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Every prisoner a profit centre: every immigrant a business opportunity

Arizona's harsh immigration laws are being pioneered or supported by local leaders who have a political motive or financial stake in incarcerating and detaining as many prisoners or immigrants as possible

When the architect of Arizona's anti-immigration measure, SB1070, Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce, talks about repealing the 14th amendment to detain and deport American-born children of undocumented immigrants, it may not be merely election-year hyperbole. Like SB1070's most vocal supporter, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, Pearce is closely tied to a private prison and immigrant detention industry that already has experience in incarcerating undocumented immigrant children - including Corrections Corporation of America's notorious T.Don Hutto family detention centre - a former medium security prison complete with razor wire and child-sized prison uniforms. 

While their 'populist’ rhetoric has pushed champions of these harsh, anti-immigrant laws into the national limelight, it has left their growing connection to an increasingly powerful and influential for-profit industry largely in the shadows.The for-profit private prison industry was born out of rapidly increasing incarceration in the eighties and nineties as the ‘war on drugs’ escalated. States seeking the cheapest way to house prisoners could send them out of sight and mind to be incarcerated in private facilities. Localities that welcomed these corrections facilities officially increased their census populations, and federal apportions. However, from the beginning, privatized prisons were plagued by scandals, from sexual abuse of female youth incarcerated in Coke County, Texas, to the millions in kickbacks paid to judges in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania to channel juvenile offenders into private detention centres. Studies even showed that private incarceration ultimately wasn't even ‘cost-effective.’ Scandals eventually caught up with the private prison industry, and coupled with a rethinking of harsh sentences for non-violent offenses in the late 1990s, the industry's fortunes were soon in decline.

However, the events of 9/11 provided a boon to the industry through federal detention contracts. While federal immigration policy since 2001 has done little to slow unauthorized immigration or regularize the status of millions of undocumented immigrant, private prison corporations like CCA and GEO Group have made billions of dollars on immigrants incarcerated through tough-on-immigration programs like Operation Streamline and Secure Communities. In the wake of national security concerns around immigration and terrorism, the industry rebounded from their late nineties slump by building, or converting prisons into, detention centers for immigrants. The stake the industry has in pursuing anti-immigrant measures that increase detention - and discourage any path to legalization for immigrant workers - is clear, as are the industry's connections to the politicians who promote these policies.
In Arizona, Governor Brewer's administration is closely tied to the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest for-profit prison corporation in the country (with 2009 revenues of $1.7 billion). Brewer's deputy chief of staff, Paul Senseman, is a former CCA lobbyist, while his wife currently lobbies for them. Meanwhile, State Senator Pearce - who has been campaigning since 2003 to privatize nearly all of Arizona's corrections system - has in the past received campaign money from the political action committees (PACs) for the GEO Group and the Management & Training Corporation - two other large corrections companies operating in Arizona, as well as the same lobbying firm, the Policy Development Group, that employed Senseman.

As Arizona exports its hard-line immigration policies to over a dozen states or localities planning similar measures, it also expands the political reach of the industry that benefits most from increased incarceration and detention. For these companies, every prisoner is a profit centre, every crime a business opportunity. As in any big business, the profit motive rules. The longer people are incarcerated with the lowest cost, the more money the industry makes. The basic goal of the industry, expanding prison beds and keeping them full, runs counter to that of a just society. In the topsy-turvy world of for-profit prisons, rehabilitation is bad for business.

Americans should know that many of the most outspoken proponents of harsher immigration measures are receiving campaign contributions from the corrections industry. The lobbying firm that employed Governor Brewer's deputy chief of staff has made contributions to the campaigns of nearly every Republican in the Arizona state senate. While many Americans do favour increased immigration enforcement, most also support immigration reform that would include a path to legalization for undocumented workers. They have a right to know who they are in bed with when they support these measures - and what a dark vision of America awaits us if we expand the already considerable economic and political reach of corporations who jail human beings for profit. As voters consider their choices for local, state and federal office in this election cycle, they should ask their candidates where they stand on the issue of profiteering from the imprisonment of men, women and children.

About the author

Donna Red Wing is Executive Director of Grassroots Leadership a South- and Southwest US-based, national, non-profit organization that fights to end the privatization of prisons and immigrant detention centers and advocates for a more humane, accountable system of incarceration and detention - and for sweeping immigration reform.


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