The Role of Immigration in the Rise of U.S. Private Prisons

January 8, 2019

The past and present roles of immigration policy drive political, economic, and cultural dynamics in the formation of prison privatization. While inaugurated by President Nixon, succeeding administrations have continued to augment “tough on crime” strategies. The Reagan administration’s addition to the strategy was the infamous expansion of the use of private prisons to incarcerate individuals from at-risk communities, such as low-income minority neighborhoods. Often forgotten is that the groundwork for the development of private prisons was laid by immigration. Today, while private prisons reap massive profits from the crackdown on illegal immigration under the Trump administration, thousands of immigrants are exploited in private detention centers. As a result, while immigration offenses are constitutionally treated as a matter of civil law, immigrants find themselves being treated unjustly as part of the criminal justice system. The role of private prisons has evolved from being a short-term solution to immigration problems, to rising in power by profiting from detention.

The Beginning: The Cuban Refugee Crisis

The origin of private prisons came as a response to the massive influx of immigrants (both legal and illegal) coming into the United States in the 1960s. During the Kennedy administration, the U.S. government prison and immigration agency structures were not prepared for such large waves of immigration that resulted from the Cuban revolution and the end of US-Cuban diplomatic relations. The idea of private prisons was pitched as a cost-effective solution to an urgent issue.

In 1965, the United States government negotiated the opening of the Carmarioca Port in Cuba for Cubans who wished to emigrant to the United States to reunite with their families. From 1965 to 1973, the United States government supported what they called a “Freedom Flight” in which 268,000 Cubans entered the U.S. legally (Shull 13). However, diplomatic relations between the two countries became strained by the Mariel boatlift in 1980, when Fidel Castro allowed any Cuban to emigrate to the United States. Although the United States anticipated the next wave of Cuban migration, they were not prepared for the magnitude of refugees coming to its shores.

During the six-month period of the Mariel boatlift 125,000 Cubans, or “Marielitos,” fled to Florida ("Castro announces"). The rapid influx of Cubans led to strained government resources, overflowing refugee camps, and overcrowding in federal prisons. Furthermore, President Kennedy felt the weight of political implications when Castro announced that they were sending criminals and people with mental health problems on the ships to the United States ("Castro announces"). These pressures, along with inadequate resources, led Kennedy to declare a state of emergency. Although labeled in history as “refugees,” the Mariel Cubans were only granted temporary status and were eventually the first immigrant group from a communist country since the beginning of the Cold War to be denied legal refugee status (Shull 13). The turmoil surrounding the Mariel boatlift had lasting effects on the public opinion that still shapes public policy on immigration in the United States today.

Marielitos were vastly different than the first wave of Cubans who were primarily white, middle/upper class, and legally admitted into the country (Shull 13). This new wave was racially diverse, stigmatized as criminals, and were illustrated as a fiscal burden by domestic media. Their arrival to the U.S. contributed to the negative rhetoric of immigrants entering the country that remains prevalent in contemporary politics.

Chaos ensued in governmental efforts to relocate the illegal Cubans throughout the country, including violent riots by Cubans at a military base in Arkansas that was converted into a federal detention center. Ensuing riots in Arkansas led to heavy public pressure on the federal government. The country’s illegal immigration issue led the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to seek unprecedented methods of detaining illegal migrants, which led them to turn to the private sector. Once they gained this foot-hold in the massive prison system, the private sector began to expand its reach, with implications for costs, oversight, and the treatment of immigrants and other incarcerated people.

In January 1984, a new company called the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) was contracted by the INS (later renamed to ICE) to transform the Olympic Motel in Houston, Texas into a private detention center. Not surprisingly, the inmate demographic was compromised entirely of young Latino men. Due to CCA’s success in Houston, the company capitalized on the new business of imprisoning illegal immigrants. The company quickly spent $100,000 on lobbying efforts in the state of Tennessee to secure a correctional facility privatization bill (Fang). In 1984, CCA established the country’s first official for-profit prison in Tennessee and 66 more CCA private prisons were established over the next six years (Joy).

The Evolution of Detaining Illegal Immigrants

The objective of the U.S. illegal immigration detention program is to hold, process, and prepare individuals for possible deportation through civil law. Private prisons detain immigrants who are identified for removal, deportation, asylum seekers, and those awaiting a trial in immigration court. While private prisons account for a small percent of the total prison population in the United States, the private prison industry runs 62 percent of immigration detention beds and nine of the ten largest detention centers for ICE detainees (Luan). As a result, immigrants are disproportionally subjected to private prison conditions compared to the total prison population in the United States.

Today, immigrants in holding facilities are placed in a network of more than 250 detention facilities nationwide, the majority run by for-profit companies like GEO Group and CoreCivic, formerly known as CCA. In 2016, approximately 353,000 immigrants classified for detention or removal by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Luan). According to the Migration Policy Institute, “as of August 2016, nearly three-quarters of the average daily immigration detainee population was held in facilities operated by private prison companies—a sharp contrast from a decade ago, when the majority were held in ICE-contracted bed space in local jails and state prisons” (Luan). The combination of tough on crime laws and increased flow of migrants across the U.S border allowed capacity of private prison contractors to expand rapidly.

The continued aid to the government by the two largest private prison corporations, CoreCivic and GEO Group, allowed them to make a combined revenue of more than $4 billion dollars in FY 2017 (Luan). ICE alone spends about $2 billion a year of taxpayer’s money on immigrant detention through contracting private prisons (Burnett). ICE and the U.S. Marshals Service pay private prison companies like GEO Group $32 million a year to house, feed and provide medical care for a thousand immigrant prisoners (Burnett).

The Obama and Trump Administrations: Opposing Tactics

During President Obama’s two terms of presidency he pushed reforms that would phase out governmental dependence on companies like GEO and CoreCivic. During his tenure, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said that private prisons were less safe, more expensive, and "simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs and resources” (Hopkins). Yet, despite efforts to decrease usage of private detention centers and increase resources for detained immigrants, the quantity of individuals in the detention system proved to be a massive obstacle in reformation efforts. With more than 464,000 immigrants being housed in immigration detention facilities in FY 2012 alone, the Obama administration struggled to implement their reform initiatives (Luan). As a result, the majority of detained immigrants during the Obama years ended up in private detention centers or deported.

In contrast to Obama’s reform approach, President Trump has been increasingly vocal about cracking down on illegal immigration since the beginning of his campaign. Emulating Reagan’s “tough on crime” rhetoric and instilling fear about illegal immigration into the general public, he has tweeted “[Democrats] don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our country, like MS-13” (Simon). In the first couple months in which Trump took office he reversed Obama-era prison reform efforts. Almost immediately, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Bureau of Prisons will continue the use of private prisons.

Owners of private prisons saw huge economic opportunity in the prospect of Donald Trump’s election, and the profit potential led their lobbying groups to organize and spend too support his 2016 election bid. In total, private prison lobbying efforts for the 2016 election topped more than $1.6 million, which was more than triple the amount they spent for the 2014 election and more than double their contributions in the 2012 presidential cycle ("Correctional facilities"). The investment has paid off, as the Trump administration’s “crack down” on unauthorized migrant has led to greater needs for private detention facilities and resulting s. profits for CoreCivic and GEO Group (Uong; NYT).

Exploitation in Private Prisons

Regardless of the costs involved, and the debate about whether immigrants should be incarcerated, are concerns about whether private prisons provide better services. A review of several investigations conducted by the ACLU suggest this is not the case. These investigations suggest that privately run prisons contracted by the government breed a host of human rights problems due to lack of governmental oversight and the incentive to maximize profits and minimize costs at the expensive of the detainees. Specifically, private prisons exploit immigrant labor, provide low-quality medical care, abuse and punish detainees, and perpetrate poor living conditions.

Immigrant Labor

One of the benefits that private prisons reap is detainee labor. Today, in at least 37 states it is legal to contract prison labor for private corporations. This has incentivized major corporations such as Microsoft, Motorola, AT&T, Dell, and Intel to contract with private prisons (Peláez). One of the most troubling factors is that inmate labor in private prisons receive as little as 17 cents per hour for a maximum of six hours, which roughly equivalates to only $20 each month. Even the highest paying private prisons, CCA in Tennessee, prisoners get paid 50 cents per hour for “highly skilled positions” (Peláez). In 2017, a story exploded about a 24-year-old detained immigrant from Bangladesh who was sent to solitary confinement for 10 days because he encouraged fellow inmates to stop working in a CoreCivic facility (Shahshahani). His situation is not uncommon, and displays the coercive, brutal force in which private prison corporations violate human trafficking laws, labor laws, and basic human rights for forcing immigrant detainees to work for very little monetary compensation. While state and federal prisons have come under scrutiny for paying inmate workers low wages, these facilities are monitored by the federal Bureau of Prisons, which helps prevent labor exploitation from happening behind closed doors.

Medical Care

Immigrant Justice and the ACLU released a report this year that detailed how substandard medical care contributed to 8 out of 15 deaths of immigrants in private detention centers between 2015-2017. Jose Manuel Azurdia Hernansez, 54, spent nine months in a detention center in San Bernardino, California until he died of a fatal heart attack. An investigation by the ACLU found that the correctional officers and medical staff not only ignored acute warning signs but purposely failed to deliver adequate care. When Azurdia was experiencing extreme symptoms of a heart attack, a nurse said, “she did not want to see Azurdia because she did not want to get sick” (Code Red 15). Immigrants who have crossed the border and are being detained in the United States are under the government’s care and supervision. Yet, there is overwhelming evidence of poor medical attention and lack of accountability because of understaffing and cutting resources to save money.

Punishment & Abuse

Another report issued by the ACLU detailed the constant cruel and unusual punishments that are inflicted upon immigrant detainees. Because private detention centers are incentivized to maximize the number of detainees for a larger paycheck from the government, facilities sometimes use isolation arbitrarily and abusively. The report described that prisoners were put in the isolation unit for complaining about prison conditions or committing minor infractions. In addition, isolation units were used to compensate for over-crowding. As a result, prisoners suffered in isolation units until beds were available in the general population. In the isolation unit prisoners are confined for 22-24 hours per day with complete deprivation of mental simulation and connection to the rest of the prison population. Research has shown that the environment contributes to serious mental and physical health problems including: panic attacks, hallucinations, paranoia, obsessive or suicidal thoughts, and difficulty concentrating and remembering (Warehoused and Forgotten 29). The ALCU reports that although privately contracted prisons are supposed to comply with the Bureau of Prisons standards on isolation and segregation, these brutal practices are still commonly used.

Poor Living Conditions

The industries for-profit mindset encourages them to maximize occupancy which can lead to extreme over-crowding and squalid conditions. The ACLU reports that contracts between the government and private detention centers have occupancy quotas that mandate facilities to be at least 90% occupied. Furthermore, the contracts have an “Incremental Unit Price,” which is a payment for each additional prisoner above the 90% occupancy quota, up to 115% capacity. As a result, private prisons increase their profits by admitting more prisoners than their facilities were intended to hold (Warehoused and Forgotten 36). In the report, first person narratives detail the foul conditions that result from over-admitting prisoners. A prisoner at the Willacy facility told the ACLU, “they have a lot of people in here. Sometimes it smells. It’s too many people. Some people even talk about burning down this place” (Warehoused and Forgotten 37).

Fiscal Comparative Analysis

The growth of private prisons in the United States capitalized on the ongoing immigrant crises the country has experienced through over time. Once used as a short-term solution to a long-term problem, the federal government has become increasingly dependent on private contractors like CoreCivic and GEO Group. Private prisons are also often viewed as a cost-effective alternative to burdening the federal prison system. Yet, aside from the gross human rights and legal problems that are embedded in the existence of private prisons, according to government data, it costs $149.58 for one person per day in a private immigrant detention center compared to $98.27 in a municipal-run immigrant jail ("Detention by the Numbers"). One of the reasons the cost of detaining immigrants is so high is because the DHS contracts with private prisons are fixed and thus provides incentives to fill detention centers. In 2013, Congress passed a law that mandated that no less than 33,400 immigrant detention beds be active,” or in use (Raphael and Lazarus).

Some members of Congress see the issues with mandatory numbers of beds and instead value more cost-effective programs that have been presented as a solution. Programs such as electric monitoring programs or community-based programs alone would only cost taxpayers up to $17 a day per person which translates into $2.7 million per year compared to billions spent by ICE on private contractors (Raphael and Lazarus). In spite of this cost, the transition to more fiscally responsible immigration detention programs could make certain members of Congress seem “soft on crime,” which prevents real action to be taken because it risks their re-election.


The prison conditions affect all immigrants crossing the border, no matter their age or nationality. In December, NPR reported that nearly 15,000 migrant children were being detained by private contractors in nearly full shelters (Burnett). The private prison network has hundreds of facilities all over the country and become stronger under the Trump administration’s “tough on immigration” policies. With politicians and domestic media becoming increasingly fixed on immigration, it is important to understand how the government has become dependent on such a powerful private industry and the multidimensional consequences of private detention centers.



Works Cited

"Detention by the Numbers." Freedom for Immigrants. Accessed 8 Dec. 2018.

Edelman, Gilad. "ACLU: 'Shocking Abuse' of Immigrants at Private Prisons." ACLU, 10 June 2014. Accessed 15 Nov. 2018.

Fang, Lee. "How Private Prisons Game the Immigration System." The Nation, 27 Feb. 2013. Accessed 11 Nov. 2018.

Greenwald, Robert. "A Look Inside Our Abusive Immigrant Prisons." The Nation, 18 Oct. 2017. Accessed 15 Nov. 2018.

Gruberg, Sharita. "How For-Profit Companies Are Driving Immigration Detention Policies." Center for American Progress, 18 Dec. 2015. Accessed 11 Nov. 2018.

Haberman, Clyde. "For Private Prisons, Detaining Immigrants Is Big Business." The New York Times, 1 Oct. 2018. Accessed 9 Nov. 2018.

Hopkins, Christopher Dean. "Private Prisons Back In Mix For Federal Inmates As Sessions Rescinds Order." NPR, 23 Feb. 2017. Accessed 13 Nov. 2018.

Joy, Tara. "The Problem with Private Prisons." Justice Policy Institute, 2 Feb. 2018. Accessed 11 Nov. 2018.

López, Victoria. "Substandard Medical Care Is Killing People in U.S. Immigration Prisons." ACLU, 21 June 2018. Accessed 7 Dec. 2018.

Luan, Livia. "Profiting from Enforcement: The Role of Private Prisons in U.S. Immigration Detention." Migration Policy Institute, 2 May 2018. Accessed 11 Nov. 2018.

Michaels, Samantha. "Rick Scott Is Getting a Boost From a Private Prison Company. Too Bad It Might Be Illegal." Mother Jones, 27 July 2018. Accessed 6 Dec. 2018.

Peláez, Vicky. "The Prison Industry in the United States: Big Business or a New Form of Slavery?" Global Research, 7 Nov. 2018. Accessed 7 Dec. 2018.

Pens, Dan. "Oregon's Prison Slavocracy." Prison Legal News, 15 May 1998. Accessed 10 Dec. 2018.

Raphael, T.J., and Oliver Lazarus. "Immigration detention quotas cost taxpayers billions — a 'mindless policy' says one congressman." PRI, 2 Aug. 2017. Accessed 6 Dec. 2018.

The Rise in Criminal Prosecutions of Asylum Seekers. Freedom for Immigrants. Accessed 8 Dec. 2018.

Shahshahani, Azadeh. "Why are for-profit US prisons subjecting detainees to forced labor?" The Guardian, 17 May 2018. Accessed 4 Dec. 2018.

Shull, Kristina Karina. "'Nobody Wants These People': Reagan's Immigration Crisis and America's First Private Prisons." University of Califronia, Irvine, 2014. eScholarship, Regents of the U of California. Accessed 10 Nov. 2018. Working paper.

Simon, Abigail. "People Are Angry President Trump Used This Word to Describe Undocumented Immigrants." TIME, 19 June 2018. Accessed 7 Dec. 2018.

Warehoused and Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped in Our Shadow Private Prison System. June 2014. ACLU. Accessed 6 Dec. 2018.

About Author(s)

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Alexis Takoushian
Alexis Takoushian is a junior at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in Political Science and Spanish Language with a Certificate in Latin American Studies. Last spring she completed the semester-long Brackenridge Fellowship through Pitt’s University Honors College in which she researched foreign intervention in the Venezuelan crisis. During summer 2018, she conducted research surrounding political attitudes of university students in Valladolid, Mexico through Pitt’s Center for Latin American Studies. After graduation, she hopes to pursue a degree within the field of international law.