Private Prisons Make Big Bucks Off Jailing Children & Families


Same As it Ever Was: ‘Kids for Cash’

An Industry That Strives to Imprison More Americans and Jail Them Longer in Order to Make More Money

There was a prison riot on Friday, February 20, at the Willacy County Detention Center, a Texas private prison that primarily jails immigrants.

It was the third revolt at Willacy since the summer of 2013, when inmates protested “broken, overflowing toilets,” their Kevlar tent dormitories “dirty and crawling with insects.” This latest disturbance was caused by the lack of medical care. Most prisoners were relocated after fires were set in portions of the facility.

According to the ACLU, around 31,000 non-citizens are held in US detention facilities on any given day.

According to the ACLU, around 31,000 non-citizens are held in US detention facilities on any given day.

The Willacy riot may serve as a backdrop to a phenomenon that is feathering the nests of at least two large companies: immigrant detention.

Despite an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) class action lawsuit that has temporarily restricted the detention of asylum-seeking families, “mothers and children from Central America who have fled violence, including rape and death threat,” the gloomy fact of the matter is this: Many immigrant families spend time in a detention center. All reports indicate that the experience is nothing short of a terrifying.


Immigrant detention is good business for the two major private prison companies that have contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to lock up immigrants. Both the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group are quite bullish on revenue and profits as “for-profit immigrant jails spread across South Texas and nationally.”


The Major Players

  • The CCA is the largest for-profit prison corporation in the country. Last year, the company received $74 million in taxpayers’ money to run immigrant detention centers. In a recent conference call with investors, the company bragged that its new family immigrant jail in Dilley, Texas, has “already generated more than $21 million in revenue in the last quarter of 2014.” The CCA charges the US government $200 a night for each of the 2,000 inmates its largest facility in Lumpkin, GA. Yearly profits for that facility: at least $35 million.
  • After a recent acquisition, the GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut) now claims 73,473 beds at 66 for-profit jails throughout the country. The company reported to investors that fourth quarter 2014 net revenue of $38.1 million was up from $27.6 million in fourth quarter 2013. The GEO Group runs the reportedly largest private prison in the world, The Reeves County Detention Complex in Pecos, TX.

Today, private prison companies manage nearly half of all immigrants detained by the US government. This windfall has allowed the top executives of CCA and Geo Group to receive compensation packages worth well over $3 million annually.

Typical scene at an immigrant detention center

Typical scene at an immigrant detention center

 Mass incarceration for Americans

Today, the US holds 25 percent of all prisoners in the world , despite it being only 5 percent of total global population. (Immigrant detention is a small portion.) Think of it: the US imprisons more people, in both per capita and absolute terms, than Russia, China and Iran. The question is, who benefits from locking up more people than anyone else on the planet? Crime rates ebb and flow, and statistical correlations between bulging prisons and street safety tend to be subjective. So, if not society, who benefits?

A clue for this comes from the 2010 annual report of the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which states in part: “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by…leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices…” Did CCA reveal that its business model depends on mass incarceration? Oh, yes.


Most everyone would agree that corrections (and especially sentencing) reform should commence with the safety and welfare of our children in mind. Currently, private prison companies operate more than 50 percent of all “youth correctional facilities” in the US. The anecdotal outcomes are not reassuring.

The state of Florida responded to runaway incarceration costs by privatizing its entire youth prison system. A Florida court issued a stern rebuke to the effort, stating then that the proposed privatization “was based on convenience and speed…rather than any demonstrated saving or benefit advantage.”

Last year, there were detailed reports of beatings, sexual assault and neglect at a Florida private youth prison run by Youth Services International (YSI). Former staff at the YSI prison revealed that they were actively discouraged from reporting violations “to avoid imperiling future state contracts.”

The Huffington Post last year published a two-part substantive and groundbreaking article, titled Prisoners of Profit, that told the story of a “private prison empire” that is still thriving despite “a startling record of juvenile abuse.” Lawsuits and legislative reform efforts have thus far fallen short to provide a remedy.


A mother sounds off against one of the “kids for cash” judges.

 ‘Kids for Cash’

The toxic mixture of privatization and youth imprisonment made big headlines several years ago in Luzerne County, PA, and its city of Wilkes Barre. You’ve probably heard the story. Two judges, Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, made a deal with Robert Mericle, the builder of two for-profit youth detention facilities, that went like this: The judges would receive over $2 million in kickbacks from Mericle in exchange for a steady flow of young offenders to the private jails.

Inappropriately harsh sentences were meted out to the youth of Luzerne County. Kids received hard time imposed by the crooked judges for offenses such as “mocking a principal on MySpace, trespassing in a vacant building or shoplifting DVDs at a Wal-Mart.” A devil’s pact damaged numerous families.

A 2009 plea agreement that would impose mere seven-year sentences for both judges was rejected by a federal district court judge, who cited an utter lack of remorse. That year, a federal grand jury returned a 48-count indictment against the “Kids for Cash” judges. In the end, Conahan pled guilty and received a 17 and a half year sentence. Ciavarella was defiant until the end and got 28 years.

(April 10, 2015) This is a rewrite of the post published on March 5. It is one of a series of posts on the general topics of privatization and “crimes of poverty.”



Andrew Goutman

Andrew Goutman is the editor of Enter, Stage Left.

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5 Responses

  1. Elizabeth Ballantyne says:

    Boy, Andy! You’ve been busy!

  2. Betsy, I could use the kind words. I’m not sure I got good wood on this topic. There’re so many issues scattered about. Hopefully, I’ll be able to tie it together in Part II. And you’re right: it’s a lot of work. I’m not complaining, though. Thanks.

  3. Victor Winograd says:

    Did my comment disappear?

  4. Janet Abbey says:

    Andy if you went and copied this on facebook you will be able to connect with so many people who are of like mind.Do check out GCAS as it’s also on facebook.Am giving you Zizek’s facebook page as some are there and you should know him and his work.A Slovenian philosopher BTW.

  5. James LaVelle says:

    Excellent article Andy. Like Betsy, I think you really hit the nail on the head. It is heart -breaking to think that our country is doing this. I wish I was 10 again and felt certain that the US was was always doing the right thing.

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