A group of activists in Washington, D.C., have proposed a novel solution to a problem that has affected the United States for decades: the practice of locking people up in private prisons that critics say are more concerned with making money for their shareholders than with helping lawbreakers turn their lives around.
Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants, or CURE, a prison reform group comprised mainly of former inmates, wants to convert a private jail in D.C. into what they say would be the first nonprofit lockup in the country, if not the world. At this point, the idea is just that -- an idea. The group, which claims some 20,000 members throughout the country, convened its first meeting about the proposal on Friday at D.C.'s Harrington Hotel, but has yet to figure out any of the logistics of what they admit would be a complicated, even quixotic effort.
Charlie Sullivan, the executive director of CURE, acknowledged that the idea might make him sound like a knight "chasing after one of those windmills." Still, he argues that his idealism may be exactly what is needed.
"What both the private and government-run prisons are doing is just holding people,” said Sullivan. “They’re playing defense; we need to play offense. We need to give people an opportunity to change their lives.”
The group has set its sights on the Correctional Treatment Facility, one of the city's two jails. For nearly two decades, the facility has been run by the Corrections Corporation of America, a for-profit, private prison company based in Nashville, Tennessee. Over the last few years, criticisms of such companies have grown louder, with advocates for inmates saying that private prisons are incentivized to lobby for harsh laws that keep beds filled while skimping on rehabilitation services, training programs for corrections officers, and anything else that could cut into their profit margins.
Although the D.C.'s private jail isn’t regarded as a particularly bad place as jails go, it’s seen its share of scandals over the years. In 2006, for example, two women sued the CCA for negligence, alleging a pair of corrections officers raped them. (The suit was settled out of court.)
The CCA's contract with the city is set to expire in 2017, and at that point, the city could conceivably sign the jail over to CURE or another nonprofit group. Sylvia Lane, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Corrections, said the department could not provide a comment, explaining that they had not heard anything about the proposal.
Steve Owen, a spokesman for CCA, said the company “has provided a wide range of meaningful reentry programs to the offenders entrusted to our care while delivering significant value to our government partner and the taxpayers it serves.”
Deborah Golden, director of the D.C. Prisoners’ Rights Projects at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, suggested that a combination of recent trends may eliminate the need for a second jail altogether. Like other cities throughout the country, D.C. has seen its crime rates decline in recent years, and the city’s decriminalization of the possession of small amounts of marijuana earlier this year is one of a number of criminal justice reforms expected to bring down the local jail population.
Meanwhile, members of the city council and advocates for prisoners are discussing the possibility of building a new facility to replace the aging public jail that stands alongside the private one. “I think there needs to be a broad conversation about what needs to be done to serve D.C.'s public safety,” she said.
Sullivan hopes his unusual proposal will be part of that conversation. “It would be a great challenge, but we have interest,” he said. “So let’s get the ball rolling.”