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Company Surveils Activists Opposing Construction of Prisons and Jails

by Keith Sanders

As if building prisons were not enough, companies are now engaged in what are called “corporate counterinsurgency” measures designed to influence public opinion by monitoring and surveilling groups opposing the construction of new prisons and other public works projects.

One architecture and design company in particular, HDR Inc., even has what it calls its STRATA team, dedicated to keep tabs on activist groups’ social media accounts for the government.

Documents obtained by a public records request and given to Motherboard, a Vice News project, detail how the billion-dollar firm utilizes the information gleaned from its surveillance. HDR has a program called “social listening” that monitors social media platforms 24/7 in order to discern key trends and influencers. The results of the monitoring are included in an “influencer” report that analyzes public sentiment by categorizing groups as “ethnic enclaves,” “barrios urbanos,” “scholars and patriots,” and “American dreamers.”

Building Up People Not Prisons, a prison abolition group, revealed documents showing how HDR “leverages large data sets to visually display social and political risk nationwide.”

For instance, in April 2021 the Board of Commissioners in Greene County, OH contracted HDR not only to build a new jail but also for ‘‘justice consulting and planning services,” according to Motherboard. HDR sends weekly reports to Greene County identifying “potential risks, influencers, social networks, and user demographics,” Motherboard added.

The data, supposedly, is to help guide the county in persuading local residents, who must vote to approve construction of the new jail, and more importantly, approve the bond issues to pay for it. In a company statement, HDR justifies its surveillance on the grounds that controversy is “costly, both in reputation and in dollars. Social and political risk deserves attention at the planning stage of a project or program where it can be carefully assessed.” [Editor’s Note: Of course, mass incarceration and a massive police state is costly as well, both in terms of money and lives, yet the questions seems to be who profits from the latter.]

But activists and academics are not so sure. Instead of persuading public opinion, companies like HDR set out to neutralize opposition of controversial projects. A writer and expert on industry manipulation, John Stauber, told Motherboard that HDR’s techniques are “dressed like wolves in sheeps’ clothing.” Stauber pointed out that HDR is “run like a public participation process” but “if members of the public are opposed in any way to the objectives of the project they become the enemy, to be dealt with and overcome through sophisticated and usually invisible PR and media management techniques.”

Nevertheless, HDR’s tactics are not always as effective as the company advertises. In response to campaigning by local activists, Travis County, Austin, TX put on hold its plans to construct a new women’s prison with HDR. The Massachusetts Department of Corrections recently signed a contract with HDR in June 2021 to study and design a new jail for women, but only after extensive legal challenges by Families for Justice and Healing (FJAH), a local activist group.

Sashi James, an FJAH member whose parents had been incarcerated when she was a child, told Motherboard that “We don’t need the police. We don’t need cameras. We don’t need brand new prisons. We need resources.” When companies design infrastructure masquerading as public safety, when they “want to build a new prison,” James added, that “shows that the system only has one vision. And that’s to keep incarcerating us.”

Editor’s Note: As we go to press, Greene County is preparing for a Nov. 2, 2021 vote on imposing a 0.25% sales tax increase that would go towards the $53 million construction cost of the new jail that HDR has been pushing for. 



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