The for-profit prison company GEO Group, which has come under criticism for its treatment of immigrant detainees, has officially inked a 10-year contract this week with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to continue operations at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.
Since early 2014 the 1,575 bed detention center — which holds immigrants who are detained by ICE— has been the site of multiple hunger strikes and numerous protests. Last month a group of immigrant-rights activists locked arms and blocked access to the facility for more than six hours.
At full occupancy — which the facility rarely is — GEO estimates the Northwest Detention Center will bring in annual revenue of $57 million.
“We appreciate the confidence placed in our company by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement which is a testament to our partnership with the agency that dates back to the 1980s,” says GEO Group CEO George Zoley in a statement announcing the deal. “The Northwest Detention Center plays an important role in helping meet the need for federal detention bed space.”
The deal is a boon for the GEO Group at a time when the tide seems to be turning on prison profiteering. If passed, a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill introduced in the U.S. Senate last week will drastically reduce the prison population. But as elected officials on both sides of the aisle work to end mass incarceration, private prison companies like GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America will become increasingly dependent on the money they make locking up immigrant detainees.
ICE’s national detention population has nearly doubled over the last decade: in 2004 the agency had 18,000 beds available for immigrant detainees; they now maintain 34,000. A controversial ‘bed mandate’ means ICE pays for those beds even when they are empty, too, creating what some activists see as an incentive to arrest undocumented immigrants..
Private-prison companies claim that they are able to save taxpayers money by operating like, well, businesses. But this claim has yet to be proven, says Paul Wright, director of the Human Rights Defense Center.
“Where these companies really make their money is immigration,” Wright says. “There’s no evidence they save money; any savings is just profit margin for the company and its shareholders.”
On their website GEO Group touts the Northwest Detention Center’s accreditation by the American Correctional Association, which gave the facility a rating of 99.2 percent. But detainees at the facility complain they don’t get enough to eat and do menial work for $1 per day. After hearing these complaints Congressman Adam Smith visited the Tacoma facility, leading him to introduce the Accountability in Immigration Detention Act in May. If passed the legislation would eliminate the bed-mandate, improve conditions, and set enforceable standards for immigration detention centers.