Guest Post by Andrew Krinks
In an editorial-as-advertisement published on May 17 in the Tennessean, Blair Leibach, warden at the CCA-managed Metro-Davidson County Detention Facility, boasted what he understands to be the benefits of correctional facilities operated by the Corrections Corporations of America (CCA). In what follows, I offer a brief response to Leibach’s primary points. My argument, in short, is “No.”
To start, Leibach is writing, as would be expected, from a “crime deserves punishment” logic, which presupposes two things: first, that every person who enters a jail or prison is, in fact, guilty of an act that disrupts or harms the life of another person or a community; and second, that such acts rightly warrant that the alleged “offender” be separated from their community and subjected to various forms of violence. It is simply not true, however, in a country that incarcerates more people than any other nation on the planet, that every person who currently sits in jail or prison has, in fact, committed an act that harmed another person or a community. Thanks to mandatory minimum sentencing and the hyper-criminalization of drug use and trade, thousands and thousands of people, largely from low-income communities and communities of color, sit behind bars for years or even decades for acts that, in many instances, harmed no one. This is not to say that there aren’t people behind bars who have harmed others; the point is that a significant number of people in our correctional facilities are being made to suffer a violence that far outweighs whatever violence they may—or may not!—have committed.
Beyond this, it has been thoroughly demonstrated that that which counts as “crime” under our legal system is applied differently and disproportionately across different communities. As Kahlil Muhammad, for example, shows, non-white and poor persons have historically been associated with an inherent criminality that must be controlled through the vigilant policing and/or removal of such persons from our communities—an attribution that has not historically been applied in the same way to white persons who disrupt or harm the life of communities.
As a case in point, with the legal end of slavery, black persons were popularly attributed with an inherent disposition toward criminal acts, which, in turn, justified the utilization of black codes, convict leasing, and the enforcement of vagrancy laws to control populations deemed innately dangerous and non-law-abiding. Likewise, with the legal victories of the civil rights movement(s) in the 1960s and 70s, our nation’s prison population began to mushroom from the thousands then to the millions today, with a highly disproportionate number of non-white and poor persons representing those incarcerated. These phenomena constitute the criminalization of blackness and the criminalization of poverty: an impulse of a society that manages populations along a multitude of demarcations (race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and so on) in order to maintain security from threat or contamination—an impulse that evolves and reconstitutes itself as societal changes require. Put another way, the mass incarceration of non-white and poor persons is the evolved effect of a racism and classism encoded in the very fabric of the American project.
But the “crime deserves punishment” presupposition is faulty for still more reasons. Beyond this history of the construction of criminality, there is the wide-reaching discretion and lack of oversight that prosecutors in our criminal justice system enjoy today, which in turn puts an alarming number of innocent people (many of whom, again, are poor people and people of color) behind bars, simply because prosecutors work within a system that needs to close and win cases, no matter the cost to persons (sometimes innocent) caught in the legal crossfire.
Thus, it simply cannot be presupposed that every person behind bars is a danger to society, because: 1) our laws penalize many acts that do not in fact harm communities; 2) because incarceration has long been a means of controlling populations explicitly and implicitly construed as a threat to our nation’s order and security; and 3) because our criminal justice system does not sufficiently protect against prosecutorial misconduct that sends innocent people to prison or sends people to prison for sentences wildly disproportionate to the act they have committed.
In regards to “punishment,” even for acts that do actually harm communities, acts for which people should absolutely be held accountable in some way, determining a punishment in terms of years in isolation from community, torture (solitary confinement, physical and psychological violence, etc.), or even death, fundamentally misunderstands how a human person and healing works. From the beginning, such forms of “punishment” tend to ignore the social contexts in which acts that do harm communities arise, which, in turn, keeps us from envisioning how communal healing might actually take place. Humans don’t exist in vacuums, and they aren’t, as Huey Newton says, “geometrical figures” whose problems can be solved mathematically. Isolation and violence do not restore or transform the harm done to communities. Isolation and violence are harm to communities. Justice is what is present when a community is flourishing. But communities cannot flourish when the violence in a community is answered with the violence of institutional confinement, torture, and death, which is what our penal system understands to constitute “justice.” A misnomer indeed.
Further, under this logic of crime and punishment, the concept of “rehabilitation” functions not as the authentic touchstone of a good-will company, but as the guise under which a New York Stock Exchange business behemoth can continue its work unimpeded. The reason “rehabilitation” as a supposed motive can only possibly be a guise for a company like CCA is because a business’ bottom line must, if it is to survive sustainably, be profit (by definition), meaning that a company that earns its profits through contracts with departments of corrections across the country can’t survive without bodies in the beds. Thus, CCA works to ensure that their facilities are filled (they’ve even been widely accused of influencing the legislative process toward tough-on-crime policies that ensure bodies in the beds, legislation that, again, doesn’t help but hurts actual communities). “Rehabilitated” people are mutually exclusive with the aims of a company that requires, if it is to be successful, bodies in the beds, because “rehabilitated” people, the logic goes, are people properly reoriented to society, people who won’t reoffend. A “rehabilitated” person represents an empty prison bed; but an empty prison bed, for CCA, represents lost profit. And a company cannot, by definition, survive without profit.
Moreover, all of this presupposes that there is something for all incarcerated people to be rehabilitated from, and even rehabilitated to! But how can a company like CCA, which has been sued for all manner of violence, neglect, and abuse in their facilities, be trusted to define what constitutes a good citizen? Too, how can a company that profits from the violence that leads to incarceration and the violence that is incarceration possibly provide the kind of care and justice that persons coming from communities of poverty and violence need in order to thrive upon their return to the free world?
In his editorial, Leibach also poses the fact that CCA offers opportunities for inmates to earn GEDs as a proof of the undeniable good that the company effects throughout its institutions and in our society, since people in CCA facilities will eventually return to society—thanks to CCA, better educated, and therefore less likely to commit acts that harm communities. Education programs are indeed very important, especially inside correctional facilities. But where they exist in CCA institutions, they must be exceptions—not central—to the work that CCA carries out, and arguably only serve to pad the company against criticism, like in Leibach’s editorial. In other words, saying “we give people GEDs” does not a just or quality institution make. Rather, it only secures the company against critiques for what can only be its actual work as an enormously profitable for-profit company: making money off of the revolving doors of its correctional facilities.
Michel Foucault helps us to understand this strange dynamic of the claimed praiseworthiness of power over human life: “What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn’t only weigh on us as a force that says no, but that it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse” (Power/Knowledge, 119). In other words, CCA must compel the public that the profitable power they hold over human life is more than some kind of repression, that they are, in fact, producing good citizens, and thereby improving our world. And so they’ve taken to the Tennessean to (attempt to) do precisely that.
Leibach’s boasting about the “rehabilitation” CCA allegedly makes possible is not entirely unlike a slave master who treats his slaves with “kindness,” and thereby allows the unequal power arrangement and exploitation to continue unabated. CCA should not be absolutely equated with slavery, because that risks undermining the actual sufferings of the institution of slavery in the U.S. and all over the world. But the actual connections to slavery are worth tracing: penal institutions are an evolved continuation of the institution of slavery, as outlined in the 13th amendment to the U.S. constitution, which outlaws slavery except for punishment for a crime. What is more, people of color and poor people are disproportionately represented in jails and prisons today, which, as outlined above, points to the fact that prisons continue to function not as tools for rehabilitation, but as a means of maintaining some semblance of control over certain populations. CCA does not facilitate the chattel “slavery” of an earlier time in our nation’s history, but it is quite concretely an evolved, mutated form of such slavery. (See Angela Davis, Joy James, and Michelle Alexander for more on this point.)
In his editorial, Leibach also objects to “how popular culture often depicts prisons,” and the fact that some are motivated by “politics” in their critiques of CCA. Are these complaints not themselves the very kind of politicking Leibach claims to oppose? Dismissing the critiques of the institutions that tough-on-crime politicking created is a well-established narrative of tough-on-crime politicking: it’s simply the other side of the “politics” he criticizes. Further, Leibach’s understanding of what constitutes “politics” in the first place is so conveniently one-dimensional, as if what goes on inside corrections facilities is of no interest to a community’s power arrangements and decision-making and quest for the common good—which I take to be a far more fundamental understanding of what actually constitutes “politics.”
Good politics is also characterized by clear, honest, and equitable communication. To that end, Leibach claims that “[a]ccountability and transparency are a huge part of our business.” Like how CCA no longer allows media into its shareholders’ meetings? Leibach also claims on behalf of his employer that, “We comply with all applicable open-records laws….” Like how the company has continually resisted turning over records to activists like Alex Friedmann, sometimes for years on end, until they are finally forced to do so?
Finally, according to Leibach, “there’s real hope happening inside correctional facilities across our country.” But I think we need to ask: can abiding hope come about by way of isolation and violence, by way of the continued social control of certain populations, by way of acts of confinement that further harm already struggling communities and that fail to bring real, long-term transformation to all parties involved? No. If truly liberating “hope” arises in a CCA jail or prison, it got there despite CCA, not because of it.
Andrew Krinks is a doctoral student in theological studies at Vanderbilt University. His research engages theological frameworks operative in systems of incarceration and constructions of criminality. He also studies the theological dynamics of personhood, agency, and encounter in situations of suffering and oppression. Prior to beginning his doctoral studies, he served as editor of The Contributor street newspaper from 2008-2013. He is the author of “Soulful Resistance: Theological Body Knowledge on Tennessee’s Death Row.”