Last week, a CCA prison in Woodville, MS became the site of the latest private prison riot. At least 23 prisoners were injured in the disturbance to the point where they required medical attention. Fights raged for nearly an hour before the prison staff got the facility back under control.
It turns out private prisons might cost more to operate than government ones in Idaho, according to a report from the Associated Press. The thing is, Idaho hasn’t bothered to find out; the state has never conducted a cost comparison study despite elected officials’ claims that the industry saves it money. The AP’s study attempted to compare costs at public and private prisons, but ran into the common obstacles facing researchers who try to compare costs. Namely, the per diem paid by the state doesn’t account for oversight of the industry, CCA has a clause in its contract with the state that bars any prisoners with serious medical issues (thus placing a heavier financial burden on the state), and the private facility is much newer than state prisons (resulting in lower operating costs).
So the Board of Corrections has not yet allocated funds for a comparison, but a new board member says he’s willing to do so, and even went so far as to say he was “on the verge of calling [contracting with CCA] a failed experiment.” He would seem to be correct in making such a claim – the state’s history with privatization is far from pretty. For starters, it failed to ever conduct a cost comparison before privatizing in the late 90s, against the recommendation of a consultant hired to help with the transition. It brought CCA in to run the Idaho Correctional Center, which became the target of a multiple of lawsuits alleging civil rights abuses and an FBI investigation. Conditions became so bad that it was called “gladiator school” by the prisoners housed there, who would routinely suffer severe physical assaults while staff failed to intervene, sometimes even watching the beatings. A class action lawsuit about the violence at ICC was settled out of court late last year, but details on that are unavailable because the judge sealed the settlement.
Last year, the ACLU reached a settlement with CCA over its deplorable operation (or lack thereof) of the Idaho Correctional Center, which was so plagued with violence and assaults that it had been dubbed “gladiator school” by the prisoners. The lawsuit had sought up to $150 million in damages, but a settlement was reached that was likely substantially lower (and which allowed CCA to avoid admitting responsibility). After the settlement, the AP petitioned the court to have the settlement documents de-classified, so that the public could get an idea of the terms of the agreement. Such a move could have given the public a better understanding of just how shitty this CCA prison was, and still is; in fact, it was still the most violent prison in the state, even after the lawsuit settled!
But apparently the judge doesn’t want the people of Idaho to have any real oversight of the private prison that’s taking millions of taxpayer dollars every year to provide such substandard treatment, because he refused to unseal the settlement. His basic reasoning was that he feared releasing the documents could discourage a company like CCA from seeking settlements in the future. Which would be GREAT, because then they could actually have to take some responsibility for the thousands of instances of abuse and negligence that have taken place in the prisons they’re paid billions of dollars to operate.
A really interesting story came out of New Mexico last week that really speaks to the great benefit the industry enjoys in having former (and potentially future) employees working in government. I have often complained of the political and contractual favoritism shown to the industry by former employees, but this one really struck me.
And the fines could not have come at a more appropriate time. Because a prisoner in a GEO Group facility in Clayton, New Mexico, was just beaten to within an inch of his life and is now on life support following the vicious assault.
Though I rarely touch on international private prison news, two recent stories from our friends across the pond caught my attention recently. The first is an article from The Guardian discussing the proposed privatization of nine prisons in England, which the author concludes would work out very well for any corporation that wins the contract but not so well for prisoners who end up housed in a private facility. Research cited by the author has shown that private prisons present a much higher risk to the safety of prisoners, staff, and the general public. Private prisons in the UK has seen some of the same problems as the industry experiences here in the US; “green” staff, with little training and a high rate of turnover, which results in higher levels of violence and decreased security. Likewise, the industry falls victim to the profit motive, as private prison operators continually cut costs at the expense of prisoner rehabilitation and care.
England is facing a crisis of incarceration similar to, but on a much smaller scale than our own, driven by things like mandatory minimum sentences and 3-strikes laws, which has prompted lawmakers to seek ways to cut the prison population or at least make it more manageable. Unfortunately, they seem to be taking a page out of our manual in dealing with the crisis, focusing more on increasing capacity by outsourcing services to private companies than on smart and efficient legislative and policy initiatives designed to reduce the prison population.
The second is an article that uncovers an “eye-watering scandal;” namely, that the competitive bidding process currently underway to operate 5 facilities is rigged in favor of the private companies. Stipulations were introduced by the government late into the process that rendered bids from public entities non-competitive, and the private industry has basically been handed a cakewalk of a bidding process. It’s a clear handout to the industry, and as the assistant secretary general of the probation union said, “Prison Privatisation is no longer based on efficiency, it’s now ideological.”
But he didn’t stop there. Mr. Sims, who was also the mayor of this small town for decades, used the town’s taxpayers’ money to perform maintenance on the private prison. In fact, he used over $30,000 worth of their money to perform labor on the facility. Because apparently the GEO Group, which already takes in literally billions of dollars every year in taxpayer money as revenue, tens if not hundreds of millions of which ends up as profit, couldn’t perform that labor themselves.
Honestly – I’m not being sarcastic here. The AP has requested the settlement in the recent case the ACLU and Marlin Riggs won against CCA in Idaho be unsealed. The case alleged violence at the facility was so pervasive that it was called “Gladiator School,” and that the prison intentionally denied medical care to assaulted prisoners in order to cover up the extent of the violence. The AP says the case raises profound questions of public concern, which I certainly agree with. So, I wish you the best of luck in getting that settlement unsealed; I’d love to see what it says, and how much CCA had to pay.
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