- Andrew J. Nilsen
The private prison company GEO Group announced last week that it's the recipient of a $110 million, ten-year contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to build a new 1,000-bed detention center for immigrants north of Houston, not far from where the company already operates 1,500-bed immigration lockup. GEO, the federal government's second-largest private prison contractor, says that by the time the detention center is built at the end of next year, it will generate some $44 million in annual revenue for the company.
"We are very appreciative of the continued confidence placed in our company by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement," GEO chairman and CEO George C. Zoley said in a prepared statement.
That confidence hadn't looked so certain during the final months of the Obama administration, which were a trying time for companies that profit off incarcerating people. Yes, private prison companies got fat off federal contracts to run a huge slice of the sprawling immigrant detention system that grew under the "deporter in chief." But by last summer, private prison stock took a nosedive as Obama's Justice Department announced the federal prison system would phase out for-profit contractors because, among other problems, they didn't save much money nor did they offer "the same level of safety and security" as government-run facilities.
Immigrant rights activists had hoped the feds would expand the phase-out to include immigrant detention centers, too. Instead, Trump won. The day after his election, GEO's stock rallied 21 percent. Stock for the Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's largest private prison company (which has since "rebranded" itself CoreCivic), shot up 43 percent the same day. Less than a week after Trump's inauguration, the president signaled a dramatic expansion of the country's detention and deportation complex by signing an executive order that basically instructed ICE to detain all people suspected of violating immigration laws.
GEO's long track record of alleged abuses have made it a frequent target for immigrant rights activists, who argue that private prisons routinely warehouse immigrants in appalling conditions.
GEO currently runs several facilities in Texas, the epicenter of the country's immigrant detention complex, including a lockup for asylum-seeking women and children southeast of San Antonio. Last year a judge blocked the state of Texas from licensing that and another family detention center as state-approved childcare facilities. Child welfare experts who testified against state licensing spoke of children losing weight, shedding hair and exhibiting symptoms of anxiety and depression inside immigrant detention centers. Some of the attorneys and advocates who have worked at those facilities claim health care is so shoddy that some kids have to be hospitalized upon release.
Texas lawmakers have proposed legislation this session that would pave the way for the state to license both of those family lockups as childcare facilities.