This week the Travis County Sheriff’s Office is hosting the inaugural “Vision Summit: Looking Toward the Future of Re-entry”, right here in Grassroots Leadership’s backyard in Austin, Texas. The gathering’s intention of bringing together the re-entry advocacy and service delivery community in order to better collaborate and communicate toward the goals of reducing recidivism and improving re-entry programs is one we appreciate. It acknowledges the need, both locally and nationally, for reforms that effectively shift people out of confinement and back into society, and across the country there is a growing number of innovative and creative solutions doing just that. The Vision Summit is a promising convening where the opportunity for cross-fertilization of ideas and experience will enhance the growing trends in rehabilitation and re-entry.
However, we question the Vision Summit’s wisdom in inviting private prison corporation GEO Group representatives to deliver a workshop on evidence-based practice and re-entry. Surely the Travis County Sheriff’s Office and its conference partners are well aware of the presence of private prisons and mental health facilities operated by private prison companies in Texas. Not only is there a private facility in virtually every corner of this state, but there have also been highly publicized scandals at several of them, including those operated by GEO Group, whose reputation in Texas has been littered with repeated escapes, contraband smuggling by guards, abuse, neglect, and even death. The company’s national rap sheet reveals more of the same.
In our opinion, for-profit private prison companies should not be offered platforms where they are revered as authoritative “best practices” voices on any aspect of incarceration, rehabilitation, re-entry or community supervision. Generally speaking, their collective and individual track records are abominable when it comes to the safety, health, and wellness of incarcerated individuals and those supervising them. Re-entry initiatives become meaningless if incarcerated individuals’ physical and emotional health needs are compromised and ignored while they are serving sentences. Furthermore, for-profit private prison companies have benefited handsomely from the astronomically rapid rise in incarceration rates in the United States.
Track records of abuse and negligence aside, doesn’t it seem contradictory that private prison companies, whose success rests squarely on their ability to increase profit with ever-rising numbers of people confined behind their walls, are moving into the business of ushering people out of prison? How can they make profit if they’re working both ends of the business? We are very interested in this question, and will be doing some digging to find some answers.
What we do know is that for-profit private prison companies, like state and local governments, will be forced to react to trends in criminal justice reform and the political and fiscal realities that inform them. Recently, thanks to high profile leaders, including Attorney General Eric Holder, Newark, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker, and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who have publicly advanced hard-hitting critiques of the racial and economic implications of the U.S.’s heavy reliance on incarceration and the urgency to address it, we find ourselves in a political moment in which large strides in reform may be possible. What’s more, Booker and Trumka specifically name the for-profit private prison industry as a factor that should be confronted and challenged in reforming our justice system. We assume that what has been a growing shift in public dialogue on criminal justice reform, informed by powerful politicians and labor leaders, as well as federal and state fiscal realities, all serve as a signal to the for-profit private prison industry that it needs to get creative about how to maintain and grow its profit margins. We can also assume that this sophisticated industry anticipated the shift and is already planning its response. Currently, re-entry and community corrections is a relatively small portion of GEO’s business, but as states work to shrink their incarcerated populations, we may see a rise in private companies vying for contracts to provide re-entry programs and, of course, profit from them.
As important as we believe investing in robust and creative solutions to re-entry are, we also know that the best way to keep people out of prison is to not put them there in the first place, and the for-profit private prison industry is one of our biggest and most powerful opponents on this front. The Vision Summit, its participants, and future gatherings on improving re-entry policies and programs should be earnestly examining the motivations and the track records of for-profit private prison companies like GEO Group in providing these services and participating in this gathering as peers.