Private Prison Performance

Private prisons are treated like a new innovation, and modern improvement of old idea. But private prisons have been around for over twenty years, with performance problems the entire time. They should be evaluated on the basis of performance not ideology.

Problems have existed for years:

1997, GEO (then Wackenhut) contract in Michigan. North Lake Correctional Center:

In the first five months of operation, the facility reported 110 critical incidents, including 46 assaults and 12 attempted suicides. GEO also failed to provide counseling programs or contractually required levels of staff. Michigan terminated the contract six years after operations began.

1997, CCA contract in Youngstown, Ohio:

Seven people died in the first year of operation; twenty more were stabbed and six people escaped, including two murderers. Investigation by the US Attorney General found “pivotal failures in its security and operational management.” Legal losses reached into the millions, and the host city was so upset with prison management it joined the inmate’s class action lawsuit over operations. CCA shut down the prison in July 2001 after the client declined to renew its contract… and the facility stayed empty for years until the federal government bailed CCA out.

1998: The National Institute of Corrections concluded: 

“Some proponents argue that evidence exists of substantial savings as a result of privatization. Indeed, one asserts that a typical American jurisdiction can obtain economies in the range of 10 percent to 20 percent. Our analysis of the existing data does not support such an optimistic view.

Why so many problems?

Prisons are hard enough to run. Private prisons underpay and undertrain staff, and skimp on security measures. Private prisons have high turnover and low morale. Money goes to profits and millionaire executives – not operations.

Problems persist to the present day:

May 2012, Adams County, Mississippi, CCA (contract with federal Bureau of Prisons):

Information is barely trickling out from this highly secretive environment. We know that one officer died and twenty people were injured in a bloody riot. The fragments of information suggest a boiling over after many complaints of mistreatment. According to one person in custody: “They always beat us and hit us. We just pay them back. We’re trying to get better food, medical, programs, clothes, and we’re trying to get some respect from the officers and lieutenants.”

March 2012, Walnut Grove, Mississippi, The GEO Group:

The US Department of Justice found:

  • Deliberate indifference to staff sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior with youth;
  • Use of excessive use of force by staff on youth;
  • Inadequate protection from youth-on-youth violence;
  • Deliberate indifference to youth at risk of self-injurious and suicidal behaviors; and
  • Deliberate indifference to medical needs.

In approving settlement of a lawsuit, the judge declared:

“The sum of these actions and inactions … paints a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world.”

March 2012, New Mexico, CCA and GEO:

New Mexico’s corrections agency fined GEO with $1.4 million in penalties for the company’s continued failure to adequately staff contract facilities. CCA was fined $12,000 for similar failures.

October 2011, Sayre, Oklahoma, CCA:

46 people were injured, 16 hospitalized, 3 in critical condition after a riot in a CCA prison.

July 2010, Kingman, Arizona, MTC:

Three prisoners escaped from a medium security facility, kidnapped two truck drivers and murdered two tourists. How did it happen? Arizona’s official review found:

  • The alarm system had been malfunctioning for months. It sounded 89 times during the 16 hour study period, and staff learned to disregard it.
  • Bulbs were burned out on light poles.
  • Camera monitors were arranged so they could not be viewed.
  • Shift schedules leave the perimeter unstaffed for fifteen minutes at the beginning of every shift.
  • At the time of the escape only one perimeter patrol was in place.
  • Nearly 80 percent of the staff was new or newly promoted, many with minimal training or less than three months on the job.

2009, Texas, GEO Group:

Gregoria de la Rosa was brutally murdered in a Geo prison in Texas. The victim, an honorably discharged former National Guardsman, was serving a six-month sentence for possession of less than a quarter gram of cocaine. A few days before his scheduled release he was beaten to death by two other inmates using a lock tied to a sock, while Geo’s corrections staff stood by and watched, and Geo’s wardens smirked and laughed. Additional testimony revealed:

  • The contraband weapon was not detected during a routine pat-down search before all the inmates entered the corridor.
  • The assault lasted between fifteen and twenty minutes, within view of multiple officers.
  • An hour and fifteen minutes elapsed before medical personnel arrived, even though medical staff were also employed by Geo and present at the facility at the time.
  • Video cameras watch and record the area. The recordings disappeared after the initial investigation.

The jury found “malice or gross negligence” and awarded over $40 million in damages, including $20 million in punitive damages against GEO. Upholding the award of punitive damages and the spoliation of evidence, the Texas appellate court opined, “We find that Wackenhut’s conduct was clearly reprehensible and, frankly, constituted a disgusting display of disrespect for the welfare of others and for this State’s civil justice system.”

These aren’t isolated incidents. The latest research confirms the earlier findings: private prisons don’t work:

Meta-analysis of Cost and Quality of Confinement Indicators, 2009:

Cost savings from privatizing prisons are not guaranteed and appear minimal. Quality of confinement is similar across privately and publicly managed systems, with publicly managed prisons delivering slightly better skills training and having slightly fewer inmate grievances.”

National Council on Crime and Delinquency, 2012:

“Proponents’ claims that private prisons can provide higher-quality and more cost-effective service provisions, improved conditions of confinement, and economic growth in the communities where new facilities are built are neither borne out in research, nor seen in the scores of private facility incident reports across the country. The expectation that competition for contracts among free market players would lead to generally improved efficiency, quality, and cost savings has not been met. Nevertheless, proponents continue to use these claims widely as a basis for pursuing privatization.”

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