Lauren-Brooke Eisen, a senior fellow with the Brennan Center’s Justice Program and the author of Inside Private Prisons: An American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration, said that housing immigrants in a for-profit prison may make it even more difficult for journalists and advocates to monitor the incarcerated people’s well-being or check up on conditions inside the prison.
“Transparency in our nation’s jails and detention centers is sorely lacking, and the problem with adding the additional layer of having a private firm involved is that it makes them even less transparent,” Eisen told Daily Kos. Eisen explained that while researching her book, she had a very hard time getting permission to visit for-profit facilities. She was only able to eventually do so through President Obama’s department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In addition to being able to write contracts that could restrict the access of journalists and advocates, Eisen explained, for-profit prison companies aren’t required to comply with the Freedom of Information Act. That lack of transparency could prove to be an issue at North Lake given that, in 2012, a different GEO Group facility in Mississippi was cited in a federal report for allowing “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts” to occur.
An advocate at the Campaign Legal Center said that at least one thing about GEO Group’s new success seems fairly transparent. In 2016, President Obama’s administration started phasing out the use of for-profit prisons. The day after that announcement, a wholly owned subsidiary of the GEO Group, GEO Corrections Holdings Inc., gave $100,000 to the pro-Trump super PAC Rebuilding America Now. Just before the election, GEO Corrections Holdings gave another $125,000.
In addition to these gifts and $250,000 to Trump’s inaugural committee, Open Secrets reports that in 2016 the GEO Group’s own PAC invested $170,000 in the Trump Victory PAC.
Those investments paid off quickly. During his second week in office, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed the Obama administration’s order phasing out the use of for-profit prisons. According to Campaign Legal Center media strategist Corey Goldstone, their FOIA request to the Department of Justice revealed that the department was unable to justify the decision to go back to using private prisons.
While the GEO Group PAC’s donations were made legally, Goldstone told Daily Kos that his organization is suing to try to force the Federal Elections Commission to sanction the company for the $225,000 donated by GEO Corrections Holdings.
“Public officials are supposed to make contracting decisions based on what is best for the public, not based on who spent the most money getting them elected,” Goldstone said. “If Trump’s [Department of Justice] didn’t reach its decision based on any research, evidence, or reports—like the [Office of Inspector General] report that informed the Obama administration’s policy—then perhaps it is reasonable to infer that GEO’s illegal contributions played a role.”
As advocates on several sides of the issue work to secure protections for those who will be incarcerated at North Lake and to hold everyone from corporate actors to the federal government accountable for the polluting effect of campaign contributions, one group is cautiously optimistic about the re-opening of North Lake: residents of Lake County, where the unemployment rate is currently at just over 8%.
According to the Up North Progressive blog, which has been covering progressive news in northern Michigan since 2014, that caution is warranted. The company has pledged to pay for sewer upgrades so the system will be able to serve its prison. However, its employment record is spotty, at least when it comes to providing jobs to local residents. During the prison’s previous incarnation in 2015 as a facility housing Vermonters, GEO Group imported “a large number of workers” both from other states and elsewhere in Michigan.
According to a post reporting on the new deal for North Lake, “Part of the deal GEO Group made with the state of Michigan in 2015 included hiring as many local qualified people as possible. Perhaps they could stick to this policy a bit more vigorously this time around.”
Dawn Wolfe is a freelance writer and journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This post was written and reported through our Daily Kos freelance program.