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Private Prisons: The Wal-Marts of Racist Incarceration

The nation's biggest and baddest for-profit prison company suddenly cares about halfway houses – so much so, that they want in on the action.

About a year after acquiring a smaller firm that operates halfway houses and other community corrections facilities, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) CEO Damon Hininger announced a few weeks ago that "[r]eentry programs and reducing recidivism are 100 percent aligned with our business model."

Wait, what?

High recidivism rates mean more people behind bars, and CCA depends on more and more incarceration to make its billions. Since when do they actually want people to do well after they get out, instead of being sucked back into the system?

It's tempting to be hopeful.

Is this a long-overdue acknowledgment that it's morally bankrupt to make money off of imprisoning human beings? Is the nation's largest for-profit prison company really admitting that mass incarceration has destroyed too many communities and that locking fewer people behind bars is a good thing?

Come on. It's CCA. We can't afford to be naïve. The motivation behind this announcement is where it always is for CCA: the bottom line.

If you read Hininger's speech carefully, he hints at a long-term corporate strategy that could eventually become even more lucrative than CCA's prison business: The Wal-Martification of reentry.

Currently, post-prison reentry programs, such as halfway houses and day reporting centers, are largely run by local nonprofit organizations or, in some cases, smaller for-profit companies. Hininger notes the small, local nature of reentry services in his speech – and then claims that CCA can use its size and resources to "provide consistency and common standards" in different facilities, rapidly make new arrangements with multiple agencies "on an as-needed basis," and "scale" (i.e, grow rapidly). These claims – bigger, faster, cheaper – echo those often made by Wal-Mart supporters to explain why the company is superior to local businesses.

CCA's plan to become the Wal-Mart of reentry may be good for its investors, but it should alarm the rest of us. First, the for-profit prison industry's history of abuse, neglect, and mismanagement raises serious questions about what kinds of abuses would occur if we hand over control of even more elements of our criminal justice system to CCA and similar profit-driven companies. Second, CCA fights aggressively to shield its operations from public scrutiny – even though incarceration and rehabilitation are some of the government responsibilities where transparency and accountability are most important.

At their best, halfway houses and day reporting centers can provide much-needed support, psychological help, educational services, and substance abuse treatment during a difficult period of transition between full-scale incarceration and post-sentence release to the community. But at their worst, they can fester with violence and sexual abuse as well as fail to address the serious needs of the people in their care. Given CCA's track record, we should be worried that vital reentry services are under threat.

No matter how much CCA executives protest that reducing recividism is "100 percent aligned" with the company's business model, an inherent conflict exists between CCA's duty to enrich its shareholders and this asserted commitment to successful rehabilitation: The company can keep increasing its profits only by ensuring an ever-greater flow of human beings into the criminal justice system. That flow is maintained by the same bad policies that fuel our national mass incarceration epidemic: the War on Drugs, extreme sentencing practices, and systemic failures to address problems like mental illness, substance abuse disorders, and homelessness outside of the criminal justice system.

For the past four decades, our country has relentlessly expanded the size of our criminal justice system, allowing companies like CCA to reap tremendous profits out of human misery. But the ACLU is committed to ending this colossal waste of lives and taxpayer dollars – and in the process, defeating CCA's plan for the Wal-Mart-ification of reentry.

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