In a time where so many of us feel lost in this increasingly charged political environment, and we are all looking for ways to plug in, opposing the prison industrial complex is an easy target. Prison reform is an issue we all have stake in. In 2016, private prisons were holding almost 75% of federal immigration detainees. Prisons are incubators for physical and sexual violence, transphobic and ableist discrimination. Our prisons hold massive amounts of Black folks, who are nearly six times as likely to be arrested than whites. Systematic and racially biased policing and imprisonment of people hurt families, destroys communities, and undermines democracy and basic freedoms. The privatization and expansion of the prison industrial complex is a disgusting manifestation of the increasingly capitalist and inhumane world that is evolving around us.
Last August, the United States Department of Justice formally issued a directive intending to terminate all contracts with the private prison industry. The Department, led by Deputy Attorney General, Sally Yates, cited issues with security and safety, lack of cost efficiency, and lack of offered services as just some of the reasons that the DOJ will be allowing their contracts to expire with private prisons.
In 2015, Columbia University groundbreakingly announced their divestment from private prisons, selling off their shares in corporations that participate in the privatization of prisons, including CoreCivic (formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America). After students highlighted that these investments were supporting an unjust violent system built on discrimination, the school formally divested. Columbia has been joined by organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Bill of Rights Defense Committee, and the University of California’s 10 campuses in its condemnation of private prisons.
CoreCivic is a multi-million dollar company whose job is to build and maintain privately owned prisons, as well as manage other public institutions. These private prisons are reinforced and bolstered by other privatized services, such as the food giant Aramark, which has a long history of serving contaminated food (re: maggots) and sexual misconduct. CoreCivic has also has a particularly sticky reputation in contributing to mass deportations and drug offenses.
In its 2014 annual report, CoreCivic (then known as the Corrections Corporation of America) wrote:
“The demand for facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities…For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the numbers of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.”
This system of mass incarceration has been a particular pandemic for the Black community. The lack of parity in our legal system is explicit. An NAACP criminal justice report found that, “Though African-Americans use drugs at similar rates than Caucasian-Americans, African-Americans comprise 35% of those arrested, 55% of those convicted and 74% of those imprisoned for drug possession.” Despite having 5% of the world’s population, the United States has 25% of the world’s prison population. These rates are even more dire for Black men in America, 4,848 per 100,000 of which are in jail. At the height of apartheid in South Africa, a country boycotted by the rest of the world for its treatment of Black people, the incarceration rate for Black men was 368 per 100,000.
Mass deportations are also greatly aided by the private prison apparatus. Private prisons own nine of 10 of the largest ICE detention centers, which have a history of abuse of detainees. At an immigration prison owned and operated by CoreCivic in Hutto, Texas, a guard sexually abused at least 8 female detainees while they were detained by ICE. At the Metro Detention Facility here in Nashville, a prison owned and operated by CoreCivic, a woman named Estelle Richardson died after being placed in solitary confinement.
An autopsy report revealed that Richardson sustained injuries she could not have possibly inflicted on herself, including four broken ribs, a cracked skull, and internal organ injuries, consistent with a “deceleration injury,” meaning that her head and body must have been slammed on a hard surface. Dr. Bruce Levy, Tennessee’s chief medical examiner, described her injuries as a homicide due to “blunt force trauma to the head.” Reports found that blood had been oozing from Richardson’s head for weeks before her death. One instance even found that a guard told Richardson to “get her nasty ass up and clean her room” as blood oozed from her head the day before she died.
As part of the American Legislative Exchange Council, pro-privatization conglomerate, CoreCivic pushed for legislation that both demanded the creation of more private prisons, and strengthened sentencing to funnel more people into these institutions (this also aligned them with the privatization of public education, defunding of healthcare services and unions, and voter disenfranchisement legislature, among other things). Millions of dollars are spent by the CCA each year to lobby states, federal departments, and Congress to pass bills that financially benefit themselves.
It is for that reason that private prisons have lobbied for harsher drug laws and immigration policies. Such policies ensure that more people are in jail and for longer amounts of times, thereby ensuring that they make more money. CoreCivic, GEO, and their associates have funneled more than $10 million to political candidates since 1989, and have spent $25 million on lobbying efforts.
Particularly noteworthy is that CoreCivic, the largest private prison in the world, is based in Nashville and was created after being provided initial funds by Vanderbilt University. Vanderbilt University, whose mission is to serve “the community and society at large,” and values “equality,” and “compassion,” was literally an initial investor in CoreCivic (which was then known as the Corrections Corporations of America). Thomas Beasley, co-founder of CoreCivic, is a “Distinguished Alumnus” of Vanderbilt, and also has a law school scholarship he created and named after himself. In addition, four Vice Presidents of CoreCivic are Vanderbilt alumni. One of those alumni is Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, who disappointingly voted to confirm Betsy Devos recently.
Vanderbilt’s unique history with the private prison industry puts us in a powerful and important position. Our prisons, policing, and immigration systems are all in dire need of serious, deep, and intentional reform. By opposing and taking action against the private prison industry, we can begin to dismantle one of the most dangerous manifestations of systemic hate and oppression. These systems bring deep, and extensive harm to our most vulnerable, historically marginalized communities. In a time when so many of us are bombarded with so many injustices, it can be difficult to discern where to begin. The private prison industry is symbolic of the interconnected systems of power that are used to control and oppress populations.
It is imperative that our University not support any institution that cause such horrors as does CoreCivic (CCA, we know it’s you, stop hiding behind that shiny new rebranding!) As students, staff, and faculty, we need to work together to hold Vanderbilt accountable to its own missions and values. We need formal policy that bars Vanderbilt from investing in private prison companies (including CoreCivic, G4S, and GEO), and public reassurance that if any money was to be found being invested in private prisons, that Vanderbilt divests stocks and securities from the company.
Prison divestment is especially important in this time as it symbolizes solidarity with some of our most marginalized and oppressed communities in America. The prison industrial complex is the crux of a broken system built upon discrimination and hate.Vanderbilt, unfortunately, has helped give birth to one of the most gruesome manifestations of this system. We have historically not only been complicit, but actively supportive of the private prison industry. It is time we, as an institution, take a firm and public stance against private and for-profit prisons. Just as our peer institutions at Columbia University and the University of California’s 10 campuses have formally divested, Vanderbilt too must follow suit. We, like never before, are being given opportunities to take proactive, transformative action around issues that affect our own students, staff, and faculty, as well as the state and country at large. We must leverage our position as a role model not only for educational institutions but also for the Nashville and Tennessee communities to stand in real solidarity, enact real change, and live up to our values as an institution.
Shawn Reilly is a senior in the Peabody College. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.