Category: private prisons

Thinking and shouting in Chicago

By Alan Bean

Three Friends of Justice people are attending the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference at the Drake Hotel in Chicago this week.  Melanie Wilmoth and I are here, as is the Rev. L. Charles Stovall, Friends of Justice board member and associate pastor at St Luke United Methodist Church in Dallas.  Speaking of Methodists, a contingent of 40 United Methodists from across the nation, led by the indefatigable Rev. Laura Markle Downton, are in Chicago for the conference.  These are the folks who recently convinced their denomination to divest from for profit prisons.

I was bone weary when we entered the old fashioned elegance of the Drake Room for evening worship, but I left pumped and inspired.  The highlight of the evening was a stunning sermon on the familiar story of Daniel in the lion’s den from the Rev. Dr. Lance Watson, pastor of St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.  Watson preaches in the traditional black style.  In the final ten minutes, brief bolts of organ music punctuated every phrase.  “I know it’s late,” he assured us, “and I ain’t gonna keep you long.  And I hope you know that, coming from a Baptist preacher, that don’t mean nothing.”

Dr. Watson didn’t just preach in the old time fashion, he interpreted the scriptures in the old time style, literally.  If God could deliver Daniel, the preacher told us, God can deliver you. 

Normally, this would bother me.  Isn’t this Daniel in the lion’s den thing just a folk story?  I mean, it didn’t really happen, did it?  And didn’t the author of the story refer to King Darius when it should have been Cyrus?  And can I really believe that if somebody threw me into a den of hungry lions I would emerge unscathed?

I wasn’t the least bit bothered by Dr. Watson’s straightforward exegesis, and I’ll tell you why.  So long as the preacher gets the application right, I don’t really care what school of biblical interpretation he follows.  Watson talked about the lions of mass incarceration and felon disenfranchisement.  He compared the steadfast obedience of Daniel to the grace Barack Obama has shown when the lions in his world insisted he produce a birth certificate.  When Watson came to the part where knaves use flattery to appeal to a king’s vanity, Watson talked about black politicians who don’t realize they are being used until the game is over.

The story of Daniel, like so many stories from the Bible, is about remaining faithful in the face of oppression.  Black America understands that message.  Earlier in the day, Susan Taylor, Editor Emeritus of Essence Magazine and the founder of a nationwide mentoring program for at-risk children, told us about her visit to one of the fortresses on the African coast where, for centuries, men, women and children waited for the slave ship to come.  In graphic detail, she described the horrors of the middle passage.  She said African Americans need to teach these things to our children and, if we have forgotten, to ourselves.

This is precisely the kind of stuff that makes white Americans profoundly uncomfortable.  All of that stuff happened so very long ago.  It was awful, to be sure, but why talk about it in polite company; it’s divisive, it just stirs things up.  I didn’t own any slaves and none of you have a personal experience with slavery so . . . let’s call the whole thing off. 

Black America needs to talk about the stuff white America needs to forget.  Or maybe we too need to remember, we just don’t know it yet.

Dr. Jeremiah Wright gave the benediction tonight.  Yes, that Jeremiah Wright.  Barack Obama’s former pastor.  The guy who enraged white America by suggesting that America’s chickens might be coming home to roost.  I was riding in a van with several black passengers when the towers fell in Manhattan.  Their reaction mirrored Wright’s.  Black and white Americans live in two different worlds, experientially and religiously.

There are plenty of white folks who share the ethical commitments of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference.  We oppose the war on drugs, we think mass incarceration has been a disaster, and we want to address the conditions that foster violence and joblessness in poor urban neighborhoods.  But you would never hear a white person who believes these things preaching like the Rev. Dr. Lance Watson.  Most white progressives would be offended by biblical preaching.  If religion must be referenced at all, let it be generic religion, devoid of narrative content.   None of that Jesus stuff. 

White progressives (with a few blessed exceptions) associate words like Jesus, Bible, prayer, salvation and deliverence with the religious Right.  And, to be fair, the religious folk you see on the television and hear on the radio rarely reflect the kingdom priorities of Jesus.

Unlike their white counterparts, black progressives can, to paraphrase the Rev. Dr. Freddie Haynes, think and shout at the same time. “If you think,” he told us, “you will thank.  Think about how great our God is and you can’t help but get your shout on.”

Why do white Christians have such a hard time mixing kingdom ethics with shouts of praise.  I’m not sure, but the world would be a better place if we got over it.

Major article on crime and mass incarceration in the New Yorker

By Alan Bean

Adam Gopnik is an art critic, not an expert on mass incarceration.  But he has read widely on the subject and this major piece in the New Yorker offers an extended commentary on ideas recently shared by Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow), Robert Perkinson (Texas Tough), William Stunz (The Collapse of American Criminal Justice), and Franklin Zimring’s book on New York City (The City That Became Safe).  No book can say everything that needs to be said about the American Gulag, so a carefully-crafted piece that combines the best insights of leading authorities is extremely helpful.

Following Stuntz and Zimring, “The Caging of America” notes that major improvements can be enacted without revolutionary reforms.  The crime rate of New York City has fallen by 80% (twice the national average) without significant poverty programs.  People are no better off, by and large, they are just less likely to transgress.

If Gopnik had added the ground-breaking insights of David Kennedy (Don’t Shoot) to his mix, he would be less inclined to believe that crime, especially violent crime, falls of its own accord.  But Kennedy, like Stuntz and Zimring, isn’t waiting for the New Jerusalem to descend from heaven anytime soon.  These authors believe that utopian dreaming can be just an inimical to real reform as the tough-on-crime politics that created the problem in the first place.  

Gopnik’s piece concludes like this:

“Oh, I have taken too little care of this!” King Lear cries out on the heath in his moment of vision. “Take physic, pomp; expose thyself to feel what wretches feel.” “This” changes; in Shakespeare’s time, it was flat-out peasant poverty that starved some and drove others as mad as poor Tom. In Dickens’s and Hugo’s time, it was the industrial revolution that drove kids to mines. But every society has a poor storm that wretches suffer in, and the attitude is always the same: either that the wretches, already dehumanized by their suffering, deserve no pity or that the oppressed, overwhelmed by injustice, will have to wait for a better world. At every moment, the injustice seems inseparable from the community’s life, and in every case the arguments for keeping the system in place were that you would have to revolutionize the entire social order to change it—which then became the argument for revolutionizing the entire social order. In every case, humanity and common sense made the insoluble problem just get up and go away. Prisons are our this. We need take more care. (emphasis added)

Has common sense made our problems “just get up and go away?”

If the problem is violent crime, a case could be made.  Even so, as Kennedy demonstrates in Don’t Shoot, violent crime rages on in cities like New Orleans and Baltimore with no solution in sight.  Common sense isn’t all that common.

If the problem is mass incarceration, no big-time fix is in sight.  Prison populations have leveled out, and in some places incarceration rates have actually dropped; but America still locks up over 2 million people, and it will take more than common sense to change that fact.  As Michelle Alexander argues, when careers and corporate fortunes are dependent on the status quo, change requires something akin to a revolution.

Gopnik believes that a massive drop in the American crime rate means mass incarceration was a mistake.  Not everyone agrees.  In fact, it is frequently argued that crime rates have fallen because we have locked up so many criminals.  So long as the American mainstream believes this (and it does) mass incarceration, with all its attendant woes, will flourish.    

The Caging of America

Why do we lock up so many people?


Prison is a trap for catching time. Good reporting appears often about the inner life of the American prison, but the catch is that American prison life is mostly undramatic—the reported stories fail to grab us, because, for the most part, nothing happens. One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich is all you need to know about Ivan Denisovich, because the idea that anyone could live for a minute in such circumstances seems impossible; one day in the life of an American prison means much less, because the force of it is that one day typically stretches out for decades. It isn’t the horror of the time at hand but the unimaginable sameness of the time ahead that makes prisons unendurable for their inmates. The inmates on death row in Texas are called men in “timeless time,” because they alone aren’t serving time: they aren’t waiting out five years or a decade or a lifetime. The basic reality of American prisons is not that of the lock and key but that of the lock and clock. (more…)

Profiting from Prison

by Melanie Wilmoth

Over the past decade, federal and state governments have increasingly turned to prison privatization. A report released this week by The Sentencing Project highlights the rise of private prisons in the U.S. and the consequences of privatization.

Private prisons now hold approximately 8% of the entire prison population in the U.S. This shift toward privatization, The Sentencing Project reports, began with public policies enacted in the 1970s and 1980s:

“The War on Drugs and harsher sentencing policies, including mandatory minimum sentences, fueled a rapid expansion in the nation’s prison population. The resulting burden on the public sector led private companies to reemerge during the 1970s to operate halfway houses. They extended their reach in the 1980s by contracting with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to detain undocumented immigrants.”

Private prison corporations are in the business of warehousing prisoners. They contribute to and profit from mass incarceration. With the help of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), for-profit prison companies have lobbied for mandatory minimum sentences, three strikes laws, truth-in-sentencing policies, and immigrant detention centers. As a result of increasing prison privatization, two of the largest private prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, have combined annual revenues exceeding $2.9 billion. (more…)

United Methodist Church divests from private prisons

by Melanie Wilmoth

Until last week, the United Methodist Church (UMC) owned stock in two private prison companies, GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). According to Bill Mefford, Director for Civil and Human Rights for the UMC’s General Board of Church and Society (GBCS), the denomination held about $736,000 in CCA and $215,500 in GEO Group.

Months ago, Mefford, the GBCS, and UMC churches started a petition on

The private prison industry is a fast growing industry and extraordinary profits are made from such investments, with these two companies posting profits of 2.9 billion by the end of 2010. These profits are at the expense of people of color. Private prison corporations, such as GEO Group and CCA, lobby hard for anti-immigrant legislation, such as seen in Arizona with SB 1070 and Georgia with SB 87. Private prisons are also responsible for neglect and abuse in prisons. Such legislation and examples of abuse and neglect directly contradict United Methodist stances and biblical teaching.

We, as United Methodists, believe that profiting from private prisons and owning stock in private prison corporations like GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America is incompatible with biblical teaching. Therefore, we call for The United Methodist Church to:

1. Immediately divest from all investment in private prison corporations, including Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, and

2. Take all money earned to date of divestment from ownership of the stock in GEO Group and CCA, and give it to organizations dedicated to helping those coming out of prison to reenter society.

It was a great victory for the GBCS and other advocates when the UMC announced this week that it is divesting from GEO Group and CCA. According to Laura Markle Downton, Criminal Justice Grassroots Coordinator at the GBCS:

“As of last week, the United Methodist Church has divested from both CCA and GEO Group, and UMC’s Board of Pensions, which controls the investments of our church, has permanently put into place a screen that will not allow us to invest in any corporation in the future that has gross revenues of 10% or more from private prisons.” (more…)

Immigrant detention in the U.S.: Tales from within

by Melanie Wilmoth

In a recent report published at, Seth Freed Wessler describes his experiences visiting the Baker County Jail and several other immigrant detention centers throughout Florida and Texas.

Since 2009, the rapid expansion of immigrant detention in the U.S. has led Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to create or expand at least 10 detention centers. In addition, immigrant detention accounts for over $2 billion in the 2012 federal appropriations bill. The private prison industry, which grosses about $5 billion annually, is contracted to operate most of these detention facilities.

Despite the Obama administration’s plan to reform immigration laws and prioritize alternatives to mass detention, “ICE under Obama has moved to build more facilities, which it says will be ‘humane.’”

But, in reality, how “humane” are these facilities?  (more…)

Advocates protest immigrant detention center in Waco,TX

In honor of International Human Rights Day, advocates gathered last weekend to protest the Jack Harwell Detention Center. Reports from the detention center, located in Waco, TX,  indicated poor conditions and human rights abuses within the facility. In addition to focusing on the issue of immigrant detention, protestors shed light on the negative impact of the private prison industry. Check out the Texas Independent article below for a full report on the event. MW

Vigil in Waco protests immigration detention system, private prisons


In Waco, a group of activists from around the state gathered to hold a vigil in honor of International Human Rights Day. Those gathered said they were there to shed light on “the devastating impact of detention and deportation on immigrants and their families,” as well as protest the for-profit private prison system that houses many of the detained undocumented immigrants.

According to a press release by Grassroots Leadership, which works with community, labor, faith, and campus organizations throughout the South and Southwest, the vigil took place in Waco to raise awareness of the Jack Harwell Detention Center in Waco, a private jail operated by Community Education Centers, a for-profit private prison corporation.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained immigrant women at the Jack Harwell Detention Center until ICE transferred the women from Jack Harwell to other privately operated detention centers in Taylor and Laredo. The press release stated that “reports from inside the facility included complaints of lack of access to medical care, including for pregnant women, spoiled food, no contact visits, and virtually non-existent access to attorneys.” (more…)

“Banking on bondage”: The rise of private prisons in the U.S.

by Melanie Wilmoth

A recent report by the ACLU, “Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration,” details how the private prison industry feeds (and profits from) mass incarceration in the U.S.

As the ACLU points out, there are few who truly benefit from our country’s obsession with “tough-on crime” policies. With over 2.3 million people behind bars in the U.S, the punitive consensus driving mass incarceration has successfully shattered families and busted states’ budgets. However, there is one group that does benefits from locking up more and more people: the private prison industry.

Just as prison populations in public corrections facilities boomed over the last 30 years, the number of individuals in private prisons increased over 1600% between 1990 and 2009.

For private prisons, more crime equals more prisoners and more prisoners equals more profit. It’s no wonder that for-profit prisons support immigrant detention, mandatory minimum sentences, and “truth in sentencing” and “three strikes” laws. Large prison populations and harsh sentences result in greater profits. In fact, the success of the private prison industry relies on the country’s opposition to criminal justice reforms and fair sentencing laws:

“In a 2010 Annual Report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company, stated: ‘The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by…leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices…’

The GEO Group, the second largest private prison operator, identified similar “Risks Related to Our Business and Industry” in SEC filings:

‘Our growth depends on our ability to secure contracts to develop and manage new correctional, detention and mental health facilities, the demand for which is outside our control …. [A]ny changes with respect to the decriminalization of drugs and controlled substances could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, sentenced and incarcerated, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them. Similarly, reductions in crime rates could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences requiring incarceration at correctional facilities. Immigration reform laws which are currently a focus for legislators and politicians at the federal, state and local level also could materially adversely impact us.’”

Moreover, when you’re in the business of locking people up, there is high incentive to cut costs and maximize profits and little incentive to rehabilitate inmates and reduce future crime. As a result of cost-cutting measures, research suggests prisoners in private facilities are more likely to experience violence and inhumane conditions. In addition, private prisons tend to have high staff turnover due to low wages. While corrections officers and staff are making close to minimum wage, top executives at GEO and CCA receive over $3 million each in annual compensation.

Also of concern, as Scott Henson at Grits for Breakfast points out, is the seldom mentioned “revolving door” between public and private corrections which the ACLU report highlights:

“Many in the private prison industry…once served in state corrections departments, and numerous state corrections officials formerly worked for private prison companies. In some cases, this revolving door between public corrections and private prisons may contribute to the ability of some companies to win contracts or to avoid sufficient scrutiny from the corrections departments charged with overseeing their operations.”

With high incentives to increase prison populations while cutting corrections costs and with little meaningful oversight due to the “revolving door,” the private prison industry is in a dangerously powerful position. In order to end mass incarceration, as the ACLU suggests, we must divest from private prisons and halt the expansion of “for-profit incarceration.”

To read the full ACLU report, click here.

“Lost in detention”: The criminalization of immigration

by Melanie Wilmoth

Earlier this week, PBS Frontline aired its documentary “Lost in Detention.” The documentary takes a hard look at the broken U.S. immigration system and the resulting increase in the number of detained and deported immigrants.

Under the Obama Administration, over 400,000 immigrants were detained and deported this year alone (which is a significantly higher number of deportations than in previous administrations). As Frontline suggests, much of this increase in detention and deportation is a result of Secure Communities, a partnership between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the FBI that uses fingerprint data to track criminal immigrants. Secure Communities allegedly aids in the deportation of immigrants who have committed serious crimes and, thus, pose a threat to public safety. According to ICE, Secure Communities prioritizes “the removal of individuals who present the most significant threats to public safety as determined by the severity of their crime, their criminal history, and other factors.”

However, the Secure Communities program has reached far beyond its stated purpose. Since its implementation in 2008, Secure Communities has successfully broken up families and incited fear in immigrant communities. Thousands of individuals, many of whom are non-criminals, U.S. citizens, and parents of children who are U.S. citizens, have been arrested. In addition, Latinos have been disproportionately affected by Secure Communities, making up 93% of those arrested through the program.

After arrest, 83% of individuals are placed in detention centers. Punitive in nature, the 250 detention centers in the country warehouse immigrants in prison-like settings until deportation. Reports of abuse in these centers run rampant.  (more…)

Canadian government toys with mass incarceration

By Alan Bean

I just returned from a nine-day trip to Edmonton, Alberta.  Whether I was attending my 40th high school reunion or visiting with friends and relatives, the nature of my work brought the conversation around to Bill C-10, “The Safer Streets, Safer Communities Act,” sponsored by the reigning conservative government.  In essence, the plan calls for lots and lots of prison construction

Consider the facts.  The United States currently incarcerates 743 people per 100,000 population; Canada incarcerates 117 per 100,000.  If the Canadian crime rate was on the rise there might be some rationale for prison construction but, as in America, the crime rate north of the 49th parallel has been dropping like the anvil in a road runner cartoon for years.

Is Prime Minister Steven Harper trying to shore up his political dynasty by playing the tough-on-crime card that worked so well for so long in the US of A?  Should we be talking about a “Northern strategy”?

This morning the Grits for Breakfast blog referenced an august gathering in which a number of guests from the lock-’em-up state of Texas explained to Canadian officials why massive spending on prisons is an economic and public safety disaster.  You can find the full article from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation site here. 

Also, over at the Canadian version of the Huffington Post, Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett provides her own critique of Bill C-10.

I am rarely embarrassed by the country of my birth, but Bill C-10 is downright embarrassing.

When the prison boom goes bust

By Alan Bean

Scott Henson’s Grits for Breakfast blog offered a couple of terrific posts over the weekend.  “Private prisons and faux privatization” was inspired by a Forbes piece in which E. D. Kain asserts that running prisons is a government responsibility even if the work is subcontracted to a private prison company.

Thus any ‘privatization’ that occurs is simply the transfer of the provision of a government service (in this case, incarceration) to a private contractor. The contractor still operates with the full force of the law. In other words, it’s still government, just government-for-hire or for-profit government.

If there is any saving to the tax payer it is only because private prisons pay their workers less than state-run prisons.  Since this translates into less capable workers nothing of value is gained and much is lost.

“Texas prison  boom going bust” argues that county commissioners in small Texas towns can no longer build lock-ups far exceeding local needs on the assumption that a steadily growing prison population will fill the excess beds.

Jail-bed supply significantly exceeds demand statewide. With the exception of immigration detention, the bubble has burst. As has, hopefully, the “jail as profit center” myth among Texas county commissioners.

Prison privatization and the proliferation of the The Texas Gulag are two of the primary symptoms of America’s failed attempt to make crime pay.  Public officials have believed for years that everybody wins when we lock up more people this year than we did last year. Small towns get jobs; private prison companies slash wages and rake in profits, politicians get campaign contributions from the private prison industry and jobs in that sector when they leave politics.  Who could ask for anything more? (more…)