Home ALEC The Nightmare of U.S. Private Prisons

The Nightmare of U.S. Private Prisons


With everything else you have to worry about—Fascism in government, domestic terrorists and the lack of intelligent response, a congress trying to overthrow all protections for citizens, the state of American prisons is not foremost in our minds. But maybe it should be a little higher on the pecking order. We want decent conditions for prisoners—hell, you never know when your brother-in-law might end up there. But, prisoners are in prison for a reason. On the other hand, you don’t want your wife becoming a crusader. That’s the last thing you want. So pay attention. This about more than just bad meals or overcrowding.

As with everything touched by the filthy hands of the Koch Brothers and their American Legislative Exchange Council, prisons are becoming dangerous not only to violent criminal lifestyles, as they were in the past. Now private prisons are on the verge of becoming dangerous to the average citizen.

We have roughly 2.6 million prisoners in local, state and federal prisons around the country. They are literally a captive market. Society sees to it that, while in custody, they have few rights, few alternatives and very little public support. Consequently they are a prime target for the victimizers, the vicious, inhumane policies of—yes, once again, the relentless Fascists, the Koch Brothers and their association-of-corporations, what some refer to as “The Fascist Trust,” the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC.) This amalgam of everything evil and cutthroat and aggressive and no-holds-barred, monopolistic capitalism has now directed its venom at prisoners.

Our penal system is not only a disgrace because of the highest percentage of society incarcerated, even higher than Russia or the number of prisoners who are poor, uneducated minorities but also because of the treatment of prisoners. Many private prisons are more like the dungeons of an 18th century Dumas novel than modern corrections facilities. It would not be surprising to hear that a man could go into one of these prisons totally innocent and healthy and come out an unhealthy or even dying confirmed murderer merely from his exposure to the lack of humanity found in our prison system. It is what we used to associate with Asia. But now we cannot. We are Asia and much of Asia is now what we once aspired to be. Decent.

Let’s start with something simple. If you are in prison, you have no income. You have limited job prospects when you leave prison. And, statistically, your family is not going to be in the top 1%, 10% or even top half. Yet, while most Americans pay 25 cents or less for a phone call, a company called Global Tel makes $500 million a year by charging over a dollar a minute for a fixed phone line into prison. This is not some expensive proposition. This is the cheapest way to connect people by phone. Yet the rate is fifteen dollars for fifteen minutes. If you are in prison because you think that no one gives a damn about you anyway, nothing will help confirm it more than treatment in prison. We’re not talking about an iphone. Not a cell phone. Not a portable phone. This is the old pay phone against the wall to be shared by everyone. Fifteen minutes, fifteen dollars. (Prisoners are only allowed to talk for fifteen minutes or it would be more.) And the phone bill is just the sprinkle on the icing on the cake.

Let’s take health care which many might consider slightly more important than chatting on the phone. Corizon is a health care company that works in prisons. More accurately, Corizon is a company organized to make money by stating that its job is to furnish health care to prisoners. But it merely seems to pretend to provide health care. It is more like a veterinary company, and a bad one at that, than a health care delivery system. Corizon bills the prison system $1.4 billion annually, primarily by restricting health care to the absolute minimum they can provide to inmates. Corizon is an abomination and should be shut down.

In Arizona, where state prison health care is contracted to Corizon, after multiple allegations by the families of prisoners of serious illnesses being ignored and prisoners dying unnecessarily, a nurse secretly came forward to a local television station. She said that she could no longer remain silent about patient care. Inmates with symptoms of serious illnesses, such as diabetes or cancer were not seen for 90 days, sometimes for 6 months. (Television reporter: “Do you believe that some of these inmates could have died in that time?” Nurse, Julie: “Absolutely.”) According to a relative of one inmate, Hepatitis C, a contagious liver disease, is simply not treated and there is no protocol for treatment. This can lead to chronic infection, serious complications, such as liver cancer, and death. Indications are that lack of treatment for Hepatitis C is more common than merely this isolated incident. The fact is that other nurses have come forward, as have other organizations such as the ACLU and the Friends Committee (Quakers) who have studied the problem and discovered that delay or withholding of treatment or medications is rampant. Another patient complained of pain so severe from a tumor on one of his testicles that he cannot sit down. Attention to serious indicators for problems like prostate cancer virtually do not exist. Patients die of heart conditions that were not diagnosed and suffer from diseases that are easily treatable, like diabetes.

Corizon is profiting from abysmal service in 29 states and reaching out for more. Certified stories from concerned relatives of prisoners show that in some prisons there are virtually no services being provided. Staff members with the Friends Committee, an independent, unbiased Quaker organization has studied this issue and talks publicly of finding that almost nothing is being done to provide adequate health services in some Corizon locations. The profit motive, in this case, like so much of health care incentives is perverse. Any company that wishes to maximize its profits may decide—as Corizon apparently has done—that literally getting away with murder and eventually being discharged is a good business model. In one report on a Corizon location as a result of an investigation as part of a class action lawsuit, found the following:
1. Understaffing of nurses
2. Unqualified and untrained nurses
3. Exam rooms lacking basic medical equipment
4. Existing equipment was often broken, unrepaired and unsanitary

All prisoners should be treated decently. (Or most prisoner, perhaps.) More egregious than the general health care conditions in prisons is the treatment of those who are locked up for what could be called “small” crimes. Some of these prisoners enter with the expectation that they will serve their minimum sentences and return to society and change their lives. But when prisoners go untreated and fall into a serious health condition, the result is a death sentence rather than a limited time in custody. Corizon, not the state, delivers the ultimate punishment. If your impression that many criminals are in prison because of an impoverished upbringing in an atmosphere of gang violence, drugs and crime you would be right. Criminal behavior results far more frequently in families that often had no father present, drugs or alcoholism in the home and one or more parents who become abusive. Lack of any consistency in the early domestic environment gives children multiple times more probability of ending up in prison. Certainly, incarceration should be enough. There is no need to punish them further by denying them health care, allowing them to fall seriously ill or causing their deaths.

In September 2013 in New York City, Bradley Ballard, a young man who had developed schizophrenia had been incarcerated for acting erratically in public. He was released but later arrested on a parole violation and sent to Rikers Island. Corizon employees, mindful of his condition but deciding that some of his talk and gyrations were either dangerous or too difficult to put up with, locked him in solitary confinement. But they left him there, without checking on him for six days, until he died of diabetic ketoacidosis, a condition that could have been treated. He died in horrible, sub-human conditions, with vomit and feces covering much of his body.

Also at Rikers, under the gentle care of Corizon, was 32-year-old Carlos Mercado. He had been locked away for two solid days without any attention. Although he repeatedly called for guards to provide his medicine for diabetes, he slipped into a coma and died. Then there was Andy Henriquez, a 19-year-old inmate, who had been awaiting trial at Rikers since he was 16 for his involvement in a gang-fight-related death. Henriquez died a slow and agonizing death as a direct result of inattention and misdiagnosis. Henriquez had a fatal tear in his aorta and repeatedly complained of chest pain and shortness of breath over many days but nothing was done. He was diagnosed by a physician’s assistant as having costochondritis, which is chest pain that should have abated. Despite the fact that it gets better, but became worse, nothing more was done. Finally, a physician came to his cell and inexplicably and astonishingly prescribed a hand crème. Without any meaningful treatment, Henriquez died that same day.

There have been two dozen lawsuits against Corizon in New York alone, involving millions of dollars, for negligent medical care at Rikers and other institutions. But Corizon continues to carry on their campaign of death and destruction of our prison population unabated. They are supported by the private prison industry and by ALEC and by almost all Republican politicians. (By the way, we could find only one Democratic politician out of the hundreds of ALEC lackeys nationally, and that one from a Confederate state, who was in any way involved with ALEC, lest people think we are being overly partial for no good reason.)

Health care in prisons is a serious problem, but far from the only one. The big problem is with private prisons themselves. Take GEO Corporation, formerly called Wackenhut. This is a $1.6 billion corporation loosely run on bribes and political connections, offering minimal, disgraceful services. Take the Coke County, Texas facility (Please.)

The Coke County facility has long been a lockup for young people, first for girls and then an exclusively male facility. In the late 90s, Wackenhut hired a man who raped young women at the facility. Later, after changing the corporate name to GEO, they were contracted to run the facility for young men. By 2007, their management was so bad that an investigation by the Texas Youth Commission declared the facility unusable. There were insect infestations everywhere, including in the food. There were not enough safety features including smoke alarms, fire escapes, safety training of staff. Many of the showers would not work and toilets were constantly backed up. Feces was found in cells and general maintenance was abysmal. The contract with GEO was terminated in October 2007 and 197 young men were transferred to other facilities around the state.

The Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Mississippi, near Jackson, was also run by GEO. A Justice Department investigation revealed that the 1450-bed facility housing young men from ages 13 to 22 was basically a sewer. Again, insect infestation was rampant. Toilets were not functional. Sanitary cleanup was non-existent and the unit lacked supervision at all levels. The report from the Justice Department also said that facility staff had forced sex on young incarcerated inmates and brutally beaten others. Guards also showed indifference to violence among prison inmates. A Federal Judge said of the management of Walnut Grove that it “has allowed a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions to germinate, the sum of which places the inmates at substantial ongoing risk.” GEO also ran the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, where inmates with mental illnesses are housed. Reports of suicides and inmate abuse at the facility resulted in another investigation of this Meridian, Mississippi GEO facility as well. After the Justice Department report, Geo was removed from supervision at Walnut Grove, at East Mississippi, and at another facility for which it had a contract in Mississippi. But the damage was done. It is now 2015 and GEO is still in business and bigger and more profitable than ever. The American Corrections Association, which is a non-profit, non-governmental, non-regulating industry group, gave GEO a perfect score for their management of Walnut Grove. If that kind of performance is “perfect,” then perhaps government should immediately take a hard look at those institutions with an imperfect rating from American Corrections Association.

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO, while the two biggest, are not the only scandalous examples of private prison companies mistreating inmates. There are a whole flock of these inhumane, disgusting companies treating Americans and immigrants alike with sub-human services. Recently 2,000 illegal immigrants staged a riot at a prison near Raymondsville, Texas, Willacy Correctional Center, protesting intolerable conditions, including withholding of medical care from sick prisoners. Willacy is operated by the private company, Management & Training Corporation. It is basically a tent city, consisting of crowded Kevlar tents. Willacy is one of 13 privately operated criminal alien prisons, a shadow system to the Federal Bureau of Prisons that is run by private prison companies. These facilities house illegal aliens who have been convicted of a crime, like drug offenses, or individuals who have been caught illegally entering the country for a second time. The problem is that these private companies, known for doing the absolute worst possible job are aware that the U.S. government merely wants these individuals deported. Consequently, conditions in these facilities are run with a minimum of civility and a maximum of mistreatment.

Not only individual prisoners, but whole families can be abused by this private prison system. For example, in Southern Texas, the T Don Hutto residential facility, run by CCA, housed families who were being evaluated for deportation were awaiting adjudication for return to their former countries. (T Don Hutto was the Corrections chief in Arkansas who later founded CCA. He is also famous as the loser in a case brought against him by the Justice Department for violating prisoners’ 8th Amendment rights against excessively long periods of solitary confinement. That should tell you something.) The T Don Hutto facility was closed in 2009 for numerous offenses–small children had been locked in cells and all children seemed to be losing weight during complaints about inadequate food…and multiple other complaints. Today, 2015, a similar facility will be opened in the same area of Southern Texas to house a similar number of people and will be run not by a similar type company but by the same company, CCA, presumably with the same results. Why would they change their habits? They are growing faster by being scum.

The question becomes one of incentives. If a private prison company seeks to grow, as most do, then it must either increase the number of occupants in its existing contracted facilities or add new facilities from a fixed list of corrections facilities across the country. Either one will increase revenues. So what is the incentive for growth? For private prisons, all signs are as follows: encourage as many prisoners as possible and keep them in prison for as long as possible. Of course, the goal of society is exactly the opposite. Society wishes to keep prisoners for a short period, rehabilitate them, and return them to society. In addition, in order to make greater profits for the stockholders, the private prison must operate at the lowest possible cost, which means treating the maximum number of prisoners with the fewest number of services, while keeping them in prison for the longest period of time. The successful result for the private prison company is achieved by offering the least amount of service including less rehabilitation and longer than optimum periods of incarceration. In other words, the more successful the private corrections company, the worse it is for society.

Private prisons for adults were virtually non-existent until the early 1980s, not coincidentally, the Reagan Era. During the 1990s the prison population and the incarceration rate increased many times over as drugs became more popular and the war on drugs dictated earlier and longer prison sentences. By 2010 the number of prisoners in private facilities grew by 16 times what it had been in 1990. Today, for-profit companies are responsible for approximately 5% of state prisoners, 15% of federal prisoners, and, half of all detained illegal aliens. In 2010, GEO and CCA received a total of $3 billion dollars in fees. It isn’t surprising. Over the previous ten years, these two companies had spent an estimated $45 million in campaign contributions, almost all to Republicans. Many of those “campaign contributions” went to the state legislators who introduced favorable legislation on private prisons, laws that had been written by ALEC staff and were submitted for vote and occasionally passed exactly as the private prison lobbyists had written them.

Incestuous political relationships in the private prison business do not begin and end with the lobbyists in ALEC. Dozens of indictments and hundreds of lawsuits have resulted from a politician or government official being hired by the local private prison system whose responsibility had been the oversight of private prison practices in that area. Contracts are in the millions of dollars and they are coming fast. Despite the fact that its private prisons are neither more efficient nor less costly and experienced outrageous treatment of prisoners, Arizona will add 5,000 prison beds using private contractors. Florida recently tried under Republican Governor Rick Scott to privatize all 29 corrections facilities for its burgeoning inmate population. The contract would have been for the lion’s share of the state’s $2.3 billion corrections budget. Ohio in 2011 announced its plan to sell an active public prison to CCA. The head of the Ohio corrections department was a former managing director of CCA. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana tried to sell three prisons to a private company to raise cash after Jindal’s corporate and millionaire tax cuts plus the losses from the Bush economic crash, plus the unpaid funds from the federal government for Katrina, plus the BP oil spill had all devastated Louisiana’s revenue. The Louisiana House appropriations committee declared it a serious mistake and blocked it by just one vote.

The reason for the lobbying and the bribery is that housing inmates is a good business if there is no one supervising. It is a contract business. The private prisons get guaranteed contracts from the government that require very little in return. For example, GEO, not even the largest private prison corporation, has annual revenues of $1.5 billion, of which nearly half reportedly comes from the Federal government for housing illegal immigrants. The numbers are staggering…a total of $5.1 billion dollars from 13 separate contracts goes to private prison providers, much of it divided between the two biggest and most politically connected, CCA and GEO. They all treat prisoners like animals in pens rather than humans to be cared for.

All the major private prison companies, without exception are involved in national and local political activities designed to increase incarceration rates and length of sentences. Over the last ten years the top two companies have spent $45 million dollars in lobbying local, state and federal officials. They have been one of the key contributors to the American Legislative Exchange Council, a national alliance of corporations who use corporate lobbyists and participating Republican state legislators in all 50 statehouses to introduce legislation favorable to private prisons. In fact, ALEC’s bought-and-paid-for legislators write all or much of the legislation that involves sentencing and parole for many of the states, particularly those with heavily Republican legislatures and those with Republican governors.

And why not? The goal of the private prison is to maximize profit for shareholders. So their incentive is to keep inmates behind bars. They introduce legislation to prevent early release or extend a sentence based on reports of bad behavior written by their own private prison guards. Even legislation on when and under what conditions a prisoner can be released on parole is often written by the private prison companies and submitted without one word changed, by ALEC-purchased legislators.

These organizations always tout the takeover of a public prison, particularly one that has been poorly managed, as “groundbreaking” or a “new approach” to managing a prison. In 2011, CCA purchased the 1,700 bed Lake Erie (Ohio) Correctional Institution, for $72 million after ex-Wall Street party boy, Governor John Kasich became was elected and began paying off campaign debts. Within a year state audits found patterns of inadequate staffing, delayed medical treatment, and unacceptable treatment of prisoners in typical fashion–dirty, unsanitary, unsafe and unhealthy. The state fined CCA $500.000. That is just a cost of doing business. The likelihood is that more than that amount went directly into Kasich’s own pocket. CCA owns the facility. If the state wants to save the prisoners from horrible treatment, Kasich cynically knows that his arguments against public resumption of control will be buttressed by a much higher price to be paid than the facility was sold for, by arguments about “mollycoddling” prisoners and by all the other arguments his supporting propaganda people will bring up, attacking better treatment for “felons.”

CCA operates the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona. A Hawaiian prisoner, Clifford Medina, 23 years old, a mentally retarded and disabled young man had been in various scrapes throughout his life, mostly misdemeanors but also shoplifting. He was sent to Seguaro for violating parole and for an altercation with the officer trying to bring him in. While in Seguaro, he was involved in the recruitment program of a gang, was housed with a violent offender and in an altercation, was murdered. According to his family, Medina never should have been sent to a facility where he was susceptible to gang manipulation resulting in situations he did not understand, resulting in his death. Medina’s previous history was of a long list of foster homes followed by treatment at facilities for the mentally disabled. Another young man from Hawaii, Bronson Nunuha, was also murdered by two other inmates involved in gang violence. These two murders are simply the worst cases of gang related violence that CCA has shown no interest in abating. This, according to lawsuits against CCA in Arizona, is the pattern of management that CCA follows everywhere it has prisons. And indications are that those lawsuits, following numerous others of a similar nature all over the country, are accurate. Whether Bush appointed Right Wing judges will see it that way in our Neo-Fascist era, remains to be seen.

The state of Idaho ordered CCA to pay thousands of dollars in fines and fix drug and alcohol treatment and medical care problems it had created at the Idaho Correctional Center at Boise in 2010. Few of the alcohol addiction counselors had any qualifications. Among numerous medical problems were lack of qualified staff, understaffing, lack of physical and medical checks and overall mismanagement of prisoner health care. In addition to understaffing, the audited report said, patients in the infirmary were not only unattended for long periods of time, but there were no call lights, pagers or other way for patients to contact medical personnel from their beds in an emergency.

In Nachez, Mississippi, the entire political spectrum was behind the building of a new prison facility. When the smoke cleared, Governor Haley Barbour had found money that was to go for reconstruction of the state from the Katrina disaster and used $140 million to build a prison. There was only one problem. There were no prisoners. But with the 400 jobs available (out of 3,000 people who applied) and at stake the political patronage of a corrupt organization like CCA at stake, the local Senators, Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran both jumped on the bandwagon and had some illegal Mexicans transferred into Nachez. It would be a $52 million a year boon for CCA and of course thousands in campaign contributions for Wicker and Cochran. So they went along pretty well until, once again, CCA ended up with another prison riot, another guard murdered and prison conditions of unspeakable deterioration.

Between CCA and GEO, they hold approximately 7 percent of the nation’s incarcerated population, or roughly 190,000. Net income is in the neighborhood of a quarter of a billion on revenues of roughly $3 billion. So there is no excuse for these companies to nickel-and-dime every municipality, state and federal institution in the country. It is sheer vindictive, greedy, profit taking…cynical—insensitive cruelty at its worst. At a time when incarceration rates are going down, these private prison organizations are doing their best to raise them up again. It is also no coincidence that the three states involved with some of the worst malfeasance by private prisons are ones among the very poorest in the nation, Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma, where any job with a substantial corporation is a good job.

Furthermore, private prison contracts are having a negative impact on state attempts to reduce crime and absolutely on its attempts to reduce incarceration occupancy rates. In many states, private prison contracts call for occupancy rates in private prisons that must exceed 80%. In Arizona, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Virginia, these occupancy quotas are between 95 and 100%. This means that either those states must produce that many people to incarcerate or they must pay the average occupancy rate. It is nonsense and counter intuitive to every rational approach to law enforcement outside of those with a Fascist-totalitarian mindset! Companies like CCA use lobbying and intimidation to get what they want.

Colorado has been able to reduce crime rates by a third in recent years and since 2009, has been able to close 5 prisons. To counter this, CCA was able to have a bed guarantee inserted into the 2013 fiscal budget. Although contracts in all three of the facilities that they managed had no guarantees, they were able to circumvent those provisions. When discussion on closing facilities began, CCA threatened to simply shut down one of its facilities, leaving the state in a very difficult position. Rather than dealing harshly with CCA, Colorado agreed to a bed guarantee in response to a facility closing being used as a “hostage.” The result was that 3,300 inmates would be kept in prison (or the equivalent in dollars per prisoner) at a rate of $20,000 each for one year. These are the kinds of people with whom states are negotiating at an accelerating pace. It is bribery, intimidation and politicking at its worst.

So conditions in U.S. prisons are not getting better. Private prisons are finding the same kind of success with bribes as the Right Wing Neo-Fascists, in spite of the deteriorating prison conditions for which they are responsible. Law suits abound, from wrongful death in too many places to mention to understaffing in Ohio, Texas, New Mexico and many other states. But the Neo-Fascist Republicans have sold out to the rich and the corporations and ALEC seems to be writing both the legislation on justice and on the future of law enforcement.

What could be worse than this? Well…how about involuntary servitude? American prisoners, according to the 13th Amendment, can be forced to work, although other American citizens cannot. Yes, prisoners in the U.S. work for such companies as Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, Victoria’s Secret and even a subcontractor of Starbucks. But most of all, they work for our own military industrial complex. They make between 23 cents and $1.25 an hour at last count. Most of it is done making license plates and products for the American military. But they do make other products. So, after all you have read about the conditions that prisoners in the U.S. are forced to endure, does it seem reasonable that we should then weigh them down with daily toil for 23 cents an hour for the highly profitable and expensive military products that we buy? What is the differential between that 23 cents and the final cost of a product that will be sold to the military for sometimes as much as 100% profit? How much profit is being made by companies who will send jobs abroad, but employ U.S. prisoners to make their products and have the massively deceptive nerve to put a “Made in U.S.A.” label on a product made by inmates to avoid a measly $7.25 minimum wage? What kind of society are we becoming when we hire prison inmates like wage slaves so that companies like Starbucks or Victoria’s Secret can pad their bottom line? And what are the profits of a company like Unicor, making products for the military and law enforcement?

We have a bad prison system. We have a bad legal system. We have many people in prison who should not be there. And now we have companies who want to keep people in prison longer for their own profit and we have companies who want to profit from the labor of people who have no alternative but to work, because the 13th Amendment says that if they are unfortunate enough to have committed a crime, be convicted and incarcerated, they are also unfortunate enough to be exploited again by the great American Capitalist system.

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