When I was a graduate student in philosophy, and a recent graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School, I participated as a teacher for a year in an “Inside Out” program. I taught a year of classes at Riverbend Maximum Security Prison, working with prisoners in the most secure unit besides death row and students from the outside who came in to learn together with them. While doing that, I learned a great deal about prisons, and the evils involved. One that horrified me the most was the evil of private prisons—little more than a modern American gulag and concentration camp system. I was even more horrified to learn that Correction Corporation of America, now CoreCivic, the innovator in this industry and now its second largest provider, was located just outside of Nashville proper.
New Nashville LGBT Chamber member CoreCivic describes itself as a “diversified government solutions company.” Its business, however, is the construction and operation of private prisons and the development of an immigrant detention system. The business model: CCA/CoreCivic benefits from regressive immigration policies. CoreCivic has lobbied for laws which have increased levels of incarceration, especially among African Americans. It has paired that practice with the practice of writing contracts that incentivize federal and local governments to fill its beds (i.e. send more young black men to prison and detain more immigrants). Its prisoners, which it is paid to hold, then have their labor stolen or sold, often for pennies (a tiny percent of minimum wage)—aka slavery.
The company, founded in the 1980s as Correction Corporation of America (CCA) by the chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, Thomas Beasley, has never walked away from its business model: under the Trump administration, it has accelerated. In fact, CoreCivic CEO Damon Hininger told investors in June 2018 that “this is probably the most robust kind of sales environment we’ve seen in probably 10 years.” Sales environment? How can he describe the practice mass incarceration and the model of being paid to hold prisoners whose labor you leverage for further profit as if it were a business like other businesses? Doing so highlights the immorality of this business, and its entire industry.
We need not offer a complete catalog the history of CCA/CoreCivic and its abuses: a simple Google search will generate enough to make a moral human being cringe. Shane Bauer went undercover at CoreCivic and last year wrote a history of this brutal industry for Mother Jones, for instance. Deaths, sexual abuse, torture, improper use of solitary confinement (a practice condemned by the UN) are the tip of the iceberg. Pending cases (of which there are at least twelve known to Project On Government Oversight, a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms) include more cases of sexual abuse and forced labor. Abuses also include visitors: in one pending lawsuit a woman claims that, while undergoing a security screening during a visit to the facility in April 2014, she was forced to verify she was menstruating by allowing a female guard to inspect her genitalia.
This doesn’t even include the company’s violations against its employees. Since 2000, CCA/CoreCivic has been penalized at least 21 times for violations against its employees, from wage and hour violations (10 records with $10 million in penalties) and employment discrimination (4 records with $2 million + in penalties) to workplace safety and motor vehicle safety violations.
All of this is simply to demonstrate that the moral evil at the core of CoreCivic’s business model—see the above—has infected every aspect of its operations. I believe that any organization doing business with CCA/CoreCivic risks the same infection. You can’t, as they say, roll around in the mud and not get dirty. It does not benefit an organization, which lives by its reputation and lobbies for human rights, to attach its name to such an organization.
I believe that the Nashville LGBT Chamber and its leadership have the best of intentions in accepting CCA/CoreCivic as a new member. I believe CEO Joe Woolley when he says the organization hopes to engage and work with the organization on some specific issues and that it is possible through engagement to make improvements at CCA/CoreCivic. And I do not agree with the most reactionary critics who believe the Chamber should not engage CCA/CoreCivic at all, under any circumstances, in any way.
I do not, however, believe that granting the organization membership is the best way to achieve that goal. CoreCivic benefits greatly in terms of credibility and respectability, the appearance of interest in improving its record, while the Chamber suffers the contagion of doing business with a company that even Vanderbilt and major national banks have divested.
Last year, Tennessee Tribune columnist Rosetta Miller Perry called out African American members of the Nashville Chamber of Commerce for standing by while CoreCivic was allowed to sponsor one of that Chamber’s events. In doing so she highlights many of the same issues regarding granting respectability to this kind of social evil.
Most eloquently, Perry wrote, “The Tennessee Tribune joins these groups and organizations in denouncing the Nashville Area Chamber’s involvement with CoreCivic in any fashion, and in particular accepting funding for their celebration. It makes a mockery of the notion they care about the community and are interested in justice and opportunity for all its citizens, particularly those on the bottom, and those most affected by CoreCivic’s participation in accelerating mass incarceration throughout this community and nation.” And I agree.
If CoreCivic’s legitimate interest is making progress on LGBT-specific issues, they don’t need membership in the Chamber. If they really wanted to make progress, they’d close their doors, dismantled their business, and throw themselves before judgment. Barring that, however, for LGBT-specific issues they could also approach the Chamber to ask for consultation, advise, leadership, correction, and outside monitoring. They could engage the Chamber as a critical outside watchdog voice. They wouldn’t need the Chamber to give them the credibility up front before doing any of the work.
But that is, it seems to me, what CCA/CoreCivic wants—to buy the credibility of the Chamber, making real work optional. The decades, the lawsuits, the abuses show that CCA/CoreCivic’s nice policies and positions articulated, the credibility they buy by joining Chambers and sponsoring events (looking at you Nashville Chamber of Commerce) are all a show. The infection is deep: excising it would kill the patient.
The Nashville LGBT Chamber could, it seems to me, keep its hands cleaner. While it could wash its hands of CoreCivic completely, if the Chamber is absolutely committed to making whatever small improvements they can at CoreCivic, they should engage them from the outside, working to change their policies as they have with so many companies with regressive positions on LGBT issues. They can thus retain their full independence, and remain free to openly challenge CoreCivic on major issues, even while pushing or guiding them on those specific areas of concern for the LGBT community.
I personally hope that the Nashville LGBT Chamber will reconsider its position and try to find a way to seek its goal of mitigating the horrors of CoreCivic that don’t compromise the organization itself, and along with it our community.
I’d like to make very clear, however, that the Nashville LGBT Chamber still serves the essential purpose of advancing the cause of LGBT business in Tennessee. That is why it is so important to me that it maintains the highest ground possible. I do, as I said above, believe it was the best of intentions that have lead us to this place. We gain nothing from threats against the organization’s individual leaders, or from tearing down the Nashville LGBT Chamber in our frustration. I will work to support the Chamber in upholding those of its membership who represent the best of our community, while continuing to engage the Chamber to act responsibly in granting membership to morally compromised businesses.
Let’s keep the focus of our attacks on CoreCivic. I’m not saying we shouldn’t energetically engage the Nashville LGBT Chamber to make clear our concerns and to help guide future decision making. We absolutely should. But we should not burn down one of our few Tennessee organizations actively working for LGBT interests in a state that is largely dedicated to depriving us of our rights. We have more influence by working diligently with our brothers and sisters in the Chamber, to expressing ourselves and shaping future direction, than we have if we silence one of our loudest voices.
But that voice must also strive to free itself of the stain that comes with granting its name to the architects of one of the great moral evils of our time.
The above is an Editorial Letter by James Grady, Managing Editor of Out & About Nashville. The opinions reflected here are his own personal views, and do not necessarily reflect those of other members of the magazine’s staff or editorial board.