Americans Left in the Dark Over Reasons Behind Private Prison Policy Reversal

Brendan Fischer and Maggie Christ
Dec 8, 2017
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Almost nine months later, the public still has not seen any documents that show how the Department of Justice (DOJ) reached its decision to change course on its private prison policy. But private prison giant GEO Group’s history of large, illegal donations to a pro-Trump super PAC offers a very likely explanation.

In August 2016, the Obama administration announced that it would be phasing out federal private prison contracts like those held by GEO. The announcement sent GEO’s stocks tumbling. The next day, GEO contributed $100,000 to the pro-Trump super PAC Rebuilding America Now, and it made another $125,000 contribution just one week before the election. At the time, Mike Pence was telling donors that giving to the super PAC was “one of the best ways to stop Hillary Clinton and help elect Donald Trump our next president!” After Trump won, GEO gave $250,000 to the Trump Inaugural Committee.

GEO did not have to wait long to see its investment start to pay off. On Feb. 23, 2017, during his second full week on the job, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a one-paragraph memo reversing the Obama administration’s private prison phase-out, instead ordering officials to continue using for-profit facilities for federal inmates.

The Obama administration had laid out the reasoning for its private prison decision in a memo authored by then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, who cited a comprehensive Office of Inspector General report finding that for-profit prisons are more dangerous and no less costly than public facilities. The Trump administration reversed that decision with one paragraph that cited no evidence or research.

So what really informed the Trump administration’s private prison policy?

In February 2017, CLC filed a FOIA request to find out.

We asked for “all factual materials, reports, and other evidence that the DOJ considered in reaching its conclusion to rescind the Aug. 18, 2016 memo on private prisons,” as well as communications with GEO lobbyists and mentions of Rebuilding America Now.

But DOJ dragged its feet in responding, so we filed suit in June to finally learn what evidence or research the Trump administration relied upon in reaching its private prison conclusion. After months of litigation, we prevailed in our lawsuit, and now we have the answer:

Nothing.

That’s right. Our FOIA request to multiple DOJ offices for “all factual materials, reports, and other evidence that the DOJ considered” in developing the new private prison policy netted only a handful of news clips and innocuous emails. See the entirety of the responses here.

So if Trump’s DOJ didn’t reach its decision based on any research, evidence, or reports – like the OIG report that informed the Obama administration’s policy – then perhaps it is reasonable to infer that GEO’s illegal contributions played a role.

As a federal contractor, GEO is prohibited from making contributions in federal elections (although it may legally contribute to an inaugural committee). The reason for the 75-year-old contractor contribution ban is intuitive: to protect the integrity of the contracting process, since taxpayer-funded contracts are an obvious way for a politician to reward friends and political donors. Officials are supposed to allocate taxpayer money based on what is in the public interest, not based on what is best for their deep-pocketed campaign supporters.

CLC has a complaint pending before the Federal Election Commission (FEC) alleging GEO’s contributions to Rebuilding America Now were illegal. The FEC already fined a government contractor earlier this year for giving to a pro-Clinton super PAC, in response to another CLC complaint.

But as the FEC delays taking action on the GEO complaint, GEO continues reaping benefits from its illegal contributions. 

In April, the Trump Administration awarded GEO a $110 million, 10-year federal contract to build and administer a new 1,000-bed immigration detention center in Texas. GEO expects $44 million a year in revenue from the facility. GEO also has enjoyed a soaring stock price; its stock shot up 21 percent the day after Trump won, and has continued to grow since then;  it is up almost 60 percent since Election Day.

And GEO’s attempts at influence-peddling continue apace. This fall, GEO held its annual conference at one of Trump’s Florida resorts, where prison wardens and executives spent four days dining and golfing.

Meanwhile, GEO has continued to support super PACs: already this year, GEO has given $100,000 to the Congressional Leadership Fund and $100,000 to the Senate Leadership Fund. Unless the FEC takes action to enforce the law, GEO is likely to continue making these illegal contributions.

From GEO’s perspective, were $225,000 in political donations worth the payoff of a skyrocketing stock price, a $110 million contract, and indefinite favorable treatment for its entire industry? It would certainly appear so. 

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