Outstanding recognition for study on private prisons and people of color

Grassroots Leadership is proud to share an exciting new study by our board member, Christopher Petrella.  Christopher is a doctoral candidate in African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley and recently published “The Color of Corporate Corrections, Part II: Contractual Exemptions and the Overrepresentation of People of Color in Private Prisons,” in Radical Criminology.  His research presents two related arguments that are valuable in framing Grassroots Leadership’s commitment to ending for-profit incarceration.

First, Christopher found that people of color are overrepresented in prisons controlled by for-profit management companies relative to public facilities of the same security-level because private prison firms try to maximize the percentage of low-cost, healthy and young individuals they contain. Health and age, therefore, serve as stand-in selection criteria for race without any explicit reference to it. Historical sentencing patterns beginning with the so-called “War on Drugs” have fomented trends whereby prisoners over the age of 50 are disproportionately “non-Hispanic, white” and prisoners under 50 are disproportionately persons of color. Generally, the private prison paradigm is based on one premise: meet shareholder expectation by growing profits and minimizing losses. One of the surest ways to achieve that objective is to limit the number of high-cost prisoners with chronic health conditions through contract exemptions. This practice tends to result in a prisoner profile that is far younger—and healthier—in private prisons relative to public facilities and therefore ultimately yields an over-representation of people of color. Moreover, his research provides an irrefutable example of the ways in which seemingly “race neutral” or "colorblind" carceral policies continue to have a differential impact on communities of color.

Christopher’s study also poses a direct challenge to the for-profit prison industry’s repeated claims of cost-savings and efficiency. Assertions of taxpayer savings are only valid when comparing similar prisoner profiles on a facility-by-facility basis. The striking age (and therefore health) disparity in prisoner populations between public and private facilities itself renders cost-saving comparisons inherently unreliable.

The study has received widespread recognition among criminal justice reform advocates.  Both Michelle Alexander (@TheNewJimCrow) and Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black (@Piper) tweeted about it, and notable press have covered Christopher’s research, including Bill Moyers, Mother Jones, Alternet, San Francisco Chronicle, Business InsiderAllGov.com and Colorlines.

In the aftermath of widespread press coverage, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA)—the nation’s largest for-profit jailer—recently released a statement responding to the study.  Steve Owen, Director of Public Affairs for CCA, had this to say:

"[Petrella's] report is deeply flawed. First, CCA’s government partners determine which inmates are sent to our facilities; our company has no role in their selection. Second, the contracts we have with our government partners are mutually agreed upon, and as the customer, our government partners have significant leverage regarding provisions. For example, most of our contracts provide our government partners wide latitude to cancel contracts quickly if they do not see a need for our services. As part of that contracting process, our partners determine how best to manage their expenditures like health care costs, and we work within their needs and preferences. Finally, under longstanding company policy, CCA does not lobby for or in any way promote legislation or policies that determine the basis or duration of an individual’s incarceration."

Here’s Christopher's response:

Mr. Owen,

To begin, please note that all figures I obtained pertaining to race and age composition within select facilities aren't mine. They are official data I procured from the very agencies with which your company contracts. If you'd like to challenge the veracity of these numbers, then I suggest you contact the agencies with which you do business. Second, it is indeed true that contracting agencies generally determine which types of prisoners are sent to your facilities initially, but your company regularly sends prisoners back to public facilities once the medical expenditures per prisoner surpass the thresholds outlined in your contracts or once your company discovers an individual dealing with a high-cost health condition. Therefore, in the final instance your company most certainly has a role in the selection of which types of prisoners you hold after the initial classification period. Third, the contracts you have with your government partners are mutually agreed upon in the same way corporations and individual citizens mutually agree upon the meaning of democracy. What does this mean? It means that influence is never wielded evenly. Your company made $1.7 billion last year and therefore invariably negotiates from a position of authority. To claim anything to the contrary is dishonest.  Finally, that "CCA does not lobby for or in any way promote legislation or policies that determine the basis or duration of an individual’s incarceration" in no way invalidates the fact that your company spends hundreds of thousands of dollars each year convincing lawmakers to extend your contracts despite your indefensible record on safety, staffing, educational programming, and sexual assault. In 2012 alone your company's PAC spent $130,996 to line the pockets of federal candidates. Eighty-six percent of those contributions went members of the G.O.P.

I'd be more than happy--honored even--to debate the legitimacy of my study with you or with any other employee at CCA. I'm confident in my data, my methodologies, and my conclusions.


To contact Christopher and to view more of his work visit www.ChristopherFrancisPetrella.net or @CFPetrella