Bob has been working on the issue of the private correctional industry with Grassroots Leadership for the past 13 years and was kind enough to share the knowledge and wisdom he's amassed during that time. Listen to the conversation using the link below or on iTunes here, and find the interview transcript after the jump.
Bob: Yeah, thanks so much for having me.
Amanda: So let's start with learning more about your organization. What is Grassroots Leadership, and what do you do there?
Bob: Grassroots Leadership is a social justice organization that focuses on advocacy and organizing campaigns to end the profit motive in our nation's criminal justice and immigration detention systems, and also to advocate for policies that reduce reliance on incarceration and criminalization. So, you know, we believe that there is no place in our society for a system that makes money off of the incarceration of human beings, and we also think that this is a society that has grown to rely on locking people up to deal with all of our social issues, from addiction, to mental illness, to immigration, to homelessness, to poverty, and that there are far more effective and appropriate responses to these issues, and that it is through organizing and advocacy that we're able to change those systems.
Amanda: Now, I was looking at the history of Grassroots Leadership on your website, and I saw that the focus to the private correctional industry was in the '90s. And what precipitated the shift, and how does that focus reflect your organization's history as a progressive, multiracial social justice organization?
Bob: Grassroots Leadership was founded in 1980 by Si Kahn, who was southern civil rights organizer. And Si had worked in the Civil Rights Movement and the Labor Movement and founded Grassroots Leadership to help build progressive multiracial social justice organizations in the southern United States at a time when there was not a lot of those organizations. And so for the first, you know, 15 years of the organization, we really focused on helping build organization and build leaders. And it was in the 1990s that we started looking at the way that privatization and public resources was impacting a lot of the communities that we were working in, it was rolling back a lot of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. And so we looked at issues of privatization of public health, privatization of utilities, and we came across this issue with the privatization of the criminal justice system. And that was an issue that really resonated with many of the communities we worked with, especially African-American communities that were being ripped apart by the rise of mass incarceration in the late '80s and throughout the '90s. And so today we've actually moved our organizational home from its original location in Charlotte, North Carolina to here in Austin. And our work really focuses on—it's about half to deal with the criminal justice system, and half to deal with the immigration system. But in both systems, we work for policies that empower communities, that reduce reliance on incarceration, and then try to push the profit motive out of these systems.
Amanda: So I asked you to come here to talk specifically about private prisons and the correctional system, but we'll also talk more broadly about mass incarceration in the US. But what is it about the privatization itself of the industry that makes it so harmful, and makes it worthy of your focus?
Bob: Well, and this is a trend that starts in the 1980s, right, where see the birth of for-profit prison corporations, notably Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group, which used to be called Wackenhut Corrections Corporation. And these are two companies that together combine for more than $4 billion annual revenue now. They invest millions of dollars every year in lobbying and campaign contributions at local, state, and federal levels. We have become a country that has a prison industrial complex, right? That has industry that is both reliant on and helps to enable our mass incarceration system. And I think that we are increasingly in a moment where people are critical of that system, and I think they should be critical of the for-profit prison system as well, for a couple reasons. One, I think is operational. There are systemic reasons why private prisons operate more poorly than public prisons, and they have to do with cost-cutting mechanisms that private prisons operate in order to make money. And then the second, I think, has to do with influence. And when you have corporations that have hugely vested interests in maintaining high incarceration rates in order to serve their shareholders—and these are publicly traded organizations, they're bought and sold on the stock market—that creates a perverse incentive. And the incentive should not be—for any institution, should not be how many people can we keep locked up, and for how long, it should be how do we get people out of prison, reduce crime rates, and keep people in communities safe and healthy.
Amanda: So you've kind of touched upon how mass incarceration and the private correctional industry have gone hand in hand since the '80s and '90s. But I wanted to also ask about how the private correctional industry has impacted mass incarceration. So kind of like, you know, whether there's a causal effect. There was recently a Mother Jones article on the private prison industry in which a reporter embedded in a private prison in Louisiana for four months. And in the article, it mentioned that 2/3 of private correctional companies, contracts, have inmate quotas. So how does, you know, having a certain number of beds needing to be filled, how does that impact policing and sentencing?
Bob: Well I think that again, you get back to this issue of perverse incentives, right? Where the private prison industry, and in particular contracts that are written that very clearly incentivize incarceration, are really troubling. So this idea of lock up quotas is one way that I would say that private prison industries have pushed state governments to keep prisons full, or at least not incentivized reducing incarceration rates. And so the lock up quotas in many places around the country, there are contractual obligations that a state has to pay for a certain number of beds; it's often 90%, right, in a privately-operated prison. And so what that does is it, you know, the state is going to pay for those beds whether or not they fill them or not. Whether that has a direct correlation on sentencing or policing practices, I don't know that there's a lot of evidence that says that it does, but I think that certainly when you're dealing with systems level issues, that it creates an incentive, it creates a contract to keep those facilities full. And so, you know, I think there are lots of ways that the private prison industry has done that kind of thing. Another that was very common here in Texas over the last 20 years is the building of prisons on speculation. Throughout the aughts, we saw a massive boom in private prison corporations going out and building prison facilities without a contract, without even sometimes an idea of where they were gonna find the prisoners to fill them, and then going out and actively marketing those prison facilities to different contractors, right? So the state government, county jails, the federal government often for immigration contracts, other states... And you know, we have a situation in Texas where the state government doesn't even know where all the prisons are. That there are prisons that are completely out of the purview of state government that are out there marketing beds to other states, they're marketing beds to the federal government. And, you know, I think that that's very dangerous. Because one, it doesn't make—the agencies that are incarcerating people have to have the hard conversation that is, "should we be locking up this many people?" It makes it easy, right? The easy solution is to just contract with a privately-operated prison. It also builds in a lot of local political clout for maintaining mass incarceration and keeping these prisons open. In many cases—in most of these cases actually, in Texas, the private prison corporation partnered with a local community, and actually convinced the local community to float debt to pay for these facilities. So you have local communities that have a financial obligation, and therefore a political will to make sure that there are people coming into these facilities, regardless of where they're from. Right? Regardless of if they're, you know, state prisoners, county prisoners from another county, state prisoners from California or Idaho, federal immigration detainees, people convicted of sex offenses that are now being civilly committed after their sentence. You know, it really helps drive this idea that we need to continue to incarcerate people. And I think that there are all kinds of ways that adding the profit motive to the criminal justice system has incentivized continuing to lock people up, both inside the private prison industry, and I would say that that model has bled into public entities as well.
Amanda: Kind of similarly, you've mentioned that—I think you said it was a $4 billion industry that we're seeing right now in the private correctional industry, and that you see that money taking form in lobbying and in political contributions. What kind of political agenda do you see these companies pursuing through their lobbying and their donations?
Bob: Well the companies—particularly Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group—swear up and down that they don't lobby on issues related to sentencing or immigration reform. They occasionally get caught—[chuckles]—you know, sort of violating those principles. Both CCA and GEO Group were very involved in the American Legislative Exchange Council for many years. They actually chaired the Public Safety Task Force, which was the entity that drafted model legislation that was then taken back to states and introduced. After being embarrassed about their participation in helping write immigration legislation that was kind of a model for Arizona, they both got out of ALEC. And I think it's a sign of the times that ALEC is now actually promoting some criminal justice reform initiatives around the country, as many conservative sort of leaders are coming on board with the idea that criminal justice reform is necessary. You know, in the immigration context, the private prison corporations are very heavily involved. 2/3 of all immigration detention beds are operated by private prison corporations. And a report that we issued last year, you know, basically demonstrated that the lobbying that the private prison industry has done over the last five years has been very focused on the Appropriations Committee in Congress, which is the appropriations committee that has written the immigration detention bed quota and maintained that quota that says that there must be 34,000 beds maintained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement on any given day. And this is the only agency that I know that has a lock up quota for the number of people that should be put in their facilities on any given day. So, you know, I think that the industry is very powerful, particularly in certain entities. And I think that if the industry sort of crosses a certain threshold, you know, in the immigration detention context, I would argue that ICE is really a captured agency. ICE cannot do its job without these companies, and these companies exert enormous influence, which we see all up and down the line when it comes to immigration contracts.
Amanda: So I think usually when we think of private corrections, we think of prisons. But you've mentioned other contexts where the private correctional industry has beds, or is, you know, providing their so-called services. So where else do we see them besides prisons? You mentioned in the immigration system. And what levels of government do we see them in? So I know that you have the federal and the state levels—how pervasive are they on those levels, and do you also have local jurisdictions such as county jails, or that kind of thing that use these private companies?
Bob: Yeah. You know, the private prison industry operates on all levels of government, really. And the growth of the private prison system has really been driven by immigration enforcement. So the private prison industry has contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, it has contracts with U.S. Marshals Service, and it has contracts with the Bureau of Prisons. And the Bureau of Prisons actually contracts out to an entirely separate set of privately-operated prisons that it calls the criminal alien requirement facilities, and there are I believe four of them now in Texas. There were five until a major riot at the Willacy County Processing Center a year ago. And these are basically privately-operated, segregated prisons where immigrants in the federal prison system are sent. They're really horrendous places, and there's been a series of major uprisings at these facilities, and protests to conditions at them. So you know, that's the federal system. The state system, it really varies state by state. There are states that have bans on private prisons, and then there are states that have very privatized systems. New Mexico, I believe it's about half of their prison beds are operated by private prison corporations. Here in Texas, we have more privately-operated prisons, jails, and detention centers than any other state. There are privately-operated jails in certain jurisdictions, although less so, I would say, than federal and state facilities. And then this idea that I talked about earlier of the speculative facility, which oftentimes these facilities are built and then marketed to find—you know, where can they find prisoners, and they don't really care where, frankly. And then, you know, the other thing that we've seen is that these companies and related companies—oftentimes subsidiaries or spin-offs—are really getting into other markets. So something we're calling the treatment industrial complex.
Amanda: And you had—Grassroots Leadership issued a report on that just recently I think, is that right?
Bob: Yeah, we issued our first report on the treatment industrial complex came out I think in 2014, and then we recently reissued a follow-up report. And what we mean by that is the growing influence of these oftentimes same corporations in things like probation and parole, halfway houses and community correction facilities, other sorts of confinement like mental health facilities; a spin-off of the GEO Group is actually trying to get into running state hospitals. Civil commitment facilities, which are the kinds of facilities that confine people oftentimes for life, even after their sentence if they were convicted of a sex offense. So the sort of creeping role of these for-profit corporations is something that we're very concerned about. And we're concerned that not only are they trying to make a profit and kind of hijack criminal justice reform, but also that their interest is not in making sure the fewest number of people are incarcerated, but their interest is making sure that there are an ever-increasing number of people who are under some sort of correctional control. And so it's this idea of net widening, that even if we slightly reduce our prison population, which is certainly a good thing, what we don't want to see is more people that are combined in other kinds of institutions that are just not called prisons.
Amanda: So the pitch you hear for private prisons or other kinds of facilities is saving money, increased efficiency, that sort of thing. Whether they actually save money seems to be an open question. When they do, where does that money come from? And how do these companies make a profit?
Bob: Yeah, I would say that there is not conclusive evidence at all that the private prison corporations save money. It actually seems to be kind of a wash if you look at the body of research on it. In some places, the private prisons are a little bit cheaper, and in some places they end up being more expensive. Oftentimes the companies come in low, right, and the contract rates go up over time, and they end up as high or higher than the public facilities. But I think what we do know is that the private prisons spend less money in the facilities than the publicly-operated facilities, because they are extracting a significant portion of the contract rate for corporate profits. And that cost saving can be very dangerous, and I think that that's what you see in this Mother Jones piece by Shane Bauer, is—and that's bored out in facts, right? We know that in Texas—The last hard data I've seen on this was back in 2009, but the Senate Criminal Justice Committee did an interim report on the private prison industry and found that the highest-paid private prison guard made less than the lowest-paid public prison guard.
Bob: And already in Texas, publicly-paid correctional officers are paid abysmal rates, right, and have a very hard time staffing those facilities. But in 2009, the public turnover rate was I believe 24% in publicly operated facilities. In private prisons, it was 90%. And if you can imagine operating any sort of institution, even a small nonprofit on a 90% annual turnover rate, something as volatile as a prison, you know, you really run into many of those operational issues where if you have untrained, unexperienced, underpaid prison guards, that leads to things like corruption. That leads to things like, you know, people not knowing how to handle volatile situations with people who are incarcerated in difficult situations. So you know, I think that many of the operational problems that you see in private prisons go back to that.
Amanda: Not to mention that that seems to be an indication that there's something seriously wrong in these places, to have a 90% turnover rate. So I kind of wanted to talk about that, about the environment for people who work in prisons generally, and private prisons specifically. You mentioned the turnover rate. I also read in the Mother Jones article, studies show that there are higher rates of PTSD for corrections officers than for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Also that the suicide rate is 2½ times that of the general population. What do these figures tell us about who's working in prisons, and either how they're affected by those environments, or how those environments impact those people?
Bob: Well I think for me what that says is that prisons are traumatic places, and that we don’t often view them as that. They're traumatic places for people who work in them, and they're certainly traumatic places for people that are confined in them. And yeah, those stats are alarming. And I think that they speak to the fact that if we are gonna have prisons, the people who work in them should be well compensated and should be professionals. They shouldn't be people making $9 an hour like they were in the facility that Shane Bauer was working in. And I think it also speaks to the fact that you're gonna get a dehumanizing environment, right, when you have a system that is run for corporate profit both for the people who work in it and for the people who are incarcerated.
Amanda: That leads perfectly into a question I had about the dehumanization aspect of prisons, really more generally. There are a couple quotes I wanted to read from the Mother Jones article that really stuck with me. This first one was from an assistant warden. He said,
"We want them..." meaning the people incarcerated, "...institutionalized. you guys ever heard that term? We want them institutionalized, not individualized."
"Is that sort of a mind game?"
"Yup, but you know what? It's worked over the couple hundred years that we've had prisons in this country, so that's why we do it. We do not want them to feel as though they are individuals. We want them, for lack of a better term, to feel like a herd of cattle. We're just moving 'em from point A to point B, letting them graze in the dining hall, and then go back to the barn, okay?"
And then later the author reflected on a moment of humanity he experienced when he spoke to an incarcerated person about taunts that that person was directing towards him. And the author wrote,
"In the moment,.." this humanizing moment, "they feel like a glimmer of a possibility that we can appreciate each other's humanity, but I come to understand that our positions make this virtually impossible. We can chat and laugh through the bars, but inevitably I need to flex my authority. My job will always be to deny them the most basic of human impulses—to push for more freedom."
And one thing that struck me about these quotes, I don't think they're limited to private prisons. I mean some of this might be exacerbated by what we talked about, but this is really reflections on our carceral state generally. So do you think prisons are inherently dehumanizing? And what would happen if efforts were made to bring dignity and humanity to incarceration, or is that kind of a contradiction of terms?
Bob: That's a complicated question. Um... Yes, I think that prisons are by necessity dehumanizing places. And they're violent places. And I think that we have normalized incarceration in this country in particular to a degree that we don't think that putting someone against their will in a room for years, or decades, or their life, is a violent act. Right? That's an incredibly violent act. If I kept somebody in a room in my house for, you know, years, that would be considered a violent crime. And so yes, these are violent places that I think do rely on institutionalization, and then, you know, on a personal level, I've worked with people who have gotten out of prison, and institutionalization is a real thing. You know, the inability to function after being institutionalized is real, and it's difficult to reintegrate into society. So and yes, I think that it is certainly an issue that is one that stretches across private and public. And I think that as you said, some of those issues are exacerbated in the private facilities because of a lack of training, of a lack of vetting of guards. I mean the fact that Shane Bauer got a job at a privately-operated prison, and Shane Bauer is a very well know person, right? He was one of the Iranian hikers who was a political prisoner in Iran for three years and was in the news every week for years.
Amanda: A Google search by a recruiter could have done the trick.
Bob: Absolutely. And he didn't hide any of that.
Amanda: Right, I was pretty amazed to see that I think he had his journalism background on the resume.
Bob: Yeah, he said current employer was the New Media Foundation, whoever Mother Jones' parent entity is. You know, he didn't hide anything. And yet CCA hired him at $9 an hour, right? So you know, I think that it is exacerbated. To the question of whether or not you can have a humane prison, I don't think that we should use... There's this term in the academy now, carceral humanism, right? Or...
Amanda: Sounds like a contradiction to me.
Bob: Right, and I think it is used to sort of show—I like the term "boutique prison," right? That we have used—we have normalized incarceration so that we use it in every facet. And that instead of the solution of decarcerating, of reducing prison populations, we've moved towards this idea that we can build a prison for everyone. Right? We can build a gender-responsive prison. We can build a trans detention center. We can build prisons for drug rehabilitation, and prisons for alcoholics, and prison for people with mental illness. And I think that that's exactly the wrong approach, right? That we should be working to figure out how to we keep all kinds of people out of prison, right? But particularly people who are in vulnerable situations. And I think that's really when you look at the history of the expansion of the Texas prison system over the last couple decades, you see that logic, right? That we're gonna build state jails because we don't want to send, you know, drug offenders to hardcore prisons. So we created a whole system of prisons for drug offenders and people convicted of burglary that was often addiction-driven. And then we cut the treatment aspect out of that system. So now we just have this warehousing system for people convicted of low-level offenses, with very high recidivism rates because they don't actually get any treatment there. So you know, I would really be critical of this idea that we should be building prisons to solve problems. That said, I certainly think that there are other countries that have radically different approaches to criminal justice—the Scandinavian countries are often looked at—where prisons are not nearly as dehumanizing of institutions, right? That they are places where people are removed from society, but they are not places that have the level of, you know, punishment and incagement, right, that our society does.
Amanda: Yeah, I think that would require a deep look and reflection on the purposes of our system. So I wanted to switch gears to 'Orange is the New Black'. This is a spoiler alert if people haven't seen the fourth season. But the fourth season takes place in a private prison, and it takes a much darker turn from prior seasons. So how have you seen it, and how accurately do you think it portrayed the issues specific to the private prison industry that we've talked about?
Bob: I've seen the third season. One of the prisons gets privatized, and I've seen a couple of episodes of the fourth season. And we had actually spoken with some of the writers from 'Orange is the New Black' about what some of the consequences are of privatization. I think it's certainly still a fantasy show, right? It is fiction. It is not reality. But I think that some of the broad issues that it draws on are very real, right? The firing of long-time employees because they're too expensive. De-professionalization of people working in prisons is very real in privately-operated facilities. It's one of the reasons why you see correctional officer unions to vehemently opposed to privatization. There really is a de-professionalization, and that is very much the case when you have people who are working at fast food wages, right? When you have people that are working at $9 an hour in a prison facility, you're not gonna have a professional environment. You're not gonna have dedication. You're not gonna be able to keep people for very long if they can go down the road and work at a public prison for twice as much. So I think that there are definitely aspects—there have been... There haven't been a lot of studies comparing violence, but some of the few that have existed over the years have shown higher rates of violence in the privately-operated facilities, which has everything to do with correctional officer to incarcerated person ratios and experience of people working in the facility. So yeah, I mean I think that many of the issues that they bring up are very real—certainly not all of them, but umm... And I think that—you know, we were talking before, we turned on the recorder about—I think that this really represents a cultural moment, right? Where incarceration and prisons—which are important institutions in our society, but are often not dealt with as major institutions—are now being, you know, focused on in comedies and in... You know, in popular culture and in television. And I think that that level of scrutiny, particularly scrutiny that shows incarcerated people not as completely dehumanized, even if there are plenty of critiques of the show that I understand. But I think that showing incarcerated people as having some agency and having backstories is a good thing.
Amanda: Yeah. How does this moment turn into action? So you know, we have popular culture addressing prisons and mass incarceration, and that Mother Jones article was huge, and we also see, you know, other major media organizations reporting regularly on these issues. How does it go from attention to action?
Bob: Yeah, I mean I think it is amazing how far we've traveled in terms of attention, right? When I started doing this in 2002, 2003, there was very little attention. The term "mass incarceration" was something that people on the fringe said, right? And now it is a buzzword that is used from everybody from President Obama to Newt Gingrich, to... You know, it is a... There is a consensus that building prisons is not the answer. But I think—And so I think that we are at a moment where criminal justice reform is coming. Right? And I think that the war is here. And the question is, how far does that criminal justice reform go? How responsive is it to the communities that are most impacted by incarceration and also crime and insecurity, which is something that I think is often not talked about, right? That people who go to prison have also been the victims of violent crime themselves.
Amanda: Right, we think of perpetrator and victim as to separate entities, but one person can easily have both.
Bob: Yeah, and are often that, you know? So you know, I think that... I think we're at a moment where we should be asking for a lot. And I remember Scott from Grits for Breakfast saying—ten years ago, I think he was... I don't know if it was that long. It was a long time ago. The big idea in the Texas Monthly that he was quoted was that we should radically reduce our prison population in Texas. You know, we should be looking at half, maybe 80% fewer people in prison in Texas. And that that should be our goal. And I think now more than ever, we should be saying that. Right? That we should be radically reducing our reliance on incarceration. And I think that part of that is that we have to broaden the number of people who are invested in that reform. And I think that's both across the political spectrum and I think that there's been very good work that's been done on that, but I think it's also that we have to have a base of people who are impacted by those things, that are impacted by these policies that are able to push for those reforms, and to push for reforms that are responsive to the communities that have been most impacted by this. There's been a lot of conversation about reparations, right? About as we reform our drug laws, what do we do to the communities and the people who have been devastated by these policies over the years? Who have lost their lives in some cases and have lost their livelihoods in many cases. And you know, so I think that this idea of justice reinvestment, right, this idea that we should be investing some of that money that we are saving from closing these prisons—and we need to close a lot of prisons—but investing that in communities so that there can be safe and secure communities, I think is a big one. And I really believe—and I think organizationally we are increasingly committed to this—that people who have been impacted by this have to be at the table and have to be leading these discussions. And I think we're seeing a real groundswell of that around the country with, you know, JustLeadership and a lot of these organizations putting formally incarcerated people in the front. And also here in Texas we're, you know, helping build this project Texas Advocates for Justice to try to push for formally incarcerated people helping to not just be the problem, right, but to be the solution.
Amanda: Yeah. It seems like such a big ask. Like, you know, the system did this to you, but now help dismantle it. But I agree that it's absolutely necessary. So just to finish up, I wanted to ask, Grassroots Leadership has been incredibly active and productive over the past year. And certainly before that, but it's just been on my radar for the past year since I returned to Texas. From grassroots organizing around Ban the Box, to your involvement and litigation around family immigration facilities, to your policy research, you're active on many fronts while employing different advocacy strategies. What you do is hard work. How do you not burn out, and how do you recover from burnout?
Bob: [inhales deeply] That's also a good question. Um...
Bob: I mean I think... You know, I feel enormously privileged to be able to do this work, right? And so I think the fact that I get to get up every day and go to work with great people who are committed to justice, even when that is hard, I think is a privilege. I also think that we have to both be grounded in our principles and know what we're fighting for, and win along the way. I don't think that people stay in social movements, I don't think that people stay with—I don't think people will stay with it with an idea that is 50 years down the road, but we can't see progress along the way. But I think it's a really exciting time. You know? I think that there is so much exciting things happening from, you know, the Ban the Box work that the Second Chance Democrats and other folks here in Austin put forward to the possibility that here in Texas, and here in Travis County even, right, that we could push to dramatically reduce our reliance on incarceration and criminalization. So I think that being at that exciting moment is something that we can get up every day and see that small victories along the way are possible, and they shouldn't have to be possible five years from now, I think they're possible five months from now, so...
Amanda: Well great, thank you so much for chatting with me this afternoon.
Bob: Yeah, thanks so much for having me.
Amanda: My pleasure.