Prison Pays

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

The State of Arkansas resumed control of the Alexander facility in 2006.

While Cornell avoided fines in this instance, Bob Lumpkin, who heads the division of TDCJ that deals with private prison contracts, says, "All of our contracts have financial penalties for certain compliance standards not being met." When asked if any significant financial penalties come to mind, Lumpkin says no.

Fines are pretty unusual. As Alex Friedmann of Prison Legal News points out, governmental entities are more likely to simply pull the inmates and not renew a contract than to seek sanctions. (Friedmann was convicted of armed robbery and assault with attempt to commit murder in Tennessee in 1990. He also was convicted of attempted aggravated robbery in 1992. He served six of his ten years in a CCA prison.)

"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."

A good example of this might be Hawaii's Department of Corrections' removal of all the women it sent to Corrections Corporation of America's prison in Otter Creek, Kentucky, after Hawaii officials learned of widespread sexual abuse.

"They didn't cancel the contract — and this is fairly common — they just didn't renew the contract," he says. "So they transferred them all back to Hawaii, and they wouldn't say publicly, 'Well, this is because your staff has this annoying habit of raping our prisoners.'"

Kentucky's DOC followed suit, swapping out all its female inmates in Otter Creek with men.

When U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement inspected a Cornell detention center it contracted with in New Mexico and found too many violations, there was no penalty. ICE simply removed its inmates. Peacocking for its shareholders, Cornell made a display of "considering" a lawsuit, but nothing came of it.

In Colorado, GEO wasn't fined, but it may have pushed things too far: After winning a bid for a secured facility in Pueblo, the company refused to break ground until the state amended the contract to state that it would pay GEO for 90 percent occupancy, even if there weren't that many inmates.

As that fight dragged on, GEO won a bid for an even bigger prison in Ault, Colorado — thanks in large part to the state's number two man in its Department of Corrections, who stumped for GEO as a "consultant" even while he collected a state salary.

"Do I have much respect for GEO Group of Florida? No. No, I don't," says Colorado State Representative Buffie McFadyen.

Four years after winning the Pueblo contract, GEO abandoned its plans to build a prison there. It also scrapped its plans for the Ault facility.

But of course GEO now runs the Reid Community Corrections Center, to which the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles sends people like Anthony Ray Ferrell every month. Whether those people stay is entirely up to them.

Ultimately, McFayden says, privatization is "ethically immoral, but also it bankrupts the taxpayers. So either you can think with your heart or your wallet — either way, it's not any good."

Texas first contracted with private prisons to honor the Constitution, not to save money.

Texas's reliance on private prisons was borne out of a landmark prisoners' rights case that completely restructured the state's corrections department.

A 2003 report by Abt Associates Inc., for the National Institute of Justice offers a history of the industry's presence in Texas.

In 1978, Judge William Wayne Justice of the Eastern District of Texas presided over a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of all Texas prisoners against the Texas Department of Corrections (as it was then known). Two years later, Justice ruled that TDC violated prisoners' constitutional rights in six areas. The department and the prisoners entered a consent decree regarding the necessary improvements.

The changes were slow to come, a problem exacerbated by the rapidly increasing number of inmates. "By the mid-1980s, Judge Justice had become so impatient with the pace at which the state was changing its prison system that he demanded that the state pay a daily fine in excess of $800,000 if it did not improve its efforts to comply with the mandates of the decision," according to the Abt report.

Freaked out by the potential financial hemorrhage, lawmakers in 1987 passed the first bit of legislation that would allow the TDC — rechristened the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in 1989 — the ability to contract with private vendors for the housing of prisoners, parolees and juvenile offenders.

"The impetus for the program was the need to acquire additional prison capacity quickly and to satisfy the federal court's demands for constitutionally compliant imprisonment," according to the Abt report. "The goal of providing more cost-effective services than the TDCJ was providing was also added, but this was not the dominant objective."

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