Heat rises from the border road as a Border Patrol agent sits at an observation point along the international border separating San Luis, Arizona, from San Luis, Sonora, Mexico. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Thirty years ago in January, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), now the biggest operator of private prisons in the world, opened its first prison, a federal immigrant detention center in Houston, Texas. Three Decades of Service to America, a page on the company's website, features a video interview with the company's founders looking back on that first contract. "We saw this big ol' sign, 'Olympic Motel,' made an offer to lease the motel for four months," recalls Don Hutto, who chuckles with fellow co-founder Tom Beasley, the former chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, as they remember hastily converting the building and staffing it with family members. The night of Super Bowl Sunday, "we got our first day's pay for eighty-seven undocumented aliens," says Hutto, who even fingerprinted the inmates himself.
For a company that began and later thrived by imprisoning immigrants, the federal immigration policy overhaul expected this year presents both opportunities and challenges.
On the one hand, a pathway to citizenship and legal reforms sought by advocates could reduce the number of immigrants detained by CCA and its competitors in the private prison industry. "Private prison corporations have an enormous stake in immigration reform," says Bob Libal, a prison reform advocate with Grassroots Leadership. "A reform that provides a timely pathway to citizenship without further criminalizing migration would be a huge hit to the industry," he says.
On the other hand, Libal observed that a bill with increased security measures "could be very profitable" for the industry. Legislators and the Obama administration could adopt a plan that mirrors Republican proposals for an "enforcement first" approach, which include increased police powers, new mandatory detention and sentencing laws, further militarization of the border and proposals for more prisons and detention officers.
Damon Hininger, the chief executive of CCA, sounded an optimistic note when asked about the impact of reform on an investor call earlier this month, noting, "There's always going to be a demand for beds."
In recognition of the profits at stake, the prison companies have invested in key legislators leading the reform process -- although the companies are coy about their purpose, denying that they are attempting to influence Congress deliberations.
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