When a private prison company came to small-town Wyoming (audio)

Should companies profit from incarceration? In one Wyoming town, residents grapple with the costs of building a private immigration detention center. 

Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor
A sign shares a brief history of the founding of Evanston, Wyo., on Feb. 27, 2020. In Episode 4 of "Perception Gaps: Locked Up," our reporters explore why this old oil town might build a new private immigration detention center.

When Corrections Goes Corporate

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The private prison industry is often held up as an example of the worst ills of mass incarceration. Reports of unsafe conditions, underpaid employees, and other cost-cutting measures have dogged private corrections for decades. 

And yet the industry itself makes up only about 2% of the $182 billion that goes into incarceration in the U.S. every year. So why do these companies get so much flak? And what would closing down private prisons really mean for justice reform in the country?

In this episode, our reporters take you to Evanston, Wyoming, an old oil town near the Utah border. The county’s plan to build a private immigration detention center tells the story of the money that flows in and out of our prison system – and the moral dilemma it creates. 

Note: This is Episode 4 of Season 2. To listen to the other episodes and sign up for the newsletter, please visit the “Perception Gaps: Locked Up” main page

This audio story was designed to be heard. We strongly encourage you to experience it with your ears, but we understand that is not an option for everybody. You can find the audio player above. For those who are unable to listen, we have provided a transcript of the story below.

AUDIO TRANSCRIPT

[Audio clips of broadcasts about private prisons] 

[News Channel 5: “One of the largest private prison companies in the country is receiving backlash from community groups…”]

[CCTV English: “...are paying huge sums of money to private prison companies or for-profit prisons ...”]

[CBS News:“...more inmates means more money and private prisons are looking to make a profit…”]

[News Channel 5: “...they want the leader of the private prison industry to stop making money off of inmates.”]

Samantha Laine Perfas: The private prison is a powerful symbol of mass incarceration in America. Since emerging in the 1980s, they’ve increasingly become a target of criticism for justice reform advocates, politicians, and the public. 

Pete Bass: “...my biggest problem is private prisons. They’re going to cut their budgets, get rid of help, crowd more people in, and that’s how they make their money…”

Brenda Richins: “...the private detention part, that’s something that should be the responsibility of our government. They shouldn’t be part of the economy…”

Sam: And yet: private prisons make up a much smaller chunk of the American prison system than most people think. And just shutting them down may not do very much to fix the problems in our justice system. 

That’s… a perception gap. 

[Theme music]

I’m Samantha Laine Perfas, and this is “Perception Gaps: Locked Up,” by The Christian Science Monitor.

[Theme music]

Welcome back to Season 2! If you’ve just joined us, this is our fourth episode of the season, which has been all about perceptions of the U.S. criminal justice system. So if you haven’t yet, we encourage you to go back and listen to our previous episodes. You can find everything at csmonitor.com/perceptiongaps (or wherever you get your podcasts). 

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Pete Bass works the coffee machine at his café, For Pete’s Sake, on Feb. 28, 2020, in Evanston, Wyo. Mr. Bass, who spent time behind bars himself, says he’s opposed to an immigration detention center that’s run by a private company. “They’re going to cut their budgets, get rid of help, crowd more people in,” he says. “And that’s how they make their money."

[Music]

Sam: Let’s start with a definition. When we talk about private prisons, what we’re referring to, generally, are prisons, jails, and detention centers run by for-profit companies that contract with the government. They were originally created to respond to a need – public prisons and jails were overcrowded, and so the private sector stepped in to provide the government more capacity. 

Since then, they’ve grown enormously. But: 

Bernadette Rabuy: Private corrections really is a small portion of the criminal justice system. There is a lot of money in mass incarceration. There’s a lot of people benefiting from mass incarceration. But that’s not just happening in private prisons. 

Sam: That’s Bernadette Rabuy, a senior policy analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit research and advocacy organization that studies mass incarceration. In 2017, Bernadette co-authored a report about the money that flows in and out of the justice system. 

The report found that, of the $182 billion dollars that goes into incarceration in the U.S. every year, only about 2% goes to private prison companies. And just under 9% of people behind bars are housed in privately managed prisons, jails, and detention centers. So, from a big-picture perspective, closing them down wouldn’t really do much to end mass incarceration.

And yet for-profit prisons still face a lot of scrutiny, especially from the left

[Audio clip from MSNBC, Bernie Sanders: “... We need to make sure that we end private ownership of prisons…”] 

Why?

For one thing, size is relative. Our prison and jail system is so sprawling that in even a fraction of that pie, hundreds of thousands of people are affected, even as millions are affected in public, government-run facilities.

Private prison companies have also expanded – particularly in immigration. In 2017, more than 26,000 people were confined in private immigration detention centers. That’s a 442% increase since 2002. 

At the same time, reports of unsafe conditions, underpaid employees, and other cost-cutting measures have continued to fuel criticisms against the industry. And then, Bernadette says: 

Bernadette: It’s disturbing to a lot of people that we have such a thing. That there are companies where their sole business is to make money off of locking people up.  

Sam: In this episode, we hear different perspectives about the private prison industry, and break down the thinking behind them. 

Just to be clear: the point of this episode is not to convince you that for-profit facilities are better or worse than public ones. What we are trying to do is look at the vast amounts of money that go into our criminal justice system – because we wanted to know: if the for-profit industry isn’t benefiting the most, then who is? And what can this cash flow reveal about how the industry operates?

[Music]

We begin in Evanston, Wyoming, a town of less than 12,000 people that’s about an hour and a half drive from Salt Lake City. 

My colleagues Henry Gass and Jessica Mendoza visited back in February, because at the time, it was set to be the site of a new privately-run immigration detention center. Things have changed a lot since then. But while we were there, we learned just how complicated feelings were in the community about private prison facilities. 

Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor
Lupita Palma (left) and Kortney Booth pose in front of a graphic wall at Ms. Palma’s workplace along Main Street on Feb. 27, 2020, in Evanston, Wyo. Both women are members of Wyo Say No, an advocacy group against the building of a private immigration detention center in Wyoming.

[Wind blowing]

Jessica Mendoza: Boy, the wind is… whew.

Henry Gass: So the wind is just ripping over. Part of the one thousand acres, we believe, that’s part of the proposed site. 

Jess: It’s quite pretty.

Henry: Yeah, there are some mountains in the distance.

Sam: Evanston is an old oil town in Uinta County, one of hundreds across rural America that have been hit hard by the decline in the fossil fuel industry. 

In 2017, a private prison company, Management and Training Corporation, or MTC, came to the county with a proposal to build a 500-bed facility meant to house immigrants in the region detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. ICE contracts with private companies to run detention facilities around the country. 

Mark Anderson: They approached the county because the county had – has – a thousand acres just on the outskirts of Evanston here. 

Mark Anderson, I am county commissioner here in Uinta County, Wyoming. 

Sam: Mark was elected in 2018 – so after MTC had first made the offer. But he was born and raised in the small Wyoming town. He had heard plenty about the plan before he became a county official. 

Mark: The number one question I was asked before I got elected, you know, ‘What is your position on the detention center?’ That was the number one question I was asked.

Sam: Voters cared about his answer because it was an issue that divided the community. Then MTC backed out of the project. And CoreCivic, one of the biggest private prison companies in the country, stepped in. For Mark and other county officials, the promise of jobs – both short-term, hourly jobs and long-term, high-salary ones – was hard to dismiss.  

Mark: The construction of it will bring revenue with the workers that will build it. The project is estimated to be a $160 million project. 

Sam: CoreCivic said the sales tax of anything purchased during construction would go to Uinta County –

Mark: – and then long term, after it’s up and operational, they’re estimating that there will be 260 full-time positions that will offer new employment, diverse employment, to our community. We have to be able to diversify and not just pray and hope that the oil and gas industry is just going to take back off, ‘cause it doesn’t look like it’s going to. 

Sam: There were some small-business owners downtown who, like Mark, said that they’d welcome anything that might give Evanston an economic boost. We’ll hear from them in a bit. But there were also plenty of residents who told us the tradeoff just didn’t feel worth it. 

Kortney Booth: I’m just completely against it. I don’t want this in my town. I don’t want to raise my kids in a town that would do this.

Sam: Kortney Booth is a member of Wyo Say No, a local advocacy group supported by the ACLU. She and another local activist, Lupita Palma, said that the project sparked all kinds of fears.

Kortney: I talked to a lot of business owners who are afraid to speak out. They’re against it but they’re afraid to lose customers. 

Lupita Palma: And I feel like a lot of the Hispanic community is against it, but they’re also scared to voice their opinion and go against it as well. 

Sam: That was Lupita, speaking to the conversations happening in her community. The two women also pointed to Rawlins, Wyoming, a town not unlike Evanston. The difference is that Rawlins is home to the Wyoming State Penitentiary. 

Lupita: It’s not a place I want to live in. I know that the prison is there but it looks just sucked out of life. It looks gray and sad. 

Sam: But the piece that really stirred up the opposition is the fact that a private company is behind the project. This was an important point of contention.

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Brenda Richins stands at the counter of her t-shirt shop, Varsity Ink, on Feb. 27, 2020, in Evanston, Wyo. Ms. Richins opposed the idea of an immigration detention center built in her town, especially one run by a private company. “We’re probably always going to need to incarcerate or detain people. But I think that that’s something that should be the responsibility of our government,” she says. “It shouldn’t be a contributor to our economy.”

[Audio clip of Henry and Jess entering Brenda Richins’s store] 

Jess: Hello?

[Sound of door swinging]

Brenda Richins: Hello there.

Jess/Henry: Hi.

Brenda: How are you guys?

Jess/Henry: Doing well. How are you?  

Brenda: Good. What can I do for ya?

Sam: Brenda Richins owns Varsity Ink, a t-shirt printing shop on Main Street. The store was about what you’d expect: shirts and jerseys hanging on racks. Many featured the logo of the Red Devils, the local high school team.

[Sounds of the store] 

Jess: You do all your printing here too?

Brenda: Yeah!

Jess: That’s amazing.

Sam: Brenda’s a mother of three, and has lived most of her life in Evanston. She loves it there. 

Brenda: It’s really safe. I rode my bike all over the place. My kids rode their bikes all over the place, played in the yard.

Sam: Brenda isn’t inclined to call herself an activist. But she said that when she heard about the detention center, she had to speak up. 

Brenda: I don’t know if anybody would be super jazzed to have a detention center in their town. But yeah, the thing that really puts it over for me is the private detention part. It’s a part that I can’t really get past. 

Jess: Could you talk about that a little bit? 

Brenda: I think that we’re always going to have people who do stuff that’s not OK. We’re probably always going to need to incarcerate or detain people. But I think that that’s something that should be the responsibility of our government, and that it shouldn’t be a contributor to our economy. Like I don’t think that we would be motivated correctly if we were trying to make money off of detaining humans. 

Sam: That idea – that incarceration shouldn’t be a private enterprise – cut across partisan lines in Evanston. 

Pete Bass: They’re talking about building an ICE detention facility here. [They’ll say,] ‘I see you’re wearing a Donald Trump t-shirt, so you’re probably all for it, aren’t you?’ And I was like, ‘No, actually, I’m not.’

So my name’s Pete Bass. I have this coffee shop called For Pete’s Sake, where we’re sitting. I’m also a pastor at Calvary Chapel, Evanston, Wyoming.

Pete has served time in both state prison and, because he was born in Germany, a federal INS facility in Texas – the INS being the Immigration and Naturalization Service, ICE’s predecessor. In all, Pete spent about 11 and a half years behind bars, mostly for drug-related offenses. 

The coffee shop he now runs in Evanston is a homey sort of place: cozy, mismatched chairs. A corner filled with books. Every imaginable flavor of coffee available on the menu. But Pete hasn’t forgotten his time in prison. And he’s got opinions.  

Pete: I guess probably the – my biggest problem is private prisons. You’re a for-profit prison, they’re going to cut their budgets, get rid of help, crowd more people in. And that’s how they make their money. 

And I’m not against corporations, believe me. I believe if a guy can build up a great big corporation and sell cars and make zillions of dollars, more power to you. But these corporations that live off of this kind of thing, they don’t care about those people from Mexico, or the Honduras, or Russia, or wherever they’re from. They don’t care about them. They’re there to make a profit.

Sam: The profit motive. It’s the most enduring criticism against the private prison industry. Basically, folks like Pete and Brenda say that companies whose main goal is to make money – and whose profits are tied directly to the number of people they incarcerate – can’t be trusted. Not with the rehabilitation of criminal offenders, and not with the humane treatment of people in their custody.

This brings us back to some of the questions we raised at the start of the show. Like: What role do private prison companies really play in our justice system today? And what does their existence tell us about the system and its flaws?

[Music]

To find out, we’re going to leave Evanston for a bit and turn, first, to Lauren-Brooke Eisen, director of the Justice Program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. In 2017, Lauren-Brooke published a book about the history and impact of private prisons in the U.S. She walked us through how private corrections came to be, and how they came to hold such a prominent place in the debate over mass incarceration. 

Laure-Brooke Eisen: Ever since these corporations were founded in the mid-80s, our country has wrestled with the proper role of the private sector when it comes to corrections. 

By the end of 1980, the nation held what was then a record of 329,000 people behind bars. Many prisons across the country were unhygienic, inhumane. They were suffering from overcrowding. And more than half the states, 28 states and the District of Columbia, were under court orders to reduce overcrowding.

So what happened was that state policymakers faced a choice: They either had to reduce their prison populations or build additional expensive facilities.

Sam: Just to put things in perspective: back then, 40 years ago, 329,000 people behind bars was a record. Today, we’ve got 2.3 million people locked up. 

But back to what Lauren-Brooke was saying. Taxpayers in the ‘80s didn’t like the idea of paying for more prisons. At the same time, there was a lot of pressure on politicians to crack down on criminal offenders. 

So when private corporations stepped in and said, ‘Why don’t you let us take care of this?’ It seemed like a good solution. Except… once they were in, they were in. 

Lauren-Brooke: By the mid-90s, one of the biggest private corporations at the time, Corrections Corporation of America – they recently rebranded and are now known as CoreCivic – they issued an annual report to their shareholders in 1994, where they wrote: ‘There are powerful market forces driving our industry and its potential has barely been touched.’ And that acknowledgement of the profit opportunity that was surrounding corrections at the time illustrates how corporations were viewing their ability to make money off of corrections. 

Sam: Today, these private companies make somewhere between $3 to $5 billion a year off of prisons and other detention facilities. And yet – as we said before – those figures represent a relatively small part of incarceration spending. 

[Music]

It’s true that private prisons have faced a lot of criticism over the years for a range of problems, from lack of public oversight to practices that put cost-cutting over quality. But the data is often complex, and comparing government-run facilities with for-profit ones can be tricky

And so while it can be tempting to think of private prisons as the cause of mass incarceration, the idea is misleading. Instead, private prison companies benefit from a flawed, publicly-owned system, which in turn has come to depend on these companies to step in where the government falls short.

Take the growth in private immigration detention centers since the early 2000s, which happened at the same time that unauthorized immigration into the country ticked up. Today, about 70% of immigration detention facilities are privately run. 

But the private companies aren’t causing those changes. They’re responding to them.

[Music]

Alexandra Wilkes: So I think one of the big misconceptions about the industry is that somehow the contractor-operated facilities are the ones that are driving mass incarceration, and the math just does not bear that out. 

My name is Alexandra Wilkes and I serve as spokeswoman for the Day 1 Alliance. 

Sam: The Day 1 Alliance is a trade association. It represents some of the country’s biggest private corrections companies, including CoreCivic. We did reach out to CoreCivic directly to ask about their work in Evanston, Wyoming, but they declined to comment. So Jess and Henry asked Alexandra to address some of the criticisms against the private prison industry in general. 

Alexandra: With a taxpayer funded facility, the taxpayers are responsible for the upkeep of that facility. They’re responsible for the employees of that facility. And what you don’t want is a situation where taxpayers are left holding the bag for operating huge facilities and huge payrolls and pensions for immigration levels that don’t meet that need. And I think that one of the key reasons you need the industry is to provide flexibility. 

Jess: We also need to ask about conditions inside privately run detention centers. What steps do private companies take to ensure that the people in their custody are treated humanely?

Alexandra: Any of those standards, whether it is the size of the cell, the permissions with regards to family visits – those are all set by the government. There’s this idea out there that somehow if it’s a contractor it means that the contractor is cutting corners. That’s not the case at all. If the contractor were cutting corners they wouldn’t be meeting their obligations under their government contract, which would cause a serious dispute. 

And there is constant compliance monitoring of that contract. One of the facilities I visited has a daycare center. The relevant state agency that manages daycare facilities just in general, is on-site, doing inspections as they would any other day care center in the state of Texas. The relevant state agency for overseeing health inspections is looking at the cafeterias. So everywhere you look there is some person that is responsible for compliance. 

Sam: Alexandra also disputed the profit-motive argument and the idea that private prison companies are steering national policy. 

Alexandra: We have no say in the disposition of who comes into these centers. You know, our organizations are not Border Patrol, they are not ICE. You know, these individuals are brought into our care. And I should note from the outset that the industry actually has made it a point to never lobby on the duration or status of anyone’s immigration. 

So we don’t get involved in setting immigration policy. Our companies have nothing to do with that. You know, again, we are not one of the drivers of mass incarceration. There is no perverse profit incentive for us to keep people in our care. 

Sam: It is worth noting: over the years, the industry has contributed to political campaigns, including $1.9 million in the 2018 election cycle. At the time, that was a record – they’ve already surpassed it in 2020. 

Still, Alexandra makes the point several times throughout the conversation: private prison companies are not the main cause of mass incarceration. And to be fair, that’s true. But we’re realizing that in many ways, they’re responding to shifting politics... by following the money and making themselves available to fuel new services. And they’re not the only ones doing it. 

Here, we bring back Bernadette Rabuy. We heard from her at the beginning of the episode. She’s the co-author of the Prison Policy Initiative report on the funds that make up the criminal justice system. 

Sam: At the highest level, where would you say most of the money is coming from, and where for the most part does it go?

Bernadette: The money is usually coming from the government. So that’s for the costs of prosecution or public defenders. But we also have a lot of money that’s coming from families. So that would include bail. Also, the cost of commissary: snacks, or for example right now, different hygiene products – soap, or shampoo, anything like that that they feel they need beyond what’ s provided to them by the government. 

Sam: Bernadette added that families also pay for phone calls and video chat services. And companies can set a pretty steep rate: A dollar per minute in some cases. 

Bernadette: They’re able to do that because family members don’t have a choice. If they want to see or communicate with their loved ones, they’re forced into these high rates.

Sam: So where does all that money go? 

Bernadette: Public employees are a huge portion of the cost of the criminal justice system. Policing is also another huge cost. And also healthcare. That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be advocating for the end of private prisons. But if we look at the spending, a lot of other people are making money off of people being locked up, that are not private prisons. 

Sam: If we somehow did put an end to private prisons, how much of an impact do you think that would have?

Bernadette: I think it would have very little effect. It would be a powerful move, to stand up and say we aren’t OK with companies surviving on mass incarceration and profiting that way. But at the end of the day it’s such a small portion of the criminal justice system that we’re not going to get very far. 

Sam: At its core, the problem with private corrections has to do with our notions of what incarceration is for, who should be in charge of it, and how the structures we’ve built over time have failed to take on those questions. Here’s Lauren-Brooke Eisen again, the Brennan Center scholar who wrote a book on the history of private prisons.  

Lauren-Brooke: For decades, some legal scholars and policymakers have really contended that there are certain state functions that cannot be delegated. And one of those is punishment. So opponents of the industry worry that the profit motive is very deeply at odds with the goal of corrections.

Sam: And yet, despite all the criticisms the industry faces, Lauren-Brooke says it’s able to survive because there’s never been an honest reckoning with public officials about the role these companies play. And the reason is that with the private sector stepping in –

Lauren-Brooke: – governments don’t need to reduce the flow of incarcerated people if they have capacity issues, if they have old failing infrastructure, buildings not adequate to house the number of people they need to house. 

The private prison industry has really become a safety valve for governments. If the industry had not come along in the mid-80s and said, ‘We can do this more cheaply than you can, we can do this better than you can,’ maybe we would have had different discussions out of necessity than we had at the time. 

[Music]

Sam: It’s not just the government that stands to benefit from the private prison industry. In struggling communities, residents often view the construction of a prison or detention facility as a step toward economic revival. Remember: During their trip to Evanston, Wyoming, Jess and Henry learned pretty quickly that the county commissioner’s main reason for supporting the project was the promise of jobs. And there were residents who felt the same. 

Holly Stone: Yeah, I’m all for it. Now I don’t know if anybody else is going to be all for it, but I know I am. 

Sam: That’s Holly Stone. She runs a store on Main Street called A Witches’ Vape Shop. 

Holly: We have nothing. This is it, these little teeny things, and we’re all suffering, we’ve all been slow. If we don’t do something here soon, I’ll move. ‘Cause there’s just nothing for me here, you know what I mean? We’re getting smaller and smaller and smaller and unless you’re going to work in Salt Lake or Park City there’s just nothing here.   

Val Cook: We need long term employment. I’m not going to say we need a detention center. We need long term employment. 

Sam: And that’s Val Cook, who owns a local media company.  

Val: It would be great to have a high-tech company come in and locate here. But in the meantime, there’s no tech companies that are coming to visit us and there is a company that wants to build a detention center. So, gotta take what you can get.

Sam: We should say, not everyone in Evanston was entirely for or against the detention center. For instance, Jonathan Lange. He’s a Lutheran pastor who’s lived and preached in Evanston for over two decades. His main concern was how the issue had divided his community, and how to bring people together again.

Jonathan Lange:  We want conditions to be better for the immigrants that we’re dealing with. So recognizing that there is going to be no perfect, but can there be a better? That’s the touchpoint. 

Sam: Others had more personal reasons for being uncertain. Maria Escalante runs a restaurant that she’s owned for six years in downtown Evanston. It’s called Ana’s on Main Street. It’s named after her mother.

Maria Escalante: As a business owner I’m split between them.

Jess: Why do you say that?

Maria: I’m not against it, I’m not for it. I see the benefits for it. But not towards the businesses. You know, like the detainees, the persons that are going to be in there, they get to be closer to their families. Otherwise they get sent to Colorado. 

Sam: Maria knows all about that. She and her family moved to the U.S. from Mexico when she was nine years old. A few years ago, after her attorney apparently misfiled some of her papers, ICE took her into custody. Maria spent 45 days at a facility in Colorado Springs – a seven-and-a-half hour drive from Evanston. So Maria is sympathetic. She says it would be nice if people didn’t have to drive hundreds of miles to visit their detained family members. 

Maria: So I’m torn, you know what I mean? Would it be good for the town? Probably not. Would it bring more jobs? I don’t believe so.

Jess: Why not?

Maria: There are jobs, nobody likes to work ‘em. Businesses like restaurants struggle all the time trying to find workers. So I don’t know. I just have so much. And I hear both sides, and it’s like. [sigh] There’s a lot of misunderstanding about it. Definitely. 

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Maria Escalante stands at the counter of her coffee shop, Ana’s on Main Street – named after her mother – on Feb. 27, 2020, in Evanston, Wyo. Ms. Escalante, who came to the US from Mexico as a girl, says she was torn about the idea of an immigration detention center in her town.

[Music]

Sam: When we first reported this story, people in Evanston – like most of us – had no idea that a pandemic and massive anti-racism protests were about to sweep the country. So in June, we checked in with a few residents to see how they were doing. 

[Jess and Henry call Brenda]

Jess: Brenda?

Brenda: Hello?

Jess: Hi!

Henry: Hi!

[Chuckles]

Jess: We know it’s very early over there so thank you for taking the time.

Brenda: Yeah, no problem, no problem. Thanks for having me. 

Sam: This is Brenda Richins again, who runs that t-shirt shop on Evanston’s Main Street. 

Brenda: So I pretty much didn’t have any business from the middle of March until the beginning of May. And then things started to pick up a little bit. Not to normal speed, but back up. But the hardest hit people in Evanston are probably our little independent hairdressers, and those kinds of businesses. Our bars and restaurants. But I think our community has supported those businesses as much as possible. 

Sam: From a health perspective, the pandemic didn’t hurt Wyoming as badly as it did other places. But the economic fallout was a different story.  Here’s Mark Anderson, the local county commissioner, on the phone. 

Mark: You know, it’s good that we haven’t seen that medical impact, but at the same time the financial impact was quite devastating to a lot of businesses. We took a pretty big hit with the oil and gas and coal industries on the downward trend. You know, when that has kind of happened last several years, we’ve depended on our good agriculture, with cattle markets and things, and with this COVID that’s taken a significant hit as well, as you know. 

Sam: And that takes us to the other big development out of Evanston from the past few months. In April, CoreCivic announced that it would no longer be submitting a proposal to build a detention center in the county. When we reached out to the company, they directed us to their press statement, which says, “... there were ultimately a number of factors that made it difficult for us to consider proceeding.” Mark says he was disappointed. 

Mark: You know, the CoreCivic operation wasn’t going to be the saving grace for our community, but it’s just a little piece of the puzzle to getting back to financial stability.

Sam: He hasn’t given up all hope on a deal, or even some other business coming in to help revive the county’s economy. But for now, Mark is hoping that things will start turning around.

For other residents, the end of the three-year saga over the detention center, coupled with the pandemic, was a chance for reflection. Here’s Jonathan Lange, the Lutheran pastor. 

Jonathan: One of the things that the possibility of a detention center brought to the fore is the intangible parts of community. Is it going to be pleasant? Is it going to be safe? And so I think that’s important for every community to think about. If we want to be a thriving community it’s not just about bringing in money. 

I don’t have any answers. I just have questions. But I think that whatever the I.C.E. does as it goes forward, I pray that they are looking particularly at the people they have to detain and how best to take care of them. 

Sam: And as for Brenda Richins: 

Brenda: You can probably tell how I feel about this community. That’s a big source of conflict inside of me, though. Because I do wish that that kindness, or that compassion, or that humanity, or whatever it is that makes people in our community want my business to be successful and want to reach out and help their neighbor – I wish that was extended to everyone, and maybe not just directed at people that look or act just like the rest of us, or any of that stuff. 

I’m on the margins of how people think in Evanston and our community. But I love all the people. Like I interact with all the people. All the people are my customers. I just wish that, you know, they could take whatever that goodness in them that’s so supportive and that is so caring and just stretch it out a little bit to cover everybody.

[Music]

Sam: Of course, the current moment is much bigger than one privately run detention center in one small Wyoming town. The coronavirus in particular has put a spotlight on health and safety issues that have long existed within our prison and jail systems. So, to end the episode, we turn one last time to Lauren-Brooke Eisen, to get a sense of how private prison companies fit into these bigger conversations about public health and mass incarceration.  

Sam: Historically, private prisons filled this kind of safety valve for the government. Do they still have that ability, given how hard the pandemic has affected our economy? And do you think this might change the relationship the private prison industry has with the government?

Lauren-Brooke: The private prisons are probably going to make an argument that they can alleviate overcrowding, that they can play a role in social distancing. But I think the larger issue that we all need to focus on is ending mass incarceration. And for those who want to reduce our reliance on the private prison industry, the number one step we can take to achieve that goal is to significantly shrink the number of people who we house in our prisons and our jails.

But you know, we and a lot of other advocates are hopeful that policymakers and the public will truly reimagine, rethink, how we approach punishment, incarceration, and rehabilitation in our country once this public health crisis has ended.

Sam: Thanks for listening! We hope you’ll join us for our next episode. We’ll be digging into a big question: what’s the purpose of prison in today’s society? If you’d like to stay in the loop, sign up for our newsletter at csmonitor.com/perceptiongaps. We’ll include notes, videos, additional articles, and behind the scenes takes from the series. Again, you can sign up for it at csmonitor.com/perceptiongaps. 

This episode was hosted by me, Samantha Laine Perfas. It was produced, reported, and written by me, Jessica Mendoza, and Henry Gass, with additional edits by Clay Collins, Noelle Swan, Mark Sappenfield, Dave Scott, Lindsey McGinnis, and Rebecca Asoulin. Sound design by Morgan Anderson and Noel Flatt, with additional audio elements from News Channel 5, CCTV English and CBS News.

This podcast was produced by The Christian Science Monitor, copyright 2020.

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Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.