Prison Pays

Despite a history of abuse and bad conditions, private prison corporation GEO keeps getting contracts from the state.

"I think we need strong accountability," he says. "We have to make sure that anybody who contracts with the government does what they say they're going to do. And TDCJ does...They're quite rigorous, from what I understand." (Levin may have been unaware of the Texas State Auditor's March 2010 report that stated that TDCJ "did not consistently include in its contracts performance standards to help ensure that the Department can hold its providers accountable for unacceptable performance or contract non-compliance.")

Parroting the TPPF's "14 percent" figure is the allegedly libertarian think tank the Reason Foundation. The foundation, which is perhaps the biggest nonindustry proponent of private prisons, has for years accepted corporate contributions from the GEO Group. The foundation also heralds the Corrections Corporation of America-funded Vanderbilt study; CCA is also a foundation donor.

Foundation spokesman Chris Mitchell brushed aside any suggestion of a conflict of interest, telling the Press in an e-mail that "Reason Foundation was researching and advocating the benefits of privatization decades before these prison companies even existed...Our expertise in improving government efficiency and lowering costs has prompted the previous four presidential administrations, Democrats and Republicans, to seek our counsel on privatization issues."

"Gregorio was beaten to death by two other inmates using a lock tied to a sock, while Wackenhut's officers stood by and watched and Wackenhut's wardens smirked and laughed."
Keri Rosebraugh
"Gregorio was beaten to death by two other inmates using a lock tied to a sock, while Wackenhut's officers stood by and watched and Wackenhut's wardens smirked and laughed."

Meanwhile, lobbyists for GEO and other companies have fought to kill legislation such as Texas House Bill 3093 that would extend open record laws to private facilities. This, despite an assurance on GEO's Web site that the company understands that the public is "naturally curious about an institution that is financed by all but seen by few." (The company also claims that "a healthy respect for a vigilant media is a powerful guarantee of private operator accountability," which must be why GEO spokesman Pablo Paez never returned calls for this story and was always ready with a helpful "no comment" to media in the past.)

But private prison operators have a built-in quality control factor in their investors, according to the Reason Foundation's Leonard Gilroy.

"The reality is that bad things happen in good prisons, both public and private," Gilroy wrote in a Reason white paper. "These are not utopias — these are prisons. If all sorts of horrible things were going on, though, these companies know that investors would steer clear. Which is another incentive for privately run prisons to stay as safe as possible."

However, it appears that private prison corporations are just like any other: Investors will "steer clear" if there's no money. Whether or not "horrible things were going on" is a nonissue.

Of course, that depends on your definition of "horrible."

In 2001, Cornell issued a press release announcing a projected $42 million deal with the Arkansas Division of Youth Services to manage a secure youth facility in the town of Alexander.

It was a welcome bit of good news, as Cornell was in the process of shuttering a Pennsylvania youth center after it was discovered that at least 11 kids had been sexually assaulted by guards.

The press release for the Arkansas deal touted a "minimum ramp-up time," stating that the company would "immediately begin to both change people's lives and provide a return to our shareholders." Nowhere did the release say the company was inheriting a facility with a challenging special-needs population or that the company would need time to adequately staff the facility with qualified professionals, or that the facility had been out of compliance with state regulations for several years.

The State of Arkansas was expecting Cornell to turn the facility around. Instead, after a year passed without any improvement, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Education conducted investigations. Inspectors found underqualified staff, poor monitoring of kids on suicide watch, and a lack of textbooks, among other shortcomings.

Still, the Department of Justice and State of Arkansas allowed Cornell to continue its control of Alexander, ostensibly under the belief that no company would be brazen enough to ignore federal and state orders to bring itself into compliance.

But three years later, unfortunately for Cornell, a 17-year-old girl named LaKeisha Brown dropped dead while in the company's care. Subsequent state investigations found that medical staff ignored Brown's pleas for treatment, believing she was faking. A medical examiner found that Brown died from blood clots in her lung, which she had been suffering from "for at least two days and possibly as long as two weeks" before she died.

Out of the state's investigation into Brown's death came other troublesome findings: falsification of records and inappropriate use of forced injections of Thorazine and Benadryl as chemical restraints. (In a separate investigation of how two kids escaped eight months after Brown's death, it was revealed that one security guard was asleep at her desk and another was preoccupied with a pizza.)

Addressing the issue in a quarterly earnings conference call four months later, Cornell CEO James Hyman said, "In April, we experienced the tragic death of one of our clients in our care. We feel awful about this. We feel even worse because the pace of our investigation allowed us to appear callous or indifferent to the public."

Later in the call, responding to a question from an investment banker about the projected economic impact of this death, Hyman said, "What I would say is that we do not anticipate any material financial issue coming out of that."

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