The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has decided not to renew Correction Corporation of America’s (CCA) contract to hold around 1,400 low-level federal inmates at the North East Ohio Correctional Center (NEOCC) in Youngstown.
As the deadline for renewal approached, the for-profit prison contractor launched an aggressive PR and letter-writing campaign focused on “the value of CCA” in the community and the jobs that Youngstown could lose without the contract. Prisoners and advocates sought to instead raise awareness about the facility’s ugly history of violence and mismanagement under CCA, and in August, 240 inmates staged a 14-hour peaceful protest against poor conditions, high commissary prices and abuse and mistreatment by prison guards.
In the end, the BOP decided to let their contract expire on May 31st of this year. CCA spokespeople told reporters they were not briefed on the government’s reasoning. They are seeking meetings with federal officials and are planning to mount an appeal in the coming days.
What is clear, however, is that the BOP has not lost confidence in for-profit incarceration. Most if not all of its prisoners at NEOCC will be transferred to two separate private facilities operated by GEO Group: the Moshannon Valley Correctional Center in Phillipsburg, PA (which, like NEOCC, holds immigrant prisoners) and the Great Plains Correctional Facility in Hinton, Oklahoma (which was vacant and is now being reactivated thanks, at least in-part, to this contract).
CCA will continue to hold some 580 prisoners for the US Marshals Service at NEOCC.
The federal government appears to be warming up to the idea of improving prison conditions, but it does not appear ready to give up on the private prison experiment. This would require a confrontation with the for-profit incarceration industry that they’ve now helped become deeply rooted in communities across the country.
In Youngstown, incarceration is so entrenched in the local economy that it’s propping up essential institutions, like schools, whose funding is in large part dependent to those jobs: “since 2005, the direct local economic impact from the NEOCC has exceeded $180 million. The prison has an annual payroll of $20 million and generates more than $1.9 million in annual property taxes, $1.3 million that benefits Youngstown City Schools.”
For many, closing NEOCC would mean taking away one of the biggest sources of income and tax revenue the community has. This has created the rather bizarre and depressing situation in which politicians and residents are joining forces to find SOMEONE to pay CCA to incarcerate people, no matter who they are, because… jobs.
According to WFMJ, CCA is showing no signs of slowing down in Youngstown: “Officials of the private prison say they may attempt to land a state, or another federal contract to take in prisoners. They may also try to see if the Hubbard Road facility can house the overflow from other area lockups.”
And why should they slow down? They still have the building, a mountain of cash and plenty of friends in high places. Even Ohio Rep. Bob Hagan, who has been a visible advocate for better prison conditions in the state, found himself shocked and concerned over the loss of CCA’s contract, saying, “I am very disturbed at the federal government. I think the Bureau of Prisons is off base. We are people who have offered time and time again employees who understand corrections. I think they thumbed their nose at the Youngstown area.”
Youngstown Mayor John McNally went out of his way to pledge his support for private prisons in his town. He told reporters, “We will do whatever we can to help CCA find another contract. Whatever assistance they need from city government, they can expect to receive it. We want to make sure that facility is fully staffed.” I wonder how many other people or businesses in Youngstown get that kind of help from the Mayor?
Abolitionists and advocates have succeeded in moving the national conversation forward to a place where we can convince the government that prisoners deserve some basic humane treatment, and that the conditions at prisons like NEOCC are untenable. It’s great that CCA lost this contract. But we took one step forward and two steps backwards by not offering something to take its place. Fighting private prison contracts is not enough on its own.
The absence of alternatives for the folks whose livelihood depends on prisons and the jobs they provide is going to continue to be a huge roadblock to progress. Making considerations for these people must be part of the abolitionist movement.
Decarceration is more than closing prisons. It’s abolishing the institutions and systems of dependency, formulating alternatives to incarceration and justice, and to transitioning corrections communities to jobs that value human life and promote justice over harm. Without these kinds of frameworks in place to confront the many complicated questions and externalities of untying the prison gordian knot, new contracts and prisons will simply pop up to replace old ones. We’ll be playing whack-a-mole forever.