Back to News & Commentary

Private Prison Giant CoreCivic’s Wants to Corner the Mass Incarceration ‘Market’ in the States

Prison Hallway
Prison Hallway
Carl Takei,
Former Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU’s Trone Center for Justice and Equality
Share This Page
November 7, 2017

Update (11/15/17): Private prison giant CoreCivic offered Montana a $30 million kickback for 10 more years of contracts. Call the #MTleg and tell them Montanans need real solutions, not a corporate scheme. 406-444-4800

CoreCivic, Inc., the private prison company, will release its quarterly earnings report tomorrow, Nov. 8, to investors, which will mark an extraordinary one-year turnaround for an industry that depends on keeping people trapped in the criminal justice system.

Just over a year ago, the company — then named Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA — was in dire straits. The Justice Department had announced a plan to phase out its private prison contracts, and as its stocks cratered, CCA rebranded itself with the airily vague “CoreCivic” moniker. However, under President Trump, CCA/CoreCivic’s fortunes have reversed. Its stock has climbed in response to the Trump administration soliciting new private prison contracts and adopting policies that promise to throw many more people behind bars.

But CCA/CoreCivic is not betting entirely on federal contracts from its friends in the Trump administration. Two announcements last week highlight the company’s strategy for embedding itself more deeply into state criminal justice systems.

On Oct. 31, the company offered up a $30 million cash payment to the state of Montana in exchange for renewing the state’s prison contract with CCA/CoreCivic for the next 10 years — a contract that, even after the $30 million kickback, will likely gross more than $100 million for the company over the life of the contract.

While it quietly moves to lock states like Montana into long-term prison contracts, CCA/CoreCivic is marketing itself as a friend to the movement to end mass incarceration. The company announced that it will begin lobbying for policies that reduce recidivism and making campaign contributions to candidates who endorse these policies. But it doesn’t take much to see that CCA/CoreCivic’s stated commitment to anti-recidivism initiatives is, well, noncommittal.

Company officials told the Associated Press that the lobbying campaign has no specific budget, and that while support for anti-recidivism policies would be taken into account when deciding which elected officials the company supports, there would be no “hard-and-fast rule” on such questions.

The company’s new lobbying strategy supports some laudable initiatives like “Ban the Box” legislation. But it also continues to promote several harmful policies that would directly benefit its bottom line, as shown in the company policy statement that CCA/CoreCivic issued last week.

This statement, for instance, calls for “[i]ncreased funding for inmate work programs.” Such work programs raise troubling issues: They can be exploitative, and they often deny prisoners a fair wage. They also risk distorting criminal justice policy to ensure a captive labor force.

In California, for example, government attorneysargued against releasing prisoners in order to ensure a steady supply of prisoners to fight wildfires. Such programs can even become a form of human trafficking. In Oklahoma, the ACLU recently filed suit on behalf of people who were sent to D.A.R.P. Inc., a labor camp and purported “drug and alcohol rehabilitation program” that farmed participants out to private corporations — including plastic products manufacturing and chicken processing — where they worked long hours without pay, received little or no actual addiction treatment, and were threatened with prison time if they quit.

The CCA/CoreCivic policy statement also calls for increased funding for “residential reentry” programs, more commonly known as halfway houses. This is an area where the company has recently been expanding.

In a call with investors in August, Damon Hininger, CCA/CoreCivic’s CEO, stated that “we are continuing to aggressively execute our growth strategy” in the residential reentry “market” by acquiring residential reentry facilities around the country. At the time, the company had invested over $270 million in such acquisitions — with $57 million in acquisitions between second quarter 2016 and second quarter 2017 alone. As the American Friends Service Committee and others have warned, such efforts to absorb community corrections into for-profit prison companies pose major threats to the movement to end mass incarceration.

Big companies like CCA/CoreCivic can use their lobbying muscle to squeeze out smaller, community-based nonprofits providing rehabilitation services. Additionally, vertically integrated companies like CCA/CoreCivic can use their community reentry services to keep people unnecessarily involved in the criminal justice system. To avoid being sent back to prison, a person in a halfway house must navigate a maze of behavioral requirements and meet various programming and work requirements. It is all too easy for a company like CCA/CoreCivic to manipulate these requirements and make them more difficult to meet.

CCA/CoreCivic’s takeover of reentry services could negatively affect thousands of formerly incarcerated people and contribute to further expansion of our already bloated and flawed criminal justice system.

And there’s more.

The CCA/CoreCivic policy statement also endorses so-called “social impact bonds” in private prison contracting. Social impact bonds rely on private investors to lend money to government agencies to fund social programs. The idea is that Wall Street will be more willing to take on risky experiments than the agencies themselves. However, the need to achieve short-term, measurable results actually tends to limit innovation and makes such bondsill-suited to address complex social problems like crime and recidivism. Additionally, they divert resources and attention from programs that could be funded by direct government investment.

In the private prison context, social impact bonds are particularly dangerous because they create a seductive illusion that the profit motives of these diversified, multi-billion-dollar, publicly traded companies can easily be contained by cleverly drafted contracts. Accepting this illusion puts great trust in companies that do not deserve it and risks hurtling us into an even more heavily privatized resurgence of mass incarceration.

Don’t be fooled by CCA/CoreCivic’s latest rebranding effort. Its business model depends on having more people trapped in the criminal justice system, and no pivot in marketing strategy changes that.

Learn More About the Issues on This Page