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for people who care about the West

How private prisons became a booming business

The numbers and policies behind the immigration-incarceration economy.


Immigrant detention is now the fastest-growing form of incarceration in the United States, an increasingly lucrative business that costs taxpayers $2 billion per year. Its roots reach back to the early 1980s, with then-President Ronald Reagan’s “war on drugs” and “tough on crime” laws. The surging numbers of Central Americans fleeing civil war were an easy target for the Reagan administration’s focus on illicit drug activity, helping justify the growing use of detention as a means of immigration enforcement.

Enforcement picked up steam during the Clinton administration. After 9/11, immigration policy shifted even further, from regulation to enforcement, punishment and deterrence. The result was a growing merger of the criminal justice and immigration systems.

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Although politically popular, the criminalization strategy came under fire from those working inside the system. In 2008, Heather Williams, first assistant to the federal public defender of Arizona, told the Washington Post that the crackdown on immigrants not only diverted attention from real crimes, it offended basic notions of fairness. “(If U.S. citizens) were placed in any other country on the planet, and had to resolve a case in a day that could result in being deported and having a criminal record, we would be outraged, and so would our government,” she said.


Former President Barack Obama claimed to go after “felons, not families,” but his administration deported more people than any other. Undocumented immigrants without criminal records were detained and deported, after being stopped for minor traffic infractions such as broken taillights and jaywalking.

Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump exploited the growing divide between citizens and immigrants, pledging to build a wall along the Mexican border and escalate deportations. In April, Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered a speech in Nogales, Arizona, announcing the government’s renewed commitment to criminal immigration enforcement, referencing gangs and cartels that “flood our country with drugs.” Referring to the Borderlands, he said: “On this sliver of land, is where we first take our stand.”

Meanwhile, the boom in immigrant detention practices has increased demand for prison companies. Across the West, new detention facilities have emerged in struggling rural communities. Between 1993 and 2013, the industry’s profits soared 500 percent, bolstered by heavy lobbying for increased Homeland Security spending.

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“The federal market is being driven for the most part, as we’ve been discussing, by the need for criminal alien detention beds. That’s being consistently funded,” George Zoley, the chairman of the GEO Group told investors in 2008.

To protect their bottom line against changes in immigration laws, private prison companies began including guaranteed minimums in contracts with ICE and with local governments, requiring occupancy rates of 80 to 100 percent. Today, the government spends more than $5 million per day on immigrant detention, while CoreCivic, formerly the Corrections Corporation of America, and GEO Group have doubled their revenues since 2005.