Private Prison, Public Problems | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Private Prison, Public Problems

Gail Tyree exited U.S. Highway 84 onto Hobo Fork Road and drove through the rose-adorned entrance of the sprawling Adams County Correctional Center. A female correctional officer leaving the prison's main administration building scrutinized Tyree's car as she circled the parking lot.

A stout African American in her late 30s with her hair pulled back into a neat tight ponytail and an empty gun holster, the guard eyed Tyree's car suspiciously as it approached her. Rather than evading the guard who was certain to question Tyree and her reporter companion about why they were driving around snapping pictures of the prison—situated near Richard Wright Memorial Highway—Tyree pulled right up to the guard and slipped into her best down-home sister-girl vernacular.

"Can I help y'all?" The guard asked, taking a brief glimpse inside the car.

"Girrrrrl ... Y'all was all on the TV, somethin' 'bout a riot. I came down from Memphis because I had to see for myself," said Tyree, who lives in Southaven.

A Jacksonville, Fla., native and organizer with the anti-private prisons Grassroots Leadership based in Charlotte, N.C., Tyree has helped communities fight to prevent private prisons from going up in their backyards in Florida and Mississippi.

"Y'all came all the way down here from Memphis just for that?" Inquired the half-impressed-half-incredulous guard.

Tyree explained that she had come to Natchez to "see my people" and out of curiosity stopped by the prison that two weeks earlier became the focus of national media headlines. Prison inmates had taken two dozen staff members hostage, sent 16 of them to the hospital with injuries and killed a young corrections officer. As a result, the Corrections Corporation of America and American flags outside the administration building stood at half-mast.

The riot also sent Natchez into a panic for a short period after a rumor, which turned out to be false, began circulating that some of the inmates had escaped. After Tyree's explanation, the guard seemed to loosen up and let her guard down.

"You like working here? It seems dangerous. I'd be scared," Tyree said, probing for more details.

"Not really," the guard shrugged. "I mean ... it's a prison."

Treated Like 'Animals'
On Sunday, May 20, smoke billowed high against the dusky sky above the Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez. By the time the sun was setting, the uprising that started around 3 o'clock that afternoon was still unfolding.

It was close to midnight before correctional officials finally quelled the riot and got control of the privately-run federal prison, which houses approximately 2,500 immigrant prisoners. What exactly happened that day is still being sorted out by CCA, the prison's Nashville, Tenn.-based operator and the nation's largest for-profit prison management firm, as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and prison watchdog groups.

Facts not in dispute are that sometime that afternoon, a disturbance at the prison erupted into a full-scale melee. Over the course of several hours, a group of 100 to 300 inmates briefly seized control of part of the facility. Prisoners held up to two dozen staff members hostage, and several of them were reportedly targeted for beatings. Catlin Carithers, a correctional officer who had shown up for a shift on what was supposed to be his day off, climbed to the roof of one of the buildings where prisoners followed him and reportedly beat Carithers to death.

Shortly after the uprising began, an inmate phoned WAPT Channel 16 in Jackson and spoke with reporter Meg Pace. The inmate, whom the station did not identify by name, sent photographs snapped with a contraband cell phone from inside the prison. One of the photos appears to show inmates sitting calmly around tables in a common area. The man spoke with an accent and told the station that prisoners were rebelling against conditions at the prison, which is heavily populated with Mexican nationals.

Adams County Sheriff Chuck Mayfield told the Associated Press that a gang fight initiated everything. Mayfield, who was elected sheriff in 2009, did not respond to the JFP's interview requests. Inmates' accounts stand in stark contrast to Mayfield's. According to the man who called WAPT: "They always beat us and hit us. We just pay them back. ... We're trying to get better food, medical (care), programs, clothes, and we're trying to get some respect from the officers and lieutenants."

Steve Owen, spokesman for CCA, said the company is working in concert with the FBI and couldn't comment on the investigation. Bill Chandler, executive director of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, said his organization has received similar complaints from prisoners and their families for years about alleged abuse and racial discrimination from guards, particularly in the months leading up to the May 20 riot.

Chandler read part of an email from an inmate (a different man than the one who called WAPT, although Chandler said that man had also contacted MIRA) to the Jackson Free Press. It struck a similar chord: "The guard that died yesterday was a sad tragedy, but the situation is simple: If you treat a human as an animal for over two years, the response will be as an animal. ... Most of the correctional officers were not harmed. ... Most of them that were taken hostage were shaken and afraid, but none of them was harmed."

A California woman—who asked that neither her name nor the name of her relative be printed—said her relative, who is from Mexico, has told his family that Adams County prison guards routinely employ ethnic slurs such as "wetbacks" to inmates.

She said: "I understand they're criminals, but they're doing their time. And they're human beings; they're not animals. Not even animals should be treated like that."

In Pursuit of Profit
In February 2007, the Adams County Board of Supervisors held a public hearing on proposals from the nation's two largest private prison companies, CCA and The Geo Group (formerly Wackenhut Corp.). CCA was open to federal and state operating contracts and considered sites in Pike, Walthall and Adams counties. Mississippi law enables citizens to petition county boards of supervisors to hold special elections on allowing private prisons to be built in their in their communities, and in April 2007, Pike County voters spiked CCA's proposal, shifting the firm's focus to Adams and Walthall counties.

Robert Palmer, a lifelong Adams Countian, spearheaded the petition drive to put the question on the ballot. Palmer said he personally opposed locating the prison in Adams County, where he's lived on the same property since 1952, but thought it was more important that residents have an opportunity to vote it up or down.

"I just thought that a thing of this magnitude, people in the county should have a right to vote on it, Palmer said. "Apparently more people thought the prison was a good deal. After this riot, I don't know how many people would like their decision, but that's something they've got to live with."

Just in case CCA's deep pockets weren't enough to guarantee getting its prison built, the company also had backing in some pretty high places. In April 2008, then-Gov. Haley Barbour signed a bill sponsored by former Democratic state Sen. Bob Dearing clearing the way for Adams County to host a state or federal prison. Also helping the project along were Hurricane Katrina-related Gulf Opportunity Zone tax breaks.

The local newspaper, The Natchez Democrat, was among the project's most vocal boosters, publishing several editorials in favor of the prison. One opinion piece about Palmer's petition drive carried the title "Say no to prison and say no to jobs" and warned that denying CCA would send hundreds to Walthall County four or five counties to the east in south-central Mississippi. (More than 3,000 people applied for roughly 400 positions at the prison, the paper later reported.) An editorial, published in January 2010, called 2009 "the start of something good," citing the prison and other economic-development projects as examples of progress.

A former Hinds County sheriff's deputy, then-Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant characterized the sparkling new prison as symbolic of societal progress from his days working in the dank Hinds County jail during the 1970s, telling the Natchez paper: "I'm glad to see the world has changed."

Despite all the cheerleading it received, when construction was complete on the $140 million ACCC in December 2008, it faced a major hurdle: It had no prisoners. So problematic was the lack of inmates that warden Lance McLaughlin directed a crew to go around turning the kitchen appliances on and off, running the heating and air-conditioning systems and flushing all the toilets.

"It just can't sit empty," McLaughlin told The Natchez Democrat at the time. "It has to be used, it was made to be used."

It didn't take long for CCA to start putting its fourth prison in Mississippi to use. In April 2009, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons awarded the company a contract to house immigrants guilty of various federal offenses including re-entering the country after being deported, a felony. As part of the federal Criminal Alien Requirement 8 Solicitation program, the four-year contract included a 90 percent occupancy guarantee and would net CCA $226.4 million in revenue in the first four years of the renewable contract.

Over the years, CCA helped itself along by supporting public officials' re-election campaigns. CCA's federal political-action committee has contributed millions of dollars to Republican and Democratic congressional campaigns, although the overwhelming majority of recipients are Republicans.

In Mississippi, Republican Sens. Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran and Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson all have been beneficiaries. Thompson, the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, which oversees the Bureau of Prisons, has called for an investigation into the bloody Adams County riot. During the 2011 state election cycle, CCA donated $5,400 to 11 Mississippi politicians including Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves.

Kathy Sykes, MIRA's lead organizer, remarked that states have increasingly looked toward prisons as economic-development saviors. "The prison budget is the only one that seems to be going up when all the others are going down," she said.

Benefiting from Bondage
Business for CCA has boomed since the company's founding in the early 1980s. The firm's origins begin in Tennessee with founders Thomas Beasely, a one-time chairman of the Tennessee's Republican Party, and T. Don Hutto, the former commissioner of the Arkansas Department of Corrections. As head of the Arkansas prison system, years before he started CCA, Hutto became the defendant in a landmark class-action lawsuit, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that long unjustified periods of solitary confinement were tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the 8th Amendment.

The SCOTUS decision probably cemented Hutto's reputation as someone who would push the envelope of the Constitution's civil rights protections in the pursuit of being "tough on crime" during the "war on drugs"—two concepts that also became popular in the 1980s. With investment from Honey Alexander, then Tennessee's first lady, and her husband, Gov. Lamar Alexander (now a U.S. senator), and aided by the prevailing Ronald Reagan-era dictum that private industry can do everything better than the government, CCA started contracting with federal, state and county governments to build and run jails and prisons.

Early on, CCA's stock faltered, falling from almost $150 per share in February 1998, then plummeting to under $1 in December 2000. In the summer of 2001, the stock price began to tick upward and has steadily increased to the $26 it currently trades at. CCA's largest competitor, GEO, had similar experiences with its stock. After lackluster performance in the early days of public trading, GEO's shares also started to soar in early 2002.

Mississippi cashed in on the action, too, contracting out MDOC to three companies under Gov. Kirk Fordice, a Republican. Today, five of Mississippi's state prisons are privately run. CCA is hoping that state and congressional lawmakers' desire to slash budgets represents an opportunity for further growth.

CCA stated in its most recent annual filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission: "Notwithstanding the effects the current economy could have on our government partners' demand for prison beds in the short term, we believe the long-term trends favor an increase in the outsourcing of correctional management services." Specifically, the company names prison overcrowding, aging government facilities, tightening state budgets and a growing acceptance of privatizing prisons as reasons the company believes it's looking at a positive business climate in the years to come.

Across CCA's network, the Bureau of Prisons, the United States Marshals Service, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement comprise 40 percent of the company's revenue. Only the U.S. government and three states (Texas, California and Florida) are responsible for more inmates than CCA, which operates 66 county, state and federal facilities.

CCA's 90,000 prison beds in 20 states and the District of Columbia hold 3.7 percent of the nation's incarcerated population. Adding in GEO's 79,000 beds pushes the portion of offenders in the hands of private companies to 7 percent.

In the company's most recent annual filing for the period ending Dec. 31, 2011, CCA reported profit of $162 million on revenues of $1.7 billion compared to $157 million in profit on $1.7 billion in revenues the previous year.

The upward revenue and profit trends over the past five reporting cycles comes despite a decrease in the nation's imprisonment rate (calculated as the number of sentenced prisoners per 100,000 residents) from 502 prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents in 2009 to 497 prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents in 2010. Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma lead the nation in incarceration rates.

In making its case that privatization is a better deal for taxpayers, CCA's website points to a study completed by the research arm of its rival Management & Training Corporation, which is headquartered in Ogden, Utah. MTC is also largest contractor with the federal Labor Department for the Job Corps program. MTC's report, "Privatization in Corrections: Increased Performance and Accountability Is Leading to Expansion," argues that as state corrections budgets soar, private companies can help reduce cost.

To bolster its claim, MTC cites a Vanderbilt University study that concluded private prison saved "a typical state correctional system with no private prisons" between $13 million and $15 million per year.

As private prisons have come into vogue, so has greater scrutiny from watchdog groups such as Grassroots Leadership and the American Civil Liberties Union that contend the companies cut corners in pursuit of higher profits.

In 2007, the ACLU sued on behalf of detainees at the CCA-run T. Don Hutto Detention Center for immigrant families in Taylor, Texas. Settled in 2009, the lawsuit alleged the facility failed to meet standards for housing minors in federal custody. Later in 2009, the Hutto center stopped taking in families and began to exclusively house female detainees. The ACLU again sued in 2011 on behalf of women detained in the Hutto facility who accused a male employee, Donald Dunn, of sexual abuse.

Besides, David Shapiro, staff attorney with the ACLU's National Prison Project, questions whether private prisons save citizens money at all. In the ACLU's November 2011 report Banking on Bondage, Shapiro writes: "The view that private prisons save taxpayer money, fuel local economies and adequately protect the safety of prisoners helps to feed mass incarceration by making privatization appear to be an attractive alternative to reducing prison populations.

"But the evidence for such benefits is mixed at best. Not only may privatization fail to save taxpayer money, but private prison companies, as for-profit institutions, are strongly incentivized to cut corners and thereby maximize profits, which may come at the expense of public safety and the well being of prisoners."'

CCA's Owen characterized anti-privatization groups as people who have never worked in corrections, who are busy politicizing and "Googling isolated incidents" at private prisons. Putting prisoners and staff members in harm's way by skimping on things is counterintuitive, he said.

"It doesn't make sound business sense because, at the end of the day, if we can't operate safely and securely, we can't stay in business," Owen said.

'This Ain't Safe'
Patrick Perry is all too familiar with the pressures that come with working as a corrections officer.

By the time he started working at CCA's Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in November 2007, he had been unemployed for two years and was desperate for any job he could get. His brother, who had worked at the prison since it opened, encouraged Perry and his sister to apply. After what he says was a less than rigorous interview process, Perry was offered a job "basically on the spot."

Perry, who stands 6'4" and at the time weighed around 260 pounds, recalls his first shift on the job: "I think it probably took me a couple hours to realize this ain't safe. You got me up here with keys and (pepper) spray in a pod of killers and stuff like that. I wasn't scared, but you know it's always in the back of your mind."

Located in the Delta town of Tutwiler (population: 1,201), TCCF is the second largest prison in CCA's network, able to accommodate 2,800 prisoners from Mississippi and California, which has been the subject of numerous lawsuits due to conditions at its notoriously overcrowded state penitentiaries. The facility opened in 2000; in July 2007, CCA spent $52 million to expand the prison.

In his first month at TCCF, Perry said a brawl broke out between Nortenos (northern) and Surenos (southern) California gangs. He radioed that a "code blue"—inmate-on-inmate attack; an inmate-on-staff attack is a "code red"—was underway, but his radio didn't work, forcing him to call for assistance using the public address system. A couple months later, another brawl resulted in 100 inmates going on lockdown, he said.

Although such fights were common, Perry said he never witnessed a full-scale riot like in Adams County. For the hourly wage of $9.76, Perry describes periodically working a housing "pod" of approximately 120 inmates alone––even though the pods are designed to be have three to four staff members assigned to each. When he joined the SWAT-like Special Operations Response Team, or SORT, he got to travel to Oklahoma for special training and received an extra $35 per paycheck. The financial incentive, he said, was the guaranteed abundant hours: Perry averaged between 60 and 70 hours per week, and remembers once working 152 hours in a single pay period.

To deter corruption, CCA employees also have to submit to credit checks and must maintain prescribed levels of personal debt. According to Perry, the biggest temptation facing guards is trafficking prepaid cell phones, $20 devices that can aid in running criminal organizations, coordinating attacks on enemies or alerting local media to events going on inside the prison and fetch unscrupulous guards up to $500 each.

The problem is so widespread in California, where corrections officials seized more than 15,000 illegal phones in 2011, that the state recently announced it would buy deploy signal-jamming technology at its prisons. California's prison guard union stopped a proposal to have officers walk through TSA-style scanners to detect forbidden mobile device from being smuggled into lockups.

After two years at TCCF, Perry was fired for leaving his post in the guard tower to drop off a prescription for high-blood pressure medication that he'd been working too much to have filled at a nearby Walmart. Although he acknowledges it was a violation of procedure, he said it was a common practice for officers stationed at the guard tower to run quick errands instead of taking 15 minutes to clock out.

Perry enlisted the help of Sunflower County NAACP president Rosie King to help get his job back. In a Jan. 18, 2011 letter to King, CCA executive vice president and chief human resources officer Brian D. Collins thanked King for meeting with him and responded to Perry's complaints.

Collins said in the letter that CCA did not give out raises in 2009 or 2010, but some employees could get $600 performance bonuses. With respect to the long shifts, Collins wrote: "A survey recently conducted by the facility showed that approximately 70 percent of the Tallahatchie staff are happy with the 12-hour shifts, which was an increase from the 55 percent of the staff in favor of the change when the 12-hour shifts were originally implemented."

"(W)e have seen throughout the company that once staff become accustomed to working 12-hour shifts, they typically enjoy having more time to spend away from the facility and with their family."

Collins further notes in the letter that employees work approximately 160 days per year on 12-hour shifts and 228 days on 8-hour shifts, and that 35 percent of CCA facilities operate on 12-hour shifts.

He also talks about $8,500 in "liquidated damages paid due to the lack of staff" during 2010. Under TCCF's contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the prison must maintain certain staffing levels and offer rehabilitation programs or face fines. According to Collins' letter, the fines TCCF incurred resulted from hard-to-recruit professional positions such as registered nurses, addiction treatment managers, principals, academic instructors and dentists.

An audit of TCCF and other CCA-run prisons conducted by the California prison system's inspector general in 2010 seems to bolster the concerns Perry and CCA's critics raise about slipshod management. The 11-page report documents California's concerns on a variety of matters that "if left unaddressed, could develop into more significant problems."

The concerns included denial of inmate rights and privileges, safety and security weaknesses, and poor recordkeeping. Items that piqued auditors' interests at TCCF included a malfunctioning security camera near the administrative-segregation unit, wasting prescription medications sent from California (Mississippi law prohibits inmates from possessing medicine not issued by a Mississippi-licensed pharmacist), officers unsafely carrying handcuffs and one incident of officials finding a white powdery substance.

Investigative staff never followed up to determine what the white substance was, auditors wrote.

Owen, the CCA spokesman, said the company has a strong reputation as a good employer and that CCA puts a lot of effort into training staff and providing support to employees, including counseling when events such as the Adams County riot occur.

On staffing shortages, Owen said, "Do we get fined occasionally at some facilities? Yes, sometimes that does occur. I think that also speaks to the high level of accountability and oversight that government does have on our contracts, and that's one of the benefits of pub(lic)-private partnerships." He added: "Corrections is an inherently stressful profession, and that is something that every corrections professional in every corrections system, public or private, deals with."

When the Adams County melee erupted, Perry became active commenting under just about news story published about the riot. In one post, Perry wrote: "If those inmates were treated like humans, they probably would be less rowdy (even though you are dealing with inmates, so a lot of them would be rowdy no matter what). When you mix up mistreated inmates + mistreated staff (overworked, under paid, under staffed) = A deadly combination."

Perry, 34, who hasn't worked since being fired (he makes a living by collecting scrap metal), wouldn't mind going back to work at TCCF if changes are made to how the place is run, but he knows that scenario is unlikely given his many public protestations. Shortly after his firing, he even staged a one-person picket line outside the prison that the Charleston (Miss.) Sun-Sentinel published an article about.

Nor is he optimistic that working conditions will improve anytime soon. With 600 employees, TCCF employs more people than the local school district. But even with the chronic unemployment and the ease with which jobs can be secured at TCCF, given the prison's ongoing staffing challenges, he wonders how desperate for work people actually are.

"I guess they're like, 'For $9.76, it ain't worth it,'" he said.

A Changing Tide?
Tyree wants to see private prisons abolished in Mississippi, a dream that might not be as far-fetched as it sounds. Despite CCA's claims that the public is becoming more comfortable with the idea of privately operated prisons, there are signs that the tide may be turning against private prison companies.

In January, a legislative committee in Maine voted down a bill that would have allowed private prisons to operate in the state. Then in February, the Florida state Senate blocked a proposal that would have privatized a third of prisons in the state.

Illinois already bans private companies from running state prisons and county jails, but lawmakers recently tried to expand the prohibition to federal prisons and detention centers. Under the Illinois proposal, which passed in the Senate but was shot down in the House, governmental entities that the state oversees would be forbidden from contracting with private prison firms.

Calling profiting from incarceration "immoral and antithetical to our Christian faith," the United Methodist Church's health and pensions board voted last September to divest the church's portfolio of CCA and GEO stock.

"The fact that an inordinate number of persons incarcerated in the U.S. are people of color and persons who come out of poverty raises serious concerns about investments in prisons serving to perpetuate racism and classism. The detention of immigrants without the due process of law further raises serious questions of justice; immigrants in increasing numbers are being detained and treated as persons guilty of a crime until proven innocent, a troubling reversal of our understanding of justice and a threat to basic human and civil rights," reads the letter church's letter.

"Across the country, there is a growing realization that private prisons are not the way to go," said the ACLU's Shapiro. "There may be differences between Company A and Company B, but the fundamental similarity is that they're driven by profit and that's their principal role, therefore (they) have incentives to cut corners, even at the expense human rights."

Surprisingly, Mississippi has quietly led the trend away from privatization. In March 2012, lawyers representing a group of boys and young men who alleged abuse at the GEO-owned Walnut Grove Correctional Facility reached a settlement in the case.

The high-profile suit charged prison managers with creating a violent and corrupt culture through which staff sold drugs in the prison and engaged in sex with the youths they supervised.

The U.S. Department of Justice started looking into Walnut Grove in 2010 and issued a report this spring charging the state of Mississippi with showing "deliberate indifference" toward the conditions at the prison. Under the terms of the settlement, MDOC must remove the youth from Walnut Grove and place them at a separate stand-alone facility. The decree also requires the state to offer rehabilitative services and protections from further violence and sexual abuse, and prohibits the state from using solitary confinement to punish youth in its custody.

GEO's high-profile embarrassment prompted the company to announce in April that it would quit doing business in Mississippi altogether.

MDOC also announced last fall that it was letting CCA out of its contract to operate the 1,172-bed Delta Correctional Facility in Greenwood. The rationale for the closure, according to MDOC Commissioner Chris Epps, was that CCA couldn't make any money. Mississippi law requires private companies to run prisons for cheaper that the state could on its own. With MDOC saving the state $118 million under Epps' administration, CCA just couldn't compete.

Earlier this year, CCA sent a letter to 48 state officials offering to buy state prisons and local jail facilities and run them. The deal applied to facilities with a minimum of 1,000 beds, and the term would span up to 25 years; the agency would also have to guarantee a minimum occupancy rate of 90 percent throughout the contract's term.

To Shapiro, the initiative demonstrates that private prison companies won't be backing down without a fight. "I think we're seeing a turning of the tide, but it's certainly going to be a long process," Shapiro said.

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Great article. Kudos. Eric Schlosser also touched on the prison-industrial complex several years back. If you look at the history of private prisons in this nation, the executives typically donated large amounts of money to whichever political party dominated state politics at the time. And really, the fact that we glossed over Clinton's invaluable contributions to the expansion of private prisons in this country is a little suspect.

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