Intern Merrill Liddicoat joined the Enlace team earlier this summer to research the impact of the Prison Divestment Campaign on the media landscape and in CoreCivic and GEO Group business plans. Here’s what she found out.
Since Enlace launched the Prison Industry Divestment Campaign in 2011, the media has begun covering the private prison industry more critically and addressing a wider scope of issues. The Campaign, led by immigrants, Black people and low-wage workers most impacted by criminalization, exposed the industry and gained a media following in the process. Instead of continuing the narrative that private prisons are the right choice due to their supposed cost effectiveness, the media has moved toward questioning the morals of the private prison system and exposing the individuals who are profiting off of them the most.
The media has drawn on reports from Grassroots Leadership, In The Public Interest, and the ACLU to investigate the financial incentives that motivate private prison corporations to lobby for harsher criminal and immigration policies.
The shift in the media narrative has also been spurred by pressure from organizers demanding that institutions divest from private prisons. Large victories for this movement, such as Columbia University and the UC system divesting from private prisons in 2015 after months of pressure from student organizers, opened the media narrative up to the idea of divestment. Both of these campaigns were supported by Enlace.
Attention from the media and the public around the issue of private prisons propelled politicians, including 2016 presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, to address their stance on private prisons in their campaigns and introduce legislation restricting the growth of the industry. Political attention to the private prison industry has in turn increased media coverage, prompting the media to investigate the possibilities/role of the government in restricting private prisons. In August 2016, former-President Obama announced through his department of justice that they would begin phasing out the use of privately run federal prisons, marking a political victory for the movement for divestment and decriminalization. However, after Donald Trump was elected, the new DOJ reversed these policies. They plan to contract more private prisons to house the growing numbers of incarcerated immigrants who are jailed under the administration’s the harsher immigration policies.
Trump’s blatant support of private prisons spurred the media to further investigate and critique their lobbying power. State politicians, like Democratic senators Cory Booker and Chris Van Hollen, took notice of this new support that private prisons are receiving from the Trump administration. In a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in which Booker and Van Hollen demand that the Trump Administration explain their decision to re-establish contracts with private prison companies, they point out that GEO Group, CoreCivic, and Management and Training Corporation donated over $750,000 to Super PACs that supported Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. This pushback at the state level gathered coverage from the media that considered the impacts of private prisons more comprehensively, following the lead of the questions raised in the letter. This article from Vox that reports on the letter examines the direct dangers that private prisons cause to those incarcerated and those who are employed by them while also considering the cost of private prisons and their influence on policy.
Some mainstream media sources, such as the Huffington Post and the LA Times, have begun highlighting the experiences of immigrants who are being affected by harsher the immigration policy that the private prison industry is lobbying for. They have also covered the organizing that has taken place in opposition to these policies.
The divestment campaign and its media coverage have also influenced what the companies like CCA and GEO tell their investors. Some of CCA’s more recent reports mention the threat of legal action against new government policy of detaining migrant families. They write in their most recent report:
In the past, legislation has been proposed in the United States Congress to prohibit the federal government from entering into contracts with private prison operators, and to eliminate state and local contracts for privately run prisons. Such legislation runs contrary to our primary business purpose and, if passed, would have a material adverse impact on our business. Moreover, the belief or market perception that such legislation could be passed could have a negative impact on our stock price.
In this report they seem to be anticipating future legislation prohibiting private prison contracts proposed on the state and local level, noting the negative affect this could have on their business. Although their support at the federal level remains strong, private prison corporations are aware of the local resistance that is building. They are in a position of being visibly supported, yet this also places them in the spotlight of media coverage and critique. The current administration’s support of private prisons has galvanized the public and politicians to notice the inequity that this system is perpetuating and to take action against it.
Enlace’s work has inspired people at a local level to imagine what a world free of private prisons and all prisons could look like, giving them the tools to organize and use this new consciousness that has been forming in relation to private prisons and mass incarceration.