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A Stray Email Exposes a Prison Company’s Rebranding Efforts

Mother Jones

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CoreCivic, the private prison company formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America, has been working with a communications firm that boasts an “aggressive media strategy” for countering investigative journalists. CoreCivic apparently retained the Alexandria, Virginia-based firm to manage its reputation following the publication of a Mother Jones story in which I detailed my four months working as a corrections officer at a CoreCivic-operated prison in Louisiana.

The prison company’s connection to the PR firm came to light through a recent email sent by CoreCivic spokesperson Jonathan Burns to Hillenby chief operating officer Katie Lilley. Burns copied Texas Public Radio reporter Aaron Schrank on the email, presumably unintentionally. Schrank forwarded the email to me. The email suggests that Hillenby has been assisting CoreCivic in developing its public response to my reporting.

A two-page set of talking points, titled “Get the Facts on Mother Jonesâ&#128;¨,” were attached to the message. Burns said he wanted to have the talking points, which CoreCivic originally issued last summer, “handy” during a “Metro Commission meeting,” and asked Lilley if she could have it “CoreCivic-ified first,” referring to the company’s recent decision to change its name and logo. The meeting Burns mentioned may be a reference to a meeting in Nashville, where CoreCivic is based and where it has a contract to run the Metro-Davidson County Detention Facility.

The talking points label me as an “activist reporter” who sought to “force onto Mother Jones readers a rehashed and predetermined premise instead of a factual and informed story.” The document focuses largely on the fact that I sought employment as a prison guard rather than simply interviewing CoreCivic about their company. It accuses me of having “jeopardized the safety and security” of the prison and its employees by writing about the things I had witnessed and experienced there, rather than reporting them to my supervising officer. The memo also criticizes me for neglecting to speak “to a person supportive of our company and the solutions we provide.” CoreCivic declined multiple interview requests while I was reporting my article. I also sent the company more than 150 questions seeking responses and further information.

CoreCivic and Hillenby’s executives did not respond to requests to comment for this article.

It’s unclear what, if any, steps Hillenby has taken to help rebrand CoreCivic. On its website, Hillenby doesn’t name many of its clients and describes its campaigns in general terms. The firm claims it has successfully curtailed the publication of investigative reports “with every national television network, investigative cable news programs and several other print, digital and broadcast outlets, including hardline activist media.” For example, it claims that its “aggressive media strategy” succeeded in pushing an investigative report by an unnamed broadcast company to be “indefinitely delayed” and “likely dropped.” The firm says it helps companies “incorporate certain language” in their correspondence with investigative reporters to “introduce the concept of legal risk.”

The PR firm’s top executives, Rob Hoppin and Katie Lilley, previously worked at Edelman, one of the world’s largest PR firms. Edelman has used controversial strategies while performing corporate facelifts. In 2006, it created Working Families for Walmart, a supposedly grassroots group of Walmart supporters. Its blog posts turned out to have been written by Edelman employees. Edelman also helped organize “Wal-Marting Across America,” a blog written by a road-tripping couple who recorded their overwhelmingly positive interactions with Walmart employees. Edelman flew the couple to Las Vegas and furnished them with a mint-green RV adorned with the Working Families for Walmart logo. It’s unclear if Hoppin and Lilley worked on those campaigns, though both were on Edelman’s Walmart account at the time, according to their online bios.

A few weeks after I stopped working at the prison, in early 2015, CoreCivic notified the Louisiana Department of Corrections that it planned to terminate its contract to operate the facility, which had been set to expire in 2020. According to DOC documents, the state had asked CoreCivic to address numerous issues at the prison involving security, staffing levels, training, programming for inmates, and a bonus paid to Winn’s warden that “causes neglect of basic needs.” Shortly following the publication of my article last June, the Justice Department announced it would phase out its use of private prisons.

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A Stray Email Exposes a Prison Company’s Rebranding Efforts

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Racist Chelsea Fans Shove Black Man Off Paris Metro Train

Mother Jones

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A group of fans of the English soccer club Chelsea were filmed forcibly blocking a black man from entering a subway train in Paris.

The video, recorded by an onlooker and provided to the Guardian on Tuesday, shows the white fans violently shoving the unidentified subway rider as he attempts to squeeze into the train, while chanting “We’re racist. We’re racist. And that’s the way we like it.” A black woman is seen backing away from the commotion.

According to Paul Nolan, the British man who recorded the scene, the fans also referenced World War II in their chants.

Club officials were quick to condemn the incident. “Such behaviour is abhorrent and has no place in football or society,” read a statement. “We will support any criminal action against those involved, and should evidence point to involvement of Chelsea season-ticket holders or members the club will take the strongest possible action against them, including banning orders.”

Paris prosecutors have also announced a probe looking into the video.

The shocking footage comes as a separate video surfaced earlier this week of Arrigo Sacchi, Italy’s former soccer coach, complaining there were “too many colored players” playing for Italian teams. Sacchi has since said his comments were misunderstood and the product of the media “always looking for scoops.”

As for Chelsea, the team has been dogged by racist allegations for decades. In 2011, captain John Terry was accused of calling a black player a “fucking black cunt.” European soccer in general is notorious for such abuse.

The UEFA also condemned the Chelsea supporters, but said because it occurred inside the Paris Metro and not the stadium any disciplinary action could not be taken.

“We are appalled by the incident which took place in the Paris Metro on Tuesday,” officials said in a statement. “However, as it occurred away from the stadium, it is outside UEFA’s remit to act.”


Racist Chelsea Fans Shove Black Man Off Paris Metro Train

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NYC’s public transit system will raise fares — because what choice does it have?

NYC’s public transit system will raise fares — because what choice does it have?

New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority and its director Joe Lhota received broad (and largely deserved) praise for the speed with which the city’s transit system was brought back online after Sandy. One of the things that made that recovery remarkable was how expensive it was, with the agency tallying $5 billion in expenses linked to the storm. That cost came on top of the MTA’s ongoing budget problems.


An empty, dry tunnel under the East River.

Unsurprisingly, then, the MTA today announced plans to increase fares. As reported by The New York Times:

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted unanimously on Wednesday to raise the base fare on subways and buses by a quarter, to $2.50, and increase the cost of a 30-day MetroCard by $8, to $112. …

The cost of a seven-day subway or bus pass will also rise by $1, to $30. And the bonus on pay-per-ride MetroCards will decrease to 5 percent, from 7 percent, but will be available to anyone who places at least $5 on a card. Currently, the bonus applies only to purchases of at least $10.

Those increases are 11 percent for a single ride, 8 percent for a 30-day card, and 3 percent for a 7-day pass. Sounds steep — particularly when you consider that fares have consistently increased faster than the rate of inflation. Then again, so has the number of bus routes and subway lines.


Click to embiggen.

Given that we’re talking public transit, it’s tempting to label the hikes regressive, disproportionately affecting lower-income users. But it isn’t that simple. According to the most recent subway and bus rider data, the demographics of public transit users in the region are probably not what you’d expect.

In each of these charts, the data presented is the percentage of ridership meeting a particular criterion, or, in the case of the yellow columns in each, the percentage of all New Yorkers.

While the bus (as one would expect) has more lower-income riders and riders of color, the plurality of riders of both the bus and the subway earn over $75,000 a year. The MTA does have a reduced fare structure, but it is predicated on age and disability, not ability to pay. And what’s not depicted in the graphs above is how much of the riders’ income goes to transit. So, yes, the fare increase is regressive — but perhaps less than it may at first seem.

This is the challenge of an institution that is dependent on flat-rate public financing. At some point, the cost of maintaining or expanding service outpaces the revenue that is coming in. (See also: the federal government.) Hikes are unpopular and often unduly burdensome to lower income levels. But they’re also necessary.

Earlier today, Chair Lhota announced that he was leaving the agency. Many expect that he’ll announce a (doomed) bid for mayor of New York. It’s a weird note to go out on: After receiving praise for handling Sandy, he’ll certainly be remembered for this fare hike, even though it doesn’t go into effect until March.

Then again, championing unpopular causes to preserve public priorities is ideally what politics is all about. The problem for Lhota is that you have to get elected first.

Philip Bump writes about the news for Gristmill. He also uses Twitter a whole lot.

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NYC’s public transit system will raise fares — because what choice does it have?

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Rural America: Poorer, less populous, less powerful — but now with fracking!

Rural America: Poorer, less populous, less powerful — but now with fracking!

It is the best of times and the worst of times for rural America. On the one hand, they’re the only ones among us who’ve been getting richer lately. Thanks, fracking!


From USA Today:

The nation’s oil and gas boom is driving up income so fast in a few hundred small towns and rural areas that it’s shifting prosperity to the nation’s heartland, a USA TODAY analysis of government data shows. …

Inflation-adjusted income is up 3.8% per person since 2007 for the 51 million in small cities, towns and rural areas.

The energy boom and strong farm prices have reversed, at least temporarily, a long-term trend of money flowing to cities. Last year, small places saw a 3% growth in income per person vs. 1.8% in urban areas.

Small-town prosperity is most noticeable in North Dakota, now the nation’s No. 2 oil-producing state. Six of the top 10 counties are above the state’s Bakken oil field.

“Give us a little shale, and we’ll show some pretty good income growth, too,” says Bill Connors, president of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce in Idaho.

Connors’ comment leads us to the other hand: Rural areas without energy reserves are suffering. Across the country, poverty rates are higher in rural areas than in urban areas, according to the USDA. About half of rural counties have lost population over the last four years, and that’s led to a loss of political clout as well. According to the Associated Press and TV news exit polls, rural voters accounted for only 14 percent of the Nov. 6 electorate (and more than 60 percent of them went for Mitt Romney).

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, formerly the Democratic governor of Iowa, told a Farm Journal forum last week that rural America is “becoming less and less relevant.” From the Associated Press:

He said rural America’s biggest assets — the food supply, recreational areas and energy, for example — can be overlooked by people elsewhere as the U.S. population shifts more to cities, their suburbs and exurbs.

“Why is it that we don’t have a farm bill?” said Vilsack. “It isn’t just the differences of policy. It’s the fact that rural America with a shrinking population is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country, and we had better recognize that and we better begin to reverse it.”

For the first time in recent memory, farm-state lawmakers were not able to push a farm bill through Congress in an election year, evidence of lost clout in farm states …

“We need a proactive message, not a reactive message,” Vilsack said. “How are you going to encourage young people to want to be involved in rural America or farming if you don’t have a proactive message? Because you are competing against the world now.”

That’s right, farmers: You’re not feeding America, you’re competing against the world!

Vilsack, who has made the revitalization of rural America a priority, encouraged farmers to embrace new kinds of markets, work to promote global exports and replace a “preservation mindset with a growth mindset.”

If you play Vilsack’s speech backwards, it’s actually just a low drone of, “Corn, soy, corn, soy, corn, corn, corn, soyyy.” Great for parties.

Susie Cagle writes and draws news for Grist. She also writes and draws tweets for



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Rural America: Poorer, less populous, less powerful — but now with fracking!

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