Private Prison Companies Openly Boast About Soaring Profits From Locking up Children and Mothers

Human Rights

The largest private prison companies in the United States are assuring their shareholders that profits are up, thanks in part to the windfall from locking up women and children in controversial “family detention centers.”

"We are pleased with our first quarter financial performance, which exceeded our first quarter guidance despite incremental startup expenses incurred during the operational ramp of our Trousdale Turner Correctional Center," said Damon Hininger, chief executive officer of the private prison behemoth Corrections Corporation of America, in a press statement issued earlier this month. "Our financial performance was driven primarily by stronger than anticipated demand from our federal partners, most notably Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”

According to the company’s assessment, the spike in revenue was “primarily attributable to a contract at the South Texas Family Residential Center,” which brought in over $70 million during the first quarter of 2016 alone—roughly double levels seen in the first quarter of 2015.

The prison-like facility is located in Dilley, Texas and holds up to 2,400 women and children. Atlantic magazine writer J. Weston Phippen reports that more than half of the people incarcerated there are children whose average age is nine.

Remarkably, the company’s statement came the same day a judge imposed a two-week restraining order on the facility to temporarily prevent the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services from implementing a childcare license for the prison. The advocacy organization Grassroots Leadership has vigorously opposed such licensing, arguing that the facilities are prisons, not childcare accommodations.

“We’re talking about prison-like conditions, in that people are locked up with their kids in these facilities,” said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, in an interview with AlterNet. “When you talk to the moms there, they say that their kids are really suffering in detention.”

Meanwhile, Brian Evans, senior vice president and chief financial officer of the private prison giant GEO Group, reported in a late April conference call with shareholders, “Our revenues for the first quarter 2016 increased to approximately $510 million from $427 million a year ago.” This was attributed, in part, to the “activation of the 626-bed expansion of the Karnes residential center in December 2015.”

The Karnes camp, also located in Texas, has been the site of repeated hunger strikes over inhumane conditions, including nearly free labor, lack of legal representation and contaminated drinking water. In 2014, some women detained at the prison alleged that guards sexually assaulted them.

“The conditions in which our children find themselves, are not good. Our children are not eating well and every day they are losing weight,” dozens of women at the camp declared last year in a joint statement. “In the name of the mothers, residents of the Center for Detentions in Karnes City, we are writing this petition whereby we ask to be set free with our children. There are mothers here who have been locked in this place for as long as 10 months.”

In 2014, the Obama administration made the mass detention of families a cornerstone of its response to mass displacement from Central American countries where violence and poverty have been worsened by U.S. policies. This policy shift unleashed a humanitarian nightmare that has been condemned by human rights organizations, as well as the people who are locked up, most of whom have already endured trauma in their home countries and are seeking sanctuary in the United States. As ThinkProgress reporter Esther Yu-Hsi Lee pointed out, these facilities have been compared to Japanese internment camps.

The bipartisan U.S. Commission on Civil Rights determined in a report released last year that women and children are being detained in violation of their most fundamental rights. A federal judge last year ordered the Obama administration to release women and children held in family detention, condemning their incarceration as “deplorable.” (The ruling is currently being appealed.)

Private prison companies have an interest in ensuring that detentions and deportations remain high. A report released last year by Grassroots Leadership determined that GEO Group and CCA have spent millions of dollars to lobby for harsher immigration policies, including a directive to fill 34,000 detention beds on a daily basis. What’s more, private companies have an increasing share of an ever-expanding ICE detention system, which grew by nearly half over the last 10 years, according to the report. Today, nine out of the 10 biggest ice prisons are run by private companies, with GEO and CCA together accounting for nearly three-quarters of all private prison beds contracted by ICE.

“No one should profit from the incarceration of human beings,” said Libal. “That moral problem is compounded when you are talking about incentivizing, for corporate gain, the incarceration of children and their moms, almost all of whom have already been traumatized, which is why they had to flee their countries of origin.”

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