A Company That Designs Jails is Spying On Activists Who Oppose Them

Documents show HDR, Inc. has monitored groups that oppose its controversial plans to build jails and highways.
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HDR Inc. is a multi-billion dollar architecture and design firm that has designed over 275 jails and prisons. But designing buildings isn't the only service the company offers—according to documents obtained through a public records request and provided to Motherboard, the firm has been monitoring activist groups’ social media for the government, including people who have opposed its plans to build jails and highways.


The documents show HDR surveilled both public and private Facebook groups run by activists opposed to its projects, including the resistance camp Moadag Thadiwa, which sought to block the construction of a nearly $2 billion highway that cuts through the sacred Indigenous mountain Moahdak Do’ag in Arizona. Other groups the firm monitored include a private group for locals called Ahwatukee411, and Protecting Arizona’s Resources & Children (PARC), an organization that sued the Arizona Department of Transportation over the freeway. 

The company also generated an "influencer" report, an analysis of public sentiment on social media platforms, and a geospatial analysis that placed communities into categories such as “ethnic enclaves,” “barrios urbanos,” “scholars and patriots,” and “American dreamers.” HDR said it created social media accounts with a reach of over 5,000 Facebook followers and 25,000 email subscribers weekly that “provided a platform for accurate project information.”       


The surveillance is conducted by HDR’s STRATA team, a division that “leverages large data sets to visually display social and political risk nationwide,” according to documents obtained by Building Up People Not Prisons, a prison abolitionist coalition. The company's "social listening" program provides 24/7 monitoring of social media platforms to determine trends and key influencers. Gathered intelligence is then sent to the authorities and used to inform HDR’s “strategic communications” practices, wherein the company creates targeted television, radio, and social media campaigns, as well as hosts public hearings for clients.

“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,” HDR advertises in a publicly-available document, “and when there is time to develop strategies to mitigate or diminish risk.” (Since this article was published, the document has been removed from HDR’s website. A copy is linked above, for posterity)

HDR declined to respond to Motherboard’s request for comment, with a spokesperson stating that it is "corporate policy not to speak on behalf of our clients or their projects."  


According to additional documents obtained by Motherboard through a public records request, the Board of Commissioners in Greene County, Ohio hired HDR in April 2021 for “justice consulting and planning services'' to construct a new jail that will need approval from voters. As part of the contract, HDR is sending weekly reports to the county summarizing its social listening campaign, which identifies potential risks, influencers, social networks, and user demographics. The company is also developing a "public involvement plan" that “educates stakeholders and the overall community about the proposed solution” in an attempt to persuade locals on the project.

HDR’s work is an example of what some scholars call "corporate counterinsurgency," or corporate countermovements. When social movements threaten profits and political agendas, corporations and the government sometimes work side-by-side to neutralize those who oppose controversial projects.  

“Often these techniques are dressed like wolves in sheeps' clothing,” John Stauber, an author and expert on industry manipulation, told Motherboard. “They are run like a public participation process, when the real purposes are surveying and evaluating public opinion, the leadership of potential opposition groups, and citizen activists who seek to change, delay or halt a multi-million dollar project." 


In these campaigns, corporations typically describe the public as an equal partner, Stauber said. "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.”

Tactics often fall into “hard” and “soft” categories. Hard tactics include deputizing police to confront protesters on the ground, as well as infiltration and other forms of violence. At the Standing Rock anti-pipeline encampment in North Dakota, for example, private security guards working for Energy Transfer Partners violently attacked water protectors with dogs and pepper spray, and police arrested more than 500 people. Soft tactics include engaging reformist-oriented activists and what some scholars call “engineering consent” through astroturf campaigns and other public relation strategies. Enbridge, the company building the Line 3 pipeline, is funding "Minnesotans for Line 3," a pro-pipeline group presenting itself as a grassroots organization.


HDR’s STRATA appears to primarily use the latter strategy. Hoping to secure a contract for designing and planning a controversial new women’s prison in Massachusetts, HDR advertised its social listening services in a report submitted to Massachusetts’ Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM) in September 2020. 

“Now more than ever it is critical to monitor and utilize digital conversation to help guide our communication plans and processes,” the company wrote. “We live in a time where conversations on social equity and injustices are extremely prevalent in our daily conversations and the conversations shift drastically from one topic to the next in a matter of hours.”  

DCAMM and HDR are well-acquainted with activist-induced risk. In June 2021, Travis County in Austin, Texas paused its plans with HDR to build a new women’s jail following pushback from activists. And on two occasions, DCAMM’s plans to build a new women’s prison have been delayed by legal challenges mounted by the local activist group Families for Justice and Healing (FJAH). 


“We don't need the police. We don't need cameras. We don't need a brand new prison. We need resources,” Sashi James, an FJAH member whose parents were incarcerated when she was a child, told Motherboard.

Perhaps with this risk in mind, DCAMM’s Project Manager Emmanuel Andrade expressed interest in HDR’s social listening platform, according to emails obtained by Motherboard. “We’re intrigued by how HDR would use this communication practice of monitoring and analyzing online conversations in our project,” he replied. “Can HDR share a few examples of how that has been accomplished in recent projects?”  

HDR’s response revealed the company had been surveilling activists’ social media and managing "strategic communications" for the government since at least 2016. In 2015, the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) hired HDR as an “engineering consultant” for For the Akimel O’odham people, who live in the nearby Gila River Indian Community (GRIC), the mountain is respected, revered and home to their most powerful deity. Indigenous and environmental activists mounted a defense, with a resistance camp and legal challenges brought by GRIC, Protecting Arizona’s Resources and Children (PARC), and other groups. 

The surveillance and PR helped inform strategy and messaging that, according to HDR,  “effectively changed the conversation of the project to focus on the positive public support, economic benefits, job creation and improved mobility in the area.”


While HDR claims to promote engagement with citizens and stakeholders, GRIC has said that their concerns, and the concerns of other indigenous groups, weren’t respected. Police barred GRIC and activists from attending at least one public meeting before the highway was officially opened in 2019.  

James, the activist with Families for Justice and Healing, similarly said the government and HDR are not listening to directly impacted community members. During a public meeting earlier this year, Massachusetts allotted HDR hours to present its proposal, while the community was allotted eight minutes, according to James. 

On June 4, 2021, the Massachusetts Department of Corrections and DCAMM signed a contract with HDR for the study and design of a jail for women. DCAMM did not respond to a request for clarification on whether the agency will be relying on HDR’s social listening services.  

To activists like James, hiring public relations consultants like HDR who claim to know what’s best for the community is just another form of policing.

“They are bringing in people who have no idea, who have never been incarcerated, who have never had to even think about what it feels like to take a right turn without a blinker on just to get pulled over and get your car searched” she said. “When you have [directly impacted] organizations laying out infrastructures of how we envision public safety, to say that you want to build a new prison shows that the system only has one vision. And that's to keep incarcerating us.”

Update: After this article was published, a document about HDR’s PR strategy was removed from the company’s website. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.