On the day the U.S. Senate passed the First Step Act, the much-heralded federal criminal justice reform bill just signed into law, 63-year-old Bill Anderson stood before a joint subcommittee of the Tennessee General Assembly. With his wife Teresa, Anderson had traveled from Cleveland, Tennessee, far from Washington, D.C., and a nearly three-hour drive from downtown Nashville.
“We’re here because of the death of our son,” Anderson began. “On December 6, 2018, he was found hanging in his cell in Trousdale Turner.” The facility is the largest private prison in Tennessee and one of the most dangerous, beset by staff shortages, gang activity and inadequate medical care. News reports, whistleblowers, and families like the Andersons have long raised alarm about Trousdale, where numerous people have died since it opened in 2016.
The hearing was set to follow up on a damning audit in 2017. Run by CoreCivic, the Nashville-based company formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America, Trousdale opened under a $276-million contract, promising programs aimed at rehabilitation, from job training to drug counseling. Instead it quickly came to embody the neglect and impunity that has made private prison companies notorious nationwide.
Although the state relies on CoreCivic to house a third of its incarcerated population, the company’s recent track record has prompted local lawmakers to threaten its operations in Tennessee. For a fleeting moment toward the end of the Obama administration, the company appeared to be on the brink of losing business at the federal level as well. But buoyed by Donald Trump’s election — and after rebranding itself as a “government solutions company” — CoreCivic continues to do steady business. A “zero tolerance” immigration policy has fueled demand for immigration detention centers, where miserable conditions have also proven deadly. Like Ross Anderson, who would have turned 35 this week, immigrants held at its facilities have died by suicide after their mental illness went untreated.
In a checkered shirt and with a full beard, Bill Anderson maintained his composure as he spoke of his son. But his grief was raw. His son’s suicide occurred exactly three years after a “psychotic breakdown,” when he fatally shot his girlfriend and her 5-year-old child. Diagnosed as schizophrenic, he was driven by delusions and did not comprehend his own actions, his father explained. Prosecutors wanted the death penalty but ultimately offered a plea deal, according to the local press, citing a “significant chance that he would have been found not guilty by reason of insanity.” Despite a recommendation that Anderson’s son be committed to a mental institution, he was instead sent to Trousdale. After his death, the family was notified by a prison chaplain but never heard from anyone else. “We’re tormented knowing he died alone in a place where no one loved him, and he was just a number,” Anderson said, his voice breaking.
Anderson was still speaking when Republican Sen. Mike Bell, acting as committee chair, interrupted. “Your three minutes are up,” he said. As he prepared to move on, Teresa Anderson, who had wept quietly into a tissue as her husband spoke, held up her son’s obituary from the Cleveland Daily Banner. “We got our information from the newspaper and from no one else,” she said. Repeated phone calls had never been returned. “We just want answers,” her husband said. “And I don’t think that’s unreasonable at all.”
Anderson was only the second witness to speak at the hearing that morning. But his testimony proved too much for Democratic Rep. Bo Mitchell, who erupted in frustration. It was just last year that the committee had heard similarly disturbing accounts about CoreCivic’s facilities. “I’m sick of hearing citizens of this state come in here with these stories. And then we tell ’em, Hey, your son’s life is worth three minutes,” he said. The state of Tennessee pays CoreCivic hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts, then stands by as people die in its prisons, imposing fines that barely make a dent in its bottom line.
“We do nothing, again and again and again,” Mitchell fumed. No one from the company had even bothered to show up to the hearing.
As the hearing in Nashville was underway Tuesday morning, lawmakers in Washington, D.C. were gearing up for a different fight. After months of wrangling and mixed signals from the president, the First Step Act was tantalizingly close to becoming law. A series of “poison pill” amendments threatened to sink the landmark legislation at the eleventh hour, with Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton raising the specter of violent criminals unleashed upon society. But the scaremongering proved unconvincing. By 9 p.m. Tuesday, the amendments had been overwhelmingly defeated. On Friday, Trump signed the bill into law.
In a political climate that feels endlessly dark and divisive, the successful passage of bipartisan criminal justice reform feels to many like an unmitigated good, if not miraculous. Since it was first passed by the House in May, the First Step Act won over skeptics from across the political spectrum — and for some good reasons. Among its bright spots are improvements on the conditions of confinement, particularly for women, as well as a number of hard-fought sentencing reforms. Federal judges will have more discretion going forward in some nonviolent drug cases. And for thousands of people in federal prison — including those denied clemency by the Obama administration — the law offers a potential path to early release.
But while it has been hailed as the most significant criminal justice reform measure in a generation, most agree that the First Step Act has limited reach. Lobbying by law enforcement reduced even further the already limited pool of individuals eligible for its central provisions; a list of revisions released by the Judiciary Committee last week included 18 bullet points of “disqualifying offenses,” from arson to assault to “felonies committed while in a dangerous street gang.” Many have also decried the categorical exclusion of immigrants who represent more than half of all federal prosecutions. Within a federal prison population that represents less than 15 percent of those behind bars in this country, the First Step Act will directly assist a relative handful of carefully vetted individuals — a fraction within a fraction of the country’s 2.1 million incarcerated people.
At the same time, critics of the First Step Act worry that it could be far-reaching in other ways. Some warn of unintended consequences down the line. Implementing the First Step Act will rely on infrastructure that has yet to be built — and which could give opportunities for companies like CoreCivic to expand their business. Indeed, along with its main competitor, GEO Group, CoreCivic enthusiastically backed the First Step Act. Both corporations have spent years repositioning themselves from private prison firms to providers of re-entry services — the very kinds of “evidence-based” tools that the legislation repeatedly invokes.
For its part, CoreCivic insists that prison reform like the First Step Act is central to its values. After all, the law’s stated goal is “to provide for programs to help reduce the risk that prisoners will recidivate upon release from prison” — a mission it claims to share. In a holiday greeting published on the company’s website this week, CEO Damon Hininger boasted about the ways that CoreCivic spent the year “building a company culture focused on reentry.” There was the release of CoreCivic’s “first-ever Reentry Report,” for example, as well as an “inaugural Reentry Conference,” where the company shared ideas and best practices with national re-entry experts. “As I visited facilities in 2018,” Hininger wrote, “I could see a growing understanding that each of us is a reentry professional and that we all have a hand in helping the individuals in our care put their lives back on track.”
Hininger’s letter was accompanied by a photo of smiling executives holding shovels adorned with red, white, and blue ribbons. Two days later, as the First Step Act made its way to the Oval Office, Hininger released a congratulatory statement. “We’ve never been better positioned to be part of the solution to one of the most costly, complex and longstanding challenges our country faces,” he wrote, adding, “We couldn’t be more excited about the work ahead and the difference we feel we can make for the American people.”
It is hard to say specifically how much CoreCivic stands to gain from the First Step Act. Its design and implementation will be largely up to the U.S. attorney general, who within 180 days of the enactment of the law “shall develop and release a risk assessment system” to determine who should be eligible to enter programs to facilitate re-entry. This part of the law has sparked particular alarm, since evidence shows that the algorithms used to calculate risk amount to little more than racial profiling.
The attorney general is also responsible for guiding the implementation of the programs, “developing policies for the warden of each prison of the Bureau of Prisons to enter into partnerships, subject to the availability of appropriations.” In a December 17 advocacy letter, the American Civil Liberties Union and Leadership Conference flagged this provision as one cause for concern, specifically the clause that allows for partnerships with “private entities.” This “could result in the further privatization of what should be public functions and would allow private entities to unduly profit from incarceration,” it warned.
For CoreCivic, a company synonymous with prison profiteering, this is precisely the point. The Tampa Bay Times recently reported that the bill “authorizes a $375 million expansion of post-prison services for inmates transitioning back into society” — the very products CoreCivic has spent years developing.
“These companies are very savvy,” says Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center and a leading expert on the private prison industry. Based in Nashville, Friedmann was himself once incarcerated at a CoreCivic prison; in the years since his release, he has dedicated himself to investigating the company and others like it. He was also among those who testified at before Tennessee lawmakers earlier this week, providing context for the death of Ross Anderson. For all the drama and disturbing testimony, there was little that surprised him, Friedmann said. CoreCivic has spent decades embroiled in scandal, without paying any real consequences. As far as its potential profiting from the First Step Act, it is “business as usual.”
Friedmann traces CoreCivic’s involvement in re-entry to 2010 and 2011, when the national prison population began to level off. Private prison companies “diversified to other things,” entering the market for electronic tracking and re-entry facilities. As prison reform offering alternatives to incarceration went mainstream, a vast realm of “rehabilitative” services proved lucrative. A 2014 report co-authored by American Friends Service Committee, Grassroots Leadership, and the Southern Center for Human Rights traced the contours of the burgeoning “treatment industry complex,” showing the myriad ways in which prison profiteers had expanded their services to include “alternative” programs and technologies like GPS ankle bracelets for electronic monitoring.
As it continued to roll out new products to meet the demand for supervised re-entry, CoreCivic did what the industry has always done: pushed for more laws that would be good for business. In 2017, CoreCivic announced a stepped-up lobbying campaign to reduce recidivism, along with support for political candidates who support reform efforts. “A lot of folks would assume that we have a view that the status quo is fine, and that’s just not our view,” one executive told reporters. “We want to be a part of the solution.”
The 2014 report on the “treatment industrial complex” issued a prescient warning against expanding the kind of alternatives to incarceration enshrined in the First Step Act. Community confinement may be preferable to a prison cell, but the increased use of electronic monitoring can risk putting “more people on stricter forms of supervision than is necessary, for longer than is warranted.” The report also urged readers to be wary of allowing companies like CoreCivic to influence legislation. “The role of for-profit prison corporations in these important policy discussions could mean the difference between reforms that truly address human needs and a destructive ‘widening of the net’ that only serves to increase the level of control and surveillance at the expense of public safety.”
Friedmann says that in the grand scheme of things — and relative to the billions such companies make every year — the financial rewards offered by the First Step Act are not likely to be huge. “What it does is it perpetuates the industry,” he said. “It gives them another inroad to do what they do, which is to profit off incarceration.”
For some, this fulfills fears that have been a long time coming. In 2017, the Federal Bureau of Prisons began quietly defunding halfway houses across the country. Some 16 facilities lost their contracts; while the Trump administration claimed the facilities were “underutilized,” observers saw something more strategic underway. “While it is too early to say what that portends,” Prison Legal News reported earlier this year, “some critics believe the BOP is realigning its residential reentry center portfolio to make room for halfway houses operated by private prison firms that made substantial donations to President Trump’s election campaign or inauguration fund.”
DeAnna Hoskins, an outspoken critic of the First Step Act and executive director of JustLeadershipUSA, was working at the Department of Justice when the halfway house contracts were ended. Formerly incarcerated in Ohio, Hoskins had been through the reentry process herself. She remembers the concern expressed by members of Congress whose constituents said the funding was still urgently needed. “The Bureau of Prisons contracts out 100 percent of their re-entry center beds,” Hoskins explains. By slashing the existing halfway houses, then passing laws that rely on transitional housing, “now you just opened up the door for GEO Group and CoreCivic to come in.”
Like many racial justice activists, Hoskins worries that the First Step Act risks replacing “one form of incarceration with another” by placing more and more people on electronic monitoring. The contracts for such technology can be particularly exploitative since they can rely upon the subjects of such monitoring — disproportionately poor people and communities of color — to pay for the devices themselves. Once private firms have secured contracts to provide such tools, she warns, there is no incentive to reduce their use. “What is the benefit for GEO Group or CoreCivic to make sure people are successfully weaned off of home incarceration?”
Among progressive organizers who fought to pass the First Step Act, few if any would welcome the prospect of CoreCivic cashing in on the legislation. “We absolutely are not willing to have this be a moneymaking endeavor where people are profiting off of somebody else’s struggle,” says Erin Haney, policy director of advocacy group #Cut50, one of the leading champions of the law. Ensuring that the law is implemented responsibly has been a central concern, Haney says — and indeed, many groups on the left only endorsed the bill after language was added to address the need for oversight and accountability, particularly over the risk-assessment tools.
Haney points to one important safeguard, courtesy of an amendment by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee — an Independent Review Committee made up of six experts, who will monitor the rollout of the First Step Act. “The attorney general is required to report how this is going,” Haney says. She stresses that, as with the public advocacy for the legislation, which put formerly incarcerated people front and center, those with lived experience will play a crucial role. After all, they know better than anyone what works and what doesn’t when attempting to rejoin the outside world after prison.
Still, the language of the law offers few guarantees. Vivian Nixon, executive director of College and Community Fellowship, worries that the First Step Act is full of holes. “On the surface, a lot of this stuff looks good,” she said. But digging deeper into the text, she sees ambiguities and red flags. “Where is the money gonna go?” she asks. “And what are the long-term implications for the communities that are already impacted in a disparate way by our justice system?”
Like Hoskins, Nixon also spent time behind bars. She says she has a lot of respect for those who fought to pass the First Step Act. But she also knows how ruthless the criminal justice system can be when it stands to benefit off the backs of incarcerated people. When she was in prison in New York state, she said, one of the available jobs was working for Prison Industries to weld together desks — “those old, gray metal desks you used to see in government buildings,” she says. “And you had to sign a waiver that if you got hurt, if you chopped off your finger, if you burned a hole in your eye, no matter what happened to you, you could not recoup any rewards from the state.”
Indeed, one provision of the First Step Act that has received little scrutiny calls for “expanding inmate employment through Federal Prison Industries,” while auditing its “effectiveness in reducing recidivism.” What this will mean in practical terms is, like many things, hard to say for sure.
Before the hearing in Nashville concluded on Tuesday, lawmakers had heard more disturbing testimony about CoreCivic facilities in Tennessee. A woman talked about her son, an Army veteran with PTSD and bipolar disorder who is not eligible for any of the programs offered at Trousdale and has had problems receiving basic medical care. “They don’t care about rehabilitation,” she said.
Another witness spoke on behalf of a friend incarcerated at a different CoreCivic prison, where a regimen of constant lockdowns means that he is not allowed outside his cell for a week or two at a time. In a diary entry written over the summer, his friend described how the water and electricity were both shut down, leading to an oppressive combination of heat and the foul stench of his overflowing toilet, which was like an “open sewer.”
Finally, a man named Edwin Steakley approached the mic and said he had been released from Trousdale earlier this year. Wearing a yarmulke and an anguished expression, he said he had been violently targeted because he is Jewish, twice gang raped and forced to perform oral sex. When he tried to tell the proper authorities, no one would listen, he said. He could not even call the federal hotline devised by another major federal reform, the Prison Rape Elimination Act.
There was no record of the incident in the audit before the lawmakers. Tennessee Department of Correction Commissioner Tony Parker vowed to look into it. But he defended CoreCivic throughout the hearing. The company remains a valuable partner, he said. “They work well with us to try to correct these issues.”
Parker also pointed out that a number of the problems faced at Trousdale exist at state facilities too. Indeed, his predecessor was often under fire for prison conditions in Tennessee. Not long after Trousdale opened, that commissioner left to work for GEO Group.