NPR: Prison Industry Involved in Drafting AZ Immigration Law

Despite ongoing litigation and political controversy over Arizona’s immigration law, politicians in several states are publically proposing copycat legislation for their own states, with Georgia legislators among the latest group to consider the possibility. (See Georgia Looks West, Seeking to Stop Illegal Immigration, by Jeremy Redman, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 28.Oct.2010.) One wonders whether their ardor for an Arizona-style immigration bill might cool after recent revelations on National Public Radio (NPR) that Arizona’s bill was heavily supported by the private prison industry – an industry that stood to reap “hundreds of millions of dollars in profits” to house the “hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants” who could be sent to prison under the law. (See Prison Economics Help Drive Ariz. Immigration Law,” by Laura Sullivan, NPR, 28.Oct.2010.)

The piece opens with the story of the Benson, Arizona, city manager, Glenn Nichols, who told NPR about two men who visited him last year, touting the benefits to his community of building a new prison there to house “women and children who were illegal immigrants.” Nichols told NPR that he was skeptical of their plan, and asked how they could possibly keep such a prison full, noting that the two men “… talked like they didn’t have any doubt they could fill it.” According to NPR, the men were confident “because prison companies like this one had a plan – a new business model to lock up illegal immigrants. And the plan became Arizona’s immigration law.”

According to NPR, Arizona’s S.B. 1070 was developed at a conference of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which includes state legislators, associations such as the National Rifle Association, and major corporations – including Exxon Mobil, tobacco giant Reynolds American, and prison contractor Corrections Corporation of America, which NPR identifies as “the largest private prison company in the country.” The model legislation that emerged from the ALEC session was introduced in the Arizona state legislature, and sponsored by thirty-six of its members, NPR reports, of whom thirty “received donations over the next six months, from prison lobbyists or prison companies – Corrections Corporation of America, Management and Training Corporation, and the Geo Group.”

NPR is careful to point out that “nothing about this is illegal,” yet it should raise questions for prospective supporters of copycat legislation. Was the legislation a good-faith attempt to legislate in the public interest, or was it essentially a special-interest measure, dressed up as motherhood and apple pie? Given the enormous costs of incarceration – tens of thousands of dollars per inmate per year – is this really the best solution we can come up with to resolve our illegal immigration problems? Do we have any reason to believe that we can “incarcerate” our way out of the problem, any more than we could incarcerate our way out of the illegal drug problem? This approach lacks imagination and flexibility, and the costs of all of this incarceration are enormous. Meanwhile, the private prison industry is laughing all the way to the bank. NPR quoted the president of one prison contractor, telling a conference call of investors that:

“I can only believe the opportunities at the federal level are going to continue apace as a result of what’s happening. Those people coming across the border and getting caught are going to have to be detained and that for me, at least I think, there’s going to be enhanced opportunities for what we do.”

Before casting their lot with S.B. 1070 and its proponents, perhaps the copycats should think twice.

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