For those hoping to reform the United States’ broken criminal justice system, the future had appeared to be bright. Last August, the Justice Department announced that it would phase out its use of privately operated, for-profit prisons for some federal prisoners. For decades, the private prison industry has helped enable the country’s high incarceration rates by owning and operating prisons, jails and immigration detention centers, all while making healthy profits. The announcement sent the stocks of private prison companies tumbling.
Then, President Trump picked them up. His “law and order” rhetoric and nomination of hardliner Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to be his attorney general could mean more people in prison and jail, which would mean more profit for businesses that operate such facilities. The day after Election Day, the stock of the country’s largest private prison company, CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America, increased in value more than any other on the New York Stock Exchange. Now, investors see a bright future, and those looking to reform criminal justice at the federal level see darkness.
But some light is shining as cities and states continue to adopt reforms to lower prison populations, reducing the need for private prisons. And at midnight Jan. 31, a little more light will shine through in the District when the District’s 20-year contract with CoreCivic to operate one of the city’s jails will expire. Come Wednesday, the Central Treatment Facility, which houses about 600 minimum- and medium-security prisoners, female offenders and juveniles being adjudicated as adults, will return to public control.
The contract’s expiration is undoubtedly a cause for celebration. While the District’s record of criminal justice is troubling, CoreCivic’s is worse. The corporation’s track record nationwide is littered with violence, sexual assault, deadly riots and medical negligence. In its announcement, the Justice Department concluded that its privately operated prisons, some of them operated by CoreCivic, do not provide the same level of services, programs and resources as their public prisons and do not save substantially on costs.
CoreCivic’s performance in the District has been no exception. In 2004, Jonathan Magbie, a quadriplegic sentenced to 10 days for a low-level marijuana offense, died at the Correctional Treatment Facility because of inadequate medical care. In 2015, a correctional officer employed by the company was charged with bribery for smuggling contraband, including synthetic marijuana, into the facility. A Washington Lawyers’ Committee report from the same year found that juveniles held there had “needs far greater than the services currently provided,” and that the company’s use of solitary confinement was “excessive.” Some juveniles reported being held in solitary — with only one hour of recreation a day — for two months. The report also found that CoreCivic was charging the city 31 percent more than the national average for corrections management.
But there’s another reason the end of the contract is cause for celebration. When D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced in March that the city would resume operation of the Correctional Treatment Facility, a group of area criminal-justice reformers counted it as a victory. The ReThink Justice-DC coalition, of which I am a member, formed three years ago to advocate for the end of CoreCivic’s contract and to stop the city from signing contracts with other private corrections corporations.
The coalition of citizens, criminal-justice-reform organizations and D.C. corrections stakeholders had won before — prior to my joining — when they successfully stopped the city in 2015 from signing a contract with the for-profit prison health care company Corizon. The contract would have allowed Corizon to manage care at the Correctional Treatment Facility and the Correctional Detention Facility, known as the “D.C. jail.” Along with others, including the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the coalition pressed the D.C. Council to reject Corizon’s bid by pointing to the company’s abysmal track record — Corizon was sued at least 1,364 times between 2009 and 2014. The council voted 6-5 to reject the bid. Instead, the contract with the current provider, the nonprofit Unity Health Care, was extended.
The coalition’s success brings to mind the old adage “Think globally, act locally.” We cannot forget that the United States is the global leader in incarceration. Despite what Trump says or enacts, we must continue to keep our eyes on what’s in front of us. Reform must continue locally, and it can — local jurisdictions have a say in what happens in their criminal justice systems. This will be all the more important to remember as the District considers building a new jail.
Despite the District’s unique and unfortunate relationship with the federal government, we still control some parts of our criminal-justice system. The end of CoreCivic’s contract is an opportunity to assume even more control. We must demand that our leaders improve conditions inside the system, including at the Central Treatment Facility and especially at the D.C. jail, and put the lives of human beings above private profit.
D.C. resident Jeremy Mohler writes for In the Public Interest, a national research and policy nonprofit advocating for shared prosperity in the provision of public goods and services.