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Inmate Deaths In Private Prisons Raise Familiar Questions About Transfers

For at least the second time this year, an inmate has died at a private prison away from home. The Associated Press reports corrections officials in Hawaii have announced an investigation into the death of 21-year-old Jonathan Namauleg of Maui, who died last week at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona. Saguaro is operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).

The circumstances surrounding Namauleg’s death are unclear at this moment. Officers found him face-down and unconscious on the floor after his cellmate activated the distress button in their cell.

Namauleg was one of over 1,300 prisoners from Hawaii to be held at the facility due to overcrowding and poor jail conditions back home. The prison holds about one fourth of Hawaii’s total incarcerated population and has been named in a number of wrongful death lawsuits involving inmates from the island.

The problems facing prisoners from out of state extend beyond the walls of Saguaro. In Vermont, State Senator Richard Sears told the AP he will hold hearings this week into the death of James Nicholson: a 66-year-old inmate who died a few weeks after his head was split open by another inmate wielding a padlock in a sock. Nicholson was held at CCA’s Lee Adjustment Center in Kentucky when he was attacked in April of this year.

In Nicholson’s case, nobody at CCA notified the authorities of his death. Law enforcement only found out about it after it was reported in the press — and the details are still hazy. According to the AP, “A medical examiner decided last month that the cause of death was a combination heart problems and diabetes. But the manner of death was left undetermined because the autopsy couldn’t explain whether the attack contributed to Nicholson’s death.”

Officials from CCA and the state of Vermont refused the AP’s efforts to obtain incident reports that would have given further insight into what happened to Nicholson. All that is publicly available now was compiled by his close friend Lewis Dagresto, who holds his power of attorney.

Dagresto said Nicholson got into an argument with another inmate and was attacked with the makeshift weapon, hitting his head on the sink and toilet on his way to the ground. Prison medical logs Dagresto provided to the AP indicate he had been “found lying on the floor, unresponsive and bleeding from the head and nose.”

With a bruised brain, several broken bones and a cracked skull, the logs described him as “confused and sometimes combative.” He was eventually returned to the medical unit at the prison a week after the attack. After five weeks, Nicholson was described as “alert and oriented, sometimes aggravated and consistently refusing to take his medication.” On the day of his death,  a nurse wrote he “voiced no complaints or concerns.” He was gone two hours later.

Vermont has since removed its prisoners from Lee (which is now empty) and transferred them to a private prison operated by the GEO Group in Michigan.

‘Locked Up and Shipped Away’

While there are scant details about these inmate deaths, it’s worth noting that both Vermont and Hawaii have sent prisoners to states abroad for a decade or more at this point. Many of the issues hinted at in Nicholson and Namauleg’s stories are well known and have been explored in important research conducted by Grassroots Leadership in 2013 as part of its report, titled “Locked Up and Shipped Away.” The report illustrates how the policies and practices employed by companies holding inmates from out of state not only interfere with the rehabilitation process but eat up taxpayer dollars for profit in the process.

On a fundamental level, an out-of-state transfer interferes with rehabilitation. Relationships and access to one’s community are some of its most well-known and essential ingredients to reducing recidivism rates. But transfers to other states make forging and maintaining those relationships impossible. Visitations are few and far between because of the enormous cost of travel. Video conferences or phone calls are no substitute for human contact, and can be very expensive as well.

Beyond that, cost cutting measures employed by companies like CCA make for a dangerous environment that is not just counterproductive to rehabilitation but also life-threatening for many inmates. Reduced staff levels don’t just maximize profits, they also make for higher rates of violence in facilities. Fewer programming options and a lack of access to medical and mental healthcare can have similarly harmful — and even deadly — implications for inmates.

The cost cutting extends to medical care as well, where inmate prescriptions and treatments are often cancelled or changed to less effective — and less expensive — regimens. Vermont inmates in Arizona have even waged protests to raise awareness of many of these issues they face in the past, only to be largely ignored by CCA and Vermont officials alike.

All of this begs the question: if we are intimately aware of how out-of-state transfers to private prisons are harmful to inmates and their chances of rehabilitation, why do corrections departments continue to engage in these contracts?

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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.