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Child Watch® Column: "Strength to Love: A Challenge to the Privatized Prison Industry"

Release Date: December 10, 2010

Marian Wright Edelman

A few months ago a group of earnest and determined stockholders traveled together by bus from Washington, D.C. to Nashville, Tennessee to attend a shareholders' meeting. On the surface, it sounded like a fairly ordinary trip, but this was an unusual group on an extraordinary mission. The shareholders' meeting was for the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company in the country; and the group of shareholders included ex-offenders who now each hold one share of stock in CCA to get an ownership stake in some of the same prisons that once held them captive. They attended the meeting in hopes of sharing their perspective on how the privatized prison industry can better serve society by rehabilitating inmates rather than just serving its own profits by perpetuating the prison cycle.

The group, part of Washington, D.C.'s Church of the Saviour, is named Strength to Love, after the title of one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s sermon collections. Its members, who include ex-offenders, their families, and members of the wider community who are concerned about incarceration and reentry, explain their mission this way: "The privatized, for-profit prison industry is particularly plagued by a conflict of interest at its core: On the one hand, the industry is responsible to its shareholders to make money, and its income is determined by how many beds are filled. On the other hand, its civil responsibility to the inmates and to the whole of society is to help incarcerated people become their intended selves, and to prepare them to succeed upon release. It is well established that services and programs like job training and education serve to lower the occurrence of re-offense. But it is better for the company's bottom line to minimize staff and services, let the inmates succeed or fail on their own terms, and reap the financial benefits of strict sentencing laws and high rates of recidivism. It is this experience of exploitation, frequently referred to as a modern day form of slavery, that many members of Strength to Love have personally experienced, and which we have been called to dismantle." The trip—or as they called it, mission—to Nashville for a CCA meeting was their first test of participating in a shareholders' meeting. It is a creative approach to dismantling an industry that is the endpoint of America's Cradle to Prison Pipeline® crisis that is threatening the social and racial progress of the past 50 years.

Reliance on punishment and incarceration too often as a first rather than last resort has given the U.S. the largest prison population in the world. In 2009, the United States' inmate population of 2.3 million prisoners exceeded China's whose population is more than four times larger. John Jay College of Criminal Justice President Jeremy Travis, one of the nation's leading scholars on prisoner reentry, documented in his book But They All Come Back: Facing the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry that preparing ex-offenders for a successful transition benefits not just ex-offenders but society as a whole. But most often ex-offenders who have served their sentences get little help as they return to their communities. For the estimated 650,000 federal and state ex-offenders who have gone to prison and are released each year, he says, "the odds against successful reentry are daunting. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, two-thirds of released [state] prisoners will be rearrested for one or more crimes, including felonies and serious misdemeanors, within three years after they get out of prison. Nearly half will be convicted of a new crime."

Ineffective prisoner rehabilitation and unsuccessful reentry have dire consequences for children. A recent report by the Pew Charitable Trusts estimated that 2.7 million minor children have a mother or father behind bars. That is approximately 1.8 percent of White, 3.5 percent of Latino, and 11 percent of Black children. Pew reports that on average, incarceration is associated with a 40 percent decline in family earnings. Before finding themselves behind bars, two-thirds of male inmates were employed, and more than half were the primary source of income for their children. Improving the outcomes of ex-offenders will enable them to provide the stability that is so critical for their children.

As Travis and others have noted, there are public policies that can improve the chances of successful reentry. Most start by preparing people for a positive, productive life after prison while they are still incarcerated. Producing fewer ex-offenders who become "churners" by returning to prison for committing new crimes seems to benefit all of us—except, perhaps, those who profit from the prison industry. The private prison industry is already a powerful, fast-growing threat. NPR and other news organizations recently documented how prison lobbyists quietly helped write and pass Arizona's strict immigration law, SB 1070, and are now trying to help with copycat bills across the country. Specifically, the Corrections Corporation of America saw an opportunity to profit from building prisons for undocumented immigrants in Arizona, and drafted the bill with State Senator Russell Pearce at a convening of legislators, businesses, and associations in Washington D.C. in December, 2009. Five months later, SB 1070 was signed into law. A billion-dollar corporation like CCA has its own priorities—but we must stand for ours.

We must reverse the trend that has created an America with less than five percent of the world's population but over a quarter of the world's prisoners. And we must dismantle the pipeline to prison that places one in three Black and one in six Hispanic boys born in 2001 at risk of incarceration in their lifetime. It is completely unacceptable that in our rich nation the only thing we will guarantee every child is a jail or detention cell after s/he gets into trouble. It's time to guarantee all of them health care, a fair chance to get ready for and achieve in school, and safe and stimulating summer and after school programs with quality caring teacher-mentors. We need to end the galloping poverty that leaves them hungry and homeless and hopeless. We need jobs in their future so they can see that school leads somewhere. It's time for a critical mass of Americans to demand and work for a fundamental paradigm shift which prevents and breaks up the Cradle to Prison Pipeline and makes successful prisoner reentry a more likely by-product.


Let us know what you think about this column:

Enter this word: Change


Here's what others have said:

Submitted by ChatKat15 at: May 5, 2011
the whole prison system is a mess! It is archaic and old-needs revamping--I counseled offenders at one of those for-profit prisons and they were all about the "bottom line" and security-- they didn't want social workers helping people out-- their attitudes need adjustment--how about caring about people for a change??

Submitted by Jayde at: December 28, 2010
I know that we need to break this school to prison pipeline. Children & youths need guidance, treatment , health services NOT Prison. Our future is at stake lw/ locking up youths & young adults at the rate we do.

Submitted by Peg at: December 14, 2010
This is a very strong statement that should motivate people to understand the absurdity of the level of incarceration this nation maintains and the effect this has on children. I live in Virginia. Need I say more?

Submitted by Anonymous at: December 12, 2010
The column heavily reinforced what I already believed. It is totally unacceptable that this pipeline flourishes because of the profit motive. How do we stop it?

Submitted by Marge at: December 11, 2010
This is great! I am part of a Congregation of Women Religious working with ICCR (Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility) with resolutions before CCA on an annual basis. The tie to the Arizona immigration law is important information to get out there. Thank you.

Submitted by Karen at: December 11, 2010
AMEN!! Thank you for bringing attention to this serious issue.

Submitted by lib at: December 11, 2010
Excellent Column and so important to be heard. I am wondering what was the outcome of the creative approach to breaking up the cradle to prison pipeline, i.e. joining it to bring about change from within. How was the CCA shareholders meeting and what were the results? I would love to hear from those who attended about their sense of the possibility for change. And thank you for the great work you are doing and have been dedicated to for so many many yrs. God Bless

Submitted by hermy at: December 11, 2010
thank-you Mrs. Edelman for this well written and thoughtful article.Private prisons,for profit have been a troubling concept for me as it assures a steady supply of clientele.I'm so glad to hear about ex-prisoners becoming stockholders and attending yearly shareholder meetings,maybe the small beginning will someday bring some form of justice to the prisons

Submitted by Anonymous at: December 10, 2010
A hugely embarrassing situation for the self-proclaimed role model for the rest of the world that must not be allowed to continue.

Submitted by grannyd at: December 10, 2010
What about providing education and training while in prison, so they will have a possibly of getting a job when they leave prison!