For a brief moment, the future looked bleak for the multi-billion dollar private prison industry. Prison populations, while still large, had shown some signs of declining for a number of years. Discussions of criminal justice reform entered the political mainstream, and efforts to curb mass incarceration gained bipartisan support at both the federal and state level. Private prisons became the target of successful divestment campaigns, and the corners they cut for the sake of profit were publicly exposed with growing regularity.
In August, the Department of Justice announced plans to gradually phase out the use of private contractors to run its Bureau of Prison facilities. Although the announcement had a relatively limited immediate impact — affecting only 13 federal prisons and some 22,660 inmates — private prisons’ stocks plunged, and the Department of Homeland Security announced its own investigation into the use of private contractors.
Then Donald Trump won the election. Within hours, the same stocks that had plunged over the summer soared. The stock of Corrections Corporation of America jumped by 60 percent before leveling at 34 percent, and the GEO Group’s rose by 18 percent. Market pundits quickly declared private prison companies “a clear winner under Trump,” and rushed to predict his administration would walk back the DOJ’s phase-out of private contracts and expand immigrant detention to unprecedented levels.
At least some private prisons had seemed to put more than just their hopes in a Trump presidency. Just one day after the DOJ announced it would end its private prison contracts, a subsidiary of the GEO Group made a $100,000 donation to pro-Trump PAC Rebuilding America Now. That contribution, which a campaign finance watchdog reported to the Federal Election Commission, was potentially illegal because federal contractors are prohibited from making political donations while negotiating or performing contracts. Earlier in August, the GEO Group PAC — a political committee allowed to make contributions — also donated $50,000. A GEO Group spokesperson defended the donation’s legality on the grounds that GEO Corrections Holdings Inc. is a subsidiary of the GEO Group and not the entity directly engaged in government contracts.
Trump himself mentioned private prisons only once during the campaign, but his promises of “law and order” and his insistence, after being elected, that he would quickly deport — and “incarcerate” — 2 to 3 million people, left little doubt his presidency would be “a huge gift” to the private prison industry, according to Carl Takei, an attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project .
As the Intercept has reported, the system for incarcerating and deporting immigrants is very much in place and ready to be exponentially expanded, thanks largely to the already massive increase in immigration detention carried out under President Obama, though deporting that many people would cost billions and take years.