For Private Prison Companies, Surveilling Immigrants Is the Next Big Windfall

Katya Schwenk / Jacobin
For Private Prison Companies, Surveilling Immigrants Is the Next Big Windfall An immigrant detention center. (photo: ABC)

ICE is considering a new program that could subject more than 5 million immigrants to intensive, intrusive surveillance. Private prison contractors hope to make big bucks off the program — and are spending millions to make sure it passes.

As the country’s immigration agency ponders a significant expansion of its vast, troubled immigrant surveillance regime, private prison companies are telling investors that the proposal could bring significant profits — and are deploying lobbyists to fight to fund it.

In separate calls with investors last month, executives with two of the world’s largest private prison companies, the GEO Group and CoreCivic, said they were focused on a new proposal to radically expand an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) surveillance program. According to the plan, the program, which currently keeps tabs on nearly 200,000 immigrants using technologies like ankle bracelets and facial-recognition apps, could eventually track millions of people who are caught in the immigration system.

ICE’s surveillance programs have been a focus of the companies’ multimillion-dollar lobbying efforts in Washington this year, the latest example of how private incentives are shaping ICE’s vast, and growing, surveillance regime.

“I mean, we’re talking five million people that could potentially be monitored,” one investor said on a November 7 earnings call for the GEO Group, whose subsidiary, BI Inc., has a five-year contract to conduct surveillance for ICE. “That business, which has 50 percent margins, could be substantially higher next year if this comes through, is that correct?”

The GEO Group’s CEO, Jose Gordo, agreed. “Yes, quantitatively,” he said — adding that actual revenue would depend on the details of the program.

The investor was alluding to ICE’s plans, which the agency released quietly in August, for a new program called Release and Reporting Management, which, as proposed, would consolidate and expand ICE’s oversight of people going through immigration proceedings.

“The central aspect of [the program] is really this electronic monitoring,” explained Jesse Franzblau, a senior policy analyst with the National Immigrant Justice Center. That, he said, would represent “a windfall for these private contractors, who lobby very hard for this money to keep flowing.”

In response to our questions, CoreCivic public affairs director Ryan Gustin wrote in an email that the company “has a long-standing, zero-tolerance policy not to advocate for or against any legislation that serves as the basis for — or determines the duration of — an individual’s incarceration or detention.”

“Where we do lobby is on educating government leaders about the solutions we provide, ensuring funding for the contracts we have, and advocating for reentry policies that help reduce recidivism,” Gustin added. As for the Release and Reporting Management program, he said, “It’s also worth noting that we stated during the call that this program is not yet funded by Congress and only in the early stages.”

A spokesperson for ICE did not respond to our inquiries. Representatives for both the GEO Group and BI Inc., its subsidiary, also did not return our requests for comment.

“The Feeling of Constantly Being Watched”

There are currently some 39,000 people in immigration detention across the country, a number that has steadily crept up over the last two years and threatens to once again approach the historic highs reached under the Trump administration. Yet most people going through immigration proceedings in the United States are not detained. According to ICE, there are currently 5.7 million people with pending immigration court cases released on parole, bond, or some other form of conditional release — the “non-detained docket,” as ICE calls it.

Under the Biden administration, more and more of these immigrants have been subject to close surveillance through an ICE program called the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program. The number of people forced to participate in this “alternative to detention” program as a condition of release has more than doubled since President Joe Biden took office. For the past year, that number has hovered between 192,000 and 195,000, according to figures that GEO Group executives provided in the November earnings call.

The electronic monitoring imposed by the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program is exacting: officers use a variety of surveillance tools to closely surveil immigrants, including GPS ankle monitors, a facial-recognition smartphone app, voice recognition, and, most recently, smartwatch trackers.

“These different programs really harm people, and they have lasting impacts,” said Setareh Ghandehari, advocacy director at the Detention Watch Network, an organization that advocates for the end of immigration detention and surveillance.

Such monitoring tools, Ghandehari said, impose “the feeling of constantly being watched” and restrict people’s freedom of movement. According to Ghandehari, the systems force immigrants into house arrest on days when a check-in with ICE is scheduled. Participants must also charge their ankle monitors every four or five hours — or potentially face deportation.

For private contractors, immigration surveillance is extremely lucrative. Currently, a Boulder, Colorado–based company called BI Inc., a subsidiary of the GEO Group, runs ICE’s Intensive Supervision Appearance Program, providing surveillance tech as well as conducting home visits and monitoring individuals. The contract brings BI Inc. and the GEO Group hundreds of millions of dollars each year. The company was awarded a five-year, $2.2 billion contract with ICE to run the program in 2020.

The Biden administration has made it clear it is interested in continuing to expand ICE’s surveillance regime — despite calls from lawmakers to rein in the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program, troubling revelations about how ICE uses migrants’ data, and serious issues with BI’s technology, including shocks and overheating caused by its ankle monitors, which the Guardian uncovered in an investigation last year.

In August, ICE released a request for information that provided a glimpse into its future plans for surveillance of immigrants. Though the documents are preliminary and would require funding from Congress, they indicate that ICE plans to consolidate and expand its various “alternatives to detention” programs — the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program being the primary such program — to form a new regime that could potentially enroll millions of immigrants.

The documents were “the first indication we had that ICE intended to expand its control to potentially everyone with a pending immigration court case,” said Laura Rivera, a senior staff attorney with Just Futures Law, a legal advocacy group that has spent years investigating immigration surveillance. That, Rivera said, would represent a significant expansion of ICE’s current surveillance regime.

The ICE documents say that the proposed new Release and Reporting Management program, which combines electronic monitoring with community services and case management, would involve “a large portion of the 5.7 million individuals on the current non-detained docket.” It’s not clear yet how many people, exactly, would be subject to electronic monitoring, or how intensive such monitoring would be. But even expanding surveillance to cover roughly half of the individuals on the non-detained docket, as the private prison investors noted in the GEO Group’s earnings call, would represent an expansion of the current ICE monitoring program by an order of magnitude.

“We’re obviously talking to ICE on a regular basis. I talked about the RFI [request for information] a little bit,” Damon Hininger, the CEO of CoreCivic, told investors on the private prison company’s November 7 earnings call. “It’s pretty clear to us that ICE and the leadership within the organization and also within [the Department of Homeland Security] are looking at creating solutions above and beyond what they do today with the [Intensive Supervision Appearance Program] program.”

The proposed Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill that passed the Republican-led House of Representatives in September included a provision that would require all 5.7 million people with pending immigration court cases be “enrolled into the Alternatives to Detention Program with mandatory GPS monitoring throughout the duration of all applicable immigration proceedings.”

Although the bill, which faces opposition from the White House, is unlikely to make it through the Senate as is, Rivera of Just Futures Law said the provision was still a “chilling indication of how far ICE and the Biden administration seem to be willing to go.”

Where Rivera and other advocates for immigrants saw potential harms, private prison companies saw a major windfall.

“Gross Private Incentivization To Detain More Immigrants”

“We’ve been gearing up for several years now to prepare to handle a [request for proposal] like what [ICE] issued,” David Garfinkle, CoreCivic’s chief financial officer, said on November 7, assuring investors that the company had responded to ICE’s preliminary proposal.

As one analyst with financial information company S&P Global wrote in a recent memo on the private prison industry, prison companies have looked to ankle monitors and other forms of surveillance technology as one way to recoup lost revenue from lower prison populations in some of their facilities, a long-term trend over the past decade that accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. The GEO Group’s electronic monitoring division, for instance, now brings in 20 percent of the company’s revenue, according to the same report.

“We see that companies like BI have looked to this sector as a growth area and spoken of that as such to investors,” Rivera said.

The direction of the companies’ lobbying dollars also bears this out. In the first three quarters of 2023, CoreCivic and the GEO Group each spent, as usual, large sums lobbying in Washington: CoreCivic — whose lobbying team includes Jeff Miller, a key fundraiser for House speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) — reported spending $1.2 million, while the GEO Group reported $910,000.

Federal disclosure reports show that the small armies of lobbyists hired by each company have focused on ICE’s “alternatives to detention” surveillance regime. Three firms hired by the GEO Group reported lobbying specifically around electronic monitoring this year, while CoreCivic reported lobbying around “issues pertaining to ICE Alternatives to Detention programs.” Both companies also focused lobbying efforts on the Department of Homeland Security appropriations bills in the House and Senate, which will determine funding for ICE in 2024.

“These prison companies have been lobbying on alternatives to detention for some time now, and it’s becoming a bigger part of their business,” said Jason Morin, a professor of political science at California State University, Northridge, who has studied the impacts of the private prison lobby on immigration policy.

According to Franzblau, the National Immigrant Justice Center analyst, lobbying by companies like the GEO Group and CoreCivic has pushed ICE to expand the scope of immigration detention and surveillance. “It’s pretty easy to make that connection from the money these companies spend on lobbying to the text of these bills,” he said, describing the dynamic as a “gross private incentivization to detain more immigrants and to monitor more immigrants.”

ICE’s proposed surveillance expansion is likely still some years away. In a September document answering questions from contractors, the agency said it plans to put out a solicitation for the new program in the next fiscal year, likely pushing any contracts back to 2025 — which is the year that BI Inc.’s $2.2 billion Intensive Supervision Appearance Program contract will expire.

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