to incarcerate someone?'”
“Certainly, if they’re a threat to public safety,” she said. “But, I think the majority…which includes, people who are here as immigrants, they are not a threat to public safety.” Yet, she said, “there are a lot of resources being used to incarcerate them.”