Richard Eskow interviewed "Dee,” an anonymous prison strike leader jailed at an undisclosed facility in the Carolinas
The for-profit prison industry is in trouble. Bernie Sanders came out against it in the presidential primaries last year, and Hillary Clinton soon joined him. This August the Department of Justice announced that it plans to end all for-profit prison contracts. So executives at the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation's second-largest for-profit prison company, did what any red-blooded American executive would do when confronted with a moral and existential crisis: They called in a marketing team.
CCA has renamed itself “CoreCivic.” Feel better?
Our nation is in the midst a mass incarceration crisis. This crisis carries on the commodification of black bodies which began during slavery. To profit from that commodification is to make yourself the moral heir of slavery’s stain. But some corporations believe that anything, even the taint of "our nation’s original sin," can be fixed with the right branding.
How many Americans know that African Americans are three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop than whites, according to the Department of Justice? Or that, as the NAACP points out, African Americans are imprisoned for drug offenses at ten times the rate of whites? Or that one in four African-American males born today can expect to be incarcerated at some point during his lifetime?
The United States holds one fifth of the world’s population but incarcerates 25 percent of the world's prisoners. In all, 2.2 million people are imprisoned in this country. That's a gulag-scale enterprise. It's a massive, racially-based exercise in social and psychological engineering.
Companies like CCA – excuse me, like “CoreCivic” - are making this crisis even worse by lobbying for policies that put even more people in prison. As the Center for Media and Democracy’s SourceWatch found,
“CCA was a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) for over two decades … While CCA was an ALEC member, ALEC pushed legislation to privatize prisons, and at the same time advanced harsh sentencing bills to put more people in prison for more time …”
And the Washington Post reported in 2015 that,
“The two largest for-profit prison companies in the United States – GEO and Corrections Corporation of America – and their associates have funneled more than $10 million to candidates since 1989 and have spent nearly $25 million on lobbying efforts.”
CCA has spent nearly a million dollars on lobbying so far this year.
Prior to its rebranding, CCA laid out what it called its “value proposition” in its 2015 10-K filing:
“We believe that we offer a cost-effective alternative to our government partners by reducing their correctional services costs while allowing them to avoid long-term pension obligations for their employees and large capital investments in new prison beds … Through ongoing company-wide initiatives, we continue to focus on efforts to contain costs and improve operating efficiencies, ensuring continuous delivery over the long- term.”
English translation: We don’t offer decent pay or benefits to our employees like governments do, and we will aggressively cut costs – which is likely to result in even poorer prison conditions. (Reporter Shane Bauer went undercover as a CCA prison guard and wrote about those conditions in Mother Jones.)
And let’s parse that name, “CoreCivic,” for a moment. Merriam-Webster tells us that “core” means “the central or most important part of something.” But we are a nation whose most important value is said to be freedom, not its opposite.
“Civic” means “of or relating to a citizen, a city, citizenship, or community affairs.” But the imprisonment of other human beings for profit can never be a communitarian act.
Civic? Incarceration has robbed millions of citizenship’s primary privilege and obligation: the vote. According to the Sentencing Project, 6.1 million Americans will be unable to vote this year because of past felony convictions. More than 7 percent of the adult voting age population has been disenfranchised in the states of Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia.
It is no coincidence that laws to bar ex-felons from voting began appearing at the time of the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave African Americans the right to vote. Systemic biases have ensured that disenfranchised voters are disproportionately African-American. Their disenfranchisement result could change the outcome of state and local elections around the country.
This disenfranchisement could even decide who becomes president, since 27 percent of these disenfranchised voters – more than 1.5 million people – reside in the critical presidential state of Florida. By meddling in lawmaking to maximize its own profits, CoreCivic and its peers could be changing the course of political history.
And about that name: The neologism “CoreCivic” is so opaque, so devoid of comprehensible meaning, that it might as well be the glyph that once represented the artist known as Prince. CCA has now followed the example of competitors like the “Management & Training Corporation” by adopting a name that obscures the true nature of its work.
If you’re in an industry you can't even mention in your company’s name, it's probably time to find a new line of business.
The Justice Department’s move was a step in the right direction, but the struggle is far from over. Most incarcerated Americans are not held in federal prisons. For-profit companies will continue to provide food, medical care, and other services throughout America’s prison/industrial complex. And prison labor will continue, at minimal or no pay. (Prison labor is a major supplier to the US military, among others.)
That’s why at least 24,000 incarcerated workers took action in September, initiating hunger strikes and work stoppages under conditions so secretive that we don’t even know if they’re still going on. Several states have confirmed the presence of inmate protests. The Incarcerated Workers’ Organizing Committee said last week that some protests are still taking place, but independent reporting is difficult. (We spoke to “Dee,” a strike leader at an undisclosed facility in the Carolinas, last month on The Zero Hour.)
As long as there is money to be made by robbing others of their freedom, somebody will want to make it – and they’ll change the rules to make sure that they can. History teaches us that. That’s why it’s time to outlaw all profit-making activities behind bars, so that no American ever again has a financial incentive to deprive others of their liberty.
And it's to end the mass incarceration crisis that too often, like slavery before it, imprisons people because of the color of their skin. We must put an end to this shameful vestige of our country's worst deeds.
You might even call it our civic duty.