A Private Prison CEO Is “Hopeful” About the Budget Deal’s Boost for ICE Detention

The GEO Group’s executives see opportunities to detain more people.

A guard at the Adelanto Detention Facility, an ICE detention center run by the GEO GroupJohn Moore/Getty

As a congressional deal on border security funding came closer to passing yesterday, the CEO of the country’s largest private prison company told shareholders that he expects the agreement will be good news for his business. Due to the increased funding levels for immigration detention included in the deal, the GEO Group—which held nearly 1 in 3 immigration detainees as of mid-2017—will likely detain more people, George Zoley said during an earnings call.

For the past week, congressional Democrats had been pushing hard to cap the number of detention beds available to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The agency’s network of public and privately run detention centers currently holds more than 48,000 people. The Democrats were trying to force ICE to detain fewer people overall and prioritize locking up immigrants who have been convicted of serious crimes, in contrast to the Trump administration’s practice of prioritizing all unauthorized immigrants for deportation.

But the final budget agreement abandoned those demands and increased the money available for immigration detention, boosting its average capacity from 40,520 beds per day to 45,274. It also doesn’t limit ICE from dipping into other sources of funding to maintain higher detention levels if it chooses.

During the GEO earnings call Thursday, a managing director at SunTrust asked the prison company’s executives whether they expect the deal to “translate into business opportunities.” “We are hopeful,” Zoley replied. “It’s likely given that the authorized level that has now increased by 5,000 beds.” He also noted that the actual ICE detainee population tends to be “significantly higher” than the capacity funded by Congress. Even current detention levels, which are just about the highest in history, could increase under the terms of the deal, Zoley said. “I would expect that the 48,000 could increase through reprogrammed funding.”

Zoley expressed confidence that new ICE detention contracts under the spending bill would flow to private companies rather than public jails, arguing that GEO’s facilities are better at following federal standards for conditions in ICE detention. (The agency routinely fails to hold detention centers accountable for not meeting performance standards and it often deals with deficiencies by exempting the facility from the standard in question, according to a report by a federal watchdog agency released in January.)

It’s not just the business of locking up immigrants that’s looking good for GEO in 2019. A criminal justice reform bill passed late last year could end up benefitting the private prison company as well. As the number of federal prisoners continues to decline from peak levels in the early 2010s, the company has been acquiring halfway houses and ankle-monitoring companies under the banner of its GEO Care division in a bid to reposition itself as a provider of reentry and rehabilitation services. This year, as the federal prison system begins implementing the First Step Act—the bipartisan criminal justice reform law that curbed mandatory minimums and shortened some prisoners’ time behind bars—GEO and its main competitor, CoreCivic, may end up profiting from the changes. “It’s too early to tell” if the reforms will drum up significant new business for the company, GEO Care President Ann Schlarb told investors Thursday. But, she added, “certainly the recidivism reduction programming discussed in the act is the type of programs we provide.”

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate