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Part 6: Prison Shouldn-t Be A Picnic, But It Also Shouldn-t Be "Hell on Earth"

2013 wasn't a good year for private prisons on the public relations front. The industry faced federal reports of "unconstitutional conditions" in some facilities, civil rights lawsuits filed by prisoners, & CCA (the largest private prison company in the country) ceased operations in Idaho after being held in contempt by a federal judge. Prison privatization advocates highlight expected "cost savings," and some private facilities do appear to house inmates for less than comparable public prisons. That's not to say that they're doing "more for less," though. In many states, private prisons appear to do less for less:

  • Less training & screening for prison guards
  • Lower quality food
  • Lower wages for prison employees
  • Fewer rehabilitative services
  • Poor quality medical care

To be sure: prison isn't a fun experience, whether it's private or public. However, public safety is an essential government service and one that has a tremendous impact on individuals and communities. Prison privatization is sold as a cheaper, better alternative to the current system. But critics and recent events called these benefits into question, particularly for those most directly affected by privatization: inmates and prison employees.

Privatization of prisons in alabama
It's not just prisons, a system of privatized halfway houses in the Northeast has been termed a "Hell on Earth." 

Need to catch up?

Private Prison Employees: Understaffing, Poor Training, & Low Wages
In August, 2014 CCA was required to pay $8 million in back wages to current & former employees because the company's pay scale didn't comply with federal contractor guidelines:

A department official says in some cases employees were paid 40 percent less than required by pay rate regulations established for contractors. The company also wasn’t making required contributions to retirement accounts and health and life insurance. Many workers will receive more than $30,000.

CCA employees in Kentucky had it even worse. As we saw in Part 4:

The pay at the Otter Creek prison is low, even by local standards. A federal prison in Kentucky pays workers with no experience at least $18 an hour, nearby state-run prisons pay $11.22 and Otter Creek pays $8.25.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that an industry offering low wages & benefits combined with stressful, often-dangerous working conditions has difficulty attracting and keeping high-quality, skilled workers. Combine that with inadequate training for prison guards, and we have a toxic mix that leads to more violence and abuse inside private prisons.

Low Staffing & Poor Training = More Abuse & Violence
In 2013, a federal judge held CCA in contempt for repeated violations & understaffing in Idaho prisons.

CCA acknowledged earlier this year that its employees filed reports with the state that falsely showed 4,800 hours of vacant security posts as being staffed during 2012. But during the contempt of court hearing, witnesses revealed that number only included the night shift during a seven-month span.

"It is clear that the non-compliance was far worse than the report of about 4,800 hours would lead one to believe," Carter wrote. "... There is also no reason to believe the problem only began in April 2012 and was solved after October 2012. Indeed, even in the weeks prior to the contempt hearings, mandatory posts were still going unfilled — thus there remains persistent staffing pressure that is the backdrop to prison employees fabricating records. The difference today is that CCA may finally be presenting an accurate picture of its inability to fully staff its prison."

In 2014, the FBI began an investigation of this same facility that was so violent it was dubbed "the Gladiator School." 

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) acknowledged last year that it had violated its $29 million contract with the state by understaffing the Idaho Correctional Center by thousands of hours. An external audit showed CCA fell short of full staffing at the prison by 26,000 hours in 2012 alone. CCA admitted after an AP investigation that employees falsified staffing reports, sometimes claiming guards worked for 48 straight hours.

Reversing his earlier position, Idaho Republican Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter finally ordered last month that Idaho State Police investigate CCA, though Democratic lawmakers requested the FBI take the case.

A video from the facility showed prison guards watching as a man was brutally attacked by other inmates. The guards watched idly as the victim stood at the window, begging for help - before being beaten unconcious. The inmate was in a coma for 3 days.

A year ago, CCA and another company, Dominion Correctional Services LLC, agreed to pay $1.3 million to settle a lawsuit in which the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission claimed male officers at a prison in Colorado forced female workers to perform sex acts to keep their jobs.

In January, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear ordered some 400 female inmates transferred to a state-run prison after more than a dozen reports of sexual misconduct by male guards employed by CCA. Similar accusations were made in March at a CCA-run prison in Hawaii, and in May, agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement placed CCA on probation and launched an investigation of whether a guard at a central Texas detention facility sexually assaulted women on their way to being deported.

In 2012, the GEO Group's contract with Mississippi was terminated after a federal judge called the company's Walnut Grove prison "a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions."  Conditions in facilities in other states are alleged to be just as bad:

 

The ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center are seeking class-action certification for a lawsuit against the state Department of Corrections for the operation of the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, described in paperwork as a "barbaric" prison where inmates — most of them mentally ill — are beaten, exploited and mistreated by gangs and others.

Last spring, former Washington state Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail, an expert for the plaintiffs, inspected the private prison, found defects in basic security, including cell doors that wouldn't lock and a lack of staff training. "This is a prison awash in contraband and easily accessible weapons," he said. "It is an extraordinarily dangerous prison."

 

State legislators in New Mexico were "appalled" by conditions in the state's women's prison:

State lawmakers said they were appalled Monday as they learned how a private prison company runs a women's jail in Albuquerque where a correctional officer is alleged to have raped four prisoners. Female prisoners at Camino Nuevo are awakened at night and taken from their cells to clean the minimum-security prison. Correctional officers at Camino Nuevo this weekend told visiting lawmakers they had no special training for overseeing women.

But CCA says people should just chill and give it some time!

Ed Mahr, a lobbyist for Corrections Corp. of America, which operates Camino Nuevo, said the company has an excellent record in New Mexico but that, whenever a new lockup opens, there are growing pains.

Even the medical professionals aren't to be trusted:

Eighteen inmates in two separate civil lawsuits claim they were fondled or given intrusive exams – even when they weren’t needed – by Dr. Mark E. Walden, the prison physician at the time.

The claims that Walden used his position to sexually abuse inmates are being made by men incarcerated at prisons in Santa Rosa and Clayton. Both prisons are operated under contract with the state by the Boca Raton, Fla.-based GEO group, a firm that operates detention and re-entry facilities in Australia, Canada, South Africa and Britain, as well as the U.S.
[...]
The lawsuit says staff became suspicious after Walden was hired “based on observations including a sudden notable increase in volume of digital rectal exams being performed, unindicated digital rectal exams on young inmates (and) refusal by defendant Walden to have a third party present.”

As many people will point correctly point out, abuse and improper conduct by guards happens in public prisons as well. Just look no farther than the Tutwiler Prison here in Alabama.  However, as a group, public corrections employees are better trained and better paid than their private prison counterparts: 

Knowing that the single largest cost associated with prison operations is staffing, it becomes significant that this is the area where substantial differences were found. While data could not be located regarding typical contractual obligations, enough material exists in the literature to suggest that staffing is usually not an area where specific requirements are specified. Not only were major differences found in staff pay and training, but these differences may contribute to the elevation of the private sector's employee turnover rate. Furthermore, pay, training, and turnover may all contribute to the higher levels of violence seen in the private sector.

In California, CCA prison guards became full-fledged state guards with 10 weeks' less training than required for state corrections officers.

Cutting Corners By Chopping Food Budgets
Staffing is the largest cost associated with prisons, but private companies also can find ways to cut expenses. Like food.

Privatization is a concept that touches many aspects of prison life. Here in Alabama, we've written about the privatization of medical care in county jails that resulted in inmate deaths, but food is an even more compelling topic. 

After all, you may not need a doctor in prison, but you need food every day.  Hopefully, your meals aren't considered a profit center, because inmates in Ohio private prisons found out how what worked:

The $130,200 fine against Philadelphia-based Aramark Correctional Services covered continued staffing shortages, unacceptable food substitutions and shortages and sanitation issues, including maggots observed in food service operations at five prisons this month and last, according to Ohio’s July 23 letter to the company.

The quality of food has gone down since Aramark began work last September and food service concerns are more significant than in the past ten years, Joanna Saul, chief of the oversight committee, said in earlier testimony Wednesday.

Aramark’s low wages lead to high turnover and a temptation to smuggle in contraband, Saul said. “You’re making $10 to $11, you can bring in a pack of cigarettes and sell it for $300 — what are you going to choose?” Saul said.

Yes, you read that last bit right. Like prison guards, the privatization of prison food workers tempts the lower-paid employees to make money in other ways.  Like the contract food worker in a New Mexico prison who made extra cash by smuggling in drugs:

A contract prison worker was caught trying to smuggle cocaine and heroin into a New Mexico prison in what authorities believe was one of the largest drug busts within the state prison system, corrections officials said Monday.

The woman tried to bring 26 grams of cocaine and 46 grams of heroin into the Southern New Mexico Corrections Facility in Las Cruces, where she worked as a contract food service employee, according to the New Mexico Corrections Department. Her name wasn’t released.

Lack of Transparency & Oversight In Private Prisons
We know that public prisons are no picnic, but when things go wrong inside a public prison, the public can find about it through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request or the inmates themselves can bring suit. Private prisons are more insulated from transparency because FOIA doesn't apply to them. And it's no surprise that the industry has resisted efforts to require more disclosure.

There have been efforts in privatization states to bring private prison operators under the FOIA umbrella, but unfortunately money talks louder than the "right to know."

That could change. Just a few days ago, Texas Representative Shelia Jackson Lee re-introduced the Private Prison Information Act.  It would require any non-federal prison housing federal inmates to comply with FOIA.

Certainly, passage faces challenges from the GOP-dominated Congress, but it is important.  A large number of people are involved and the industry accepts hundreds of millions in public money:

"...increasing numbers of prisoners are locked up in facilities that are legally immune to open-records requests. From 2000 to 2009, the number of people locked up in private facilities at every level of the justice system increased 37 percent, to 129,336, according to the Department of Justice. By the end of 2013, 133,000 inmates—about 8 percent of the entire US prison population—were housed in private prisons. The figure is on par with the entire California prison population at that time."

Tomorrow, in our final installment, we'll highlight some "best practices" and recommendations to consider if Alabama does consider some new forms of prison privatization in 2015.

 

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