Jesse Lava

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The Biggest, Baddest Prison Profiteer of Them All

By: Jesse Lava Tuesday November 5, 2013 7:09 pm

Co-authored by Sarah Solon, communications strategist at the ACLU.

“CCA” has become a dirty word.

Corrections Corporation of America

More government kickbacks for prison profiteers?

Kanye West cited it when rapping about America’s class of “New Slaves.” Anonymous invoked it to describe a bad financial investment that undermines justice. And for state after state, the word represents a failed approach to public safety.

And that’s how it should be. Because profiting off mass incarceration is a dirty business. When private prison company Corrections Corporation of America — or CCA — squanders taxpayer money and runs facilities rife with human rights abuses, it’s dragging its own name through the mud.

All private prison companies have corrupting incentives. One is to save money by cutting corners. Another is to promote their bottom line even when that’s not the best means to securing public safety, taxpayer value, fairness, and justice. Although CCA isn’t the only company with these incentives, it has done more than any other corporation to grow the private prison industry into a behemoth plagued by abuse and neglect and profiting off our nation’s over-reliance on incarceration.

Ask the family of Elsa Guadalupe-Gonzales. She was 24 years old when she hanged herself in her cell at one of CCA’s immigration detention facilities in Texas. Three days later, guards found Jorge Garcia-Mejia dead in his cell at the same facility. He, too, had hanged himself. Two suicides in three days, despite the fact that both Elsa and Jorge were supposed to be closely monitored by guards.

These lapses are indicative of a broader problem. CCA routinely shirks its responsibility to comply with basic standards. In Idaho, CCA employees falsified nearly 4,800 hours of staffing records. In Ohio, auditors found outrageous violations like prison without running water for toilets, in which prisoners had no choice but to use plastic bags for defecation and cups for urination.

And yet, CCA made $1.7 billion in just the last year — more than any other private prison company.

How do they do it? Although CCA insists that it does not engage in “lobbying or advocacy efforts that would influence enforcement efforts, parole standards, criminal laws, and sentencing policies,” the company pours money into both lobbying and campaign contributions. From 2002 to 2012, CCA devoted more than $19 million to lobbying Congress, and its PAC shelled out over $1.4 million to candidates for federal office during the same time period. They wouldn’t spend all that money if they didn’t think it would expand their market share.

And spending all this money has worked. CCA now manages facilities with over 90,000 prison beds in 20 states. Many of their contracts include “lockup quotas” whereby states promise to keep the company’s prisons anywhere from 80-100 percent full. That’s good for CCA, because they’re paid per day, per prisoner. It’s bad for those of us who think failed policies have led to an era in which too many people are behind bars for too long.

Such agreements incentivize states to pass needlessly harsh laws that would keep bodies flowing into CCA facilities — and cash into the pockets of CCA’s shareholders.

Lock-up quotas are only example of a policy that fills CCA’s coffers. Another could be immigration reform, if it goes badly. The House Judiciary Committee has passed the SAFE Act (HR 2278), a toxic measure that, if passed, would turn millions of undocumented immigrants into criminals overnight. No longer would lacking papers be just a civil violation; it would also become a federal crime punishable by months or years in a U.S. prison, even if the person poses no public safety risk. This move would also dramatically expand the civil immigration detention system, which could help CCA rake in huge profits since nearly half of all people in immigration detention are locked in private jails and prisons.


When Did ‘To Serve and Protect’ Become ‘To Seize and Profit’?

By: Jesse Lava Tuesday October 29, 2013 2:40 pm


Co-authored by Sarah Solon, communications strategist at the ACLU.

Leon and Mary Adams had been living in their Philadelphia home for nearly five decades. They were eating breakfast one morning last year when armed cops streamed out of a bunch of vans and said the couple had 10 minutes to grab their things and leave. Permanently. As in, Leon and Mary wouldn’t be allowed to come back. The cops then seized the property so they could auction it off, all because the Adams’ grandson allegedly did a few $20 marijuana deals on the porch.

This is just one of the many stories Sarah Stillman told in the New Yorker this summer about a “process” called civil asset forfeiture. And it’s not just happening in Philadelphia; it’s happening nationwide to people’s houses, cars, cash, and other property that cops seize and sell to make money for their departments. See how it works in our latest video in the Prison Profiteers series, a partnership between Beyond Bars, the ACLU, and the Nation magazine:

Under many civil asset forfeiture laws around the country, cops can take people’s money and property without proving anyone guilty, or indeed without even making an arrest. The police just have to suspect the assets are tied in some way to illicit activity. Such was the case with Leon and Mary Adams, and it resulted in the loss of their home.

Money that cops generate from such seizures bankroll their departments, including sometimes even funding their own salaries. That gives police a strong incentive to abuse civil asset forfeiture laws, search people unconstitutionally, engage in racial profiling, and over-enforce minor offenses, needlessly increasing people’s contact with the criminal justice system. The more they seize, the better off their departments are. Sometimes law enforcement officials seize a car knowing that they’ll be able to drive that very car on the job. Victims often fear being jailed if they don’t hand over their assets. And if they want to challenge the seizure, they rarely have a right to an attorney and often cannot afford one, must navigate complex proceedings, and often bear the burden of proving their innocence in order to get their property back.

Something is deeply wrong here. When incentives are this out of whack, abuse ensues–encouraging law enforcement to put profit above public safety. Police in Pittsburgh used asset forfeiture cash to buy nearly $10,000 in Gatorade. In just one month, cops from Bal Harbor, Florida, dropped $23,704 on trips with first-class flights and luxury car rentals. And the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s office used civil asset forfeiture funds to buy nine flat-screen TVs for $8,200, and two Segways for $14,500.

These stories seem almost comical until you consider the people picking up the tab, who are disproportionately racial minorities. Consider the case of an African-American man driving from Virginia Beach to Wilmington, Delaware:

He was stopped by police on June 16, 1998, while driving from Virginia Beach to Wilmington, Delaware. The police officer who stopped him claimed that a taillight was out, which was untrue. Once stopped, the officer subjected him to a search by a drug dog, claiming that he “looked like a drug dealer.” The officers asked him if he was carrying drugs, guns or money. He replied that he had $3,500 in cash. The officer seized the money, claiming that it must be the proceeds of drug dealing…The gentleman was never charged with a crime.

The man never got his money back.

Some states are working to stop this type of abuse. But even where some state laws are stricter, state cops can still take advantage of a loophole called “equitable sharing,” which allows them to seize property under federal law and keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds. That’s a loophole that must be closed if we’re to have a fair criminal justice system. Otherwise, civil asset forfeiture will remain one more way that our system has gotten way too large, intrusive, corrupt, and unfair, as the rest of our Prison Profiteers series highlights.

Tell the Department of Justice: Don’t let cops use federal law to ignore stronger state asset forfeiture protections. State and local cops should have to follow state laws if they’re stricter than federal law.

Also posted at The Nation and the ACLU blog.

Should It Cost Less to Get Out of Jail if You’re Rich?

By: Jesse Lava Friday October 18, 2013 2:54 pm

Eric Amparan likes the system the way it is now. As a bail bondsman, he’s part of an industry that pulls in $2 billion in revenue every year. Eric lays out how he profits off of financial desperation in our latest video in the Prison Profiteers series:
The Sweet Life
Here’s how it typically works: If you’re booked into jail, you can either sit in a cell for months waiting for your trial — losing your job and missing your childcare commitments in the process — or you can pay bail to the court. Bail functions like a promise; the court will return it to you when you show up for your court date.

The average bail amount is nearly $90,000. If you don’t happen to have this amount sitting in your bank account, odds are you’ll need to borrow it from a bail bondsman, like Eric Amparan. Here’s the catch: Eric will keep 10 percent of this amount as his non-refundable fee, even if you’re found innocent. So you pay almost $9,000 to get out of jail if you’re poor or middle class, but you pay nothing if you’re rich.

Bail is not a fine. It is not supposed to be used as punishment. The traditional purpose of bail is simply to ensure that people will return for their court date. But the commercial bail industry’s business model is to make it more expensive for people of lesser means to move through the criminal justice system.

Most states have laws saying that the default should be that people are released from jail while waiting for their trial solely based on their promise to return to court — unless there’s a really compelling reason to hold them. And these laws could work — studies show that most people can be safely released based on their promise to return without jeopardizing public safety or fleeing.

But judges often ignore these laws, and instead make people pay bail — which feeds right into the bail profiteers’ business model. The higher the bail set by judges, the higher the profit for bail bond companies. The American Bail Coalition — a lobbying group that represents the bail bondsmen, powerful insurance companies and wealthy investors — is working hard to make sure these profits keep coming in. They spent $3.1 million dollars lobbying state lawmakers between 2002 and 2011 and drafted twelve bail bills that encourage judges to set high bail amounts and give the bail industry more leeway to profit off incarceration.

Four states — Illinois, Kentucky Oregon and Wisconsin — have abolished the bail bonding industry. Other states should do the same.

We shouldn’t have two criminal justice systems — one for the rich and one for the rest of us. The commercial bail industry needs to know we’re watching.

The bail industry is just one the many powerful entities getting rich off mass incarceration. Meet the other Prison Profiteers and take action to fight their abuses at

50 Years After MLK’s Speech, THIS Is the New Dream

By: Jesse Lava Wednesday August 21, 2013 12:24 pm

Next week, it will be 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr. gave the “I Have a Dream” speech. He railed then against “the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination,” contending that the African-American was “an exile in his own land.” Yet he could not have imagined that Jim Crow would soon be replaced with another oppressive system: mass incarceration. As Attorney General Eric Holder said last week, the United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population but nearly 25 percent of its prisoners — the highest rate on earth. A total of 65 million Americans now have a criminal record. And though this system has affected all racial groups, people of color have borne the brunt, accounting for about 60 percent of those behind bars. Inner-city communities have been ravaged as children have grown up with parents in prison and people with convictions have been unable to get jobs. There’s a new underclass, and it has a racial tinge.

But the story doesn’t have to end there. Our Turn to Dream is a short film that Beyond Bars has produced to commemorate the 50th anniversary of King’s speech and reveal the movement being born to fight mass incarceration. Our new film profiles Kenneth Glasgow, a pastor in Alabama who’s helping to build this movement by providing services to the formerly incarcerated and advocating for just and humane public policies. We also interview author Michelle Alexander, whose book The New Jim Crow has probably done more than any single thing to get a national conversation going on this issue. In releasing this piece, we’ve partnered with some of the best civil rights groups in America, including the NAACP, PICO, Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, and many others. These groups know that the way to honor King is not just to celebrate what he did, but to use our collective memory of him as a source of hope for the battle we must fight today.

See the film here:

Allegedly Racist Judge Has a History of Saying Awful Stuff

By: Jesse Lava Thursday June 6, 2013 3:50 pm
Edith Jones in Iraq

Texas Judge Edith Jones has a history of questionable statements, behavior & beliefs.

If you were to make a list of things that a sitting judge should not believe, I suspect one item would be that some racial groups are inherently inclined to be guilty. Yet federal judge Edith Jones of Texas seems to have revealed precisely that belief. Attendees of a recent speech of hers claimed she said ”racial groups like African Americans and Hispanics are predisposed to crime” and “prone to commit acts of violence.” They also say she contended that death sentences are a favor to the accused because they force criminals to “make peace with God.” This is quite a judge. I admit I’m impressed that in a single speech she appeared to display intellectual bankruptcy on both judicial impartiality and the role of religion in adjudication.

Equally impressive is that Judge Jones has been down this road before. As a judge of the Fifth Circuit Court, she has a history of comments and behaviors that are, to put it mildly, ill-advised. Take her nasty confrontation with a fellow judge during an oral argument in 2011. The other judge, James Dennis, attempted to ask a question, and she interrupted him with the following:

JUDGE JONES: Judge Dennis!
JUDGE DENNIS: Can I, can I, can I ask a question?
JUDGE JONES:You have monopolized, uh, uh, seven minutes….
JUDGE DENNIS: Well, I’m way behind on asking questions in this court. I have been quiet a lot of times, and I am involved in this case….
JUDGE JONES slams her hand down on the table (loudly), stands halfway up out of her chair, and points toward the door.
JUDGE JONES: Would you like to leave?
JUDGE DENNIS: Pardon? What did you say?
JUDGE JONES: I want you to shut up long enough for me to suggest that perhaps….
JUDGE DENNIS: Don’t tell me to shut up….
JUDGE JONES:… you should give some other judge a chance to ask a question …
JUDGE DENNIS: Listen, I have been in this courtroom many times and gotten closed out and not able to ask a question. I don’t think I’m being overbearing….
JUDGE JONES: You’ve been asking questions for the entire seven minutes….
JUDGE DENNIS: Well, I happen to be through. I have no more questions.

Telling another judge to “shut up” is not what’s normally meant by “judicial temperament.”

Judge Jones’s legal opinions are no less disturbing. For instance:

– A woman faced harassment at work in the form of groping, grabbing, porn being put in her locker, and co-workers making obscene remarks about her over the company loudspeakers. In oral argument, Judge Jones asked the woman’s lawyer, “They didn’t rape her, did they?” The lawyer responded that someone had pinched her breast. Judge Jones replied, “Well, he apologized.” Jones voted (unsuccessfully) to prohibit the woman from proceeding with a sexual harassment claim.

– Judge Jones said a 15 year-old student who had been the victim of ongoing molestation by a teacher should not be allowed to sue school officials, even though the officials had been told over and over what was going on. Jones was on the losing end of that case, too. She wrote in her dissent that recognizing students’ right not to be sexually abused by teachers would have “no broad constitutional purpose.”

– A man was sentenced to death after his lawyer slept through most of his trial. Judge Jones joined an opinion denying the accused man’s attempt to get a new trial. This time, she won.

Is it really appropriate for a judge like this to be on the bench at all, let alone on a federal appeals court? George W. Bush had actually put her on the short list for U.S. Supreme Court in 2005. I go cold thinking of the damage that Judge Jones could have done from that perch. We can only hope that her latest apparent exercise in judicial unrestraint has disqualified her from any further promotions.

To Offset Disaster Relief, Curb the Drug War (VIDEO)

By: Jesse Lava Tuesday May 21, 2013 3:06 pm

U.S. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) says federal aid to his home state after the tornado should be offset by spending cuts elsewhere. We’ll see how well the ideological integrity holds up if offsets aren’t quickly found, but nevertheless, the question of how to fund disaster relief is increasingly urgent. It arose late last year when Superstorm Sandy ravaged the East Coast. And though we cannot know whether man-made climate change was specifically responsible for either of those acts of nature, we do know federal spending to cope with extreme weather events has been rising. Indeed, from 2011 to 2013, the federal government has spent $136 billion on disaster relief.

One area of spending that Americans from Left to Right are willing to cut is incarceration and the War on Drugs. According to a 2012 poll, 82% of Americans believe the country is losing the drug war, and a plurality say we should be spending less money on it. In another survey, voters overwhelmingly contend we should save money by shifting nonviolent offenders from prison to cheaper alternatives involving rehabilitation. Groups such as Right on Crime and Justice Fellowship demonstrate that many conservatives are now rethinking criminal justice policy. And of course, progressive organizations have long been beating that drum.

There is plenty of federal money to be saved. To start, President Obama’s latest budget contains $8.5 billion for prisons and detention. With about half of all federal inmates locked up explicitly for drug offenses (never mind for the collateral consequences of prohibition, including black market violence), that’s a hefty chunk of change being spent by the federal government on drug-related incarceration. Obama’s proposed budget also allocates $25.6 billion to fighting the drug war through law enforcement, interdiction, international operations, and other means. These are substantial federal investments in an approach to criminal justice that most Americans no longer believe in.

Counting state and local appropriations paints an even bleaker picture of our spending priorities. As of 2007 — the last year for which data is available — the United States spends a massive $228 billion annually on cops, courts, and corrections. Much of that money goes toward arresting, prosecuting, and locking up nonviolent offenders. As a result, our country has become the incarceration capital of the world. With less than 5% of the world’s population, we have nearly 25% of the world’s prisoners. That gives us the highest rate of incarceration and the highest number of prisoners — besting Russia, China, and all the rest.

Money aside, there is something fundamentally unfair about how our criminal laws are applied. Given that this year is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, we would do well to reflect on the vast racial inequalities that have only gotten worse when it comes to the justice system. Consider that blacks, whites, and Latinos use and sell drugs at about the same rate. Yet people of color are far more likely to be arrested for drugs; once arrested, they’re more likely to be prosecuted; and once prosecuted, they get longer sentences. In all, two thirds of the people incarcerated for a drug offense are black or Latino even though those two groups make up less than a third of the U.S. population.

This trend of mass incarceration has had sweeping consequences. Millions of formerly incarcerated people have vastly diminished economic prospects. Millions of children have a parent behind bars. And people of color have borne the brunt of the unequal application of our nation’s criminal laws.

So as we figure out where to come up with more money for disaster relief, here’s one question we face: Would we rather spend billions on rebuilding lives and communities destroyed by natural disasters, or billions on a criminal justice system that is itself destroying lives and communities?

It’s not like taking money out of the justice system would be inherently bad for public safety. There are numerous cost-effective alternatives to mass incarceration that would free up money for things like disaster relief. Beyond Bars‘ new video, produced in partnership with the liberal evangelical group Sojourners, explores those options:

Policymakers hoping to find meaningful offsets to fund disaster aid or any other initiative will have look at three things: 1) Where there’s a lot of money, 2) where the spending is unjustifiable, and 3) where the politics and public opinion are conducive to allowing cuts, since there are very few areas in which that’s true. Mass incarceration and the drug war meet all three criteria. They just might be the only areas of spending that do.

Sen. Coburn and other politicians who insist on offsets for increases in spending should look anew at America’s approach to criminal justice. It’s perhaps our best option for making such cuts a reality.

Would a White Girl Be Prosecuted for a Botched Science Experiment?

By: Jesse Lava Thursday May 2, 2013 11:42 am

By now you’ve probably heard about Kiera Wilmot, the 16-year-old Florida girl who botched a science experiment with a plastic bottle and toilet cleaner. The bottle ended up exploding, and though no one was hurt and no property damaged, Kiera was expelled from high school and is now being prosecuted as an adult for discharging a weapon on school grounds. She had an exemplary behavioral record up until that point.

Kiera is, as one might expect, black. The notion of a white girl getting hauled off to jail for a harmless expression of intellectual curiosity is dubious, to say the least. And though the rise of “zero tolerance” policies in American schools should theoretically be race-neutral, that’s not the reality. According to the Dignity in Schools campaign, “students of color… are more likely to be suspended and expelled than their peers for the same behavior” and “African American students [are] 3.5 times as likely to be expelled” as whites. What happened to Kiera Wilmot is part of a broader story about racial disparities in our criminal justice system.

Yet we don’t have to go macro to get the whiff of racial bias in this case. The prosecutor who decided to throw the book at Kiera is one Tammy Glotfelty, an assistant state attorney in Florida. The officer who arrested Kiera named Glotfelty in his police report:


Sounds absurdly harsh, right? And there has been no reversal of this decision since then. But Glotfelty isn’t always so heartless. Just last week, she decided not to prosecute a teenager named Taylor Richardson who accidentally shot and killed his younger brother with a BB gun. Glotfelty declared the case “a tragic accident.” I don’t doubt that it was. The Richardson kid will probably have nightmares about this incident for the rest of his life. But I do wonder how to make sense of a prosecutor who one week shows understandable compassion for a kid who made a terrible mistake and the next week insists on giving a teenager the harshest possible sanction for something that didn’t harm anyone.

The first Tammy Glotfelty has a normal-sized heart in her chest. The second one has a hole there.

There is one fact, however, that may help us figure out the discrepancy between Glotfelty #1 and Glotfelty #2: The Richardson family is white.

Am I accusing Glotfelty of conscious racial bias? Nope. Self-awareness isn’t the issue here. And maybe she has good reasons for treating these two cases differently. Hey, Taylor was 13 instead of 16; perhaps that makes all the difference in her eyes. But I can’t shake the feeling that these two stories would have unfolded quite differently if the races of the children had been reversed. Somehow the white Kiera Wilmot would have had her story end with an adult touching her shoulder saying “I’m just glad you’re alright.” And the black Taylor Richardson would have heard platitudes about “taking responsibility” while being led away in handcuffs.

The school-to-prison pipeline has become a very real phenomenon in this country, at least in communities of color. Suspending and expelling students for minor misbehavior has become routine despite there being no evidence that these steps improve school safety and strong evidence that they are linked to increased odds of behavior problems later. Moreover, prosecuting children as adults can destroy their chances of becoming productive members of society later in life. If prosecutors like Tammy Glotfelty really want to get serious about public safety, they’ll work to transform our racially disparate justice system and refuse to put harmless black students behind bars.

Why is this university president afraid of the truth on private prisons?

By: Jesse Lava Friday March 1, 2013 5:02 pm
Stadium Naming Rights

Stadium Naming Rights

The debate over Florida Atlantic University’s decision to name a football stadium after a notorious private prison company has descended into deception.

Today, student activists confronted FAU President Mary Jane Saunders at a public forum to denounce the fact that the school is taking $6 million from the GEO Group in exchange for stadium naming rights. This company has a shameful record of human rights violations, abuse, and neglect at its facilities. Unfortunately, Saunders was less than forthright in dealing with her critics.

The first problem was dishonesty over the forum rules. On Monday, students had engaged in a sit-in at Saunders’s office and agreed to leave only after Saunders promised there would be an open public dialogue on the issue, with an open Q&A and a mutually-approved moderator. There was also the strong implication that community members (i.e. non-students) would be able to ask questions. It’s all on videotape. Yet the administration quickly reneged on these terms. It named the moderator itself, declared that community members couldn’t ask questions, and made a list of the students who could ask questions. Indeed, according to student organizer Anole Halper, with whom I spoke today after the event, students tried to present Saunders with a petition that had amassed nearly 10,000 signatures, yet she refused to take it (though the moderator eventually relented and took it himself). Does this sound like an administration comfortable with an open dialogue?

FAU has also been deceitful about the nature of its arrangement with the GEO Group, insisting that the $6 million it received was just a charitable gift, not a corporate sponsorship. This claim is absurd on its face: a corporation doesn’t hand over $6 million to get nothing in return. And in this case we know the assertion is false because there’s a signed agreement in which naming rights are given in return for the “donation.” If this were a mere gift, GEO wouldn’t need its name on the stadium in the first place.

FAU’s dissembling adds to the falsehoods that the GEO Group has already been peddling. Immediately after news of the naming deal broke, the company apparently tried to scrub its Wikipedia page of all information that portrayed it in a negative light.

Then, in an attempt to bat away the bad press it was receiving, the GEO Group claimed that a number of the accusations being leveled against it were unfair because the abuse at one of its youth facilities in Mississippi had occurred under another company’s watch. Actually, that’s not true. As the ACLU has pointed out, the Department of Justice report in question was not issued until March 2012, and its investigation occurred in 2011 while GEO was in charge. The report accused GEO of “systematic, egregious, and dangerous practices exacerbated by a lack of accountability and controls,” contending that the sexual misconduct there (which included staff-on-youth abuse) was “among the worst that we have seen in any facility anywhere in the nation.” So there’s that.

Together, the GEO Group and Saunders have displayed a pattern of deception. These aren’t isolated incidents. GEO and FAU seem to think that genuine transparency would be bad publicity, and the best strategy to save their naming deal is to lie about it and shut out the community. Not that this is entirely surprising: these are the folks who thought it was totally cool to pair a public university with a human-rights-violating private prison. Yet there does come a point when being aboveboard is really the best way to stop getting raked over the coals.

Halper says there was a two-minute applause break today after a student told Saunders that the GEO Group deal is making Florida Atlantic University an embarrassment for alumni. Let’s hope Saunders and FAU’s board of trustees heed that warning and listen to their students and the broader community instead of trying to deceive them.