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Federal Government Turns A Blind Eye To Terrible Conditions In Private Prisons

The Office of the Inspector General for the Justice Department uncovered systemic mismanagement at private prisons, which fueled inmate suffering. However, the office also found the suffering would not have been so severe if government officials had engaged in proper oversight.

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), GEO Group, and Management and Training Corporation (MTC) has contracts with the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to house about 22,660 federal inmates in private prisons—about 12 percent of the federal prison population. The BOP has contracted facilities since the late 1990s, largely because of overcrowding.

While the overall federal prison population declined by 2.3 percent from 2013 to 2014, the system remains approximately 20 percent over capacity today.

According to a report from the Inspector General [PDF], standards for 14 federal private prisons and 14 comparably-sized public prisons were compared between 2011 and 2014, and data showed in “most key areas contract prisons incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable BOP institutions and that the BOP needs to improve how it monitors contract prisons in several areas.”

Investigators uncovered infractions at private facilities, which for one facility included “improper storage of use-of-force video footage, as well as more serious or systemic deficiencies, such as failure to initiate discipline in over 50 percent of incidents reviewed by onsite monitors in a six month period.”

Problems persisted for years because BOP oversight was so lax and ineffective. One onsite monitor told investigators “he would take it as ‘gospel'” if a private prison contractor told him it had identified and corrected deficiencies in its monthly self-audits.

BOP’s weak approach to overseeing its contracts with private prison companies had abysmal effects. Because contractors submit monthly invoices that do not itemize specific costs, investigators could not determine whether contractors’ services were “consistent with the value or quality of service” BOP should receive based on money spent.

In this respect, the BOP violated federal law by failing to comply with transparency provisions mandated in the Government Performance and Results Act Modernization Act of 2010.

Contractors fixed the problems on this occasion and the BOP determined each prison to be “sufficiently compliant.” However, investigators concluded, “BOP still must improve its oversight of contract prisons to ensure that federal inmates’ rights and needs are not placed at risk when they are housed in contract prisons.”

This is a recurring theme in the report. Investigators acknowledge in just about every case, where serious issues were uncovered, offending parties were notified and specific problems were corrected.

While on one hand this is a good thing, on the other hand, there was no clear accountability for how things were allowed to get so bad.

In another example, investigators found two of the three private prisons they visited had placed newly-admitted inmates in solitary confinement until beds became available in general population. When investigators brought this issue to the attention of the BOP chief, he “immediately directed that these inmates be removed from [solitary] and returned to the general population,” and that “contracts for all contract prisons be modified to prohibit [solitary] placement for inmates unless there is a policy-based reason to house them there.”

Yet, this was not some simple misunderstanding. Private prison management and the BOP had jointly interpreted the contract to allow for such housing of new prisoners because the contractors could not refuse inmates under their agreements. Meanwhile, the BOP included open beds in solitary in its calculation of available bed space at private prisons. It only stopped when investigators caught wind of the arrangement.

Investigators said the lack of oversight for medical care was a “major area of concern,” finding that “communication between staff responsible for these oversight activities is limited, that they do not routinely share the results of the various reviews, and that no one person or office reviews the monitoring results.”

In the case of inmate deaths at private prisons, there are “no procedures for them to require corrective action from the contractor when the BOP’s contract physician identifies deficiencies during an individual mortality review.”

BOP monitors rely on checklists to record their observations of private prisons, but the BOP failed to “substantively review [the checklists] on a regular basis to ensure [they are] the most effective and efficient tool possible.” Administrators also stated that revisions to the checklist were not proactive, and “usually occur only in response to a significant incident.”

Growing unaddressed resentments over quality of life boiled over, leading to the injury and death of inmates and correction officers alike at private prisons.

A riot at the Reeves County Detention Center, which lasted from December 2008 to January 2009, was a result of inadequate staffing that led to a breakdown in security and health services.

Later, in February 2011, inmates assaulted prison staff because they were “dissatisfied with the staff’s response to a medical emergency on the compound that resulted in the death of an inmate.”

In May 2012, an officer was killed and 20 people were injured at Adams County Correctional Center, when around 250 inmates “angry about low-quality food and medical care, as well as about correctional officers the inmates believed were disrespectful,” engaged in a riot.

Inmates set fire to the Willacy County Correctional Center in 2015 because of complaints over medical care and living conditions.

According to private prison contractors, who described the circumstances surrounding lockdowns, “Inmates expressed concerns over specific issues, including medical care, commissary prices, inmate pay, movement restrictions, and television channels.”

Onsite monitors are supposed to discern trends in inmate grievances and incident reports, but monitors generally wrote “no identifiable trends” or “no trends” in their reports and failed to address the subject of trends at all.

“While the BOP’s primary responsibility is to monitor the contractor,” investigators wrote, “identifying and analyzing trends is crucial to enabling the BOP to identify potential problem areas that could affect inmate safety and security, to enhance monitoring efforts in those specific areas, and to notify the contractor to promptly identify causes and solutions.”

The inspector general ran the data and found trends including that incident reports had increased 192 percent at one contract prison over two years. Monitors failed to report or analyze anything about trends in incident reports in the case of that facility.

Investigators found inmates at private prisons submitted a greater percentage of grievances in specific key areas than inmates at BOP facilities. They involved medical care, food, conditions of confinement, institutional operations, safety and security, sexual abuse or assault, Special Housing Units (SHU), and complaints against staff.

“With the exception of fewer incidents of positive drug tests and sexual misconduct,” the review found, “Contract prisons had more incidents per capita than the BOP institutions in all of the categories we examined.” This included contraband discovery, assaults, use of force, lockdowns, and guilty findings.

Though the report contends no level of sexual misconduct was acceptable, contract prisons averaged nine allegations of staff-on-inmate sexual assault annually. Fifteen allegations occurred on average at BOP facilities. Neither statistic is heartening, especially when considering there could be way more incidents of sexual assault that went unreported

Similarly, investigators found some of the assault data reported by private prisons was inconsistent and some trends were skewed by individual facilities that had extraordinary problems. The BOP’s reporting was suspect as well. It reported zero inmate-on-inmate assaults, even though guilty findings on sexual misconduct charges were reported.

It’s the BOP’s job to oversee contractors and hold them accountable when they mistreat inmates. They bare a significant portion of the responsibility for the abusive environments nurtured in private prisons over the past few decades.

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.