Private prisons are determined to make their voices heard in the 2020 election cycle. The industry has now spent $2.1 million in donations to political candidates and political action committees (PACs). This money has disproportionately gone to support Republicans, who received over 90 percent of candidate donations.
Data released in September by the Center for Responsive Politics show that private prisons have spent more on this election cycle than any other in the last 30 years. Political spending from private prisons has steadily ticked up since 1990, but has surged since 2014. The largest current contributor is GEO Group, which accounts for 85 percent of this cycle’s political spending. CoreCivic Inc. and Management & Training Corp are the second and third-largest contributors.
The three biggest recipients of private prison money in 2020 are some familiar names: Colorado Senator Cory Gardner (R), Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell (R) and President Donald Trump. Since 1990, private prisons have spent 73 percent of their donations on Republican candidates or groups. This year is no different—but why the record-high spend?
About 128,000 people are incarcerated in private prisons, or over 6 percent of all people behind bars. As of 2015, 22,000 (12 percent) of federal prisoners were held in private prisons. President Obama issued an order in August 2016, his last year in office, to end the federal government’s use of these facilities. But Trump, since his first presidential run, has campaigned to expand their use.
He made good on his promise by rescinding Obama’s order after taking office in 2017. That year, his administration also awarded a $110 million contract to GEO to build the company’s first new detention center under Trump’s presidency.
Importantly, Trump’s immigration policies have also removed important legal and due-process protections for undocumented people. This is relevant because while private prisons hold a small number of US citizens and residents, they disproportionately lock up undocumented immigrants. Per 2017 data, three out of every four immigrants detained by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) daily are held in a private prison.
Altogether, contracts from ICE, the US Marshalls Service and the Bureau of Prisons make up 49 percent and 48 percent of the revenues of GEO Group and CoreCivic, respectively. ICE contracts alone make up at least a quarter of both companies’ revenues. The two companies combined made $1.3 billion in 2019 just from their ICE contracts.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has vowed to reinstate Obama’s order and end federal use of private prisons—including for immigrant detention. His criminal justice plan also calls on state and local governments to sever their own ties with private prisons in order to qualify for federal grants to transition away from incarceration.
So it’s easy to see why private prisons are spending heavily to elect Republicans this November: The future of their business depends on it.