Posted on 25 April 2022 in bulletin, geography, racial capitalism

The Incomplete Financialisation of Immigration Detention in the United States

In this contribution to ISRF Bulletin 25, Lauren Martin uses a family detention centre based in rural Texas to reflect upon the nature of, and limits to, financialisation as it relates to contemporary racial capitalism.

Main image: No Trespassing Sign, T. Don Hutto Women’s Detention Facility, Taylor, Texas, 8 June, 2010. Photo by author.

In 2020, I spent some time staring at maps of the South Texas Family Residential Facility, a 2,400 bed family detention centre based in Dilley, Texas, that I have followed since it was proposed in 2014. This was naïve geography: noticing what was around the facility, general statistics on the county, moving around in street view. The landscape is peppered with regular white squares, evidence of the area’s fracking industry boom and subsequent bust. This part of Texas sits on a less productive edge of the Eagle Ford Shale Play. RV and mobile home communities. Chemical plants and sewage treatment ponds. Crude oil trucking depots. Sand and gravel quarries. Portable toilet rental companies. A Texas state prison. And on the southwest edge of town, a family detention centre housed in modular buildings. Prior to detaining families, some of these buildings served as short-term rental housing for fracking industry workers, a so-called “man camp.” In total, 19,000 people live in Frio County’s 2,937 square kilometres. The county government has an annual budget of about 1.2 million US dollars. Unemployment is higher than average and educational attainment is lower: it is fairly typical for rural places, a fact that the Department of Homeland Security found attractive in its decision to locate the family detention centre there.[1] To many, it appears to be in the middle of nowhere, perhaps intentionally distant from legal and social services concentrated in bigger cities like San Antonio, Austin and Houston.

Research on immigration detention has problematised this apparent remoteness, however. Assuming this remoteness or “middle of nowhere”-ness of Central Texas detention centres understands their geographies from the perspective of urban density and agglomerations of expertise, from the position of an implicitly urban, educated, cosmopolitan reader. In their book Boats, Borders and Bases, Jenna Loyd and Alison Mountz problematise assumptions about detention centre location in the US, asking “can remoteness be produced?” Linking policing, interdiction, various forms of confinement, movement between facilities, and deportation, “states produce remoteness through the development of a transnational infrastructure to contain and disperse migrants in and through spaces of formal confinement and blocked migration routes in increasingly fortified and patrolled boundary spaces”.[2] Military bases, former prisons and jails, hotels and elderly care homes have provided “material grounds” for radical expansions of state power to confine mobile people. As Loyd and Mountz note, however, this repurposed material infrastructure is rarely analysed in research on immigration detention. So, rather than presume that distance from an urban centre defined the spatiality of the South Texas Family Residential Centre, I decided to “follow” the thing, to ask what it was before, what surrounded it, how it had become available for repurposing—and what it may become when family detention is abolished.

Financialising Detention

Firstly, where does funding for these kinds of capital expansions come from? In 2012 and 2013, as a response to the difficulties created by the global financial crisis, the US’ largest private prison corporations moved from C-corp structures to Real Estate Investment Trusts, or REITs. This was a common strategy for firms owning property at the time. REITs are corporate entities that buy up properties and seek investment on the basis of the long-term stability and growth of rents on those properties. REITs pay no corporate tax in the United States, provided that they pay out 90% of their taxable earnings to investors. For investors, REITs are attractive because they promise consistent returns (depending on the properties that compose them). As a result, REIT conversion became a popular way for firms to access capital after the financial crisis, when credit for capital-intensive expansions became more expensive. The Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, the two largest private prison companies, both converted to REITs at this time; both recently reverted to C-corporations, which have corporate tax liabilities.

During their REIT conversion, they shifted their marketing and contracting strategies to differentiate property and services; in other words, they segmented carceral spaces from security services, allowing government agencies to contract either one or both. This also is a common strategy for care-based REITs like care homes, university housing and hospitals.[3] Private prison firms also moved aggressively into other government real estate, like office buildings, and transitional services that offer alternatives to detention, like ankle bracelet monitoring and post-incarceration transitional residences. This shift accompanied a renaming and rebranding for the Corrections Corporation of America as CoreCivic. The two largest companies, GEO Group and CoreCivic, poured resources into their ESG (environment, social and governance) reports, hoping to tap into the premium stock valuations that these efforts promised.

In shareholder conference calls and investor webinars, CoreCivic compared its company to hospitals, hotels, and care homes, other unique asset classes specifically focussed on living but also caring, mostly living away from a private residence. Framing themselves in a care service provision role, these comparisons conceal the violence of incarceration, of prison work and of immigration policy. Abstracting these conditions through generic categories of “unique assets” and “essential government services,” their marketing seeks to commensurate the suspension of individual autonomy with medical or residential care work. It must be said that these abstractions are not wholly successful nor accepted by investors: both companies remain frustrated by what they see as a chronic under-valuation of their stock.[4] Socially responsible investing groups refuse to invest in prison companies and high street banks have committed to commit no new funding, or to withdraw funding completely, from private prison companies.

Racialised Property Values

Where do the land, empty prisons and empty apartments come from? What kinds of infrastructure makes family detention, in particular, possible?

Prior to opening the South Texas facility, the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility in Taylor, Texas, was the largest family detention facility. Holding families from 2006 to 2009, when families were released and women took their place, the facility was empty in 2005. The land on which the Hutto facility was built was sold to (what was then still) the CCA by the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church came into the property as a donation from a community group, who managed the land as a recreational space for Mexican-Americans. They came into that land during the Jim Crow era, when seasonal agricultural Mexican and Mexican-American workers needed somewhere to sleep beside Taylor proper. They were allowed to park and sleep in Hidalgo Park which was, unsurprisingly, on the industrial side of the railroad tracks. At that time, the colour line organised who could be where, who could own what and, also, what it became worth. And temporary labour migration was particularly important to agricultural production, especially cotton. The profitability of the T. Don Hutto medium security prison built in 1995 was predicated on this racialised devaluation of land. That it later became a detention centre for asylum-seeking families and, later still, women shows the counter-intuitive relations of dependence these economies have on mobile people. But it got me thinking about how infrastructure like empty land in small-town Texas becomes available for prison-building and the role that racialisation and labour mobility play in making particular places and properties available for enclosure in this way.

The South Texas Family Residential Facility was built by repurposing and expanding short-term rental housing for fracking industry workers in Texas’ highly productive Eagle Ford Shale region. In its impact assessment, the Department of Homeland Security noted a few things that link economic value to remoteness. First, while Dilley is quite remote relative to nearby cities, it is well-placed in relation to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (or ICE) deportation flights from San Antonio and in relation to the US Customs and Border Protection’s (or CBP) temporary holding facilities in the borderlands. The assessment also mentions high unemployment and low educational attainment as attractive indicators of a willing workforce. Dilley and nearby facilities in Karnes County may be distanced from the resources that allow detained people to exercise their limited rights while in detention, but they have been re-embedded in other networks of what William Walters calls “deportation infrastructure”.[5] Thus, this family detention centre repurposed partially developed residential real estate built to house temporary, mobile labour, as the precursor to a family detention centre.

Valuing Detention’s Remoteness

How do we make sense of the political and economic geographies of these kinds of rural detention centres? The friction of distance and the indeterminacy of time are two of the defining features of the US immigration detention system, we might even say for detention in general. Distance as slow violence requires, however, circuitry, connection, and infrastructure to entrench and sediment slow violence in other everyday lives. Texas’ carceral economies of migration control depend not only on apparent remoteness, but on proximity to specific infrastructures, circuits of value, legal and financial geographies.

Specifically, detention centres in Texas are often near or adjoining other prisons and jails, pulling on an increasingly experienced carceral workforce with few other options. Prisons overlay natural gas fracking and oil pipelines built by temporary, mobile labour and relatively under-populated rural areas. Meanwhile, Texas’ location in the federal court system means that lawsuits and appeals are heard by conservative judges who consistently uphold the federal government’s right to exclude noncitizens, the limitation of their constitutional rights and narrow readings of asylum law. And so, rather than being defined by remoteness, Texas’ detention centres have multiple geographies: they are embedded in agglomeration economies of incarceration, extractive landscapes dependent on mobile labour and federal court jurisdiction.

To make sense of this, I draw on recent critical economic geographers interrogating the construction of new asset classes. While diverse empirically, this thread of research signals an important methodological and theoretical shift, drawing on the specificity of Science Technology and Society studies (or STS) and the normative critique of inequality in political economy. What is common across this diverse work is a methodological focus that questions, rather than presumes, how and whether markets are formed, how they are maintained, how things circulate, and which forms of expertise undergird them. As Fields notes, STS approaches can err on the side of description, eliciting a fascination with mechanisms, calculative devices and systems.[6] Where she draws on Marxist political economy to critique inequalities produced by the marketisation of housing, I engage with recent literature on abolition geographies, especially Ruth Gilmore, Megan Ybarra and Nik Heynen.[7]

To argue that “freedom is a place,” Gilmore invokes a radical world-making project to not just re-envision but embody, emplace and reproduce socio-material relations.[8] If freedom is a place, what/where are detention and imprisonment? For Gilmore, carceral spaces annihilate the mutuality of socio-spatial relations required for any imagination of freedom. Place and land are essential to abolitionist world-making projects in the US: keeping, tilling, living the land in ways that allow the production of new Black lifeworlds on their own terms.[9] To analyse the implications of corporate ownership of immigrant detention centres, I draw on Brenna Bhandar’s concept of “racial regimes of ownership,” which reworks and extends work on racial capitalism by Stuart Hall’s work on the articulation of different social formations, Cheryl Harris’ understanding of whiteness as property, and Cedric Robinson’s concept of racial regimes. For Bhandar, “racial regimes of ownership” are “juridical formations” that have “retained their disciplinary power in organizing territory and producing racial subjects through a hierarchy of value constituted across domains of culture, science, economy and philosophy”.[10] As a racial regime of ownership, carceral real estate investment both territorialises and distributes investment in particular migrant futures, or to be more precise, anti-immigrant futures. Combining an abolitionist critique with a focus on valuation practices allows us to identify more precisely which relationships need to be reworked to produce a future without mass detention and incarceration.

From this perspective, we can read private prison firms’ claims about their “value proposition” against their own grain. Their business model is plagued by fundamental contradictions: “consumers” (i.e. incarcerated or detained people) do not pay for the “service” of being incarcerated; the government agencies paying for them are not responsible for daily management or quality control; and the majority of tax payers hope to never make use of these services. Where hotels or university residence halls may suffer for poor quality in a more open market, there is no identifiable market for carceral space or services. Various state agencies are the only buyers and they do not exactly compete with each other for facilities. There is little meaningful competition for contracts; two companies dominate and the other private companies operate more locally. In fact, CoreCivic actively engages in market-making activities, courting local governments for contracts and new facilities. Prior to the rapid expansion of immigration beginning in 2005, private prison companies were closing facilities, as incarceration rates stabilised at a staggering 2 million people.

More importantly, privatised beds comprise only 23% of total prison and detention beds in the United States.[11] The greatest competition for CoreCivic and GEO Group is, in fact, other government agencies seeking federal money in exchange for their own empty beds. California’s legislature and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (through executive branch policy-making) have moved to de-privatise their bedspace, further shrinking the potential for new contracts. Exposed to highly polarised shifts in federal, state and local policy-making, carceral real estate markets are incredibly fragile, in fact.

In April 2021, grassroots organisations, such as Communities Not Prisons and activist investors like Candide, LLC pressured Barclays Plc and KeyBanc Capital Markets to withdraw from a municipal bond sale by CoreCivic, which would have funded the construction of two new prisons in the state of Alabama.[12] The prisons would have provided Alabama with 7000 beds and the two prisons were to be built by CoreCivic and leased to the state. Alabama sought to build the new facilities in order to modernise its prison infrastructure, which is such poor condition that it was ruled inhumane in a recent court ruling. However, the American Sustainable Business Council and Social Venture Circle, investor organisations devoted to socially responsible investment standards, refunded Barclays’ membership fees, citing its involvement in the prison bond sale as a violation of its terms. This followed commitments in 2019 from major main street banks—Barclays, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, SunTrust, Fifth Third Bank, BNP Paribas, PNC, and Regions Bank—not to provide new funding for prison-building projects. Barclays had argued that it merely underwrote, rather than funded, the bond sale, but activists pointed out that they facilitated funding that would otherwise be unavailable. In short, for-profit prisons have come to carry significant reputational risks, even for big financial institutions.

In its role as underwriter, Barclays had also facilitated the sale through Public Finance Authority. Once it pulled out of the deal, PFA’s role ended as well, effectively ending the bond sale and CoreCivic’s funding strategy. Alabama and CoreCivic have said they will pursue other avenues but the state of Alabama ultimately terminated its contract with CoreCivic effective 6 August, 2021.[13] The Alabama State Legislature then held an emergency session and approved House Bill 4, which authorised the state to use $400 million in federal Coronavirus assistance and $154 million from the state’s General Fund, in addition to authorising Alabama Corrections Institution Finance Authority to organise a bond sale to finance $785 million for two prisons. As of February 2022, the state is considering bids from banks to underwrite this bond sale, itself an unusual move.[14]

To sum up, grassroots organising and investor activism intervened in the financial mechanisms that enable private prison construction. These events demonstrate that grassroots organisers and investors have produced reputational risk around private prisons, to the extent that they can leverage that risk against major financial institutions. So we see here a blurring of public and private sectors, but in a wholly different configuration.

Alongside a close analysis of private corrections’ difficulties, this aborted bond sale runs counter to narratives in academic literature, which paints a picture of an ever expanding, corrupt, ideologically motivated and well-financed private corrections and security industry. Reading their financial strategies against the grain shows instead a couple of firms facing ongoing challenges accessing sustainable investment and infrastructure financing flows, that is barred from premium socially responsible investing portfolios. As August et al. argue, these struggles over prison finance show how the interface between public and private finance has become an important site of contestation for social justice movements, but one not usually captured by analyses of privatisation or outsourcing.[15] These stocks have been made, in effect, abject, stigmatised and increasingly a difficult sell. Analysing privatised immigrant detention as a “racial regime of ownership,” carceral real estate is a contingent, contextually specific coming together of real estate and immigration law, policing, and racialised, criminalised immigration policies. It is, as all property ownership regimes, a site of struggle over who has the right to be where, to make place and the future of those rights. As future-oriented financial instruments, carceral asset classes value particular kinds of futures. Rather than reading their expansion as an expression of anti-immigrant power, their retraction indicates counter-movements and the politicisation of finance itself as a regime of power through which imagined futures are territorialised.


[1] See US Department of Homeland Security, Supplemental Environmental Assessment for Housing of Family Units at the South Texas Family Residential Center, Dilley, Texas (2014). On file with author.

[2] Jenna M. Loyd and Alison Mountz, Boats, Borders, and Bases: Race, the Cold War, and the Rise of Migration Detention in the United States (Berkeley, CA: 2018 University of California Press), 17.

[3] Amy Horton, “Financialization and non-disposable women: Real estate, debt and labour in UK care homes,” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 54, no. 1 (2022), DOI: 10.1177/0308518X19862580; Martine August, “Securitising Seniors Housing: The Financialisation of Real Estate and Social Reproduction in Retirement and Long-Term Care Homes,” Antipode early view (2021), DOI: 10.1111/anti.12795.

[4] CoreCivic. Q2 2021 Earnings Call Transcript, available at: (accessed 25 February, 2021). GEO Group. Q3 2021 Earnings Call Transcript, available at:

[5] William Walters, “The microphysics of deportation: A critical reading of return flight monitoring reports,” in: M. Hoesch and L. Laube (eds.), Proceedings of the 2018 ZiF Workshop ‘Studying Migration Policies at the Interface between Empirical Research and Normative Analysis’, ULB Muenster ( 161–185.

[6] Desiree Fields, “Constructing a New Asset Class: Property-led Financial Accumulation after the Crisis,” Economic Geography 94, no. 2 (2018): 118–140, DOI: 10.1080/00130095.2017.1397492.

[7] Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “Abolition Geography and the Problem of Innocence,” in: G.T. Johnson and A. Lubin (eds.), Futures of Black Radicalism (London 2017: Verso): 225–24; Megan Ybarra M, (2021) “Site Fight! Toward the Abolition of Immigrant Detention on Tacoma’s Tar Pits (and Everywhere Else),” Antipode 53, no. 1 (2021): 36–55, DOI: 10.1111/anti.12610; Nik Heynen, “‘A plantation can be a commons’: Re-Earthing Sapelo Island through Abolition Ecology,” Antipode 53, no. 1 (2021): 95–114, DOI: 10.1111/anti.12631.

[8] Gilmore, “Abolition Geography and the Problem of Innocence.”

[9] Heynen, “‘A plantation can be a commons.’”

[10] Brenna Bhandar, Colonial Lives of Property: Law, Land, and Racial Regimes of Ownership (Durham, NC 2018: Duke University Press), 2.

[11] Prison Policy Initiative, “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2020,” March 24, 2020, available at: (accessed 25 February, 2022).

[12] Morgan Simon, “Toxic Alabama Private Prison Deal Falling Apart With Barclays Exit,” Forbes April 21, 2021, available at: (accessed 25 February, 2022).

[13] CoreCivic. Q2 2021 Earnings Call Transcript.

[14] Mike Cason, “Alabama seeks assurances that underwriters won’t back out of financing new prisons,” 23 December, 2021, available at: (accessed 25 February, 2022).

[15] Martine August, Dan Cohen, Martin Danyluk, Amanda Kass, CS Ponder, and Emily Rosenman, “Reimagining geographies of public finance,” Progress in Human Geography OnlineFirst (6 December, 2021), DOI: 10.1177/03091325211054963.


Dr Lauren Martin is an Assistant Professor in the Geography Department at Durham University. Her research has analysed the carceral geographies of migration control and border enforcement, particularly the ways in which families both challenge detention and become detainable. She was ISRF Political Economy Research Fellow in 2020.

ISRF Lauren Martin