When It Comes to American Justice, Green is the New Black

Recently, there was a Dallas town hall discussion on mass incarceration. The Justice League of Texas asked me to moderate.

After an informative and spirited Q&A with our panel of lawyers, a state lawmaker, clergy members, an ex-offender and activists, I leaned into the microphone and said, “Contrary to popular culture and belief, orange is not the new black. Green is the new black.”

Here’s what I meant: For anyone who hasn’t looked closely at the money being made on the backs of minorities and poor people, the American prison industry is an $80 billion business. Private, for-profit prisons carve out bigger slices of that pie every year.

As the discussion continued in a packed house, 23 people wrote questions regarding the same issue, and they wanted to know whether a Tennessee-based, for-profit prison company would be allowed to do business in Dallas County.

On Nov. 3, they got their answer, when Dallas County Commissioners Court approved a lease — with stipulations — that will allow Corrections Corp. of America to operate a halfway house for newly released inmates who don’t have anywhere else to live. This entire scenario should give residents pause, given allegations of inmate mistreatment and abuse by CCA.

Corrections Corp. of America is the largest for-profit prison in the nation, with more than 60 facilities that house 70,000 inmates, according to its website. In fact, CCA and another company, the GEO Group, made more than $3 billion last year.

I write this piece to wake other sleeping communities. Do not allow CCA to further expand. Even one of the Dallas commissioners admitted to being “aghast” when she discovered CCA would take over the county lease from the nonprofit Lifestyle Management Inc. With its history of inmate mistreatment allegations, CCA is now going to be trusted to look out for the welfare of people released to their halfway care?

The last time CCA did business with this city, it ran Dawson State Jail in downtown Dallas. A federal lawsuit described horrors visited upon inmates, including allegations of guards refusing to help a screaming woman in labor. Her premature baby was delivered in a toilet.

In addition to the obvious, a couple of other items should concern voters and commissioners. CCA is a forward-thinking profit machine. It might not be satisfied with one halfway house in one jurisdiction. Right now, CCA is set to take over Lifestyle’s lease and use its current facility, scheduled for demolition soon. But in early 2016, CCA plans to move to a 300-bed building on 10 acres.

Why would a company like CCA invest in 10 acres and open only one facility at the site? Will nearby counties be targeted?

For-profit prison companies are part of a corrupt American justice system that constantly insults the most vulnerable among us. Here in Dallas, the poverty rate is 41 percent. When offenders are released, the system continues to prey on them and their families, issuing arrest warrants for failure to pay fines, fees and court costs. Black residents, more than any other group in Dallas, end up in criminal court and often are unable to afford legal defense.

According to a recent report from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, more than 80 percent of those paying the cost of a loved one’s conviction are women. Of those, 44 percent are black. They pay court costs, legal fees, visitation charges, deposit money into inmate bank accounts and cough up the cash for long-distance calls. The average cost of a conviction for poor families is roughly $14,000.

As I say, when it comes to our justice system, green is the new black.

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