The Private Prison Bed Quota and Immigrant Justice: An interview with Donald Anthonyson

REC Summer Interns sat down with Donald Anthonyson, a veteran organizer with Families for Freedom. We interviewed him about the federal prison bed quota and how non-citizens are being targeted under its decree. Read on for an in-depth conversation about the prison industrial complex, immigrant justice, and the predators and prey within our current crisis of mass incarceration. 

June 9, 2014

Written by Asha Kuziwa and Sierra Dickey


mass incarceration: the current rate of imprisonment in the USA that is “markedly above the historical and comparative norm for societies of this type” (David Garland).

prison-industrial complex: described by Michelle Alexander as a “comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.” (pg 2 - 5, The New Jim Crow) The broad system of prisons, courts, policing, criminalization, and surveillance that responds to social and economic concerns by imprisoning more and more individuals (

bed quota: also known as a “bed occupancy guarantee” or a “low-crime tax”, the bed quota is the minimum number of filled beds a prison must maintain. If a private prison’s bed quota is not met, the government has to pay them for the empty space. Private prisons have “bed occupancy guarantee rates” written into their contracts with state governments in order to “protect themselves against fluctuations in the prison population” (In the Public Interest). There is also a federal bed quota mandated by the Department of Homeland Security which requires that a minimum of 34,000 beds must be filled by non-citizens across the nation.

criminalization: the process through which acts become illegal. More broadly, criminalization also refers to the targeting of certain population groups by police forces and government surveillance. For example, within cities where sleeping in public is illegal, the homeless have been criminalized (

appropriations committee: a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives which is responsible for deciding how much money is spent by the U.S. Government. This committee has the “power of the purse” and decides how much money is spent, and on what.

recidivism: the process by which a person convicted of a crime is released and is convicted again for a different offense-- thus returning to prison

revolving door: the cycle of government hiring prison industry professionals. The revolving door phenomenon references the continual movement of personnel from regulatory positions to private sector industry positions. Regulators and legislators with industry ties can’t always be counted on to make and enforce fair and healthy regulations.  

ICE: Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “The largest investigative agency in the Department of Homeland Security, is responsible for enforcing the nation's immigration and customs laws.”


While researching the for-profit prison industry and the much-talked-about bed quota in support of prison divestment work, we spoke with Donald Athonyson, an organizer with New-York based Families for Freedom. Donald has been doing this work for almost eighteen years. This June he was involved in 34 Days to End the Quota, a campaign led by the Detention Watch Network to bring attention to the federally mandated and legally upheld bed quota. Families for Freedom organizes to support New York immigrant families and their legal struggles. For some time now, one of the largest menaces facing these families is the predatory criminal justice system which targets people of color, undocumented peoples and the LGBTQ community to satisfy contractual prison quotas.

What we thought would be a lengthy discussion of the prison industry and criminal law policies became an even longer and wider-reaching conversation about the invisible attack on immigrants in this country. We came away with a new and vivid picture of our United States. Donald had shown us the “ugly side of beautiful” - to borrow a phrase from the book by prison abolitionist Bryonn Bain- how immigration (in a country built by immigrants) has become deeply criminalized and how the prison-industrial complex has transformed individual persons into trade commodities. In our minds, the fight for immigration reform and the movement against the prison-industrial complex have merged into one initiative.

Here, we have reproduced the course of our interview with an eye for narrative. We begin by re-illustrating just how the criminal justice and immigration systems have grown too close in recent years. Next, we recap Donald’s work as an example of one group’s fight against mass incarceration, immigrant injustice, and faulty prison policies.


1. Who is at risk to be a victim of the closely connected Immigration and Criminal Detention industries?

This question was originally simpler: who is at risk to suffer from the bed quota? Donald explained that while all U.S. and non citizens are at risk to suffer from a predatory criminal justice system, the federally-mandated bed quota is a tool used to target, detain, and imprison immigrants and non-citizens. Having a green-card or proper documentation, or maintaining long-term legal residency in the United States does not protect you any more from detention or deportation; as Donald said, “Any non-US citizen is subject to deportation if you break any kind of law big or small.”

The federal quota as told by The Atlantic, “requires 250 facilities across the country to fill a total of 34,000 beds per day with detained immigrants.” And so you can see how detained non-citizens -whether or not they have serious criminal records- are being incarcerated as place-fillers.  In an interview with the media outlet Color Lines, Peter Cervantes Gautschi-director of Enlace and one of REC’s closest partners on the Prison Divestment Campaign- articulated the incarceration of immigrants as a way to flood the “prisoner market.”


2. What has changed since the federal quota was enacted in 2009?

One of the most damaging effects of the federal quota is how it incentivizes the removal of incarcerated immigrants from their families and community networks. Incarcerating detainees in distant states removes them from the “support and resources that could help us win our cases” stated Donald.

Since the quota was enacted in 2009, and since more and more state governments have entered into contracts with private prisons, people detained in one location often end up serving their sentences in another. Inmates are often shuffled around the country in high numbers to ensure that each prison is occupied to capacity. Donald noted that “New Yorker’s usually get sent to Alabama or Georgia,” and other locales down south where there is a fully established industry of private prisons. And indeed, the complex is booming in the South. Just recently, an article in The New Yorker investigated the expansion of the South’s private prison industry into private “prison-alternatives”, like probation and rehabilitation services. These “services” often end up sending formerly incarcerated individuals spiraling into debt and keep up our country’s despicably high rate of recidivism. As late-night comedian and political pundit John Oliver noted on his HBO television program, high recidivism rates are exactly what makes private prisons attractive to investors. Keeping bodies in jail keeps up profits. With nearly every one in one hundred adults in America in prison, now is a great time to be betting on the industry.

It’s at this point in the game that student divestment campaigns come in. The practices of the finance sector are a key pillar holding up the private-prison industry, and colleges and universities actively support and enhance the industry via investing their powerful endowments in portfolios containing private prison stock. Running a private prison divestment campaign is one way in which students can take serious action against the private prison industry and the crises of mass incarceration and criminalization. Divestment activists are simultaneously proponents of social-impact investing; they demand money be removed out of destructive industries and into constructive and community-oriented values. Forbes contributor Covie Edwards-Pitt recently declared that social-impact investing was here to stay as a growing practice within the finance sector. Of course there are also a number of ways to organize around and act on this issue also that don’t involve divestment--take the Incarceration to Education Coalition based at New York University.


4. What specific policies need to change now in order to eliminate or counteract the quota?

Donald pointed to the “root and seed” that produced the bed quota and subsequent mass deportation: the 1996 laws. The 1996 laws refer to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA). Thanks to these two laws, Congress was able to drastically expand what counted as an aggravated felony. Now small crimes like late speeding tickets and counterfeit can get someone deported. While there have been continual efforts to remove the line item in the appropriations bill which allows for the bed quota, and to de-fund the mandate, the efforts have never gone through to law.

Additionally, Donald made reference to reducing the profits reaped from imprisonment. “We have to make it unprofitable to hold people,” he said, otherwise more and more people will continue to be incarcerated. Mass incarceration won’t stop or slow until people and corporations can’t make money off of it. “The government should not be spending 4 billion dollars on 2 companies to lock us up.” The two companies he referenced are CCA and GEO the two largest private prisons companies in the United States, upon which the U.S. government spends billions of dollars every year for their incarceration services. “We cannot fund these people,” Donald finished.


5. Who are some of your key targets in the fight to end the quota and halt mass incarceration?

After getting some much-needed background and tapping into some of Donald’s theories we moved into practice, wondering what concrete steps do you take against a behemoth system like the prison-industrial-complex?

As it turns out, every year, two congresspeople name specific targets in their efforts to overturn the line item; however lawmakers such as U.S. Representative Bill Owens (D - NY 21st District) continue to refuse to de-fund the bed quota mandate.

In fact, Donald names Owens as a major target for changing the condition of immigrants held in detention in New York State - being a member of the appropriations committee, Owens holds much influence over the status of the mandate.

Recently, Donald was involved in 34 Days of Action to end the quota. On June 13, himself and other members of Families for Freedom engaged in peaceful protest outside of Senator Scott Schumer’s office in Manhattan to disgrace his standing on immigration and hold a teach-in on private prison divestment. Schumer is a democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, and yet takes money from private prison lobbyists. Immigrant advocates and groups like Families for Freedom believe this connection to the industry will likely “undercut” their work against the quota and unjust detainment.

6. How does your organization - Families for Freedom- approach this issue?

Donald described three main angles in terms of his organizing work; the first being support building, reaching out to individuals and their families directly affected by the legislation surrounding the bed quota, and visiting incarcerated individuals in prison.

The second angle is awareness raising through a speakers bureau: this is a 10 week course open to members and directly affected people so they can articulate the issues to speak to a larger audience. This public speaking training is instrumental to giving a voice to the most vulnerable and directly affected populations so that they may speak for themselves and not rely so heavily upon advocates or intermediaries.

The last angle Donald discussed is the need to agitate - above anything else, making people feel the need for action to be taken. And then to exert that action in a manner that agitates the established powers of government who have the official agency to change policies and improve lives.

7. What has been your biggest challenge as an organizer of people?

When we asked Donald our final and semi-cliche question, he laughed and then became very serious. After a few seconds he simply answered: “Time. The system in its worst manner takes away all time, thats what the jail does.” Time was crucial, and so he repeated: “I wish I had more time to reason with people.”


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