A controversial private prison corporation that has been accused of creating poor conditions for inmates while raking in over $150 million in profits annually is donating prison labor to a Christian organization that provides prosthetic limbs to amputees in developing countries as part of a voluntary, faith-based program.
Although the program itself is praised for what it does, critics of the prison corporation worry that the program is being used as a PR gimmick to help the prison corporation, while doing very little for the prisoners doing all of the work.
Standing With Hope (SWH) is an evangelical Christian outreach that provides artificial limbs to amputees in developing countries "as a means of sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ," according to its website. With a compelling story, starting with Gracie Rosenberger, who had to have her legs amputated after a brutal car accident in 1983, she co-founded SWH with husband Peter and has become an author, speaker and an inspiration for other amputees. Rosenberger also became the first disabled woman to perform at a major political party convention, when she sang the national anthem at the 2004 Republican National Convention.
On Nov. 16, SWH announced a partnership with the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation's largest builder and operator of for-profit prisons, with over 75,000 inmates in 60 federal, state and local prisons, in order to create a work program for inmates to disassemble used prosthetic limbs for amputees in other countries, including Ghana.
The program is expected to make SWH's work more effective in its goal of providing limbs for amputees. "We regularly purchase a great deal of new supplies in order to make the custom fit, carbon-fiber sockets for each patients, but recycling specific components from used limbs is critical to our program, and that's why CCA's help is so important to this work," said SWH president, Peter Rosenberger, in a press release.
The work program is also expected to be beneficial for inmates, according to Dennis Bradby, Vice-President of Inmate Programs for CCA. "Positive work programs such as this one are key to rehabilitation efforts for inmates. Not only do we share enthusiasm in this new initiative, but the CCA family is deeply moved knowing that amputees in developing countries will be equipped to walk as a direct result of this program," Bradby said in the same statement.
The announcement of the partnership came three days after "Occupy Nashville" protesters held a mock "human auction" outside of CCA's Nashville headquarters and chanted "people, not profits," according to Nashville's News Channel 5. Over the last five years alone, CCA has taken in nearly $1 billion in profit off of taxpayer-funded, government contracts, according to financial statements, while also being severely criticized for neglecting and abusing prisoners, as well as exploiting costs for even bigger profits.
In 2010, The Associated Press released a video taken from inside the Idaho Corrections Center (ICC), a CCA-run facility, of an inmate being beaten mercilessly by another inmate for 30 minutes as guards stood by and watched. The beating victim suffered brain damage as a result of the attack.
Also, between 2006 and 2008, several inmate deaths occurred at a CCA-run immigrantion detention center in Arizona, including an inmate with testicular cancer that went untreated for at least two months, according to The New York Times.
When asked if he had any misgivings about entering into a partnership with a company accused of such actions, Rosenberger told The Christian Post he stands behind CCA without hesitation.
"I love the concept of the CCA and our relationship is extraordinarily positive," he said, adding that he personally knows several CCA employees and goes to church with many of them.
As for the possibility of an ethical conflict for a Christian organization to partner with a company that has allegedly abused and neglected inmates, Rosenberger said he was unaware of any specific allegations, but reiterated that the important thing for him is the goal of SWH.
"I'm just here to put legs on people," he said, adding that he was also hoping to spread the gospel. "If I were to look for a partner where I agree with 100% of what they do, I wouldn't be able to work with anybody."
Rosenberger added that despite what people may think of the CCA, the important thing is the actual work SWH does, both in a physical sense for the recipients of the prosthetic limbs, as well as the spiritual sense for the inmates doing the work.
"I looked at the lives of those inmates yesterday and I saw the emotion in their faces, I saw the tears in their eyes," Rosenberger said. "And I don't know what's gonna happen when those guys get out, but I'm gonna try to make the best impact as I can right now so that when they do get out, they never have to come back to a prison. So, my outreach is for people with missing limbs and my other outreach is with these guys, and if this can get them to share my faith and my passion and my heart, and not repeat what they did to get there in the first place."
Mike Tartaglia, a CCA critic who runs a blog aptly titled Why I Hate the CCA, said it was a good thing for inmates to be able to participate in a voluntary work program, but that he was uncomfortable with the possibility that inmate labor was being used to generate free PR for the private prison corporation.
"This is a nice bit of PR for them. This is something they will probably promote on their PR page and in their press releases and say what a great corporate citizen CCA is being," Tartaglia told CP.
Steve Owen, CCA's Director of Public Affairs, told CP confirmed that inmates will not be paid for the work, although participation in the newly-implemented program is strictly voluntary. Owen also said that the "logistics" of the program, including the amount of work inmates will do, when they will do it, and how many limbs will be created, are still being worked out.
Alex Friedmann is an associate editor of prisoner rights newspaper and website Prison Legal News. Friedmann, a former inmate who served 10 years in Tennessee prisons who now advocates for prisoners' rights, pointed out that work programs such as SWH's are important for inmates to have, but he also worries about the possibility of the program usurping more beneficial vocational programs for prisoners at the cost of an alleged PR gimmick for CCA that is ultimately paid for by taxpayers.
"It's always good to see prisoners who are contributing back to society while they're still incarcerated. Society barely appreciates those efforts, but in fact the prisoners do that," Friedmann told CP. However, he added, "All these prisoners will be released one day and it's important they have the skills needed to be successful and stay out. If CCA is providing these types of non-profit programs in lieu of job training, vocational training that prisoners need when they get out, I think that's a bad thing, because they need those skills."
According to Friedmann, it is important that the SWH program does not get mistaken for a work program that teaches real-world job skills. "I don't think any prisoner in this program is gonna get out of jail and go to work for a company that will pay them for making prosthetic limbs...so it's very important to make that distinction," he said.
Rosenberger told CP that he would offer to employ inmates who worked in the SWH program while in prison, if he has the budget when that time comes.
But even without the possibility of job skills being learned from the program, Rosenberger asked a simple question: "Would you rather see CCA not operate anything like this and not make it available to inmates if they want to do it?" he said.
"You should have seen the look in their eyes. Some of them came in there and said 'this is important work and I'm so grateful to have it,'" he added.
Neither Friedmann nor Tartaglia dismissed the many benefits of inmates being able to participate in a voluntary, faith-based program where amputees in developing countries are able to get new limbs.
However, because CCA is a for-profit company that makes billions of dollars from the incarceration of people in a country that has the highest incarceration rate in the world, critics say it is understandable why there would be speculation about CCA possibly using the SWH program to boost its public image, especially since the publicly traded prison corporation has been accused by many people around the country of not providing adequate services for prisoners.
To Friedmann, however, the main problem is not so much about PR gimmicks, but how inmate labor programs like this can make the more important issues get buried when they are used.
"People are in prison for a reason," Friedmann said. "And the vast majority is substance abuse or alcohol abuse or things of that nature. Prisoners need to have those needs addressed, so they when they get out, they don't come back, in addition to whatever good, non-profit things that they do while incarcerated."
In addition, Friedmann said, it is important that "the credit goes to the prisoners participating in the program – not the corporate executives. The prisoners are the ones doing the work. They deserve to get the credit," he said.