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Hard Cell

For prisons, anti-immigrant policy creates business opportunities

Congress and the president really pulled the fat out of the fire for the people in the private misery business. I am referring to companies like the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and Geo Group (formerly the Wackenhut Corrections Corporation) that run for-profit gulags.

For a minute there, it was beginning to look like the states might be wising up about the profligate use of incarceration. Five years ago, California started sending drug offenders to treatment programs instead of prison. The result was a drop in both the incarceration rate and the crime rate — and, not incidentally, a savings to the state of some $1.4 billion. Maryland is in the process of cutting its prison population in the hope of similar results. Even Pennsylvania, which is rarely a bellwether, has experienced a drop in prison population: We're down a couple hundred convicts since 2003.

But what's good news for taxpayers is bad news for private prisons. With a couple thousand empty beds spread around the country, things could have gotten grim for the old bottom line.

That was before George W. Bush and a bunch of politicians looking for a wedge issue for 2006 decided to get tougher on illegal immigration — and, more importantly, to spread around more bucks for enforcement. Gay marriage, apparently, can't be counted on to come through like it did in 2004. Rick Santorum is trying to get people riled up about immigration even though around here, we haven't had much since my grandparents came over around the turn of the last century. (Hey, maybe they're right about immigrants being criminals.)

By next year, the administration estimates, about 27,500 immigrants will be seeing America through the bars every night. This represents an increase of more than 6,700 a night from the current number. Happy days are here again!

Currently the federal government farms about 57 percent of illegals to county jails, which are in turn paid an average of $95 per day to house them. (That's what generally happens to the ones who get nabbed in Pittsburgh.) It is a real windfall to county jails that are lucky enough to have some empty beds, and illegals are easy to have around. They don't get visits or require any sort of programming. Best of all, nobody understands them when they complain, and wouldn't care even if they did — they aren't even citizens.

It's a potluck affair for the poor guys who are in custody. They can end up being treated like dirt in some dump, or living relatively unhassled in a tiny rural lockup, like the jail in Hancock County, W.Va. (where, during my brief stay, two Jamaicans and a Mexican were first in line every day for delicious home-style eats served up by a couple friendly Aunt Bea types.)

The private companies are optimistic about their prospects versus the county lock-ups. Louise Gilchrist, spokesman for Corrections Corp., was quoted in The New York Times as saying, "The company feels it is well positioned" to handle the projected increases in detainees … because they currently have the most bed space available, and the ability to build it faster than government entities. (I wonder: When business is slow, does the VP for marketing in a prison company promote crime?)

Business analyst Anton High tells the Times, "What's great about the detention business" — as opposed to the jailing of old-fashioned convicted criminals — "is not that it's a brand-new channel of demand, but that it is growing and significant."

I knew that there must be something "great" about locking up tens of thousands of people every day. I'm grateful to Mr. High for pointing it out.

Either way, a crackdown on immigrants seems to be coming down the tracks with the inevitability of a locomotive. If they say that 27,000 will be locked up every day, I'd be willing to bet the real number will be much higher.

In fact, if you'd like to place a real wager, CCA and Geo are both publicly traded on the stock market. Since February, CCA stock has gone from $42.50 a share to $53.77 — a 27 percent increase. Geo stock, meanwhile, has skyrocketed 68 percent, from $23.36 to $39.23.

Talk about a feel-good policy. Not only do people seem genuinely happy about locking up immigrants, but a lot of people are profiting from it, too. It doesn't get any better than this.

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