Private Prison Company GEO Group Donating to Gardner in Senate Race

Private prison company GEO Group runs the Aurora Detention Facility through a contract with ICE.
Anthony Camera
Private prison company GEO Group runs the Aurora Detention Facility through a contract with ICE.
GEO Group, a massive private prison company that is heavily involved with immigrant detention, has gone all in on Cory Gardner in Colorado's U.S. Senate race.

As of the end of September, the company's political action committee and its executives had donated $68,875 to either Cory Gardner for Senate or the Gardner Victory Committee in support of the incumbent's re-election efforts this election cycle. Republican Gardner is running against John Hickenlooper, with polls showing the Democratic former governor as the consistent favorite.

"How will Cory Gardner support our immigrant community while taking money from the very same people profiting off the separation of families?" asks Ian Pham, a spokesperson for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition Action Fund, which is campaigning against Gardner.

The donations to Gardner are part of a nationwide push by GEO Group to back Republicans. As the Associated Press noted in mid-August, George Zoley, the company's founder and CEO, had donated $514,800 to Republican candidates and only $10,000 to Democrats up to that point in this election cycle. The company's political action committee and people linked to GEO Group had donated a total of $1.7 million, most of it to Republicans.

Hickenlooper's campaign declined to comment on GEO Group's donations, while Gardner's campaign and GEO Group did not return requests for comment.

Large private prison companies in the U.S. like GEO Group rely heavily on the federal government, particularly immigration authorities, for contracts. GEO Group, which generated $2.48 billion in revenue in 2019, runs the Aurora Contract Detention Facility through a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That facility has been the site of a recent large COVID-19 outbreak among detainees, 93 of whom have tested positive for the virus throughout the pandemic.

The results of this year's election could have a major effect on GEO Group's bottom line.

Toward the end of President Barack Obama's administration, the federal government appeared poised to move away from using private prisons to incarcerate Department of Justice detainees. But then Donald Trump, who campaigned in favor of using private prisons and held a hard-line stance on immigration, won the 2016 presidential election. The next morning, shares of GEO Group and CoreCivic, another large American private prison company, soared, according to global news organization Quartz.

Trump has delivered on his promise to enact stringent immigration policies, which has kept the money flowing into private prison companies involved in immigrant detention.

If Joe Biden wins in November, he'll pick up where the Obama administration left off in pivoting away from using private prisons for DOJ detainees, his campaign says. Biden "will make clear that the federal government should not use private facilities for any detention, including detention of undocumented immigrants," according to the Biden campaign website.

A Trump victory, however, is likely to ensure four more years of heavy federal reliance on private prison companies. Add a majority Republican Senate, and private prison companies would be in an even safer position.

The donations from the GEO Group PAC and the company's employees represent a small fraction of the over $25 million that Gardner's campaign has raised this election cycle. Hickenlooper's campaign has raised over $36 million, as Democratic leadership views the Colorado race as key to Democrats winning a Senate majority.

Local immigrant advocates such as the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition have been sharply critical of Gardner, pointing out that the senator has continued to support Trump, even while sometimes publicly disagreeing with the president's immigration policies.

"It is clear, with over $68,000 in donations from GEO Group-affiliated donors, where Cory Gardner's real interests lie," Pham says.