February is Black History Month, an observance in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom to honor the contributions of black people throughout history in these countries. In the United States, many also commemorate Black History Month by reflecting upon the legacy of slavery and discrimination that marks this history, and the scars that we still live with as a society that have yet to heal.
It’s no surprise that our stomachs turned when we noticed that Corrections Corporation of America’s President and CEO, Damon Hininger, posted a letter addressed to the “CCA Team” entitled “Celebrating Black History Month” on www.insidecca.com yesterday morning.
Absurd is only one of many choice words (and the mildest by far) that we might use to describe the largest, private, for-profit prison company’s use of Black History Month in its public relations campaign to paint itself as valuing progress, equality, and diversity. As proof of its value for progress Hininger points to the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the 50th anniversary of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and the re-election of President Obama to remind us of how far we’ve come.
It’s hard to read this letter when, from our point of view, profiteering from the incarceration of people and the dramatic overrepresentation of African Americans incarcerated in U.S. prisons points directly to the lack of progress we have made as a society. Another article was published yesterday critiquing CCA and GEO Group’s conversions in the IRS tax code to “Real Estate Investment Trusts” (REIT). The move categorizes these prison companies with other companies whose primary business is in real estate, and the benefits of the conversion come in the form of non-taxed shareholder dividends. Both companies have applied to become REITs; GEO Group’s application was approved by the IRS in January. Referring to a GEO-operated facility in Virginia, the article’s author Christopher Petrella aptly notes that converting to a REIT, “calls attention to the relationship between historical forms of race-based, profit-making and racialized expressions of prison privatization. The language of ‘real estate’ firmly codified by REIT status is deeply troubling in light of the reality African-Americans - a racialized group once legally ‘held to be real estate’ according to Virginia's 1705 Slave Codes - are vastly over-represented today in GEO's only Virginia-based corrections facility.” Petrella also points out that, while African Americans comprise 61 percent of Virginia’s incarcerated population, they comprise 75 percent of those incarcerated GEO’s facility in that state.
Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, argues that a racial caste system is alive and well in the United States, and nowhere is that more painfully apparent than in our prisons. So when CCA, whose business success hinges on ever increasing rates of incarceration, “celebrates” Black History Month, we have to point at history itself and remind CCA of its role in thwarting progress when it comes to racial injustice. Profiting from enslavement and the incarceration of human beings are the very aspects of our history that Black History Month should be used to remember with remorse and for making commitments to change course.