For Profit Detention

Grist for the Mill

Here’s something that people all over the political spectrum can get behind. In 2020, ICE paid perhaps half a billion dollars FOR UNUSED BEDS to profiteering private detention facilities. As a taxpayer, I’m galled by that level of waste – I’m galled by that level of grift. While $500 million is a sort of loose estimate, we know the number is high. The Government Accountability Office 2021 report confirms massive spending on unused beds, high flat rate spending on high-vacancy facilities, and poor planning. These aren’t just COVID problems.

I’m familiar with the counter argument – without guaranteed minimums, the private facilities won’t be profitable. But is that true?

More importantly, is that a problem we should want to solve?

One benefit of allowing the market to provide is that a profit-driven market should factor in risk. In this case, a profit-driven market would produce far fewer private facilities. A profit-driven market would be reluctant to spend wildly on building facilities that might be frequently vacant.

But of course, there’s no market at play. There’s a private company guaranteed to make a profit on a private contract. There’s profit in construction, in ownership, in services to run the facility, and it’s all guaranteed. No risk.

Every dollar of that profit is a taxpayer obligation that could have been spent elsewhere.

Now, I understand that these contracts are bid out. Sometimes the bidding process lasts two entire weeks to procure turnkey-ready facilities on contracts that last many years. Other times the bidding process is handled by local officials and contractors who already have a relationship with each other and with ICE. But of course, the process that gets taxpayers to fork out $41.2 million in a single month to a small group of 11 facilities, despite their 62% vacancy rate, is competitive. Because someone used words like “bid” and “procurement.” So the market must be at work, right? We must be getting reasonable prices.


I’m not so sure that working to guarantee the profitability of private immigration detention facilities is such a good answer.

As for whether private facilities can be profitable without grift, we seem to think that other grown-ups can accomplish those goals in the marketplace. I mean, we all get that detention facilities aren’t soda pop, but perhaps there’s a better answer than devoting 17% of the ICE detention system budget to guaranteed profits for people who can’t keep detainees alive and healthy when they do have them.

In the vast universe of better answers, one is to pay only for what we use. Now, I realize that would result in lower capacity. Government decisions to detain folks would be limited by available capacity, or we’d be forced to see tent cities. While tent cities aren’t such a great thing, being forced to see them, is. It tells you that something out of the ordinary is afoot, something that might merit your attention.

Another answer is to simply de-privatize the immigration detention system. I suppose that has its own costs. It would mean more career federal employees. I suppose those folks might be harder to lay off during down time. That’s a terrible problem to have, since those folks might get paychecks. A private company – well, it would lay off unneeded staff. Those flat rates and minimum guarantees would just flow to the shareholders. Paychecks for career federal employees would ruin all that, which is a serious problem with de-privatization. Taxpayers should be very concerned.

In the vast universe of better answers, one can also hope that the private detention lobbyists will get their comeuppances. I suppose that’s easier to do by de-privatizing the entire system, but let’s face it, lobbyists are a great return on investment. I looked up the numbers – for a few million here and there, companies are securing massive guaranteed profits. You’d have to chip away at a massive amount of grift to challenge that investment, so my dream of seeing laid-off private detention lobbyists weeping in the streets is unlikely to be realized. There’s always going to be something for those folks to do, since at some point the government must buy something from an outside source.

As I’ve said, I believe there is a universe of answers better than the one we’ve currently got. Do I know the best answer? Unlikely. That usually requires experimentation, something we’ve become lax about. That tends to happen when you get in bed with profit interests for decades on end. Gravy trains are mushy, sticky, sordid affairs that fear spillage and don’t appreciate innovation.

Of course, I’ve presented this in economic terms. Perhaps that’s a bit like, as Pinker might put it, showing up to a dinner invite with a fifty dollar bill in hand instead of a bottle of nice wine. Hell, it is that way.

But it’s for a purpose. I think it’s worth pointing out that we’re lining the pockets of people who cage up humans for a living. That those profiteers line the pockets of the politicians who tell us we need to put people in cages. That it’s all a dirty scam.

I am concerned that we have the capacity to place children while the immigration courts consider their cases. I recognize that some facilities are needed for the temporary protection of vulnerable people. I also think that migration will be one of the major human responses to climate change – it is projected to be in the hundreds of millions by 2050, and I think that’s a low estimate. I like President Bush’s idea that we should invest in expanding our administrative capacity. Making a more accurate, faster, more humane process seems like one of the many better ideas. Of course, we will need others.

Anything’s better than feasting on the poor.

For Profit Detention