Private Prisons Boost Lobbying as Federal Detention Needs Grow

Country’s largest prison companies have seen stocks rise in the Trump era

Border Patrol vehicles stand guard along the United States-Mexico border fence in 2014. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Border Patrol vehicles stand guard along the United States-Mexico border fence in 2014. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 25, 2017 at 5:01am

Updated 2:25 p.m. | One of the country’s largest private prison companies is spending record amounts on lobbying amid efforts by the Trump administration to detain more undocumented immigrants, federal records show.

The GEO Group, which has contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Bureau of Prisons and the Marshals Service, has spent nearly $1.3 million on lobbying from Jan. 1 through Sept. 30, according to new lobbying records filed with Congress. That tops $1 million spent last year. The firm spent at least $400,000 on seven lobbying firms in the third quarter alone, the disclosures show.

GEO’s increased spending comes as ICE is seeking proposals for five new immigrant detention facilities and the Homeland Security Department is asking Congress to fund more than 51,000 beds, up from the current 34,000. ICE is the Florida-based prison company’s biggest customer, according to its 2016 annual report. 

Pablo Paez, the GEO Group’s vice president for corporate relations, said the company’s lobbying practices “have always been and continue to be focused on promoting the benefits of public-private partnerships in the delivery of secure residential care in correctional and detention facilities.”

“We do not take a position on, nor advocate for or against, criminal justice or immigration policies such as whether to criminalize behavior, the length of criminal sentences, or the basis for or length of an individual’s incarceration or detention,” Paez said in an emailed statement.

GEO and its leading competitor, CoreCivic — formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America — stand to gain considerably from President Donald Trump’s hawkish immigration policies. Trump wants to deport as many as 3 million undocumented immigrants who commit crimes, and said during the presidential campaign that private prisons “seem to work a lot better” than those operated by the federal government.

Both companies lobbied House members and senators on fiscal 2018 appropriations for the Homeland Security Department and Justice Departments, disclosures show. 

CoreCivic spent $220,000 on lobbying in the third quarter, bringing its year-to-date total to $640,000. The Tennessee-based firm spent about $1.1 million on lobbying in 2016, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. 

Jonathan Burns, CoreCivic’s director of public affairs, said in an email that the company’s lobbying spending is not on pace to surpass last year’s total.

Burns said CoreCivic, like the GEO Group, does not lobby for or against specific proposals that would result in an individual’s incarceration or detention.

“This strict policy also applies to external government-relations professionals working on CoreCivic’s behalf at all levels of government,” he said.

Both GEO and CoreCivic have seen their stock values rise since Trump won last November’s election. In April, GEO won the first major immigrant detention contract awarded by ICE under the new administration: a 10-year agreement to develop and oversee a 1,000-bed facility in Conroe, Texas, estimated to generate $44 million in annual revenues.

A political action committee representing GEO donated at least $45,000 to a joint fundraising committee supporting Trump and the Republican National Committee last July. And Susie Wiles, a managing partner at Ballard Partners, one of the lobbying firms retained by GEO this year, was a senior strategist and co-chairwoman for Trump’s campaign in Florida.

Business opportunities for both companies are on the horizon. In late September and earlier this month, ICE issued requests for information to identify sites for five new temporary immigrant detention facilities to be opened in southern Texas, Chicago, Detroit, Utah and Minnesota. ICE said the Texas facility should be able to hold 1,000 male and female immigrants, while the other four should have capacities ranging from 200 to 1,200 detainees.