Feb 15, 2022 - Politics & Policy

The for-profit detention circle

Photo illustration of a man wearing an ankle monitor standing on a hundred dollar bill
Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Yalonda M. James/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Migrant-tracking technology the U.S. government is using in part to fulfill President Biden's pledge to close for-profit detention centers is sold by the subsidiary of a major for-profit detention provider, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: Human rights advocates and labor unions have long objected to for-profit prisons, saying the financial incentive for mass detention creates a morally slippery slope ripe for abuse. A sole provider also benefits from the alternatives to them.

  • Alternative-to-detention (ATD) programs can cost the government almost 50 times less per person than physically housing people in detention facilities.
  • The government pays $142 per day for a detention bed, but as little as $3 per day for ATD services, according to Department of Homeland Security officials.
  • Still, contract money flowing from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to what Axios is told is the sole ATD provider — B.I. Incorporated — has been on the rise for years: from $61 million in obligated funds in 2016 to $281 million in 2021, according to USASpending.

What they're saying: “For more than three decades, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, we have been a trusted service provider to the federal government,” a spokesperson for the GEO Group Inc., the parent company of B.I. Incorporated, told Axios — pushing back on any allegations of mistreatment.

  • The spokesperson noted the company's facilities provide around-the-clock access to medical care, access to legal services; religious opportunities, enhanced recreational amenities and three daily meals.
  • The spokesperson referred questions about B.I. Incorporated's ATD work to ICE.
  • An ICE spokesperson said: "Among the steps DHS has taken to make lasting improvements to civil immigration detention, DHS closed two detention facilities, transitioned family residential centers into facilities for single adults, expanded Alternatives to Detention, and issued policies to ensure the protection of vulnerable populations."

Details: The GEO Group Inc. currently operates more immigrant detention centers than any other private company, at 15. It runs a total of 107 detention centers, state and federal prisons, processing centers and reentry centers.

  • As of September, four in five immigrants in detention after crossing the border or being arrested by ICE were held in facilities run by for-profit companies.

B.I. Incorporated, a GEO subsidiary, is the only company currently providing ATD technology and services to ICE, sources familiar with the services told Axios.

  • The company has been providing immigrant tracking services since the Bush administration, and the latest contract process began before Biden took office a year ago.
  • The programs involve ankle monitors, voice recognition technologies and cellphone apps to trace immigrants as they live and work in the U.S. while awaiting court hearings.
  • B.I. Incorporated also works with NGOs to provide a host of health and other services to those enrolled in alternative-to-detention programs.
  • ICE also is seeking information from new potential contractors about their abilities to provide ATD services for up to 50,000 people.

By the numbers: B.I. Incorporated currently has a contract running through July that's worth $257 million, according to USASpending.gov.

  • That contract includes the capacity to monitor up to 400,000 people in non-detention programs, according to a source familiar with the details. There are roughly 180,000 people currently enrolled in ATD programs.
  • In 2019 and 2020, 28% of the GEO Group's total revenue came from ICE detention contracts, bringing in between $660 million and $710 million each year, according to statistics pulled together by the ACLU.

The big picture: Immigration advocates are divided over the rising use of ATD tracking programs.

  • There's still broad support for them as more humane options than detention for enforcing immigration laws.
  • The only other detention facility option often is to hold undocumented immigrants in local jails.
  • But there's concern the administration will use the programs to put more immigrants under surveillance than before — rather than to decrease the use of detention.
  • There's also opposition to relying on for-profit contractors.

But, but, but: Jorge Loweree, policy director at the American Immigration Council, told Axios, "If the government wants to have some sort of program that limits people's liberty, it's the government's responsibility to actually operate that program and take on the accountability of doing so."

  • Before he could fully support the Biden administration's expanded ATD programs, Loweree said, he'd want to see a significant decline in the detained population.
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