The U.S. prison population began to rise in the 1970s as part of Richard Nixon’s “law and order” campaign and the “War on Drugs.” For over forty years, the prison population increased, reaching 2.23 million in 2012. Then came a decline brought on by policy changes. Bi-partisan groups called for an end to the “prison industrial complex” because of its high cost, both in terms of money and societal damages.
Despite community advocacy, policy change and bi-partisan support, U.S. jails are still full. An analysis by watchdog organizations and the Southern Poverty Law Center indicates that the prison population has been maintained because of a shift in demographics.
As incarceration rates brought on by the War on Drugs began to decrease, the Federal Bureau of Prison’s contract with private prison corporations was slated to end. As a result, stock in private prison corporations fell. However, private prison contracts with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency were not on the chopping block. Demographic data shows that immigrants and refugees are the new faces of mass incarceration. Private prisons now hold 73% of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency’s detainees.
ICE detainees in the southern U.S. work for as little as $1 per day and must use their earnings to purchase necessities from private prison commissaries. Companies like GEO Group and CoreCivic run the majority of for-profit prisons. For-profit prisons place a high value on profit which results in abuses and neglect of detained people. In response to abuses, the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative is representing the interests of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated immigrants. The Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative is part of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an institution that has experience in federal courts. The Initiative is suing the current administration for abuses.
As the suit moves through the legal system, for-profit prisons continue to take in profits from federal contracts. The Trump administration is pushing for longer detention times and ICE is currently detaining 50,000 people per day. GEO Group and CoreCivic, contributors to the Trump inauguration fund, continue to benefit from the administration’s immigrant detention policies.
Bi-partisan efforts to address a growing prison population have resulted in some success, but proponents of for-profit prisons have found new pipelines and policies that keep the beds of inmates full.