A political watchdog is suing the Department of Justice over its embrace of private prisons

Attorney general Jeff Sessions in March.
Attorney general Jeff Sessions in March.
Image: Reuters/Yuri Gripas
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Before the 2016 presidential election, the private prison industry was banking on a Donald Trump presidency to boost their lagging business, by cozying up to the candidate with SuperPac contributions. After he won, it very quickly became clear they were getting a pretty good return on their investment.

The administration decided to keep using private prisons for federal inmates, reversing a Barack Obama-era decision, and announced it would ramp up immigration and drug prosecutions, expanding the potential pool of detainees in need of bed space behind bars.

Now the Campaign Legal Center (CLC), a political watchdog, is trying to find out how campaign contributions from one prison company to the to the pro-Trump Rebuilding America Now SuperPac may have influenced the Justice Department’s decisions. The group sued the Justice department today (June 15), after the DOJ refused to comply with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The suit, filed in a US district court in Washington, DC, asks the court to compel the DOJ to turn over emails and records of correspondence between the agency and the SuperPac.

GEO Corrections Holdings, a subsidiary of private prison giant GEO Group, contributed $225,000 to the SuperPac, the suit says. The first $100,000 donation came the day after Obama’s deputy attorney general Sally Yates announced the DOJ would be phasing out the use of private prisons for federal inmates in August.

The contributions are illegal in the first place, the CLC claims, because the company is a federal contractor, and therefore banned by US law from making political donations. The CLC has also filed a complaint to the Federal Elections Commission. GEO has argued that its subsidiary (which made the donations) is not a federal contractor, but CLC argues the parent and subsidiary are both contractors and “indistinguishable” from one another.

The CLC filed a similar complaint against the Clinton campaign for accepting SuperPac contributions from a construction contractor.

“Government contracting is the most obvious way for a politician to reward friends and political donors, which is why companies that receive contracts have been banned for 75 years from making political contributions,” Brendan Fischer, associate counsel for the CLC, said in December. “Officials are supposed to decide how taxpayer money is spent based on what’s best for the public, not based on what’s best for their big money backers.”

In an email to Quartz, the GEO Group called the suit’s allegations “absolutely baseless and meritless,” adding:

“All of our company’s contributions have been fully compliant with all applicable laws. The contract we were awarded by the Department of Homeland Security, not the Department of Justice, was part of a competitive procurement process which was initiated by the Obama Administration in 2015, and the decision by the Department of Justice merely reinstated the long-standing policy and practice enabling the use of public-private partnerships by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which has been in place since the 1990s under both Democratic and Republican Administrations.”

CLC argues in the DOJ lawsuit that private prisons are less safe than their public counterparts, citing the the department’s inspector general’s 2016 report that singled out GEO Group for its particularly bad record. CLC says in its initial FOIA request that the “DOJ’s  sudden reversal of a policy first established in response to safety and security concerns raises questions about the government’s integrity which can affect public confidence.”

The suit details CLC’s attempts to get information from the DOJ. The group filed an expedited FOIA request on Feb. 28, after which they were told that answers wouldn’t come until the end of the calendar year (the government should be treating expedited requests as a priority, “as soon as practicable;” a regular FOIA request should take only 20 days to answer).

In April, the GEO Group was awarded a $110-million contract to build the first immigrant-detention center under the Trump administration.

This story was updated with the GEO Group’s statement.