Amy Costello: Welcome to Tiny Spark, a podcast of the Nonprofit Quarterly. We focus on what is required to build a more just society—in matters of race, health, the environment, and the economy. I’m Amy Costello.
And today, we‘re looking at a point where the economy and justice collide with real and serious consequences. We’re talking about the private prison industry, and it’s only growing in this country.
Loren Collingwood: Oh, it’s humongous. Millions, billions, lots of government subsidies and government funding going towards the private detention and prison industry in the United States, and it’s been like this for a long time.
Costello: Loren Collingwood is an author and associate professor of political science at the University of New Mexico. He’s previously written about sanctuary cities and campaign politics. His next book is about the ties between immigration politics, private prisons, and private detention centers. Collingwood is concerned about the profit motive that underpins certain law enforcement tactics, border policies, and incarceration itself.
Collingwood: Prisons, policing, these are industries that exist now, and we have wrapped people’s economic well-being into if you’re a police officer, how many people did you stop today? If you want a raise, you need to increase the number of people that you pull over. And you need to increase the number of people that we put into immigrant detention, so that our shareholders make more money at the end of the year, right? A lot of it just comes down to basic economics.
Costello: Yes, there are deep and direct ties between shareholders and the for-profit companies that run immigrant detention centers and prisons across the nation. Indeed, well over 70 percent of immigrant detainees are held in privately run facilities. According to USAspending.gov, the federal government has awarded close to a billion dollars to the GEO Group, one of the world’s largest private prison companies. That kind of cash is enough to make GEO’s shareholders cheer.
Collingwood: One of the reasons I got interested in this was in 2016, when Trump got elected, a friend of mine turned said, “Hey, the prison company stocks just rose.” And I was kind of shocked by that. And so, I started looking at prison company stock data. I think we were looking at Corrections Corporation of America, CCA—and the GEO Group. Those are two of the larger prison companies in the United States, and they have facilities abroad as well. And your listeners may not know this or that maybe they do, but these two companies are traded on the stock market. It’s quite amazing, right? You could go and buy their stock today if you wanted to. If you look a couple of days after election day 2016, prison, these two prison company stocks rose dramatically. So, we started studying that and then we studied the midterm election and kind of reverse pattern happened where Democrats effectively quote “won that election” and then, stock prices dropped a bit. And that’s part of our way of looking at the partisan aspects to a lot of this industry and then how real-world politics and immigration comes into all of it, at the same time people are profiting off of it.
Costello: Looking back, Collingwood says that government spending and contracting to the prison industry actually increased during the Clinton administration. But he says 9/11 was the major catalyst for its growth. He says the terrorist attacks caused law enforcement and lawmakers to turn their collective gaze south, toward America’s vast and porous borders, and they had very fat checkbooks in hand.
Collingwood: A lot of spending went to the border to try to beef up security and border security and hiring more ICE agents and better equipment. And, in my view, it kind of steamrolled a bit out of control, because you then start bringing in kind of an economic component to all of this in a way that starts to build a capitalist infrastructure, just in that area alone because so much money is coming in through government coffers. Previous to that, there was still money in this area. It just wasn’t the amount of billions of dollars that went into protection and border security just wasn’t there to the same level.
Costello: Right. And so, it’s not only billions of dollars flowing out of government coffers, it’s going into, in the case of the private prison industry, it’s going into the hands of for-profit corporations. And so, talk to me about this shift from government prisons to private ones. Why did that happen specifically?
Collingwood: The argument that I think the prison companies tend to make, it’s, they’re more nimble, more flexible. A lot of the additional reason for the prison growth and you know, specifically was the war on drugs. That led to major mass incarceration in the 1980s and 1990s under both Democratic and Republican administrations. There’s a whole politics there, of course. So, you have that on the one hand and then you have 9-11 and some other immigration bills, on the other hand, really driving the need to basically incarcerate people. And part of the issue with private prisons is that they can make an agreement with a state or federal government and say, you know, if your levels drop or something like that, then we’re on the hook, you’re not on the hook. And so, there’s a certain amount of nimbleness and flexibility. The other thing that, there’s some research by this by someone at LSU—Louisiana State—what they find is, in a prison context, you might have a situation where someone gets beat up, they get stabbed, a guard violates someone’s civil human rights. And so, there is a lawsuit. And so, a lot of the negotiations between the state governments and different government entities and the prison companies, basically like the prison companies said they would deal with that, and so that the state governments and other governments wouldn’t get sued as much. A lot of this is around like prisoners suing states and stuff like that, and this kind of took the burden off the state. If you kind of step back a little bit and think about it more generally, the United States government, it’s run via contractors. There’s so much money that goes from government hands into private entities, from road construction to airlines, everything really when you think about it, to war. You know, all the government contractors that work over in Iraq and other places, right? Occasionally, you hear in the news, some government contractor was killed or what have you, Halliburton, and stuff like that. So, there’s a long history of the US government producing contracts for different entities, private companies.
Costello: Right. And I want to talk about how this private prison industry organizes itself in Washington and the political influence that it wields. How would you describe the ways in which the private prison industry exerts power in Washington and over lawmakers in particular?
Collingwood: In general, it’s like what you might see normally, they basically give out money to campaigns and stuff like that, right? And to legislators who need to run for reelection, that’s the kind of classic way that interest groups, if you conceive the prison industry as an interest group, is going to do that, right. And so, our research looks at when they’re going to give that, is there kind of a quid pro quo arrangement? That’s very hard to prove, of course. But in general, from at least the kind of networks that we’ve seen is they basically will hire certain lobbying firms or lobbyists specifically, you can find that information. Most of it’s publicly available. And what we tend to look at is bills that are either co-sponsored or are voted on a roll call vote in congress, specifically on punitive immigration policy. And so, we see that, you know, they’re lobbying on a lot of these bills. That’s obviously in the interests of these companies, the more people that are in their prisons, the more money they make. I don’t think that’s disputable. So, that’s the kind of general arrangement and that’s not particularly different than anybody else. But what we have seen is legislators that have one of these facilities in their districts are disproportionately likely to co-sponsor legislation like this. So, that’s our first finding that we observed.
Costello: I’m sorry, just say that again, please. I think that’s important. What did you just say?
Collingwood: Yeah, we find that if you have a prison facility, a detention center, private prison detention center in your district, you’re more likely to sponsor, co-sponsor this type of legislation, above and beyond your partisan inclination. That last bit is really important because in general, in the United States, Democrats are more pro-immigration and Republicans are more anti-immigration. And so, it would make sense in general that Republicans are going to sponsor more of this punitive immigration legislation, and Democrats would oppose that.
Costello: And I want to talk to you about the partisan breakdown in a moment. But before we do that, I want to go back to the legislation that you’re talking about. What kind of legislation is it?
Collingwood: Right. So, for example, I’m going to use the term alien here, not because I necessarily support using that term, but because it’s part of the quote of the, of the legislation. So, from 114th congress’s HR House of Representatives 2-8-4-8 and so the kind of summary, the bill title is: To Amend the Immigration and Nationality Act, To Penalize Aliens Who Overstay Their Visas and For Other Purposes. So, let’s just say there, if you go and read that bill, penalize means to make their life more difficult, increase the chances that they get caught up in the kind of immigration control scheme, right? Should we super crack down on it, or should we be more liberal with it, right? Here’s another example: To Amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to Provide for Extensions of Detention of Certain Aliens Ordered Removed and For Other Purposes. That’s saying like, oh, let’s let these people stay in our facilities longer.
Costello: Right, right.
Collingwood: You know, and this is our job as social scientists is to look at this and kind of interpret and say, if this is passed in the big scheme of things, would a company like a private detention company, would they be more likely to increase their bottom line financially if all of this is, you know, enacted? And we say yes, if all of these are passed, it’s likely that prison companies would make more money.
Costello: So, all that legislation that you just listed would ultimately benefit the private prison industry, as well as, I’m sure, a handful of other industries related to this immigration debate. What do you find in your research about the kind of legislation you just listed and the role of the private prison industry in this legislation, and the lawmakers who are either coauthoring, sponsoring, or supporting this legislation? Just help me understand the narrative, the connections between the legislation, the private prison industry, and lawmakers.
Collingwood: It seems that the prison companies give money to certain candidates or certain elected officials, and it seems like they’re more likely to give money when they’re sponsoring certain types of legislation. You often see legislators acting a little bit differently than what you might think that they would given their partisan inclinations. And so, the classic example in Texas is Henry Cuellar, who’s a Democratic representative along the border, as you probably know, and there are several facilities in his region, and they provide jobs for people. And so, he also gets a lot of money donated to his campaigns from some of these different private prison companies. You might say, for example, if Mr. Cuellar didn’t have detention centers in his district, he might actually not support this legislation, right? There is this kind of economic pressure it seems on legislators who represent some of these districts to push on this a little bit harder than they might otherwise.
Costello: What do we know about how much the private prison industry is supporting Republican lawmakers versus Democratic ones? What do we know about the partisan breakdown of lawmakers supporting the kind of legislation that you just talked about?
Collingwood: It’s a great question. Partisan polarization has really grown a lot in the United States, but it used to be, probably before 2010 or so, private prison companies were donating, you know, more to Republicans than Democrats, but they were still donating towards the industry as a whole, was still donating towards both, and in fact, if you look at opensecrets.org, I think is where we get a lot of our data that keeps track of donations to candidates and elected officials, by industry and by organization, and by year, you will see that Jerry Brown, who is the governor of California, was receiving the most amount of donations of any candidate, I think if my memory serves. And…
Costello: The most donations from the private prison industry?
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Collingwood: That’s right. Of all the people receiving money from the private prison industry, he was getting the most. I think that’s right. And when you back out, it makes a lot of sense because the California state government at the time had, you know, several private prison companies there and several immigrant detention centers, and they still are even though they’re banned, they still exist. It’s a strange kind of legal, inter-governmental agreement situation why that happens. But then Trump got in. And that led to this massive partisan split on donating behavior. And Trump said, “OK, hey, you know, I support private prisons.” And then the Democrats basically started saying, actually we don’t. And so, since then, Republicans get a lot more money donated to them by this industry than Democrats.
Costello: Loren Collingwood, another finding that you have kind of uncovered in your research is around the issue of co-sponsorship for legislation. First of all, describe to me what is co-sponsorship and why is it significant with respect to the research that you’ve been doing?
Collingwood: So, say if I’m a member of congress, I’m going to introduce a bill that I want passed. The first strategy that normally members of congress will do is they try to basically get other members of congress to sign on to their bill and say, OK, I support this. And it’s called co-sponsorship. And other legislators will do this because, number one, they can credit claim that if the bill goes through, they had a role in it. It can signal to key industries that they support their interests, but then sort of run of the mill voters don’t normally know what co-sponsorship probably is, and so they may not pay much of a penalty. Legislators are interested in reelection, and one way to get reelected is to build up your campaign funds. If you don’t have a lot of campaign funds, you might be seen as vulnerable and someone might run against you, right? And then you lose your job. So, one way to increase and maintain campaign funds is to signal to different interests, special interests or in this case, private prison company, that you sponsor legislation or co-sponsor legislation that, if enacted, would be good for that organization or that interest group.
Costello: OK. And what do you find with respect to bill co-sponsorship? Why is it significant with respect to your research around the private prison industry?
Collingwood: In general, Republicans are more likely to co-sponsor this punitive legislation that, if enacted, is probably going to increase the bottom line of the different private prison companies. But when Democrats do do this, and there are some Democrats that do do this, prison companies then disproportionately give them money for their vote, and so they’re potentially taking a bit of a political risk. And so, the payoff has to be a bit higher. So that’s basically what we find, and it makes sense when you think about it, like most of the Republicans are just generally going to co-sponsor this because they’re just hawkish on immigration generally, right? Democrats tend to be more liberal on immigration, at least these days, and the ones that are not are taking a bit of a risk from a kind of a broader political standpoint and so, they should receive more rewards. So, that’s….
Costello: And when you say, the Democrats who co-sponsor bills that are favorable ultimately to the private prison industry, that are favorable to stronger immigration regulation, and punitive measures toward immigrants that they get more actual dollars than their Republican co-sponsors of the same legislation.
Collingwood: That’s right, that’s right.
Costello: When you say they’re getting more, what exactly do you mean by that?
Collingwood: You know, like hundreds, thousands of dollars more in donations they’re getting to their campaigns.
Costello: …than the Republican lawmaker who co-sponsored the same legislation?
Collingwood: Exactly, exactly.
Costello: So, as we look ahead, you’ve painted a picture of the deep ties between the private prison industry and lawmakers who sponsor legislation that is very harmful to immigrants in this country. What do you see as better ways forward?
Collingwood: Well, I mean, your kind of generic response is take money out of politics, but, you know, that’s not really going to happen. I think the better way forward is to treat immigrants like people, you know. I come from an immigrant family and people don’t know that because I’m white really, right? I don’t have an accent or anything and, it’s just instilling a better value system, and not so much viewing people as threatening or others or having less value. We really need to take the economics out of all of this. And in the way I’ve come to view a lot of this is, people view this as economic opportunities, and saying, no, we as a society are going to stop making money off of these types of industries—and the awareness that if more people are educated about this and they know that they can potentially support candidates and policies that oppose those kinds of things. As a political scientist, I study a lot of really awful things. Because it unveils kind of hidden things that I think people need to know. And you walk out of there and sometimes you feel like your face got smashed in with a brick, you know, and there’s nothing you can do. But, if I wasn’t doing this, someone else wouldn’t be. And so that’s why I like what I do is because no one else does this kind of stuff. Like, I’m an academic, I have the freedom to be able to do stuff that might matter some time. So, I guess we just all have to kind of move forward and try to do our best in this way.
Costello: I’m hearing sadness in your voice.
Collingwood: Yeah. No, for sure. It’s been a, like most of my job is just like looking at data, doing statistics, coming up with good research designs. But the stuff I research is so, like, the way that humans treat other humans just to make money is just incredible to me that that exists, and we’re all kind of culpable, you know, and I struggle with that on my own a lot. But I guess it’s important for your listeners and other people to know that, like the people like me who are doing this work, like we really care about people and want a better world. And that’s why we do this. But we have to like, deal with it all the time, and it’s hard, you know, and I could just imagine families that are ripped apart. Some of my old students from UC Riverside and watching the hate that people have towards other people, just because they’re different, it’s, you kind of bottle it up most of the time. But then occasionally, you know, when you get into it, it kind of comes out and it’s, you know, I’m not supposed to be like that, but occasionally it comes out, because a lot of stuff I work on, it’s just, it just seems, it just seems so awful, you know, but I feel like I’d rather do that than some flowery generic thing about democracy and public attitudes about democracy or something like that.
Costello: Well, I can really relate, Loren, as somebody who’s devoted her career to many, many awful subjects.
Costello: You know, I, I understand why you do it. And I think I do it for the same reasons. And I also understand how incredibly painful it is to do the work. So, I’m grateful for your scholarship and for your tenacity in sticking with this really important subject matter and for illuminating issues that we need to all know more about and also care much more about and ideally act on. So, I want to thank you so much for this conversation and for sharing this part of yourself with me. I think we all need more humanity and honesty and emotion infusing our work. There’s no harm, no harm in that. So, Loren Collingwood, author and associate professor with the department of political science at the University of New Mexico. Thank you so much for speaking with me today.
Collingwood: Thank you so much.
This article is a transcript of the Tiny Spark podcast.
Rachael Whitt, “Immigration policies and how private prisons are shaping them,” University of New Mexico, September 19, 2021.
Jess Franzblau, “Phase Out Of Private Prisons Must Extend To Immigration Detention System,” National Immigrant Justice Center, January 28, 2021.
Loren Collingwood, Benjamin Gonzales-O’Brien, “A History of Sanctuary Cities in the United States,” Teen Vogue, November 27, 2019.
Clyde Haberman, “For Private Prisons, Detaining Immigrants Is Big Business,” New York Times, October 1, 2018.
Madison Pauly, “Thanks to Trump’s Family Separations, Democrats Are in the Hot Seat for Taking Private Prison Cash,” Mother Jones, July 30, 2018.
Loren Collingwood’s website
On Twitter: @lorenc2