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THE private prison corporations are, no surprise, close pals with US President Donald Trump. The same firms have a good foothold in Britain — thanks to Tony Blair.
Let’s take one firm, the Geo Group. This Florida firm has a $1.6 billion turnover running prisons and immigration throughout the United States and the rest of the world.
It has been keen on Trump. One of its subsidiaries, Geo Corrections Holding Inc, gave $250,000 to the Trump Inauguration Fund. This was the huge, corporate-sponsored fund which paid for all Trump’s inauguration balls and celebrations when he became president this January.
The firm is called Geo Corrections because in the US prisons are run by the sinister-sounding Department of Corrections.
Another prisons firm, CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America), also gave $250,000 to Trump’s inauguration fund.
Geo Group also put money into getting Trump elected. A Geo Group firm gave $225,000 to a political action committee called Rebuilding America Now.
In the US, political action committees take big corporate donations to run political campaigns supporting candidates. Because corporate donations are channelled through these committees rather than the parties themselves, the business money behind US political campaigns is much less clear than in Britain.
Rebuild America Now is an emphatically pro-Trump campaign — its website says it was “supporting Donald Trump in the 2016 general election,” because it is “dedicated to showing Americans the truth about Hillary Clinton and her real record.” The group produced many “hard-hitting” anti-Hillary ads, ironically many of them about Clinton’s shady business backers.
Federal government contractors are banned from making election campaign contributions in the US — a good law to stop “pay for play” corruption.
An anti-corruption group, the Campaign Legal Centre, has complained about the donation but the Geo Group says it did not break any laws because it made the donation through a firm that is a “non-contracting legal entity and has no contracts with any governmental agency.”
Geo Group has huge government contracts, but it donated through a subsidiary that does not.
Geo Group is also a client of a new Washington lobbying firm, Ballard Partners, run by a key Trump supporter, Brian Ballard. When he is not representing Geo Group, Ballard helps raise money for Trump.
In June Ballard was involved in a party at the Trump International Hotel in New York that raised $10 million for Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign — yes, they are already planning it.
Geo Group’s friendship with Trump is not surprising. The US has had a private prison industry for years, but it was under pressure.
In her presidential campaign Clinton made promises to “end the privatisation of prisons.”
A statement on her website read: “Hillary believes we should move away from contracting out this core responsibility of the federal government to private corporations, and from creating private industry incentives that may contribute — or have the appearance of contributing — to over-incarceration.”
Clinton was responding to pressure from Black Lives Matter activists, who saw black US citizens were sent too often to prison for too long. They argued this was because of racism, but also because private prison firms used their profits to lobby for ever more harsh laws to help fill their jails and generate their profits.
Clinton was also responding to some hard-hitting investigative reporting, notably a series by Shane Bauer which uncovered grim private prisons by working undercover in the jails for US left-wing investigative magazine Mother Jones. Incidentally, this is another illustration of how social change requires mass movements and left-wing publications.
Even before the election, Barack Obama’s deputy attorney general announced the government planned on “reducing — and ultimately ending — our use of privately operated prisons” because studies found the jails were more expensive and worse than public ones.
Trump’s election reverses all that. Private prisons won’t be phased out. And Trump’s anti-immigrant policies mean more immigration detention centres, also run by the private prison firms, will be built.
And then this April, Trump’s government awarded its first contract for a new immigration detention centre. Geo Group got the $110m, 10-year deal to run the 1,000-bed lock-up, outside of Houston, Texas. Trump wants the Immigration and Customs Enforcement force (commonly refereed to as Ice in the US) to round up “illegal aliens” and put them in Geo Group’s detention centre.
To get an idea of how rotten the US private prisons business is, look to Texas where Geo Group is backing Republican politicians in a new law that will allow it to lock up children.
At the moment some Geo Group centres don’t have a licence to look after kids, so any children of immigrants locked up in its detention centres with their parents have to move to children’s homes within 20 days — even though, as Newsweek has reported, parents have reported sexual abuse of their children and other problems at these jails.
It’s a rotten story of profiting from prisons and lobbying. But Geo Group also has a place in Britain. It runs the Dungavel immigration detention centre in Scotland. The company also ran Doncaster prison until 2005, when its partner, Serco, bought it out.
Geo Group also runs the vans which take prisoners to court and between prisons for most of England and Wales in a joint venture with Amey. GeoAmey’s website claims that its 400-strong fleet of secure vans shifts 10,500 prisoners around each week.
The US private prison firm is friends with Trump. But its big expansion into British private prisons happened thanks to Blair.
His government awarded the firm many contracts, taking prison privatisation way beyond the small Tory programme. Back then, Geo Group were called Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, and its history was even more alarming than just being friends with Trump.
Named after their founder, former FBI agent George Wackenhut, the firm had private lists of 2.4 million “subversives” bought from far-right organisations — Wackenhut charged companies to use these lists of “communists” and “radicals” as blacklists for potential employees. Wackenhut agents were also involved in spying on US politicians and whistle-blowers trying to expose pollution.
With nostalgia for Blair still circulating, his embrace of private prisons is one more example of how Blair was keen on the worst policies of the US Republican right — the Iraq war, academy schools (a George Bush policy under the US name “charter schools”), private prisons — all Blairite policies borrowed from the Republican right.
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