'These people are profitable': Under Trump, private prisons are cashing in on ICE detainees

Billy McConnell was attending the grand opening of a Louisiana prison in 1997 when a sheriff mentioned he’d like a new jail but didn’t want to operate it. McConnell saw money in that moment.

'These people are profitable': Under Trump, private prisons are cashing in on ICE detainees

He co-founded LaSalle Corrections and began cutting deals to build and operate jails in rural towns across the South. Then states throughout the USA, including McConnell’s home state of Louisiana, started reducing inmate populations to save money.

That’s when President Donald Trump swept into office, promising to crack down on immigrants. McConnell saw his next opportunity: the business of immigration detention. LaSalle Corrections quickly opened six more facilities in Louisiana. His detention centers hold more than 7,000 immigration detainees.  

McConnell is aware of critics who condemn the rapidly growing use of jails and prisons to detain immigrants – many of them asylum seekers – whose detention and proceedings are supposed to be civil in nature, not criminal.

“What somebody else thinks about Billy McConnell compared with what God thinks of Billy McConnell is almost irrelevant,” he said, noting that he carries a crucifix at all times and ministers to detainees locked inside detention centers. “We don’t arrest ’em. We don’t try ’em. I know what the laws on the books say, and I’m a guy who goes by the rules.”

The use of private prisons to detain immigrants is not new, but the business has exploded under Trump. At least 24 immigration detention centers and more than 17,000 beds were added in the past three years to the sprawling detention system run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

A USA TODAY Network investigation found that the companies operating those centers have generated record-setting revenue since 2016 while making record-setting political donations – primarily to Republicans, including Trump – as political figures moved freely between government policy roles and jobs in the private immigration industry. 

The booming business spends $3 billion a year housing a record high of roughly 50,000 people, the majority of whom have no criminal record. The investigation revealed more than 400 allegations of sexual assault or abuse, inadequate medical care, regular hunger strikes, frequent use of solitary confinement, more than 800 instances of physical force against detainees, nearly 20,000 grievances filed by detainees and at least 29 fatalities, including seven suicides, since Trump took office in January 2017 and launched an overhaul of U.S. immigration policies.

Network reporters interviewed 35 current or former detainees and reviewed hundreds of documents from lawsuits, financial records and government contracts and toured seven ICE facilities from Colorado to Texas to Florida. They found that private prison companies established close ties with officials from the very top of the federal government all the way down to the local level, currying favor with sheriffs and city officials who often serve as middlemen to secure big-money ICE contracts.

The private prison industry set highs for federal campaign contributions in the 2016 presidential election cycle, spending more than $1.7 million, then again in 2018 by spending more than $1.9 million. Most of the money went to Republican causes, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics and the Federal Election Commission.

Trump has received more than 25 times the amount of contributions that President Barack Obama received over his entire eight years in office – $969,000 to Trump and $38,000 to Obama. The industry donated to people inside Trump’s inner circle, including Vice President Mike Pence, former Energy Secretary Rick Perry and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley while each served as governor of their home states.

Private prison companies spent millions more in federal lobbying efforts and hired people in Trump’s orbit, including former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who works at the White House, and Brian Ballard, Trump’s former campaign finance chief in the critical swing state of Florida.

“This is their moment,” said Silky Shah, executive director of the Detention Watch Network, a group that advocates against detaining migrants. “They’re thinking, ‘We don’t know how long Trump is going to be in office, so let’s get all the money to him and to Republicans and solidify ourselves.’ ”

The White House declined to comment on its ties to the private prison industry. 

Immigration activists argue that asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants with no criminal history should not be held for months and years in prison-like detention centers. They have led frequent protests against private prison operators, leading eight major banks to announce they will not grant any more loans to those companies and a Democratic presidential field vowing to end their existence.