Private Prisons Make Big Bucks on Immigration Crackdown | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Private Prisons Make Big Bucks on Immigration Crackdown

Private companies are reaping huge profits from immigration crackdowns worldwide, Hillman Prize winner Nina Bernstein reports for the New York Times. Bernstein documents how the detention of asylum-seekers and people awaiting deportation has become big business in the United States, the United Kingdom, and especially in Australia:


In the United States — with almost 400,000 annual detentions in 2010, up from 280,000 in 2005 — private companies now control nearly half of all detention beds, compared with only 8 percent in state and federal prisons, according to government figures. In Britain, 7 of 11 detention centers and most short-term holding places for immigrants are run by for-profit contractors.

No country has more completely outsourced immigration enforcement, with more troubled results, than Australia. Under unusually severe mandatory detention laws, the system has been run by a succession of three publicly traded companies since 1998. All three are now major players in the international business of locking up and transporting unwanted foreigners.

Bernstein doesn’t shy away from the detention industry’s appalling health and safety record. She notes that private immigration prisons have been plagued by riots, epidemics of self-harm by inmates, and even child abuse. You’ll be shocked to learn that not everyone who hangs out a shingle as a for-profit detention facility is qualified to do so:

But the ballooning of privatized detention has been accompanied by scathing inspection reports, lawsuits and the documentation of widespread abuse and neglect, sometimes lethal. Human rights groups say detention has neither worked as a deterrent nor speeded deportation, as governments contend, and some worry about the creation of a “detention-industrial complex” with a momentum of its own.

Matthew J. Gibney of Oxford University offers an incisive quote to explain what’s gone wrong with the immigration detention service over the last 15 years: “When something goes wrong — a death, an escape — the government can blame it on a kind of market failure instead of an accountability failure.” In other words, part of what the government is paying for when it privatizes detention is plausible deniability.

[Photo credit: Thomas Hawk, Creative Commons]