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In September, while Ward 8 residents were fuming about Safeway’s decision to close the impoverished ward’s last remaining supermarket, the grocery chain got a pretty sweet offer. If Safeway decided to keep the store open, someone was willing to pony up the dough to cover its operating losses, which company officials had said approached $1 million annually.

The novel thing, though, was just who was making the offer. It wasn’t a government agency out to spark economic development. It wasn’t a real estate developer determined to protect his investment. It wasn’t even a nonprofit aiming to protect the community. The offer came from an outfit not traditionally associated with grocery stores: the Nashville-based private prison operator Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).

“CCA actually offered to sort of subsidize them for a year or two, to see if they could make that Safeway more successful in terms of attracting customers,” says former D.C. councilmember John Ray, CCA’s local lobbyist. “They’ve done a number of programs [like that] in communities where they work.”

Safeway remained dead-set on exiting the ward. CCA, on the other hand, is desperate to stick around. In fact, it currently operates a seven-days-a-week shuttle bus ferrying residents from the now-shuttered store to another supermarket. Of course, the company’s not just there to make sure the downtrodden masses have access to Town House-brand stuffed olives. Listen to CCA officials and you’ll soon learn that their agenda also includes building a university, opening up a major job-training facility, creating solidly middle-class jobs, establishing college scholarships, cleaning up the environment, providing recreational facilities, and doling out contracts to locals in everything from the garment industry to drug rehabilitation.

Oh, yeah, and there’s also one other wee little item: CCA is up for approval of its plans to build a private prison facility in the midst of one of D.C.’s poorest neighborhoods. The project must clear the D.C. Zoning Commission before CCA gets to negotiate a contract with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

CCA’s Joseph F. Johnson says the bureau’s decision on Monday to switch from the original 2,200-inmate proposal and instead solicit two bids—one to house 1,000 minimum-security inmates, the other to house 1,200 more dangerous low-security prisoners—doesn’t change the company’s commitment to Ward 8. “There’s really not a major change from their original RFP [request for proposal],” says Johnson. We’re going to compete for both.” He says he won’t know more until the amended RFP is issued next month.

“CCA is throwing out a laundry list and a pie in the sky to get this thing through,” says Ward 8 neighbor Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, an outspoken opponent of the proposal. “They want to train; they want to educate; they want to do small-business development. They might as well be a city! John Ray wants to be the mayor of CCA-ville.”

These days, a private prison company could probably afford to run a whole chain of underperforming Safeways if it wanted, and give away free food, too. Nationwide, the drug war, mandatory minimum sentences, and a trend toward government privatization have turned prisons into corporate gold mines. According to the November/December Correctional Building News, CCA just announced a 1998 third-quarter net income of $21.1 million, up a whopping 54 percent from a year ago. Multiply 2,200 prisoners by an industry average cost of $70 a day, then multiply that by 365 days a year, and you have a contract that’s worth more than $56 million annually, a healthy portion of which will go to CCA’s bottom line.

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Perhaps that explains why the company is able to promise a pricey menu of community amenities, including:

Washington University of Technology. CCA’s proposal includes a memorandum of understanding with the founders of Diesel Institute of America to open a vocational training school next to the prison. Ray says the prison would supply the institute with up to 2,200 inmate-students, thereby allowing the school to provide classes to locals on diesel mechanics, truck driving, computer repairs, and even culinary arts. And, of course, there’ll be scholarships aplenty. “No one will be refused because of financial reasons,” says Sheldon Monsein of the Diesel Institute.

Small-Business Loan Fund. CCA has pledged

$1 million in capital for a revolving loan fund for minority-owned businesses in Ward 8. “The million-dollar revolving fund was set up for a variety of issues of entrepreneurship assistance,” says Johnson. “Plus, it will hopefully guarantee homeowner improvement funds.”

Home Price Guarantees. CCA says it is so confident a prison won’t deflate nearby property values that it will guarantee them. “If you can show that on this date this was the value of your property,” says Ray, “and it was decreased $5,000 or $10,000, CCA will pay the difference.” Of course, the company won’t necessarily compensate potential increases that may be lost. But in an area historically faced with precarious land values, the guarantee is an unprecedented gesture. “They don’t mind doing it, because it’s a pretty safe bet,” says Ray.

It doesn’t stop there. CCA’s promises to Ward 8 also include criminal-justice scholarships to the University of the District of Columbia. And there could be still more on the plate. “I’ve been going through the original application,” says prison opponent Philip Pannell, “and there’s nothing talking about HIV and AIDS, which is really quite puzzling. But I’m sure that when it comes up they’ll say, ‘Well, we’ll throw that in, too. It seems to grow all the time.’”

Considering the thin gruel historically afforded east-of-the-river D.C., CCA-ville sounds like a pretty sweet place. The ancillary benefits the company has promised in response to community concerns represent a level of services and amenities neither government nor charity nor anyone else has ever provided to Ward 8—or, for that matter, to anyone else in D.C.

“We have no sit-down restaurants, no movie theaters, nothing,” says Ward 8 neighbor Rahim Jenkins, a leading advocate of the prison. “Now here’s an opportunity for a partnership with a company that wants desperately to be in the community. It makes sense to me.”

But Ward 8 residents who welcome the prison might want to check into CCA’s record at other facilities. The much-publicized problems of CCA’s Youngstown, Ohio, facility—where locals in the desolate Rust Belt city have soured on the company’s promises of economic development and the governor has made noises about throwing the company out altogether—have cast a hefty shadow over the company’s current deep-pockets, good-neighbor posture.

“They did an awful job in Youngstown,” says Eric Lotke, executive director of the D.C. Prisoners’ Legal Services Project, which represents plaintiffs in a lawsuit over conditions at the Ohio prison. Lotke says the facility has seen two fatal stabbings, at least two dozen nonfatal stabbings, five medical deaths, and six escapes since D.C.’s prisoners arrived in May 1997.

And that’s just in the field CCA is supposed to know something about. “I have no reason to believe that CCA has any experience in running community colleges or grocery stores,” says Lotke. “It’s difficult to believe that the promises as they are being made can really be kept.”

Beyond just jobs, CCA’s promises to play social-welfare state to the nonincarcerated—in exchange for serving as jailer to the incarcerated—strike a lot of folks as downright unseemly. “I think those tactics are a disgraceful way to conduct public policy,” says Gregg Rhett, of the citywide planning organization the Committee of 100 on the Federal City. “To appeal to people’s base needs with what is a basic bribe is a disgraceful way to do business.”

“It’s a high-class scam where you go in and make promises,” says Ward 8 Democrats President Mary Parham Wolfe.

So far, CCA’s largess hasn’t helped much. Ward 8’s advisory neighborhood commissions (ANCs) have all rejected the proposal. Councilmember Sandy Allen has used the commissioners’ decisions as an opportunity to come down off the fence and announce her own opposition. Across the District Line, Maryland Governor Parris Glendening and Prince George’s County Executive Wayne Curry have said no as well.

And yet for all the bluster, no one has been able to get around the central irony: If CCA does what it says—which is, of course, a major question mark—it will be bringing Ward 8 a bunch of amenities none of these legislators can promise. “We’ve got to make a career for our own people in the community,” says Ward 8 resident Howard Floyd, who supports the prison. “And government ain’t doing it. You know that for a fact.”

When Ray showed up in late September to pitch the proposed lockup to ANC 8D, where the facility would be located, the four-time mayoral candidate began his talk with a slippery exercise in semantics. “We are not building a prison,” he said. “We are building a correctional and rehabilitation center.” The audience hooted.

It went downhill from there. Ray pooh-poohed neighborhood concerns about being a dumping ground for D.C.’s unwanted by arguing, “Ward 8 has fewer of the so-called undesirable facilities than several other wards.” His contention that work in jail industries would let prisoners “save, to help them get off to a good start when they are released” drew nearly an entire minute of laughter. And he saved the ultimate hack cliché to demonstrate his love for the community: “I have a lot of friends in Ward 8.”

Not that night, he didn’t. The commissioners unanimously voted against the idea.

Last week, however, Ray was on more comfortable ground, speaking in lawyerly tones to the D.C. Zoning Commission. The company had made sure the room had plenty of prison supporters, many of whom had arrived from Ward 8 on a shiny All States Tour & Travel Services Bus wearing brand-new pro-prison T-shirts. The travel and T-shirt expenses were paid for by the company, according to Johnson. Others had arrived in outfits that made their affiliation even more explicit: uniforms from their jobs as CCA guards.

CCA began the effort to build a prison within the city limits with a very small public constituency, but it has done a good job of building it up since. Prison proponents sport T-shirts bearing the slogan “Keep Them Home” and make the very reasonable argument that incarcerated people should be housed near their families rather than in far-flung jails. But a look at CCA’s most prominent local proponents shows that money—both actual and potential—is also a key piece of the mix.

Jenkins, who followed Ray at the September ANC meeting with a beautiful speech in favor of the prison, is a correctional consultant who has a contract with CCA. According to Ray, Leona Redmond, another longtime Ward 8 resident slated to testify before the Zoning Commission in favor of the proposal, has a memorandum of understanding with the company to provide garment services—uniforms and linen, for example. “She’s never had a customer that she could go to the bank and say she’s got a contract [with],” says Ray. “We’ve already signed an MoU with her. She figures she could hire up to about 200 people.”

Meanwhile, Johnson says that CCA has in the past given money to Citizens for a Progressive Ward 8, whose leader, Joyce Scott, has been an outspoken advocate of the new facility and was the only speaker besides Ray and Jenkins to support the prison at the September ANC meeting. Johnson also says that no matter what happens with the proposal, he’s determined to hold a drug-treatment fundraiser in the ward whose primary beneficiary would be Sam Foster, a longtime local treatment provider. “I’ve made a commitment to work with Sam regardless of whether we get this proposal or not,” he says. “We’re planning on having a major fundraiser to try to raise some money for drug treatment in the ward, specifically looking at Sam’s program.”

And Johnson confirms that still more prominent community members who support the proposal have ties to CCA. He says the company has a memorandum of understanding with local project proponent William Lockridge’s Association of Black Contractors of Ward 8. “We would give them first preference and underwrite bonding issues for them,” he says, explaining that minority businesses often have a hard time coming up with the money to execute contracts.

As with the Shaw convention-center debate, this is a standard ploy for a powerful interest trying to win over a D.C. neighborhood: Spread some money around and people will take it—often for perfectly honorable reasons. “Look at the for and against,” says Ward 8 activist Sandra Seegars, referring to a list of witnesses slated to appear before the Zoning Commission. “The ‘fors’—they all have some type of organization. And they probably think their organization in some way can have a contract with the prison.” With Ray talking about still more partnering opportunities, it’s a logical assumption—at least until the deal goes though.

Of course, that’s not likely to happen too soon. After the second Zoning Commission hearing on the proposal, the commission still had more than 60 scheduled witnesses to go. The commission will discuss the subject again at its Dec. 10 meeting. CP