Civic pride, civic duty, civic leaders, civic center. When we hear the word “civic,” we don’t often picture the private-prison industry. Yet with the recent rebranding of the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) to the newly named CoreCivic, it may be time we start. This, at least, was an aspect of the conversation at “Incarceration Nation,” part of the 2017 PEN World Voices Festival. Presenters were assembled on stage in two rows of seven chairs, in an auditorium at The Cooper Union—across the street from the Great Hall where Lincoln made his famous address on slavery. They were there for the PEN Prison Writing Program’s performative close reading of the private-prison profiteer’s labyrinthine website. Jackson Taylor, the director of the program, introduced their “kind of walking tour” of the site by asking: What is this website for? What is it intended to do?

Since the 2016 festival, when the group performed a similar close reading of CCA’s website, much has changed, both for the world and for the private-prison profiteer’s public identity. Last summer, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates announced that President Barack Obama’s Justice Department would no longer employ private prisons. This decision, late in his presidency, affected thirteen privately run prisons and 11 percent of the federal inmate population. After the announcement, CCA’s stock price fell nearly 50 percent overnight. But as Taylor noted in his introduction, “History has shown there is a lot of money to be made on systems of slavery.” After November’s election, CoreCivic’s stock skyrocketed, and Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions reinstated the use of private prisons for federal inmates.

I had just walked over from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, where I’d attended another PEN World Voices panel, “U.S. Borders and the Central American Diaspora,” moderated by Valeria Luiselli. The Saturday morning audience at The Cafe was engaged and invested—many of the people sitting all around me were translators, writers, attorneys, or worked for organizations dedicated to helping migrants. (There was, in fact, a push from the audience for panelists to share the names of more organizations to get involved with, which included The Young Center, Casas del Migrante, United We Dream, U.U. College of Social Justice, and No More Deaths, among others.) Writers Reyna Grande, Francisco Cantú, and Francisco Goldman read from their work, and in addition to moving readings and harrowing stories of the border, immigration attorney Rebecca Sosa spoke to “legal terms of art” and the ways in which the definition of words is of paramount importance to her work. Cantú, an essayist and former Border Patrol agent, also noted that the US Border Patrol—which is almost majority Hispanic, comprised in large part of agents recruited from the border regions, some of whom crossed over as children—is the largest law-enforcement agency in the country. This was on my mind as I took my seat toward the front of the auditorium for the performance at Cooper Union. After all, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which expanded under the Trump administration, relies on private prison companies.

The room was quiet as readers came up to the mic one by one to wryly comment on various individual pages or aspects of the site. All the readers were writers in their own rights, and the performance ranged from riffs on the corporation’s new logo to jabs at their typos and incorrect grammar to poetic image analyses. The projector at the back wall of the stage behind them, operated by Crystal Yeung, displayed images of CoreCivic’s newer, sleeker website (which still links and snakes in circuitous ways through the old CCA site). One reader commented on the site’s Google Map of “facilities” throughout the United States. As if locating a McDonald’s or a Starbucks, you can, as the website states, “use the state filter and map below to find the facility location nearest you.” Another reader questioned the dramatic, one-sided tales of volunteerism. Graduation images appear on the site without any information detailing degrees or degree-granting entities. References to inmates in the site’s copy are scarce and, when used, euphemistic (e.g., “those in our care”). Indeed, anyone familiar with branding might agree with Taylor, who said, “Re-branding is an old game to mask corporate failure or ambition.” Of course, when taking stage after the festival’s own promotional video concluded, he noted, “I suppose the PEN video we were just watching shows that non-profit organizations are also now under pressure to mimic corporate identities.”

At a few moments during the performance, I wondered why I couldn’t just browse the site myself, why this clearly talented group of writers felt the need to devote so much painstaking attention to every page of the obviously obfuscating website. But was the obfuscation so obvious? I thought of the kind of close reading I’d been teaching first-year students at Columbia the past four semesters, and how easy it is, when confronted with an overload of information, to want to turn away. In the face of moneyed corporations with political power, this is a particularly dangerous prospect.

CoreCivic now presents itself as a service to alleviate social ailments rather than as a corporation preying upon them: “The CoreCivic name speaks to our ability to solve the tough challenges facing government at all levels and to the deep sense of service that we feel every day to help people.” In a powerful conclusion, presenter Tim Small said, “CoreCivic, the brand, would like us to believe that CoreCivic, the business, is no longer a prison and is no longer private. That, at its core, it is a civic service, with scale and experience, not merely partners of government but part of government, fiercely devoted to reducing recidivism and expanding reentry programs […] But make no mistake, CoreCivic, the business, will suffer if such reentry programs succeed.”

Small continued, “Will there be a day when civic is so obsolete a concept that CCA will have to change its name yet again?”

Merriam-Webster defines “civic” as “of or relating to a citizen, a city, citizenship, or community affairs.” It comes from the Latin civicus, from civis, citizen. As Jackson Taylor said in his introduction, “Already we’ve seen prison contractors affect the architecture of our schools, our civic buildings. If you aren’t sure what I mean, I invite you to visit the recently renovated Amtrak bathrooms at Penn Station, and you’ll see the institutional fixtures there are interchangeable with many found in prisons.”

When the Incarceration Nation event ended, a man sitting behind me said, “Well, that was interesting.” He asked if I’d be returning to the auditorium in a half hour for “The Incarceration of Women.” I would have liked to, I said, but I was off to another panel: “Pen vs. Sword: Satire vs. the State.” As I was preparing to leave, I received an e-postcard from Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. I had sent it to myself exactly a year earlier, in the manner of a time capsule, from a kiosk questionnaire at the opening of the former prison’s exhibition “Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” Wandering through the birthplace of solitary confinement, the Quaker panopticon that now hosts yoga in addition to “Terror Behind the Walls” around Halloween and various other “dark tourism” events, 2016 felt like a decidedly more optimistic time for prison abolition. (A large sign there read, “Mass incarceration isn’t working.”)

My students had been discussing satire this semester, and remembering a student’s question brought me back to a moment in that morning’s “U.S. Borders and the Central American Diaspora” panel. One day in class, we had been discussing ways of “complicating” thinking, of “complicating” arguments, and a student asked why we would want to do such a thing. Is that something we want? he’d asked. Back at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, in response to a question from writer and translator Sam Bett, Francisco Cantú said, “I hope that my writing presents the border and immigration in an exceedingly complex way […] I joined the Border Patrol after college, after studying immigration issues, and I thought [it] would unlock all these questions I’d been studying, would give me these great answers that I could use to become a badass immigration lawyer or some radical policy maker, but… I only have more questions and everything only seemed more complicated, like crushingly complicated.”

Many on the panel spoke to the ways in which the media strips immigrants of their humanity and reduces them to numbers or stats. Conversely, this panel demonstrated firsthand the power of writing and storytelling. Grande’s reading from her memoir, The Distance Between Us, for instance, put me in the mind of a young girl far away from where I sat, and had me laughing and wanting to cry at once. Judging from the sounds of my neighbors, I wasn’t alone.

This question of complexity, of giving voice to stories from various perspectives, was echoed across panels, and for good reason. When complex issues are made into melodramas for news stories, when lives are treated as profit opportunities, when language becomes a tool wielded for falsehoods, when bodies go unnamed in a desert, when there is no evidence, when fellow citizens are not recognized as such, it is difficult to know where to focus our attentions. I was reminded of the poet Claudia Rankine’s explanation of her award-winning book’s title. In an interview with The Guardian, she said, “I called it Citizen because I wanted to ask: who gets to hold that status—despite everyone technically having it?”

In a large auditorium at St. Joseph’s College on Saturday evening, a group of panelists deftly moderated by Elissa Schappell discussed possibilities of satire as a tool for change. There were more questions from the audience than there was time, and often both questions and responses were met with applause. Masha Gessen’s point, though, seemed to connect and reverberate through the concerns of a disparate collection of speakers. “Our biggest concern,” she said, “should be about protecting the use of language in the public sphere and truth in the public sphere. And nothing else.” This protection is something that, with the abuse of language all around us, we’ll need each other to achieve.

Liza St. James

Liza St. James is a writer and translator from San Francisco. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in BOMB, Tin House, Words Without Borders, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She teaches in the Undergraduate Writing Program at Columbia University, and has taught writing at San Quentin State Prison with the Prison University Project.

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