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The Federal Bureau of Prisons plans to send 1,200 D.C. inmates to a new private prison on the former site of one of North Carolina’s biggest slave plantations.
In an open field not too far from the Chowan River, a mile from Winton, N.C., lies a clump of headstones. Among them is a granite slab that stands about 3-and-a-half feet high and 3 feet wide. Buried under it are John Vann and his wife Nancy. The stone lists their names and those of their eight children, all born between 1805 and 1850.
The family cemetery is one of the few remnants of the plantation the Vanns once owned, one of North Carolina’s largest. The Vanns’ house, with its big wraparound porch, is long gone. And so are the more than 50 slaves who kept up the Vanns’ estate, looked after their children, and worked their 250 acres of cotton and corn fields.
Now, 62 years after the Vanns sold their land—and 135 years after the Civil War liberated the plantation’s labor—a big house of a different sort has begun rising from the rich Tarheel State soil. The world’s largest private-prison developer purchased the land in March, just after winning a Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) contract. Wackenhut Corrections Corp. immediately started construction there on a minimum-security penitentiary for 1,200 D.C. inmates.When the facility is complete, the Vanns’ former land will house a one-story prison campus with four guard towers, surrounded by two 12-foot high fences ringed with razor wire.
According to BOP spokesperson Don Dunne, inmates from the District—most of them nonviolent drug offenders—will start arriving at the new prison next spring. Under the 1997 D.C. Revitalization Act, the city must close its Lorton Reformatory by the end of 2001 and transfer half of all D.C. inmates to privately run federal prisons by 2003.
In building this piece of the fast-expanding private-prison future, Wackenhut is at least somewhat conscious of the Winton property’s past. The officials charged with planning the new structure have been careful to make sure construction won’t disrupt the Vann family cemetery. But the folks who OK’d the facility don’t seem as concerned with a somewhat more complicated aspect of the land’s legacy: the symbolism of housing mostly African-American inmates, for profit, where slaves were once held.
Harmon Wray, a longtime critic of privately run prisons who runs Restorative Justice Ministries, a United Methodist organization that works with both offenders and victims, says he’s appalled that “the mostly working-class, poor black descendants of slaves will be making low wages to keep their poor, almost all black brothers and sisters from the ghettos of D.C. locked up in cages.” In a Nov. 12, 1999 letter, to BOP officials about the Winton site, Wray, who lives in Nashville, Tenn., argued that the mostly white Wackenhut executives and shareholders will be making a tidy profit “on the backs of the black D.C. prisoners and black or poor white Winton prison guards.”
Wray’s complaints got him an institutional brushoff from the BOP. In a written reply, federal officials wrote that “the Bureau takes strong exception to the statements and implications offered by Mr. Wray,” and told Wray that his opposition to the project was “noted” and “gratefully acknowledged.” The bureau might have given the site’s history more weight if it had found rare artifacts or remains, “but we didn’t find anything of significance,” says Dunne.
Dunne says that the BOP got enough letters, both pro and con and for various reasons, to take up a good chunk of space in its two-volume Final Environmental Assessment report. But because the prison has the unanimous support of county leaders, he says, the BOP and Wackenhut had an easy time overcoming their opposition—including historical concerns like Wray’s.
Before Wackenhut could break ground on the Winton prison, BOP officials commissioned an environmental assessment of the old Vann property. In the process, researchers turned up more than just a few details about the site’s drainage requirements. A wealth of historical documents told a long story about the plantation’s former occupants, including an anecdote about old John Vann, published in 1938 by Vann descendent Louise Boone.
He once came into the house in a towering rage, after his gun. Nancy quiet and placid in face of storm, asked what he wanted with his gun, John replied there was a Negro out there he was going to kill. Nancy, with a few pats and a “Now, John, I wouldn’t do that” soon had the storm sitting calmly in a chair, the Negro and the gun both undisturbed.
This story, the researchers noted, offers “poignant testimony to the complexity of the relationships between the slaves and the plantation owners during this period of American history.”
A century and a half later, relations between private-prison firms and the poor communities that house their facilities are also pretty complex. Before Wackenhut won its contract, competitor Corrections Corporation of America sought approval for its proposal to build a prison in D.C.’s impoverished Ward 8. Only after local opposition squelched the idea did Wackenhut have a good shot at relocating the District inmates 200 miles away in Winton, just past Virginia’s southern border.
For the inmates, the voyage will be something of a journey back in time. Most of the land around the prison hasn’t changed since the Civil War. Family and friends who bother to make the almost four-hour drive to visit won’t even be able to stay in Winton. They’ll have to go to Ahoskie, a town of 4,800 about 12 miles south of the prison, or to Murfreesboro, a town of 2,800 11 miles west of Winton.
“We don’t have any movie theaters or bars,” says 96-year-old Alice Nickens, whose family has lived in Winton for more than 100 years. “We don’t have a hospital. No motel. Not even a hot-dog stand. You can’t buy a greeting card here.”
Nickens and her 12 siblings used to earn extra money on the Vann plantation. “They’re laying the foundation of the prison where I picked my first 100 pounds of cotton,” she says. A retired teacher, she left Winton for a few years to earn a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. After school, she came home and has lived on Main Street ever since. Today, she says she doesn’t want to see anything change.
“I hate to see the prison come here,” Nickens says. “We just love the town. It’s a quiet country place.”
At least Nickens lives downtown. The new prison lies on the outskirts of Winton, at the end of Sandra and Bennett White’s driveway. “The track record of these for-profit [prison] companies doesn’t appear to be a very desirable thing,” Sandra White says, rattling off a list of problems—escapes, murders, high turnover rates for prison guards—that have plagued Wackenhut facilities over the years.
After Wackenhut first proposed building a prison in Winton, two years ago, the Whites helped collect about 700 signatures from county residents who opposed the prison. The couple even went to Raleigh, the capital, to appeal to the state legislature, but to no avail. “People think we’ve been fighting [the prison] because it’s close to our home, but it’s also going to cost our county much more money than could ever be gained from a few jobs and a few tax dollars,” White says.
A Louisiana judge recently gave critics even more fodder. A few weeks ago, Judge Mark Doherty ordered the removal of six boys from a Wackenhut-run juvenile facility in Jena, La., upon reports that the boys had been beaten by guards and left in solitary confinement for months. Justice Department consultants who visited the facility alleged that Wackenhut had skimped on food, clothing, education, and medical treatment for the inmates—and training for the guards.
Wackenhut spokesperson Patrick Canaan says that despite the judge’s order, the facility in Jena “is well-managed and safe.” Canaan adds that, although nothing White says is flat-out untrue, the company’s facilities have no more escapes or in-house violence than other privately or publicly run prisons.
Wackenhut, in fact, has the full support of not only county leaders but also a majority of local residents—who are convinced that Winton couldn’t afford to turn Wackenhut down. Last year, the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce ranked the surrounding county as the ninth most economically distressed county in the state, out of 100 counties, says Bill Early, Hertford County’s director of industrial development.
Many residents drive more than an hour to Virginia Beach or Norfolk for higher-paying industrial jobs, says Keith Hoggard, associate editor of the Roanoke-Chowan News Herald. “Some residents already work in prisons across the border in Virginia or other parts of North Carolina,” he says. Wackenhut officials have estimated that the prison will bring about 340 jobs paying between $22,000 and $25,000 a year.
White, for her part, doubts whether Wackenhut can ever compensate its employees for the personal toll working in a prison takes: “Ten dollars an hour doesn’t seem worth the risk involved. There are a lot of jobs here. They may not be what people want, but I don’t think working in a privately run prison is any better. We’re saying we’ll take anything, any industry—and I hate to even call it that. Housing human beings in cages is not industry.”
Vann is still a common name in Winton, though no locals are officially related to the old planter family. The current Vanns are most likely the descendants of slaves who took the surname of the plantation master, says Winton resident Rochelle Vann.
Vann, also a retired teacher, doesn’t see what all the fuss is about over mostly poor black Winton locals making a living guarding mostly poor black inner-city inmates. “I’m for the prison. All our leading people are for it. Most of the leading people are black. Our sheriff is black,” says Vann, who is also black. “People need to stop thinking so much about racism. It may cross folks’ mind; it doesn’t cross my mind.”
In fact, says historian Harry Watson, building jails where slaves once toiled is a fairly common practice. “Turning Southern plantations into Southern prisons is not a secret. It’s not an innovation, either. It’s a distinguished tradition in the South,” notes Watson, the director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina. Watson points out that Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola sits on the site of the old Angola Plantation.
“There is an irony, almost a sarcasm, about taking poor black people from D.C.—who are probably second-generation immigrants from places like Hertford County—and sending them back to the plantation, in effect to be guarded by people who are desperate for work who never left,” says Watson. “But companies build based on economic concerns rather than historical ones.”
To Winton-area residents, the prison site’s antebellum past is simply a regular feature of the landscape. “Just about any farmland in the South, slaves probably worked it at some point. That’s how they worked farms before 1865,” Hoggard says. CP