Is it Good to Have Private Prisons for Immigration Detentions?

This year, the federal government is expected to deport over 400 000 undocumented immigrants, possibly breaking a new deportation record. These large numbers mean that many cases in immigration courts are pending, in part because the courts cannot keep up with the demand to process cases. Currently, delays for these cases are setting new records. In August 2012, the average case pending with no disposition was 529 days and there were 322,681 immigration court cases pending that month.

While undocumented immigrants wait for their cases to work their way through the courts, detainees need to be housed. With more and more cases pending and the backlog showing no signs of abating, the government is seeking new cost-effective solutions to house detainees. In recent years, the government has been turning to for-profit companies such as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) to fill this need. Currently, about half of immigration detainees are housed in facilities operated by for-profit companies.

According to advocates of the idea, outsourcing housing prisoners saves taxpayer dollars. Those who oppose the idea state that such a plan does not save money. Opponents also point to a 2001 Bureau of Justice Assistance study, which concluded that private jails had a higher rate of assaults. Opponents also note that the for-profit companies have a vested interest in ensuring that there are ever-more immigration detainees in order to fill the facilities, which can create ethical issues.

For example, CCA recently signed a contract with Arizona to manage the Red Rock Correctional Center. Under the terms of the 20-year contract, Arizona guarantees CCA an occupancy rate of at least 90%. As critics note, these companies stand to earn more if they have more detainees. Some experts feel that this will push the for-profit companies to lobby for tougher immigration laws so that they can have more detainees and therefore higher profits.

Critics note that groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) are funded by the Corrections Corporation of America and by others in the correctional industry. ALEC helps draft model bills and as of 2012, 49 of 90 members of the Arizona legislature were also members of ALEC, according to a Daily News article.  According to the same article, ALEC enjoys nonprofit, tax-exempt status, which allows the organization to use tax incentives and taxpayer dollars to lobby for new laws, as payments from CCA to ALEC can be claimed as tax deductions. ALEC claims they do no lobbying in order to get the tax-exempt status, but critics allege that ALEC’s actions do amount to lobbying.