The Influence of the Private Prison Industry in Immigration Detention


Since the late 1990’s, the number of people held in immigration detention has exploded. On any given day, ICE detains over 33,000 immigrants; this is more than triple the number of people detained in 1996. In the last 5 years alone, the annual number of immigrants detained and the costs of detaining them has doubled: in 2009, 383,524 immigrants were detained, costing taxpayers $1.7 billion at an average of $122 a day per bed. Nearly 2.5 million individuals have passed through immigration detention facilities since 2003.

Although private corporations have long exercised influence over detention policy in a variety of contexts, a recent accumulation of evidence indicates that the main contractors involved in the explosive growth of the immigration detention system have been involved in heavy lobbying at the federal level.

Presented here is a compendium of research identifying the companies most heavily invested in the immigration detention business, and charting the increase in their lobbying activities over the last decade -- not only in terms of dollars spent but also in terms of the variety of government entities targeted.

More research is needed in order to determine the extent to which the private prison lobby is responsible for increasingly anti-immigrant policies being enacted at the federal and state levels. This initial data, which represents only the tip of the iceberg, is being made available to members of the public and the media with the hope of provoking more in depth investigation.

This research was conducted in partnership with Grassroots Leadership and Sarah V. Carswell.

Overview of the History of Private Prison Corporations in the Immigration Detention Business. Read more here.

Highlights of Research: The Scope of the Corporate Stake in Immigration Detention

In 2009, ICE had an adult average daily population (ADP) of 32,606 in a total of 178 facilities. Of these, 15,942 detainees – or 49% – were housed in 30 privately-operated detention centers. Of the private facilities, the states with the highest ADP were Texas (6,115), Georgia (1,804) and Arizona (1,779).

Breakdown of private immigration detention beds by state

The three largest corporations with stakes in immigration detention today are Corrections Corporations of America (CCA), the GEO Group, Inc., and the Management and Training Corporation (MTC). In 2010, CCA and GEO reported annual revenues of 1.69 billion and 1.17 billion respectively, but because neither the corporations nor ICE make the necessary data publicly available, it is so far not possible to determine what percentage of these profits are attributable to ICE contracts.

CCA is the largest contractor of ICE detention beds. The company operates a total of 14 ICE-contracted facilities with a total of 14,556 beds. In 2009, CCA averaged a daily population of 6,199 detained immigrants. Breakdown of CCA’s 2009 ADP by facility

GEO is the second largest ICE contractor, with seven facilities, totaling 7,183 beds and a 2009 ADP of 4,948. In Texas alone, GEO's ADP was 1,867. In 2011 GEO also broke ground on a new 600 bed facility in Karnes County Texas. Breakdown of GEO’s 2009 ADP by facility

The third largest player is MTC, with two facilities and a combined total of 4,172 beds with an ADP of 2, 244. Breakdown of MTC’s 2009 ADP by facility

Breakdown of the remaining private prison corporations with ICE contracts by facility and ADP

Highlights of Research: The Lobbying Practices of Private Prison Corporations

With the exponential increases in government expenditure on immigration enforcement since 2001, private industry accurately views immigration detention as a growth industry, and corporations have therefore devoted their resources to lobbying for those policies and programs that will increase their opportunities to do business with the federal government.

Between the five corporations with ICE contracts for which official federal lobbying records are currently available, the total expenditure on lobbying for 1999-2009 was $20,432,000.(1) In general, corporations lobbied both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Most companies also lobbied the Department of Homeland Security, the agency that oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The larger corporations (CCA and GEO) lobbied a variety of entities related to immigration policy, including the Department of Justice, the Bureau of Prisons, and the Office of Management and Budget. Both CCA and GEO reported lobbying ICE directly.

Corrections Corporation of America by far spends the most on federal lobbying, totaling $18,002,000 from 1999 to 2009. The bulk of this was between 2003 and 2007, when CCA spent between $2,020,000 and $3,800,000 each year, averaging over $3 million per year. CCA also lobbies more agencies than any other private prison company, including the Department of Labor, Department of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Administration for Families and Children. Specific bills listed in CCA lobby reports include: the Private Prisons Information Act of 2009, Safe Prisons Communication Act and others around immigration and appropriations. This inventory of targeted agencies and legislation suggests that CCA is attempting to shape labor regulations, encourage privatization in the Bureau of Indian prisons, and expand family detention. More research is necessary in order to uncover the dimensions of CCA’s influence in these areas.

CCA has used seven different lobbying agencies, often employing five or six firms at the same time. The two agencies CCA has most used include Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, and Sisco Consulting LLC. The third most utilized lobbyist for CCA is employed by the company itself.

GEO spent $2,065,000 on lobbying between 1999 and 2009. The three major lobbying firms under GEO are Lionel "Leo" Aguirre, Winston & Strawn, and Dykema Gossett. There is no information available indicating the specific bills GEO has concentrated on.

The Federal Lobbying Disclosure Act Database offers lobbying information for two other private prison corporations during this time period. Cornell Corrections paid $360,000 to Cassidy & Associates and Emerald Corrections paid $3,000 to the DaVinci Group.

The impact of these lobbying practices has been deeply felt on many fronts, from detention expansion to border militarization. In 2005 alone, coinciding with the introduction in Congress of a number of anti-immigrant bills and leading up to the largest immigration raid in U.S. history, CCA and GEO spent a combined total of over $6 million in lobbying efforts. The highest spending for both GEO and CCA was in 2004, one year after the immigrant freedom rides and the second highest spent was in 2007, shortly after mass immigrant mobilizations across the country. In depth research is necessary in order to analyze the apparent correlations between lobbying practices, advocacy efforts and policy developments.

In addition to wielding influence at the federal level, these corporations also push for and – as recent reports have revealed – in some cases even draft anti-immigrant law and policy at the state and local levels(2). A series of stories from several media outlets have described the private prison industry’s involvement in the development and passage of Arizona's controversial SB 1070, detailing relationships between powerful state officials (including Senator Russell Pearce and Governor Jan Brewer) and various political players, including the American Legislation Exchange Council (ALEC), a group of million-dollar corporations and legislators with CCA as a member of its Public Safety and Elections Task Force.

These deep connections between corporate and government actors raise concerns about the extent to which private industry is dictating policy in an area where the lives, liberty and basic rights of hundreds of thousands of people are at stake. More research is necessary to quantify and analyze the ways in which these corporations influence both national and local policy around immigration enforcement and detention.

Full data set on lobbying expenditures between 1999 and 2010

Suggestions for Further Research

The data presented above represents initial research laying out the influence of the private prison industry on the U.S. immigration detention system. This information was painstakingly gleaned from the few resources that are publicly available. It raises many more questions than it answers, and more research is needed to draw the full picture of the industry’s impact on detention growth and expansion of anti-immigrant policies. The findings are being made available to members of the public and the media with the hope of provoking more in depth investigation.

Questions that need to be answered:

1. Outside of pure facility operations, which corporations provide services (such as officer training, food service, transportation or facility construction) relevant to immigration enforcement and detention and what relationships have those corporations had with the federal and state governments?

2. Which specific pieces of federal legislation have been the focus of lobbying efforts by which corporations?

3. What influence have private prison corporations had on state-level legislation?

4. Who are the key individuals lobbying on behalf of the private prison corporations? Do any of them have a history of employment with DHS, ICE or other government entities?

5. In states that have proposed SB1070 copycat bills, or other anti-immigrant legislation, what relationships exist between policy makers and the private prison industry?

Printable Detention Privatization Fact Sheet

Research Methodolgy

Bibliography of news stories covering the private prison industry and its involvement in immigration detention.

(1)According to the Federal Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, corporations must report all lobbying expenses in a given year. If lobbying expenses are below $3,000, the corporation must make an affirmative statement that the amount of lobbying expenses falls below this threshold. For any years for there which there is no data, no reports were filed by the corporation.
(2)See, e.g., Beau Hodai. "Corporate Con Game: How the Private Prison Industry Helped Shape Arizona’s Anti-Immigrant Law." In These Times. (June 21, 2010) Available at:, expanded version available at: Elise Foley. “Prison industry ties to anti-immigration bills.” The Washington Independent. (Sep 17 2010). Available at:; Laura Sullivan. “Prison economics help drive Arizona immigration law.” National Public Radio.(Oct 28 2010). Available at: