Report Highlights Houston's Pioneering Role in America's Mass Incarceration

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It's one of America's worst-kept secrets. In a nation that purports to be the freest in the world -- save for when it comes to, say, gay marriage or drug usage -- the United States also boasts far and away the highest incarceration of not simply any developed nation, but of any country in the entire world. The nation that boasts millions who can take Ted Nugent seriously when he shrieks that "Freedom Isn't Free!" is the same that has the most inmates, both empirically and per capita. (The ironies aren't worth detailing, and would likely be lost.)

Like FISA kangaroo courts and NSA overreach before it, America's foray into mass incarceration is a relatively recent turn. And a new report hopes to shine a bit of light on the prison archipelago that spans the nation -- and that got its start in Houston, a city named for, of all things, a man who chased freedom to the point of revolution and beyond.

Grassroots Leadership, which released the study Thursday, bills itself as "a multiracial team of organizers who help Southern and Southwest community, labor, faith, and campus organizations think critically, work strategically and take direct action to end social and economic oppression, gain power, and achieve justice and equity." Those on the conference call preceding the report's release reflected the forces pushing the study, with representatives from Human Rights Defense Center, NAACP, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees lending their support to the report's findings.

While many are aware of America's continual penchant for mass incarceration, few are aware of the parallel rise in private imprisonment. Fewer yet are aware that the Corrections Corporation of America, the oldest and largest for-profit prison system in the States, set its first roots in Houston in 1983.

As the study -- entitled "The Dirty Thirty: Nothing to Celebrate About 30 Years of Corrections Corporation of America" -- notes:

Despite little experience or references, in November of 1983 the company landed its first contract to operate an immigrant detention center in Houston under contract with the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS).

According to a video interview on CCA's Web site, a chuckling [T. Don] Hutto describes hurriedly locating, leasing, and providing staffing for the first facility which was the converted Olympic Motel in Houston. He describes hiring the former hotel owner's family as staff members and fingerprinting the undocumented prisoners himself. From these auspicious beginnings rose the multi-billion dollar private prison industry.

Since CCA, now based out of Nashville, first settled into Houston in 1983, the rate of those incarcerated has risen 500 percent. Moreover, those held in immigration detention -- an issue that, according to a recent poll, trumps all others for people in Texas -- has jumped from merely 131 in 1983 to 32,000 in 2013. Profits at CCA, which operates in 19 states and the District of Columbia, now run more than $1.7 billion annually. "CCA's priorities as a for-profit company are to generate profits -- that's why they exist," Alex Friedmann, associate director of the HRDC and president of the Private Corrections Institute, told Hair Balls. "Most recently, CCA's efforts have focused on things such as reducing tax liabilities, while deaths still occur, [while] rape and sexual abuse by staff continue to occur, while fraudulent behaviors still continue to occur.

'I haven't really seen any efforts by the company to address abuses and misconduct, but rather to focus on making more money and reducing its tax liability."

In addition to adding his research to the study, Friedmann takes an especial interest in CCA's behaviors -- he was incarcerated for six years in CCA's system, and, as he said, can personally attest to all of the findings and claims levied against CCA's practices. "[CCA] cuts corners, cuts costs," he said. "And in a correctional context, this results in serious consequences: deaths, escapes, riots."

As it is, the report coincides with CCA's 30th anniversary, and seeks to highlight not simply the physical and fiscal realities of CCA's exponential expanse, but also to highlight 30 "incidents" that have taken place under the corporation's watch. Running from instances as anodyne as a lack of toilets to staff members selling drugs to prisoners, necessitating federal intervention, the report also highlights instances of CCA employees defecating and urinating in prisoners' food and rampant sexual abuse.

One highlighted "incident" took place at T. Don Hutto prison in Taylor, Texas, which CCA constructed for male prisoners from Oregon and Texas in 1997. In 2006, the facility transitioned into a detention facility, with the majority of the detained families and asylum-seekers from Iraq, Africa and Central America. Sexual assault aside, a later settlement "outlined massive compliance failures, ranging from inadequate education, medical care, and nutrition, to dangerous living quarters for toddlers and infants, to lack of attorney-client confidentiality."

"The profit motive is so strong it prevents [CCA] from making any changes," Josh Miller, a labor economist with AFSCME, said. "We see the same mistakes repeated over and over again, becoming systemic, and what they do rather than fix the mistakes is to ignore them and instead fix PR."

The report emphasizes Miller's point, with perhaps the most egregious and heinous "incident" cited in the report coming just last year:

In 2012, while serving a one-year sentence at [CCA-run Dawson State Jail in Dallas, Autumn] Miller gave birth to a premature infant girl into a toilet with no medical personnel present. Three weeks prior to giving birth, Miller claims her request for a pregnancy test and Pap smear were ignored. The infant lived only 4 days.

Thankfully, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice informed CCA just last week that its contract at Dawson State Jail would not be renewed. However, until more states and locations begin following suit, CCA, as outlined in both the report and subsequent interviews, seems to see no reason why it should change its business practices. And, as such, not only will America continue to be one of the least free nations in the world, but those incarcerated will continue to see their lives, their families and their futures stunted by an industry whose sole profits come from mass incarceration.

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