The senseless lottery of convict leasing

A biweekly column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.

bridgingthegapOnce again there are overcrowding issues in Minnesota prisons as more and more evidence is provided that the mass incarceration principles and policies of the last 20 to 30 years have only alienated the poor and marginalized them more than they already were.

Even as policies are discussed and bills proposed to reduce prison populations in the states throughout the country, Minnesota can’t figure out an alternative to a convict leasing program that has hundreds (exact numbers are kept secret for some reason) of prisoners being housed in county jails.

Hurrah! Here comes the Corrections Corporation of America with a push to open its prison in Appleton, Minnesota. It is supposed to provide the beds at a cheaper cost than the Department of Correction pays to these county jails. So the plan is instead — more beds! Not fewer prisoners — more beds. Not less incarceration — more.

What is missing from any of the solutions they are offering are the names and faces and personal histories and futures of the men and women who, by lottery, are warehoused in these places. The criteria used to identify candidates for placement in these alternative jailhouse environments have nothing to do with the transformation of real human beings with names and families.

It offers no consideration of the individual’s needs or any kind of reentry plans they may have in place. Instead, prisoners in prime reentry situations are unable to dictate any of the terms of their homecoming.

In my discussions with numerous men over the course of my own warehousing, I met guys whose first taste of transition from closed-custody facilities like Stillwater and Rush City were as transfers to county jails. It is hard enough to adjust to medium environments, but the county jail experience freezes all their property and halts any continuity of their rehabilitation.

Imagine having a year of your life taken from you: your job, your friends, your way of life. Then imagine that job likely not being there when you get back and having your pay degraded by up to 400 percent.

That’s just from the required year prisoners are subjected to in their county jail experience. Guys I know have been transferred in the middle of educational programming or in topped-out paying jobs that allow them to reduce the financial burden on their families and potentially save some money for their re-entry.

These are men in the middle of programs the Department itself uses as their evidence that they care about the futures of the people they are responsible for. They are programs these men have chosen to build skills and employability upon release. Yet, they are obviously not important enough to prevent these men being sent away based on numbers plucked from a database.

The part of this that is so damning is the path men take making decisions to enter into educational and vocational programing. Some sincerely use it to make change in their lives. They make conscious decisions to break from the patterns of a different kind of life.

Some of these men have spent years challenging themselves to earn a GED. That may have been harder for some than for others. Educational opportunities beyond a GED or high school diploma was a way to continue their progress and restructure a self-image made from being a number in a warehouse.

I still have friends who were victims of the last major exile to Appleton from 2005 and ’06. They were treated in ways similar to how guys in the county jail leasing program are treated now. It certainly didn’t make them better fathers or provide any resources for the rebuilding of their characters.

It didn’t continue their educations, and it certainly didn’t help them envision lives greater than what they’ve always been. No, it didn’t do anything but stop positive trajectories or create even more fear and uncertainty.

What convict leasing programs have always done is to ship people to obscure places, far-away places for families to visit with exorbitant phone rates to further expand the disconnect between us and the communities we are supposed to return to  as contributing members!

This is a long-term problem that won’t be fixed by small-scale drug sentencing reforms. Finding more beds won’t help men be better fathers to their children. Being present will. We don’t want more cells to shove the people we know — the members of your families — into. We want less prison.


Ezekiel Caligiuri is prison justice organizer and arts coordinator for Voices for Racial Justice and a participant in Voices’ “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to To learn more about the organization’s work, visit