“‘Immigration Violations: The Next Goldmine’… What was the last goldmine?”
Orange Is The New Black is a popular American comedy drama, set in a imaginary female penitentiary in upstate New York. The show is loosely based on a book written by former convict Piper Kerman detailing her experiences behind bars following a conviction for drug trafficking and money laundering.
In season 4 episode 5 of the series, warden of the prison Joe Caputo is attending Correcticon – a sales conference for the prison industry. While there, Caputo notices a large sign and reads it aloud to his colleague, enquiring: “‘Immigration Violations: The Next Goldmine’… What was the last goldmine?” Linda, his colleague and the head of purchasing for NCC, the private company that runs the prison, responds smiling: “The War on Drugs, I guess?”
A report by the Justice Policy Institute suggests labelling the prison industry a goldmine may not be an exaggeration. The report, released in 2010, states that the two largest for-profit private prison companies in the United States, CoreCivic and GEO group, take in a combined annual total revenue of $3.3billion. According to the report, the private prison population doubled between 2000 and 2010, and there is a correlation between increasing prisoner numbers and company revenues. While the industry has seen a growth of 3.8% in the last three months, Yahoo! Finance report that GEO group alone have seen share value increase by 30% in that time and only this month the company has announced the offering of 6 million common shares.
In late 2016, due in part to falling numbers of prisoners in federal facilities, the Department of Justice decided to end the use of privately owned for-profit prisons. A memo sent to the Acting Director of the Bureau of Prisons, by then Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates, directed that “as each private prison contract reaches the end of its term, the bureau should either decline to renew that contract or substantially reduce its scope in a manner consistent with law and the overall decline of the bureau’s inmate population”.
This was a move welcomed by groups advocating against for-profit prisons, such as Grassroots Leadership who, according to their website, “believe no one should profit from the imprisonment of human beings”. Unfortunately for this group, and others who share their view, the decision to phase out the privately owned prisons was reversed once the Trump administration came into power. On February 23rd this year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions directed the Bureau of Prisons to revert to previous policy, re-instating the position of the for-profit private prisons and breathing new life into the industry.
Figures released in March 2017 show that the United States Federal Prison population currently stands at close to 190,000. The percentage allocation of this total per class of crime committed is roughly as follows:
Of the forty percent of crimes attributable to public order offences, over a quarter of these are for immigration related offences. Therefore, on average, at any one time around ten percent of the federal prison population are incarcerated for immigration related crimes.
While arrests and convictions for drugs offences in the US have been falling annually in the last five years, there has been an increase in detentions for immigration related offences. Activist groups in America argue that the reversal of the move to close private prisons is as a direct result of President Donald Trump’s executive order on Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements, which stated the following:
Sec. 5. Detention Facilities. (a) The Secretary shall take all appropriate action and allocate all legally available resources to immediately construct, operate, control, or establish contracts to construct, operate, or control facilities to detain aliens at or near the land border with Mexico…
Sec. 6. Detention for Illegal Entry. The Secretary shall immediately take all appropriate actions to ensure the detention of aliens apprehended for violations of immigration law pending the outcome of their removal proceedings or their removal from the country to the extent permitted by law. The Secretary shall issue new policy guidance to all Department of Homeland Security personnel regarding the appropriate and consistent use of lawful detention authority under the INA, including the termination of the practice commonly known as “catch and release,” whereby aliens are routinely released in the United States shortly after their apprehension for violations of immigration law.
At the moment private companies account for almost half of the nation’s immigration detainees and the above decree suggests that this figure is set to increase in the coming months and years. Of course the immigration decree is currently in limbo, having been knocked back by the courts, to the new administration’s obvious frustration. Trump though, is determined to force his vision through and the shareholders at CoreCivic and Geo will be eagerly awaiting the next phase of that fascinating debate.
Aside from that obstacle, other events have brought the future of the the private prison industry into question. Prisons, both public and private, have been affected by protests from within. In October 2016 a number of prisoners in dozens of prisons across the states went on strike and refused to work in protest at the pay and conditions being forced upon them in prison work programs.
The work programs page on the Official Federal Bureau of Prisons website states:
Sentenced inmates are required to work if they are medically able. Institution work assignments include employment in areas like food service or the warehouse, or work as an inmate orderly, plumber, painter, or groundskeeper. Inmates earn 12¢ to 40¢ per hour for these work assignments.
However, a lawsuit against GEO group, accusing the company of forced labour of detained immigrants, reached class-action status only this week. This is the first time that this type of lawsuit has been allowed to move forward and could represent a watershed moment in the for-profit prison story.
For a number of years, people have been questioning the validity and humanity of making profit from the prison system and the incarceration of other human beings. Obama’s administration clearly had issues with the concept, however as we have learned, the new administration have easily reversed the belated attempts of their predecessors to wind down the private prison industry. If the politicians are see-sawing on the issue then at least the arts and the media can still be relied on and are not afraid to make an impact.
A popular documentary released in 2016, called simply “The 13th” heavily criticises the prison industry and the slavery imposed on prisoners, legalised in the 13th amendment to the American constitution.
In May 2015, Manifest For Justice launched a powerful exhibition in Los Angeles highlighting that the state of California had seen 22 prisons and 1 university built in the previous 35 years.
— AJ+ (@ajplus) May 15, 2015
Orange Is The New Black, mentioned at the top, is at times a ridiculous comedy, a fanciful romance and a dark tragedy, but as the seasons pass it is quite refreshing to see the constant serious thread in the show addressing the inhumane treatment of prisoners by private companies operating correction facilities for profit.