Back to News & Commentary

Karma: Private Prison Company Throws Shade and Fails, Badly

Mass Incarceration
Mass Incarceration
Carl Takei,
Former Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU’s Trone Center for Justice and Equality
Share This Page
May 20, 2014

How can you tell that a private prison company is getting desperate? When its lobbyists and PR reps start throwing shade at the ACLU for “politics and posturing.”

This new “politics and posturing” talking point is awfully ironic coming from the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) – the oldest and largest for-profit prison company in America. Has the company forgotten the more than $18 million they’ve spent since 1999 on federal lobbying? What about all the time they spent aggressively litigating at the state level to shield their prisons from being subject to open records laws? Or how about all the money they’ve poured into campaign contributions to curry favor with politicians?

When facing a public relations crisis, I guess it’s understandable to try out some new messaging. But I’m pretty sure PR 101 cautions against throwing stones when you live in a well-publicized glass house.

To be fair, it could be said that we threw shade first, if by “shade” you mean exposing CCA’s track record of abuse, neglect, and mismanagement.

Last week, as part of our “Who is CCA?” campaign, the ACLU delivered more than 23,000 petition signatures to Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam demanding that he end the state’s contracts with CCA. The intention here was to hit CCA on their home turf – the company is headquartered in Nashville – and make the case that Tennesseans are done having their tax dollars turn into CCA profits.

It looks like the blow landed.

The response from CCA’s PR team was weak, at best. CCA’s main defensive move was one they’ve tried before: citing the now infamous Temple University study, which purports to be favorable to them. The problem, as others have pointed out over and over again, is that the study was funded by the for-profit prison industry, and its authors are currently the subject of an ethics investigation.

When that tired play didn’t work, CCA then directed their ire at the ACLU: “It’s unfortunate that the ACLU would advocate against those benefits [of private prisons] without themselves providing any solutions to the serious challenges our corrections systems face. Overcrowding and skyrocketing costs aren’t solved with politics and posturing.”

Here’s the thing: the ACLU does offer solutions to the problems of prison overcrowding and skyrocketing prison expenditures. Our answer is simple: End mass incarceration. Our plan has five components: End the War on Drugs; end extreme sentencing, such as Three Strikes and mandatory minimums; incentivize smart practices; eliminate unnecessary incarceration; and invest in better systems.

It’s a tough fight, but we are working across the country, with both conservative and liberal allies, to make it happen. If we succeed, these reforms will cut off America’s addiction to incarceration – and destroy the private prison industry’s business model. CCA itself admits in its annual reports that some of the biggest “risk factors” for CCA are drug law reform, lower minimum sentences for non-violent crimes, greater use of cost-saving probation and electronic monitoring instead of incarceration, and reductions in crime rates.

For the past four decades, our country has relentlessly expanded the size of our criminal justice system – needlessly throwing away too many lives, wasting trillions of taxpayer dollars, and enabling for-profit incarceration to metastasize into a multi-billion-dollar industry. As one Tennessee minister recently put it, “When this goes on in our community, it says something about the overall condition of who we are—not just in the communities of the disinherited, dispossessed, and the oppressed, but everywhere.”

It’s time for us all to take another path—and leave CCA in the dust behind us.

Learn more about private prisons and other civil liberty issues: Sign up for breaking news alerts, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Learn More About the Issues on This Page