How Private Prisons Profit from Forced Labor

Private prisons are a notorious feature of the American criminal punishment system, but when it comes to immigration detention, private prisons are both more ubiquitous and (possibly) easier to close.

While incarcerated at the Stewart Detention Center, Wilhen Barrientos—an immigrant from Guatemala—was forced to labor for CoreCivic, the infamous for-profit prison company. During his incarceration, he worked in the facility’s kitchen, making between $1 and $4 per day as part of the ironically named “Voluntary Work Program.” Barrientos explained that in prison, he faced an “impossible choice”: he could either work for pennies, or attempt to live without necessities such as soap and toilet paper, which were not provided to detainees and had to be purchased. (Once, when Barrientos requested more toilet paper, a CoreCivic guard denied his request and told Barrientos to “use his fingers” instead.) And when Barrientos refused to work double shifts, or tried to organize his coworkers, guards would threaten him with solitary confinement. In 2017, CoreCivic punished Barrientos by placing him in medical segregation for two months, using the excuse of a non-existent chicken pox infection as justification for their retaliation. 

Barrientos is not alone. On any given day, there are about 50,000 immigrants being held in detention, most of them in private prisons. Just to be clear, these immigrants are not incarcerated as punishment for a crime; rather, they are being held in what’s called “civil” detention until their deportation cases can be heard by an immigration judge or an appeals court. Under the law, “civil” detention is supposedly non-punitive; it’s simply an administrative measure to ensure that people don’t flee and disappear before their cases are decided. But for those on the inside, immigration detention is functionally indistinguishable from being in any other prison. Approximately half of those 50,000 detainees work in the “Voluntary Work Program,” earning a pittance for their labor, and many more are forced to do entirely uncompensated janitorial work. All across the country, detained immigrants are forced to labor to increase the profits of the corporations which keep them incarcerated. 

The public debate over the use of for-profit prisons has largely focused on the privatization of prisons that incarcerate people convicted of crimes. Although most people—libertarians excepted—agree that profiting from incarceration is morally abhorrent, some critics have pointed out that private prisons are not major drivers of mass incarceration. Historian David Stein has accurately described them as “a camera, not an engine” of mass incarceration. In 2017, about 8 percent of state and federal inmates (121,420 people) were housed in private prisons. In the federal system, for-profit prisons play a somewhat bigger role: about 27,500 people, or 15 percent of federal inmates, were held in private facilities. The state with the highest proportion of prisoners in for-profit facilities is New Mexico, which holds about 42 percent of its incarcerated population in private prisons.

121,420 people is a huge number, but it’s a relatively insignificant percentage of the huge numbers of people currently imprisoned as a result of the world historical crime that is American mass incarceration. Thus, while ending the use of private prisons in the criminal punishment system is still a worthy goal, it’s not one that will likely lead to systemic change. On the other hand, private prisons are absolutely central to the “civil” system of immigration detention. The vast majority of detained immigrants—more than 70 percent—are held in for-profit facilities. The radical expansion of immigration detention over the last thirty years would not have been possible without the for-profit incarceration industry. 

The story of the companies that have made this lucrative imprisonment of immigrants possible began in the 1980s. Privatized, profitable punishment had a long history in the United States prior to that point, but after the horrific abuses of convict leasing led to its abolition in the first decades of the twentieth century, profitable prisoner exploitation enterprises like chain gangs and prison farms were managed directly by state authorities, not by private individuals and companies. This began to change in 1983, when two entrepreneurs named Robert Crants and Thomas Beasley saw a business opportunity at the intersection of the rapid growth of incarceration and the Reagan Administration’s push for privatization. They decided to start a private prison company called the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Neither Crants nor Beasley had any experience with managing prisons, so they reached out to T. Don Hutto, a warden with a long track record of running public prisons at a profit in Texas and Arkansas. It so happens that people incarcerated at these public prisons had previously sued Hutto because of conditions that were described by the district court as being “a dark and evil world completely alien to the free world;” conditions which included prisoners being whipped with a five-foot long leather strap, receiving electrical shocks to their genitals with the “Tucker Telephone,” and being fed a starvation diet while held in punitive isolation. Hutto’s sinister track record, however, did not stop Crants and Beasley from partnering with him; they believed Hutto could help them turn a profit. CCA received its first contract to run an Immigration and Naturalization Service detention facility in 1984 and went public in 1986. (Today, CoreCivic manages an immigration detention center named for T. Don Hutto near Austin, Texas!)

The founding of CCA marked the beginning of a new era of American incarceration. Just one year later, in 1984, the Wackenhut Corrections Corporation was formed. Both companies have since changed their names, as public awareness of private prison companies (and negative publicity around them) has increased. CCA rebranded itself under the blandly inscrutable name “CoreCivic” after journalist Shane Bauer went undercover as a guard at a CCA prison in Louisiana and released a blockbuster investigation highlighting the abuses there. Wackenhut, meanwhile, is now known as GEO Group. (GEO is not an acronym for anything, it’s just meant to obscure what their actual business is.) Through acquisitions, these two corporations have become by far the largest private prison corporations. GEO Group manages 124 detention facilities of various types in the United States while CoreCivic manages 108. Business is very good: in 2019, GEO Group had $2.48 billion in revenue, while CoreCivic had $1.98 billion. (Two other companies—LaSalle Corrections and the creepily-titled Management and Training Corporation—also incarcerate a significant number of people.)

Both CoreCivic and GEO Group have long had ties to Republican politicians. Thomas Beasley was once the head of the Tennessee Republican Party, and most of CCA’s initial investors—which included then-Governor Lamar Alexander’s wife, Honey—came from his party connections. GEO Group has been particularly active in courting Republican politicians, both nationally and in its home state of Florida. For example, before his election to the Senate, Rick Scott headlined a fundraiser held at the home of GEO Group’s CEO. In addition, GEO recently hired the outgoing president of the Florida Senate as head counsel and former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi as a lobbyist.

Both GEO Group and CoreCivic donated heavily to pro-Trump political action committees. GEO Group also donated $50,000 to the conservative activist group Turning Point USA, which has strong connections to the Trump White House. In 2017, GEO Group relocated its annual conference from its own headquarters to the Trump National Doral Miami golf resort. In addition, both companies, whose stocks soared immediately after President Trump’s election, donated $250,000 apiece to Trump’s notably corrupt inauguration festivities.

It is no surprise that both corporations would enthusiastically support the Trump administration: immigration detention is central to their business model (and to Trump’s as well). In 2019, almost 30 percent of GEO Group and CoreCivic’s revenue came from detaining immigrants, and ICE contracts are both companies’ single largest revenue source. What’s more, much of these profits are essentially guaranteed by government policy. In 2010, Congress passed a law requiring ICE to maintain at least 33,400 detention “beds”: what this means, essentially, is that ICE is heavily incentivized to keep at least 33,400 human beings imprisoned at all times in order to continue justifying their receipt of this funding. (This provision has come to be known as “the bed quota” because ICE leadership has, in practice, interpreted it as a legal directive that they must keep the pre-funded beds continuously filled.) The majority of those “beds” are managed by GEO Group and CoreCivic. In the government shutdown and border wall fight of early 2019, Democrats beat back the Trump Administration’s attempt to require ICE to maintain 52,000 beds, but the average daily population of detained immigrants nevertheless remained above 50,000 for fiscal year 2019. In its 2019 budget, the Trump Administration asked for an even bigger 54,000-bed requirement. 

It’s worth noting that the abuses of immigration detention pre-date the Trump administration. Conditions during the Trump administration have been awful of course: besides the COVID outbreaks and the forced hysterectomies, a USA Today investigation in 2019 found more than four hundred allegations of sexual assault or abuse, as well as numerous instances of inadequate medical care, frequent use of solitary confinement, and more than eight hundred instances of physical force against detainees. These abuses led detained immigrants to file nearly 20,000 grievances between 2017 and 2019. During the Obama administration, hundreds of detained immigrants reported being sexually abused by guards. Despite the administration’s promises, the mass detention of immigrants continued until the end of Obama’s presidency, and detainees were never provided with protection from abuse. The abuse of detained immigrants is caused by the fact of their detention, no matter who is President. 

Private prisons, like all privatized services, make money by cutting costs. But once prisons are constructed, the two largest costs are labor and medical care, which are impossible to cut without making conditions worse inside the prisons. For example, labor and benefits costs make up 59 percent of CoreCivic’s operating expenses (even though its non-unionized correctional officers are paid as little as nine dollars per hour, much less than most unionized state prisoner guards). In addition to underpaying their own guards, a key way that CoreCivic and GEO Group further reduce labor costs is by forcing detainees to work for very little or no pay. 

There are two main forms of coerced labor in immigration detention centers. First is the so-called “Voluntary Work Program” that Barrientos worked in. The program rests on a thin legal basis, and the going rate—$1 per day—was set in 1979 and then never renewed by Congress, leading some courts to determine that state minimum wage laws might apply to labor in detention centers. Although the application of state minimum wage laws to detained workers is complex, it is clear that absolutely nothing forbids GEO Group or CoreCivic from voluntarily paying the state or federal minimum wage—or more—for detainees’ labor. 

Today, all detained immigrants are eligible to work in the Program. They perform a wide variety of jobs, from washing dishes to cutting hair to performing clerical work for the private facility manager. Any job performed by a prisoner for an extremely sub-minimum wage makes it unnecessary to hire an employee to perform the same task, thereby boosting the profits of the for-profit prison corporations. ICE regulations require detained immigrants to “maintain their immediate living areas in a neat and orderly manner,” and GEO Group and CoreCivic have frequently stretched this provision to force detainees to clean the bathrooms, hallways, and common areas of their prisons without any compensation. 

ICE’s own guidelines for the Voluntary Work Program make it appear that the program is truly voluntary—so far as any incarcerated labor is voluntary. Officially, detainees cannot be required to work, and cannot be punished for quitting their jobs or refusing to work. These regulations, however, do not reflect the reality of labor in detention. An American Civil Liberties Union report found, “[e]ven though the program is supposed to be voluntary, detainees’ experiences are illustrative of its coercive nature.” The Justice Department has acknowledged that it is possible for facility operators to “illegally” force detained immigrants to work (although they maintain that the program, if run “correctly,” would be voluntary).

Detained immigrants have alleged that the program is coercive for two main reasons. First, participating in the program is the only way to buy necessities such as toothpaste, soap, and feminine hygiene products, which are not otherwise provided to detained immigrants and are sold at highly inflated prices. Second, GEO Group and CoreCivic retaliate against detainees by putting them in solitary confinement or changing their housing assignment if they refuse to work double shifts, refuse to work while sick, or protest unsafe conditions. In at least one GEO Group prison, the official policy was to place detained immigrants in solitary confinement if they refused to perform uncompensated janitorial work or encouraged others to do so. During the pandemic, protests against unsafe working conditions have understandably risen significantly, while at the same time facility managers have retaliated against protestors and placed immigrants who tested positive for COVID-19 in solitary confinement. 

Current and formerly-detained immigrants have filed several lawsuits over the last six years, arguing that the work policies in GEO Group and CoreCivic detention centers violate the forced labor provision of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). The TVPA, first passed in 2000, is best known as an anti-sex trafficking law, but it also contains the most important federal prohibition of forced labor. If a person or company obtains labor through threats of or actual force, “serious harm,” or abuse of legal process, they can be charged or sued under the law. The TVPA is most commonly used to protect immigrant workers, but it applies to everyone in the United States. For example, if you threaten to pull a gun on the guests at a party and force them to clean your apartment, you have violated the TVPA (and several other laws. Please don’t do that). 

The forced labor statute of the TVPA was passed in response to a 1988 Supreme Court decision ruling that a farm owner named Ike Kozminski had not committed the distinct crime of “involuntary servitude” when he coerced two mentally disabled men into working on his farm. The Court, always happy to disadvantage workers, held that “involuntary servitude” required physical or legal coercion, not psychological coercion, regardless of how vulnerable or powerless the coerced person might be. The TVPA was explicitly intended to circumvent the Supreme Court’s decision in Kozminski and protect workers from all forms of coerced labor. 

So far, the immigrants and their attorneys have won a string of victories. Courts across the country have rejected GEO Group and CoreCivic’s arguments that the TVPA does not apply to for-profit detention centers and that they should therefore be allowed to force detainees to labor. In addition, three courts have certified classes of thousands of immigrants who were allegedly forced to labor while detained. As the lawsuits wend their way through the court system, it appears more and more likely that the plaintiffs could win a judgment which forces the corporations to pay massive damages and stop their illegal practices. The private prison corporations have already begged ICE to pay their legal bills, and one scholar has estimated that paying minimum wage for work in detention centers could reduce their profits by as much as 25 percent.

Other recent activist challenges have further threatened GEO Group and CoreCivic’s profits, compounding the importance of these forced labor lawsuits. Both companies’ stock prices cratered when it appeared the Obama administration would phase out federal contracts with private prisons, but rebounded after Trump was elected. In the last few years, however, activists have successfully forced institutions such as universities to divest their holdings, and, most importantly, forced major banks to stop lending to GEO Group and CoreCivic. Both corporations have acknowledged in SEC filings that “[i]ncreasing activist resistance” poses a significant threat to their profits. Consequently, their stock prices have fallen by more than two-thirds since peaking in mid-2017. Forcing private prison companies to pay up for stolen labor, while simultaneously choking off their access to investors, is a two-pronged strategy that has the potential to cripple their operations.  

So what will happen to immigration detention if these lawsuits succeed, or if Joe Biden decides to reinstate the late Obama-era plan to phase out private prisons? Although we should never underestimate the ability of the carceral state to adjust to keep people locked up, without private prison facilities it would be extremely difficult to detain immigrants at the same volume. The roughly 30 percent of detained immigrants who are currently not held in private facilities are held in local jails. In theory, ICE could radically expand its use of jails to detain immigrants. But this may prove difficult: in addition to the logistical difficulties of shifting their detention practices, many localities have recently refused to allow ICE to detain immigrants in county jails. In the past, ICE has responded to these refusals by utilizing more space at private prisons: for example, in 2018 ICE moved detained immigrants to a nearby GEO Group facility when the city of Atlanta canceled its contract to lease jail space to ICE. Without private prison facilities as an option, ICE will have nowhere to put its intended prisoners if local jails decline to lease them space.

Obviously, the clearest moral, economic, and logistical solution to the problems faced by for-profit ICE detention centers is to stop detaining immigrants. The radical expansion of immigration detention is a recent phenomenon and could easily be reversed. But additionally, everyone should be able to agree that it is imperative to stop corporations from profiting from forced labor. The lawsuits against GEO Group and CoreCivic are being argued by dedicated advocates and organizations, but there are plenty of other ways to weaken immigration detention and the for-profit prisons that enable it. 

For those who want to see an end to for-profit prisons, forced labor, and the mass jailing of immigrants generally, two useful sites for organizing are divestment campaigns and local elections. Although banks have distanced themselves from private prison corporations, institutional investors still own large chunks of them and can be pressured to sell them off. Vanguard, which likely manages your retirement fund if you’re lucky enough to have one, owns more than 15 percent of both CoreCivic and GEO Group’s stock. Vanguard also manages a number of unions’ pension funds, but so far has resisted divesting from its private prison holdings. Meanwhile, local elections for sheriffs and District Attorneys have a major impact on ICE’s ability to arrest and detain immigrants. ICE relies on the cooperation of local authorities to help arrest and detain immigrants, but local officials are free to withdraw that cooperation, as many have in recent years.  

As dark as the last decade of deportation policy and mass incarceration has been, a world without immigrant prisons—and without for-profit prisons—may be much closer than it seems. 

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