Social Justice Hero: Caroline Isaacs

Welcome to our Social Justice Hall of Heroes: once a month we’ll be highlighting someone in the field fighting to end for-profit incarceration and reduce reliance on criminalization and detention through direct action, organizing, research, and public education.

Our Social Justice Superhero for November is Caroline Isaacs, the program director for the American Friends Service Committee office in Tucson, Arizona.  Isaacs began her work with the Quaker organization in 1995, when she was hired on for a one-year internship; she became the Criminal Justice Program Coordinator six years later, and in 2004 moved into her current position.  I had an opportunity to talk with Isaacs last week about her life as an activist and Tucsonian. 

As an intern, Isaacs participated in grassroots, volunteer-led conflict resolution workshops in public and federal prisons.  Isaacs attributes these weekends working with community members and incarcerated persons – in her words, “truly amazing people” – with her introduction to the prison-industrial system.  After getting her Master of Social Work, Isaacs served as a committee member and finally as a full-time staff member of the AFSC in Tucson.

Isaac’s proudest victory is also one of her more recent.  In February of 2011, the state of Arizona put out a Request for Proposals, asking companies to submit potential contracts for 5,000 new prison beds.  In protest, the AFSC filed for an injunction and a lawsuit against the Arizona Department of Corrections, citing a state statute that requires biannual comparison reviews of private and public facilities that had been on the books since the 1980s and never pursued.  Although the lawsuit was dismissed on the question of standing, it succeeded in slowing down the process and forcing the Department of Corrections to do its homework and complete the required quality review; the RFP was pulled after their comparison review was released.  In the spring, the state issued a new RFP for 1,000-1,500 medium security beds and awarded a contract to CCA, but not without media attention.

Realizing a huge lack of resources on the subject, Isaacs and the AFSC compiled data and published “Private Prisons, The Public’s Problem,” the first of its kind to analyze the private prison industry in Arizona.  The extensive report (Isaacs says she “can’t do anything in less than 100 pages”) came out in February of this year and showed that millions of state dollars were going into incarceration in private facilities without anyone studying the outcome.

Isaacs hopes to emphasize Arizona as a cautionary tale to states considering for-profit prisons and recently went on a speaking tour through New Hampshire in response to the state’s move to privatize their entire system.  You can follow Isaacs’s work on the Cell-Out Arizona blog and the AFSC Facebook page.  If you’re in Tucson, you might catch her playing washboard with her band, Silver Thread Trio.