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Has a Major Private Prison Company Made Progressive Changes?

Photo by Dave Hosford | CC BY 2.0


The Associated Press
 (AP) recently published a story, “Private prisons firm to lobby, campaign against recidivism,” which provided some positive press for the second largest private prison corporation, CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America (CCA)).

Privately-operated prisons obviously have a financial incentive to cut costs to a bare minimum to maximize profits. That often leads to the understaffing of correctional officers, hiring unqualified workers, offering limited health care, etc.

High recidivism is also clearly profitable for these companies. After all, CoreCivic (then operating as CCA) once wrote letters to 48 state governors offering to buy their prison facilities as long as the states signed 20-year contracts with guarantees of 90% occupancy rates.

However, CoreCivic’s executives now claim that their company is moving in a new direction and that it wants to be “part of the solution” for our nation’s mass incarceration problem. The recent article by the AP mentioned that CoreCivic is now advocating to “Ban the Box,” i.e. pressuring employers to remove questions about criminal history on applications. The company also claims that it will lobby for government initiatives that reduce the prison population, such as re-entry programs. Furthermore, CoreCivic promised to provide political donations to candidates who are focused on criminal justice reform.

Clearly, these are all commendable decisions and this sounds like a positive development. It would be nice to believe that a historically corrupt company has changed its ways, but talk is cheap. Therefore, let’s examine the company’s political contributions and see if there are signs of progressive change.

Last election cycle, the company donated nine times more funds for Republicans than Democrats. Obviously, not every Republican on Capitol Hill views criminal justice reform as being “soft on crime,” but they are in the minority.

Take for example, Sen. Rand Paul whom has never received a penny from CoreCivic. He introduced S. 827, the REDEEM Act, which would allow nonviolent offenders to petition to seal their records and the automatic sealing of records for nonviolent juveniles, among other forward-thinking measures.

With that said, CoreCivic’s top recipient last election cycle in the Senate was John Portman (R-OH). He’s one of the Senate’s most moderate Republicans. He has sponsored multiple bills intent upon criminal justice and prison reform. That includes the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act, the Second Chance Act, and the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act.

The problem is that CoreCivic political donations send a mixed message, at best. The top recipient in the House provides a better indicator of the company’s overall donations. Last election cycle, that person was Rep. John Culbertson (R-TX) who has been an adamant opponent to prison reform. Case in point, Culbertson once drafted a bill to eliminate funds from the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974, which addresses many of the issues that lead to mass incarceration.

Furthermore, Culbertson has also drafted multiple bills to give more penalties for illegal immigrants, which has been a pivotal issue for the private prison industry. In fact, he once criticized the director of ICE for not keeping the detention centers perpetually full with prisoners.

The GEO Group, the largest private prison corporation in America, also contributes heavily to Culbertson and other like-minded candidates. However, contrary to CoreCivic, their company seems to have abandoned its attempts at building public goodwill. Then again, the GEO Group has been down this road before and attempts to resurrect the company’s image were disastrous.

In 2013 the GEO Group entered into a sponsorship deal with Florida Atlantic University to name the school’s football stadium after its company. However, the students and faculty reacted vehemently to this decision with protests and the agreement was quickly nullified. Ever since then, it seems that the GEO Group has decided to no longer waste its time making public overtures.

In fact, the GEO Group apparently has doubled down on its unapologetic, good old-fashioned brand of crony capitalism. Both CoreCivic and the Geo Group pay for high-power lobbyists and make significant political donations. However, the GEO Group has gone the extra mile. That includes using its subsidiary to make a $100,000 donation to Trump’s Super PAC (a potential violation of federal law).

Their company also hired three politically-connected lobbyists, two former aides of Jeff Sessions and a representative of the Trump Organization. Also, the company even chose to host its annual leadership conference at Trump’s resort in Doral, FL.

As mentioned earlier, CoreCivic also throws its money around for political purposes. For instance, both CoreCivic and the GEO Group provided $250,000 for President Trump’s inauguration. In fact, this cronyism has been a cornerstone of the company’s success.

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) was founded in Nashville, TN in 1983 with a co-founder, Tom Beasley, who was also the head of the Tennessee Republican Party. Cozy political relationships helped create a mulita-billion company, along with insulating it from accountability.

There are many lawsuits and scandals associated with this company, one of the most notable being the “Gladiator School.” Idaho’s largest prison, the Idaho State Correctional Center, acquired that nickname while being operated by CCA due to its high violence rate, which was encouraged by the guards.

In fairness, there is a violence and corruption problem in both public and private prisons. However, this corporation clearly prioritized profits over rehabilitation because it understaffed that facility by thousands of hours. The employees also falsified documents to make it appear that CCA was upholding proper correctional standards.

Corrections Corporation of America changed its name to CoreCivic last year in an attempt to reshape the company’s image. That decision was on the heels of a major announcement two months earlier by the Department of Justice, i.e. federal contracts would no longer be issued to private prison companies. The decision was based upon a report by the Inspector General’s Office that found that there was more violence in private prisons than government-run prisons.

CoreCivic would like you to believe that its scandals are all part of the far-distant past. However, a report from last year by the Inspector General of the Department of Justice showed a disturbing trend of willful negligence.

That report detailed CoreCivic’s performance in the Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, MS. There was an inmate riot in 2012 that led to a murder and several injuries while this prison was operated by CCA. Understaffing and a lack of Spanish-speaking staff were noted as the key contributing factors. However, the audit by Inspector General’s Office from last year found that CCA had less staff in 19 of the 38 months following the riot. Also, only 4 out of 367 members of CCA’s staff spoke fluent Spanish in this prison of predominantly Mexican nationals.

Another Inspector General’s report from April of this year highlighted CoreCivic’s understaffing issues in Leavenworth, KS. The prison was at times understaffed at levels so low that the company decided to cut various security posts and forced staff members who were not corrections officers to perform security duties. Also, CoreCivic had a policy of triple bunking inmates in cells designed for two people and the company concealed this information from American Correctional Association, which conducts audits of prison facilities.

CoreCivic was also fined $43,750 two months ago for improperly counting the inmates in its Hartsville, TN facility. An audit later found that the same facility was severely understaffed and didn’t provide adequate healthcare services.

Jim Casey, an award-winning drug and alcohol counselor, ran a rehab program in this same prison. He publicly and privately forewarned of these and other issues. According to Casey, CoreCivic had several inmates who were officially enrolled in his program but weren’t actually participating. That helped to artificially inflate the company’s compliance records. Some of the names on the roll had actually already been released from prison.

Are you noticing a trend? CoreCivic’s representatives are saying all of the right things in public, but the company’s performance doesn’t suggest that a real cultural change has taken place. We’ll have to wait and see if the progressive rhetoric from CoreCivic’s representatives will eventually match the company’s actions.

Brian Saady is a freelance writer and author of four books. That includes his three-book series, Rackets, which is primarily about the legalization of drugs and gambling, and the decriminalization of prostitution. The series also details many issues, such as corruption and criminal justice. Visit his website. You can follow him on Twitter @briansaady.

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