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Supporters renew push for CCA prison

(Published April 19, 1999)

By REBECCA CHARRY

Staff Writer

Martha Reed, 74, has spent much of the last five years traveling back and forth across the country to visit her grandson. The trips are expensive and difficult, she said, but heís serving 10 to 30 years on a murder charge and needs visitors. As her grandson was transferred from prison to prison, Reed followed ó from Lorton, Va., to Youngstown, Ohio, to Torrence, N.M., to Florence, Ariz. So when she was invited to hear about a plan to build a prison in D.C., there was no question in her mind she would go.

But when she got to the April 12 meeting at the Watha Daniel library in Shaw, she found out the prison was being planned by Corrections Corporation of America, the same private corrections company that runs the last three facilities her grandson has been in.

"I would like to see something built here close by, but Iím not for CCA," she said in an interview. "They are making a lot of money off those boys and they donít give them nothing. Nothing for them to do all day but sit and look at the wall and get frustrated and get into more trouble. I would rather see a federal penitentiary."

When Reed and others complained at the meeting about the way CCA treats their relatives, leaders quickly said the meeting wasnít about the company, but about the prospect of building a rehabilitative facility close to home, she said.

While opponents of the CCA plan have held rallies and lobbied city council, supporters of the proposal have had a hard time getting noticed. But the new leadership unveiled at the meeting plans to change all that.

Norm Neverson, Ward 4 coordinator for Anthony Williamsí mayoral campaign, said he is undertaking the effort in support of the prison "on behalf of humanity." He is supported by the Rev. Anthony Motley of Ward 8; Vernon Hawkins, a longtime D.C. employee from Ward 6; and representatives from the Nation of Islam. The group calls itself "The City-Wide Coalition to Keep Our Families Together," referencing their opposition to the common practice of shipping inmates to prisons far from their family and friends.

Neverson is known to many as a right-hand man to former councilman and mayoral contender John Ray, now an attorney for CCA. Sources say Motley has been offered a position as chaplain of the new facility.

Ray, Neverson and others have held several small group meetings across the city in recent weeks to promote the plan, with former mayor Marion Barry in attendance at least twice.

Barry said he will travel to CCAís Youngstown facility April 19 to deliver an inspirational speech to the inmates. Barry, who as mayor supported CCAís proposal for a Ward 8 prison, said he is not being paid by the company.

At a recent presentation in Ward 8, George Washington University business professor Charles Toftoy touted the economic benefits of the CCA facility, which he said would spend $8-10 million locally each month.

"Think of it as an anchor, like the way Hechtís or Bloomingdaleís anchors a shopping center," he said. When residents and visitors see the economic ripple effect, "theyíll forget itís a prison and everything," he said. "It could be the MCI Center of Ward 8."

Joseph Johnson, a member of CCAís board of directors and president of a corrections firm that contracts with CCA, said the real issue is helping inmates change for the better.

"Some people think of inmates as the scum of the world, without any soul or any kind of redemption," he said. "But our goal is to change the mental programming that has led them to a life of incarceration. We donít build warehouses."

CCA has made an intensive effort to build community support over the last year or so, contributing to local political campaigns and offering local residents free trips to tour its facilities. CCA recently sponsored a trip to Selma, Ala., for Ward 8 youth and has even been known to sponsor a piano recital or two.

Some residents have been won over after hearing more about CCA.

"My mind has been changed," said Ward 8 resident Shirley Ridley. "You know, when I first heard about this, I thought, ĎA prison? Oh, no! Iíve got to get out of here.í But now I just feel so educated. More people in the community need to know about this."

But some who have dealt extensively with the company arenít so sure. Trina Butler has visited her husband at the Youngstown facility so many times sheís on a first-name basis with the folks at the local motel. She was visiting there last July on the day six inmates escaped.

"To me CCA is totally not the right people to do anything," said Butler, a federal employee. "I donít think they are really committed to the rehabilitation of the inmates."

Butler said things have improved at the facility since the escape and last yearís two murders, but the little things about CCA still upset her ó like the way the prison sent a package of T-shirts for her husband back to Hechtís three times or that the items in the commissary are so expensive or just the way the Youngstown guards look at visitors when they get off the bus.

"They look at us like we are wild and crazy," she said. "Everybody ainít like that. People have jobs and follow rules on a daily basis. But they look at us like we just jumped off the welfare bus."

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator