The Genesis of Corecivic’s Privatized Prison Labor

The Genesis of Corecivic’s Privatized Prison Labor


CoreCivic, formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), is today scrutinized for commodifying the detention of immigrants who have been arrested crossing the border into the United States.1 Many believe CoreCivic deliberately holds as many immigrants in custody as possible in order to gain the most revenue and profits, since the federal government provides a stipend for each CoreCivic inmate, yet the corporation is not required to use the entire stipend. This means that expenditures that could help the inmates can instead be cut in order for the company to keep as much revenue as possible.2 CoreCivic is also a prime example of an ongoing debate around the prison-industrial complex, at the heart of which is a moral challenge to the industries and companies that benefit from mass incarceration. But CoreCivic’s specific history shines light on the ever-fluctuating public discourse on prison labor, a discourse informed by the Reagan-era conservatism under which the company was founded and the broader context of incarceration as a means to continue forced labor post-emancipation in twentieth-century prison farms. Throughout its long history, CoreCivic and the private prison system as a whole successfully avoided the rising criticism of prison labor and allowed for the abusive monetization of incarceration to continue through neoliberals permitting the resurgence of free market conservatism. 

The private prison industry has also adapted its role within the United States judiciary system throughout the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries based on shifting public opinion toward the government and private sector in relation to criminal justice and rehabilitation. During the CCA’s infancy, in the early 1980s, one of the prevalent opinions throughout the country was that the state and federal prison system was unable to rehabilitate the increasing number of prisoners––coming off a country-wide spike in conservatism. This opinion shifted into a belief in the private sector, which allowed for the CCA to grow into a mega corporation within 20 years that was in charge of the rehabilitation and imprisonment of thousands of immigrants.

Prison labor was in effect long before the creation of the private prison industry, and so were its criticisms. Roots of prisoners being leased out for work as part of their sentences began after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment on December 6, 1865, which abolished unpaid labor (or slavery), with an important loophole: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.”3 only when the person had been convicted of a crime. This allowed prisons, mainly in the former slaveholding states, to exploit the amendment’s gap and lease out convicts for specific types of strenuous labor—such as working on plantations or farms. Though the majority of the country, especially in the political world, remained unsuspecting or refrained from its judgment on prison labor in the early years of the postwar South, certain labor unions and socialist and/or communist organizations began to criticize the system and call for its dissolution. Labor rights group the Knights of Labor, in their 1878 preamble, called on the government “to abolish the system of letting out by contract the labor of convicts in our prisons and reformatory institutions.”4 The Knights believed that convict labor both exploited those incarcerated in the prison system and those working in the labor system. Prisoners were forced to do hard, profitable, labor against their will, while paid laborers were forced to withstand pay cuts or even lose their jobs, as corporations could simply use the free work of prisoners. The Knights of Labor may have been looking for the good of the prisoners, but it seems they were more focused on the competition prison labor enacts on the unionized workers fighting for livable wages and benefits. 

Unlike the Knights, the Industrial Workers of the World did not explicitly discuss prison labor or prison farms in their 1905-1908 manifesto and preamble. Instead, they discussed the idea of “wage slavery,” where workers across the country were forced to deal with whatever conditions the employers gave them in order to earn enough of a wage to survive.5 This concept, though not directly tied to incarceration, highlights the power dynamics between worker and employer. Power relations were even more unequal in prisons, where those incarcerated were forced to deal with whatever labor conditions the institution gave them in order to finish their sentence, and even sometimes in order to survive. Both groups confronted the skewed wealth gap that came from the capitalist system at the time and could be seen as socialist labor movements, though the IWW took a firmer stance than the Knights in outright rejecting capitalism. This is an interesting distinction, as the rise of private prisons and their avoidance of criticism was made possible by the nation’s view of government power at the time. During the period of the IWW preamble and manifesto, many Southern states were slowing down their convict leasing systems, while other states were building new and massive prison farms designated to convict monetization.6 The most notable example of this was the creation of Parchman farm in Mississippi. The wind down for some states and wind up for others provides an idea of prison labor being at somewhat of a crossroads during the time of the early radical labor movements. 

The rise and fall of prison farms during the time did not mean, however, that the South ended its reliance on the forced labor and slavery of Black Americans. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his 2014 Atlantic article, “The Case for Reparations,” used prison labor as one of the major examples as to how the United States has continued to use Black labor without giving any adequate form of compensation.7 Coates centered the majority of the article on Clyde Ross, a Black man born in 1923 whose life sadly encapsulates the lasting issues (both social and financial, though Coates focuses on the financial in this particular piece) that many Black Americans have to face. Neither the government nor the general public have solved or attempted to solve these common problems, leading Coates to argue that the government should provide financial reparations to the Black population. He argued that ending slavery did not give the Black people freedom in its entirety—not even close to it. One aspect of Ross’s life that Coates outlined was his brother’s horrific experience in the prison Parchman Farm. His brother, named Winter, suffered a seizure and was taken by police who brought him to Parchman, where the staff later told the family that Winter was dead. Even after the family requested, the administration at Parchman did not allow them to see Winter’s body. According to Coates, Parchman was the epitome of brutality against the Black population within the prison farm system following the emancipation of slavery. Coates’s main point with brings Parchman up to exemplify how prison labor was meant to continue a post-emancipation form of slavery through incarceration, with profit always a central motivation behind the brutal practices. This connection between profit and cruelty also relates to the continued practice of private prisons, with money once again acting as a central aspect of why many prisoners are abused or killed, just this time under a different name. When discussing the reasons for the use of prison labor as a continuation of slavery, though, it is extremely important to note that equating racism solely with economic reliance is a gross simplification. The South’s continued use of slavery was, at its core, due to the brutal racial prejudice that continues to be widespread throughout the United States, as “The Case for Reparations” argues. 

The connection between race and prison labor as a means to continue racial prejudice for economic exploitation is also a concern of Alex Lichtenstein’s Twice the Work of Free Labor. He discusses how the post-emancipation prison system worked to continue both the economic revenue the South relied on during slavery and the structure of forced labor that perpetuated racial stratification into the twentieth century. Lichtenstein describes how many freed slaves ended up stuck doing either free or forced labor, but that forced labor “embodied in the penal system was the most obvious ‘continuity’ with the slavery that had defined the old regime. Yet it also proved highly adaptable to—and even instrumental in—the most dramatic social and economic transformations of the era.”8 The shift from forced labor in the form of slavery to forced labor in the form of the penal system is one that is rooted in both economics and racism in the South. To look into the rise and fall of convict leasing and prison labor, one must understand the prevalent racial undertones that places such as Parchman farm carried. On top of this, in order to examine the rise of the CCA, one must understand that racial undertones remain extremely prevalent in the context of Latin American immigration. 

In the mid-to-late twentieth century, there was a widespread outcry across the United States condemning Southern prison farms, most notably in Mississippi and Arkansas. In February 1968, TIME magazine published an article titled “Prisons: Hell in Arkansas,” which helped expose the abuse and brutality that was taking place in the Tucker and Cummings prison farms in Arkansas. The article details that to “maintain discipline, prisoners were beaten with leather straps, blackjacks, hoses. Needles were shoved under their fingernails, and cigarettes were applied to their bodies.”9 Other torture methods were commonly used on inmates, such as the “Tucker telephone,” an even more brutal version of electro-shock. The use of cruel torture in the two farms was extremely similar to the abuses Winter and others were put through at Parchman, and, what’s more, continued a legacy of physical abuse against Black Americans carried over from pre-emancipation slavery.

Many of the details about the human rights abuses happening in Cummings came from a sixty-seven-page report released by the governor at the time, Winthrop Rockefeller, which was unheard of in terms of the government being openly critical against the inner workings of the prison system.10 Rockefeller’s position as the governor of Arkansas was also significant since he, as the name implies, was part of one of the most rich and powerful families in the country.

Money was central to the abuses happening at Tucker and Cummings that were described in Winthrop’s report. TIME reported that the farms profited an average of $1,400,000 (valued around $11,800,000 today)11 each year from the farm products made by the inmates.12  Even beyond the monetization of prison labor and prison farms itself, money was an important aspect of life in Tucker and Cummings. Inmates reportedly were forced to pay two or three dollars to the guards (valued around $17-$25 today)13 a week for protection from being beaten or killed. Money was the central aspect to all life around the prison farm industry, more so than rehabilitation or life itself.

The Arkansas report led to a prison reform effort in the state, including Rockefeller’s creation of a new Arkansas Department of Corrections in 1968. The following year, a group of incarcerated men led by Robert Finney filed suit against the department—claiming that the Arkansas prison farms, Tucker and Cummings, violated the 8th and 13th amendments. The claim cited specifically to practices where inmates were left alone in isolation for more than 30 days. After nearly ten years of litigation, the case ended up in the Supreme Court, which found in 1978 that the Arkansas Department of Corrections violated the two amendments and was convicted of committing unconstitutional practices against its prisoners. The face of this landmark decision, one of the first successful prisoner lawsuits against a correctional facility in the United States, was Terrel Don Hutto, an early director of the Arkansas Department of Corrections. Hutto went on to be a key player in the creation of the CCA, and his rise also exemplifies the dangerous and abusive roots from which the CCA and eventually CoreCivic grew.

Hutto, alongside chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party Tom Beasley, created the Correctional Corporation of America in 1983. Shortly after, in 1984, the CCA gained its first contract from the United States Immigration and Naturalization services agency—later called the bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) This contract seemingly sparked the beginning of the CCA’s focus on immigration incarceration that would go on to generate more than 1.5 billion dollars in revenue.14 

Hutto, even in the early days of the CCA, was not covert about his views of incarceration as a model for revenue. From a June 1988 article in Inc. Magazine— less than five years after the CCA gained its first contract—Hutto said that the government was not able to correctly handle the prison system since they do not sell incarceration “like you were selling cars or real estate or hamburgers.” According to Inc. Magazine, Hutto believed that the CCA and private prisons could handle the prison system more efficiently, and also more cost effectively. Hutto equated efficiently running prisons and running a cheap prison, and did not focus his work and beliefs around facilitating rehabilitation.

Shortly after the CCA’s creation, public and media opinions were still highly critical towards incarceration in the hands of the private sector. A New York Times article published in March 1984 outlined the issues involved when the CCA contracted a motel as a makeshift prison and provided an understanding of the potential human rights abuses that could occur in the future. The piece describes a lawsuit that arose out of the conditions at the motel, where the American Civil Liberties Union filed a suit against the state alleging that the practice of contracting out incarceration to private companies was unethical.15 The suit started after a Colombian immigrant was killed and another critically injured by guards while trying to escape one of the private prisons. The ACLU believed that private prisons would not be able to act as a proper host of incarceration and rehabilitation, reasoning that “a profit motive is likely to generate cost-cutting measures not in the interest of either the prisoner or the public.”16 It is important to note that the CCA’s need, in the company’s early days, to turn a motel into a prison in order to take in more immigrant prisoners was also a distinguishing factor in why the ACLU did not believe that a private prison would have the rights of prisoners in mind, instead hypothesizing that money will overtake inmates human rights. 

Since the CCA was first contracted out as Immigration Detention Centers, the corporation was allowed to further profit off the continued racial prejudice seen in prison farms through the limited status and right undocumented immigrants are given once they enter the United States. To this day, undocumented immigrants are not given many basic rights guaranteed in the United States constitution—even though many amendments describe the rights being given to people rather than citizens alone. Gretchen Frazee, in a 2018 PBS NewsHour article, describes the basic rights that are constantly being argued over when it comes to immigrant deportation or detention cases. Many arguments have resulted in restricting immigrants’ rights even further, including the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 which created the process of “expedited removal,” where immigrants “who have been in the country illegally for less than two years and are apprehended within 100 miles of the border can be deported almost immediately without going through a court hearing,”17 which goes against the Fifth Amendment right to due process. While this court ruling took place more than a decade after the CCA’s first contract, other laws restricting immigrants’ rights were already in place, such as the Fourth Amendment’s border search exception created by the first-ever Congress on July 31st, 1789, where a custom search made at the border 

requires no warrant, no probable cause, not even the showing of some degree of suspicion that accompanies even investigatory stops. Moreover, although prolonged detention of travelers beyond the routine customs search and inspection must be justified by the Terry standard of reasonable suspicion having a particularized and objective basis, Terry protections as to the length and intrusiveness of the search do not apply.18

The battle to strip undocumented immigrants of basic constitutional rights has been occurring since the creation of the United States, a history which contextualizes the CCA’s rise even amidst a critical upheaval against the racial prejudice and torture Black Americans faced in prison farms. The CCA’s legal prejudice against immigrants is extremely similar to that of prison farms legal prejudice against Black citizens. Both systems thrived off of the blatant targeted legislation restricting the rights and abilities of marginalized communities.

After the CCA grew during its early years and was more established amongst the general public, one would assume the popular opinion opposing prison labor and the monetization of incarceration would continue or to even grow more critical as the company became more visible. Yet that was not the case. Instead, it seems the common belief about private prisons came to be that they were established in order to amend the Government’s failures at rehabilitating prisoners, which resulted in the harsh conditions seen around the South. In 1994, The New York Times published an article on the slow rise of the CCA featuring a prisoner who believed private prisons allowed him to turn his life around and contrasted them with government-run prisons, where he was strictly punished. The article, through the example of the prisoner and its own narrative, exemplified the belief that government control needed to be limited:

The industry’s optimism remains unshaken, and it is explained mainly by a familiar, if dreary, litany: the unchecked national problems of crime, and overcrowded state and Federal prisons. The need to control Government spending makes privately managed prisons look increasingly attractive.”19

Money, though a central cause of the disastrous and abusive prison farm system, was now seen as a positive when in the hands of the private corporation. The still-small industry gained around 250 million dollars a year in revenue at the time, valued close to five-hundred million today.20 The article also featured the rise of the CCA, which was already leading the industry with twenty-three prisons across the United States. The corporation saw one-hundred million in revenue and around four million in profits by the end of 1993, which is valued around two-hundred million in revenue and eight million in profits today.21 

In the late twentieth century,American politics created another facet that helped theCCA to thrive: The war on drugs was a major contributor to how private prisons escalated their prominence around the United States. From 1970 to 1990, the number of arrests increased by around 41.6 percent, with 5,568,200 crimes reported in 1970 and 13,353,301 reported in 1990.2223 There was such a massive influx of inmates that prisons did not have the room to take them all in. The New York Times reported in September 1987 that the war on drugs was straining prisons across the country, with the federal government concluding that it “needs to more than double its prison capacity to prevent an intolerable backup in the criminal justice system.”24 Private prisons were able to provide the extra space needed for the immense amount of arrests, resulting in the industry cementing its prominence in the United States prison system. 

Near the end of the CCA’s first decade, the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act—meant to escalate the government’s fight against crime—resulted in the continued prominence of prison labor and private prisons like the CCA. The act brought about the use of “truth in sentencing” laws, which restricted many inmates to serving greater portions of their sentence incarcerated, as opposed to early-release programs.25 The bill was surprisingly created and pushed for by Democrats, particularly Joe Biden and Bill Clinton, though it prominently escalated Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs. This trend may have contributed to why the growth of the CCA and private prisons went seemingly under the radar—as Democrats opened the gates for the continued rise of the right and glamorization of the free enterprise system. It may have even been an unintended effect of the bill neither Clinton nor Biden thought about—since the legislation did not entertain the idea that the private sector should be given more power—but nonetheless gave way for such ideologies to continue. 

On top of this, laws such as the 1994 crime bill were the successors of other proposals from Democrats who allowed for the rise of the right and shifted the public interest toward free market economies. A prime example was Lewis Powell’s 1971 memorandum to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce about the rising movement of socialist and anti-capitalist organizations and how the chamber can stop them.26 Powell focussed his argument around the belief that giving the government more power will only restrict individual freedoms, asserting that “there seems to be little awareness that the only alternatives to free enterprise are varying degrees of bureaucratic regulation of individual freedom—ranging from that under moderate socialism to the iron heel of the leftist or rightist dictatorship.”27 Powell’s inclusion of the threat of a leftist or rightist dictatorship shows that his intentions were not to allow the resurgence of the right, rather more so to promote the resurgence of a sense of confidence in capitalism and the private sector. The shift toward a more “red scare” ideology in the 1970s, during the peak of fighting in Vietnam, allowed for the rise of Reagan-era conservatism in the following decade and for the rise of an ideology in which the private sector is capable of handling incarceration as good or better than the government. Powell’s memorandum and the 1994 Crime Bill exemplify a widespread shift against government control toward an increased trust in the private sector that extends beyond the rise of Reagan and the modern right, from both liberals and conservatives. When the CCA came to power, this shift was well underway—and Hutto, Beasley, and Crants were able to continue the money-making machine that was prison labor.

Today, the influence the private prison industry possesses compared to the state and federal penal system is unclear. Around one-hundred thousand people were held in private prisons throughout 2020.28 This number, though around 13 percent greater than in 2000, has decreased from its peak of around 137,220 people in 2012.29 In 2020, private prisons housed only around 8 percent of the total prison population (1,215,800), but the private prison population has had less of a yearly size decrease than the state and federal prison population (13.6 percent compared to 15 percent from 2019 to 2020).30 On top of that, five states held at least 20 percent of their total prison population in private prisons by the end of 2020: Montana (50 percent), New Mexico (45 percent), Tennessee (31 percent), Hawaii (24 percent), and Oklahoma (21 percent).31 While the proportion of the penal population that is housed in private prisons is seemingly miniscule compared to the more than one million people housed in state and federal prisons, it is impossible to ignore the private prison industry’s continued importance in many state’s judicial systems. It is also impossible to ignore private prisons’ monetary prominence in the economy, with CoreCivicic’s current market cap being valued around 1.5 billion Dollars.32

The CCA’s rise shortly after Reagan-era economics became commonplace is more than a convenient coincidence. More likely, the CCA was able to gain contracts from the government and avoid long lasting criticism due to the shifting focus of the general public and media toward the plight of government systems rather than the plight of corporate systems. The mid-to-late twentieth century saw extreme fluctuation in the public views of money, politics, and the consistent prevalence of racial prejudice underpinning monetary incarceration. Prison labor, a system that thrives off the legal enslavement of human beings for an increased profit margin, found itself in the middle of that fluctuation. But what came out by the end of the twentieth century was a shift towards the privatization of prison labor and the prison-industrial complex. Even though public discourse on the CCA and CoreCivic still changes today, its rise to prominence was only possible due to the specific economic and political scenarios of the twentieth century.

  1. Shane Bauer, “Today It Locks Up Immigrants, but CoreCivic’s Roots Lie in the Brutal Past of America’s Prisons, Mother Jones September 5, 2018.
  2. Charles Hopkins, “The For-Profit Companies Charging Prisoners to Read Their Own Mail,” The Real News Network, March 28, 2022.
  3. “13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Abolition of Slavery (1865),” National Archives, N.d.
  4. The Knights of Labor, “Preamble,” The Radical Reader, edited by Timothy Patrick McCarthy and John McMillian (The New Press, 2003), 245.
  5. “Manifesto and Preamble,” The Industrial Workers of the World, “Preamble,” The Radical Reader, edited by Timothy Patrick McCarthy and John McMillian (The New Press, 2003), 245.
  6. Cazzie Reyes “State-Imposed Forced Labor: History of Prison Labor in the U.S.,” End Slavery Now, February 08, 2016.
  7. Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 15, 2014.
  8. Alex Lichtenstein, Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South, (Verso, 1996), 5.
  9. “Prisons: Hell in Arkansas,” TIME, February 9, 1968.
  10. Tortures at Prison in Arkansas Listed,” The New York Times, January 17, 1967.
  11. CPI Inflation Calculator, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  12. Prisons: Hell in Arkansas,” TIME
  13. CPI Inflation Calculator, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  14. “CXW | CoreCivic Inc. Market Data,” The Wall Street Journal (n.d.).
  15. Wayne King, “Contracts for Detention Raise Legal Questions,” The New York Times, March 6, 1984.
  16. King, “Contracts for Detention Raise Legal Questions.”
  17. Gretchen Frazee, “What Constitutional Rights Do Undocumented Immigrants Have,” PBS News Hour, June 25, 2018.
  18. “Border Searches,” Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School (n.d.).
  19. Anthony Ramirez, “Privatizing America’s Prisons, Slowly,” The New York Times, August 8, 1994.
  20. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  21. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  22. “Crime Rate up 11% for Nation in 1970,” The New York Times, September 10, 1971.
  23. “Interpreting Arrests Data,” Arrest Trends, Vera Institute of Justice (n.d).
  24. Peter Kerr, “War on Drugs Puts Strain on Prisons, U.S. Officials Say,” The New York Times, September 25, 1987.
  25. “Truth in Sentencing Law and Legal Definition,” Legal Definitions, USLegal, Inc. (n.d.)
  26. “The Lewis Powell Memo: A Corporate Blueprint to Dominate Democracy,” August 23, 1971, republished on Greenpeace USA, September 21, 2011.
  27. “The Lewis Powell Memo,” Greenpeace USA.
  28. Ann Carson, “Prisoners in 2020 – Statistical Tables,” Bureau of Justice Statistics, December 2021.
  29. “Private Prisons in the United States,” The Sentencing Project, March 3, 2021.
  30. Carson, “Prisoners in 2020.”
  31. Carson, “Prisoners in 2020.”
  32. “CXW | CoreCivic Inc. Market Data,” The Wall Street Journal (n.d.).
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