What does hundreds of thousands of dollars buy in Washington these days? Potentially a lot of private detention centers by the Trump administration.
That’s the accusation two members of Congress have laid at the doorstep of President Donald Trump and two of the nation’s biggest private prison companies after newly confirmed Attorney General Jeff Sessions dismissed extensive research into the problems of the private prison industry and – with the swipe of a pen – overturned an Obama administration decision to phase out its use.
“That connection seems suspiciously evil,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo.
The swift action by Sessions after his confirmation and the rapid blowback from Cleaver and Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, D-Ill., highlight the sensitive concerns about the influence of money in Washington and help explain why government contractors are not allowed to contribute to presidential campaigns.
The White House blasted the Democrats for implying any kind of “pay-to-play” scheme.
“This is just more partisan politics by Democrats who have made clear they intend to ignore the priorities of the American people and launch meritless attacks against this administration at every turn,” said White House spokesman Michael Short.
Steve Owen, a spokesman for one of the companies, now known as CoreCivic Co., said the company did not contribute to any presidential candidate or campaign. He acknowledged that his company had contributed to this year’s inaugural events but said it was consistent with past practice. He pointed out that the company doesn’t lobby or take positions on proposals or policies that would affect the duration of an individual’s detention.
Pablo Paez, vice president of corporate relations for the other company, GEO Group, which is based in Boca Raton, Florida, defended his company’s $225,000 donation to a pro-Trump political action committee, saying it was legal because it had been made by a subsidiary, GEO Corrections Holdings Inc., that has no contracts with any governmental agency.
“Our contribution was fully compliant with all applicable federal election laws,” Paez said.
That connection seems suspiciously evil. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo.
Private prisons became an important part of America’s corrections system starting in the 1980s, as tough sentencing guidelines were adopted to address the drug wars. The population has since dropped, and private facilities are largely used to detain immigrants.
Forty-six of the roughly 180 facilities in which Immigration and Customs Enforcement holds detainees are privately run, according to ICE. About 60 percent of its 400,000 annual detainees are held in privately operated facilities.
They’re being held for alleged crimes, while awaiting deportation or while fighting asylum cases to remain in the country.
The Justice Department announced last August that it was phasing out its use of corporate-run prisons because of cost and safety concerns for inmates.
According to a report by the department’s Office of Inspector General, inmates in several private facilities received bad food and poor medical care. Staffing levels were inadequate. The conditions contributed to security problems. The private prisons saw 28 percent more inmate-on-inmate assaults. Eighty-six percent of the private facilities had lock-downs, in which inmates had to be confined to their cells, compared with 43 percent of government-run prisons, the report found.
CoreCivic, then known as Corrections Corp. of America, and GEO Group saw their stock shares plummet when the inspector general’s report was published. Advocates hailed the Obama’s administration’s decision to move away from private prisons as a positive step toward ending mass incarceration.
But that was six months ago, an eternity in a political landscape that changed dramatically with Trump’s election.
Trump made campaign statements supporting private prisons, and the companies’ stock shot back up after he was elected. Trump then signed an executive order authorizing the construction of a wall along the border with Mexico, the hiring of 15,000 more immigration agents and the detention of everyone who could not be immediately deported.
Then, soon after Sessions was confirmed, the attorney general signed a new memorandum ending the Obama administration’s initiative to phase out the use of private prisons.
Trump had received little support from major corporations when he was running for the White House, but the GEO Group was a rare publicly traded corporation that made contributions to a pro-Trump super political action committee, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission reports by Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a law professor at Florida’s Stetson University who’s a fellow at the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School.
Spelliscy noted that 45 percent of GEO’s revenue came from operating 26 prison centers for the federal government.
“From the outside, what you see is what looks like some pay-to-play behavior, where you have spending by someone who is a federal contractor who is interested in a particular policy outcome, spending money in an election and then after the election their winning candidate does the policy that they wanted all along all,” Spelliscy said. “It certainly looks suspicious.”
Damon Hininger, president and CEO of CoreCivic, noted in an earnings call that Trump’s order immediately allocated resources to the construction, operation and control of additional detention facilities.
“When coupled with the above-average rate crossings along the Southwest border, these executive orders appear likely to significantly increase the need for safe, humane and appropriate detention bed capacity that we have available in our existing real estate portfolio, as well as an increased demand for our detention facility design, development and facility maintenance expertise,” Hininger said.
GEO Group, which operates 64 correctional facilities in the United States, was named in a complaint to the FEC as violating a prohibition on campaign contributions from government contractors over its $225,000 contribution to the pro-Trump super PAC Rebuilding America.
Cleaver said he didn’t have a problem with CoreCivic and Geo making money. But he said it was unseemly how the government appeared to be partnering with the companies so they could profit by building more detention centers.
Cleaver and Gutiérrez accused the companies of advocating policies that “deprive people of their liberty” to increase profits.
“With the massive increase in deportations and criminalizing people planned by Trump, prisons are looking at a fat windfall from the sorrow of others,” Gutiérrez said. “We just wanted to put these companies on notice that the American people are watching and that profiting from incarceration has moral consequences.”
Paez said the company welcomed the opportunity to meet with Cleaver and Gutiérrez “to dispel the myths” about it. He said his company’s focus was on helping reduce “recidivism and helping individuals successfully re-enter society.”
While the Justice Department conducted an extensive investigation last year before announcing the changes, Sessions didn’t give much information about why he was reversing course. In four sentences, he said the Obama policy had changed long-standing policy and practice and had impaired the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ ability to meet future needs.
That led groups like Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit campaign-finance watchdog group, to ask questions and ultimately file the FEC complaint against GEO.
“There is no indication that the reversal of the prior policy was similarly based in any sort of research,” said Brendan Fischer, associate counsel for the Campaign Legal Center. “A reasonable person might then start to look at what other factors might have influenced this decision. And $225,000 to a super PAC and additional contributions to the inaugural committee certainly could be factors in that decision.”