PRIVATE POKEYS CASH IN ON MISERY
by Jesse Oppenheimer
With the injection of the profit motive into the business of incarceration, doing hard time in the cooler has become a windfall for prison owners and a nightmare for everyone else.
About 40-miles southeast of Albuquerque, amid vast expanses of barren pinto-bean fields, there lies Estancia, a small, impoverished hamlet. A historical marker on the outskirts of town indicates arrival in “the true heart of New Mexico” and “site of New Mexico’s last hanging in 1922.” Today, an air of strangulation still looms over Estancia, which shows just a few sputters of economic life–a gas station, a barbecue joint, the Blue Ribbon Bar. A few miles east of town, however, a massive cash cow grazes contentedly, one that milks megabucks from human misery–the Torrance County Detention Facility.
Owned and operated by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Torrance County is no traditional jailhouse–it’s a stripped-down “prison-for-profit.” Recently expanded to 910 beds, the private pokey holds murderers caught and condemned in every corner of the country and then shipped here to the Land of Enhancement. It doesn’t matter who’s wearing the prison blues–they’re all greenbacks to CCA.
Inside, white cinder-block walls are decorated with baby-blue Southwestern patterns and murals of mesa landscapes, Aztec calendar wheels and Indians on horseback. Jumpsuited prisoners work in groups mopping the floors; the men are blank-faced and eerily silent. Two gymnasiums, a basketball court, and a tidy library with turquoise carpeting and maroon plastic chairs are empty–nearly all inmates are cooped up in their “pods.” For the general prison population, a pod consists of stacks of two-man cells and a cramped dayroom. For the men who inhabit the segregated units, the whole world is reduced to a tiny box where cons are locked down 23 hours a day. In these sardine-packed cells, somber faces press up against small port-holes, their eyes cold and desperate.
The office of the prison’s warden, Don Dorsey, is a world apart from the nearby “seg” units–happy photos, wacky baseball caps and coffee mugs fill the bright space. The boyish-faced warden leans back in his chair and lights up a smoke. Behind his desk is an elevated window with a commanding view of the crystal-blue New Mexico sky framed by glinting ropes of platinum razor wire.
“I don’t like the term prison-for-profit, ” Dorsey says. “But when you’re in business, it’s to make a profit. But that’s not the guiding principle; the guiding principle is quality service at a lower cost. We ain’t no fly-by-night outfit. We’re the largest and best private corrections corporation in the United States.”
CCA opened in America’s first modern private prison in 1984. Thanks to the country’s surging prisoner population and a backlash against government waste that took root in the Reagan era, the business of incarceration has exploded since then into a billion-dollar-a-year industry. Revenue for Wackenhut Corrections, CCA’s main competitor, has risen 40% in the past year alone. About a dozen private companies have locked up lucrative government contracts to lock down prisoners from coast to coast. These for-profit penal colonies now operate 163 prisons with 123,000 beds in 30 states, as well as Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. For investors and the beneficiaries of big-ticket contracts, private corrections is a free-market dream come true; for anyone failing short of the ruthless bottom line, it’s been a heinous nightmare.
Alberto Estrada took little comfort in being recognized as the Torrance County Detention Facility’s employee of the month after being nearly killed by inmates in the night of August 17, 1999. Estrada was alone in the gym guarding 30 inmates and monitoring II 7 convicts in an adjacent yard when a riot broke out and prisoners attacked him with baseball bats.
“I got six cracks on my head, both hands broken. I was almost dead,” says Estrada, who is still recovering at home on workman’s comp–65% of an $8.50 hourly wage. “I was in a coma for five days. I can’t smell, and I can’t taste.”
Estrada’s ordeal could have been avoided if CCA had bothered to fix a broken gate connecting the gym to the yard.
“That said it was too expensive to fix,” Estrada adds. “After this shit happened, they fixed the damn thing the next day. They don’t care about you. They don’t give a shit. They just want to make money.”
In spite of the atrocious mishaps that have taken place under his watch, Warden Dorsey glows with pride when he talks about working conditions at CCA.
“The career opportunities are immense for employees here,” Dorsey says. “The corporation is very, very, very pro-employee.”
As bad as Estrada’s experience was, at least he escaped with his life–Ralph Garcia, a guard at Wackenhut’s Guadalupe County Correctional Facility in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, did not. After Garcia was stabbed to death by inmates during a jailhouse riot, it was discovered that he had not competed a short orientation course. Had he received proper training, Garcia probably never would have entered a pod of unlocked inmates alone.
“It was crazy, like when hyenas kill a deer or something,” says a staffer who was on duty that evening. “They just killed him because he was there. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
One week prior to Ralph Garcia’s murder, Orlando Gabaidon, a prisoner, was beaten to death by a fellow convict with a rock-filled laundry bag. Gabaidon became the fourth inmate murdered at Wackenhut’s two New Mexico facilities in a nine-month period. New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson vowed to move state prisoners out of private prisons if more killings occurred, posting a written notice to that effect in Wackenhut’s facilities. Johnson’s missive was interpreted by Santa Rosa inmates as an invitation to do their worst.
“All the inmates wanted to go to the state prisons, where they have benefits–TV’s in the cells and all the goodies, “says a staffer at the facility. “They just wanted to get the hell out of there—so they killed someone.”
Terry Pelz served as a warden for ten years in the Texas correctional system before leaving to become director of operations for the Bobby Ross Group, a privately owned prison corporation with facilities in Texas and Georgia. Going private is a decision Pelz deeply regrets.
“I don’t sit here as a bleeding heart and say, ‘I’m for inmates,’ but we shouldn’t profit off of misery,” Pelz says. “Initially, I supported privatization because I thought they could do it better,” Pelz adds. “But they can’t, and they don’t. They just don’t.”
A gig guarding inmates at a state prison–which are often union shops–is relatively plush, offering comprehensive training, benefits and pension plans, plus annual salaries that can reach $50,000 after a few years on the job.
By contrast, private concerns pay dirt wages and provide minimal or no training to employees–both great ways to ensure that riots and murders will continue to occur.
One scrimping strategy routinely used by prison companies is to deliberately under-staff, a profit-boosting maneuver that carries major risks: Minimum supervision means maximum danger for both cons and clock-punchers alike.
“If you could run your shifts successfully and safely with ten people, the next day you had nine,” says a former supervisor with a major private-corrections company, who speaks on the condition of anonymity. “if you still ran it successfully, you had eight. I was running shifts with one other person on the floor with 300 inmates. It made it an extremely unsafe environment.”
Dangerous working conditions and poor pay are not known to attract high-caliber employees. While investigating allegations of rampant sexual abuse of female inmates by guards at the Wackenhut-operated Travis County Community Justice Center in East Austin, Texas, discovered that companies aren’t too particular about who they hire. Twelve indictments have resulted so far at Travis County, and Wackenhut’s contract for the 1,033-bed facility has been yanked.
“These facilities turn a profit by cutting benefits and salaries to the staff,” a former supervisor says. “When you do that, you’re not gonna have professional folks working in that environment; you’re gonna have all kinds of problems–just the sort of problems we saw in this facility. As crazy as state corrections is, it was far saner and better than what was out here.”
Inmate health care is a major money pit; in the interest of revenue growth, many private prisons strive for greater “efficiency’ in this realm. Robert Trujillo, a prisoner at the Torrance County Detention Facility who suffers from a seizure disorder, was a victim of this profit-motivated brand of streamlining.
“He’d rather be at the state-run prison in Santa Fe, a maximum-security prison, where he was getting the proper medical treatment,” says Felix Candelaria, Trujillo’s brother-in-law. “Every time he had a seizure, they would rush him to the infirmary. Now, where he’s at, when he’s having a seizure, they just leave him in the cell.”
In Oklahoma, Cornell Corrections was recently fined $168,750 by the state for failing to meet their medical- service obligation at the Great Plains Correctional Facility, an 812-bed prison operated by the company.
Psychiatric care is also slashed, often with tragic results. Recently, a lawsuit was filed against Wackenhut alleging abuse and neglect of mentally ill inmates at the company’s facilities in Santa Rosa and Hobbs, New Mexico. Inmate Chris Hopson stands at the center of the pending litigation.
Hopson was a minimum-security inmate in a therapeutic community in the regular New Mexico system, “and he was doing well,” says Alphonse Gerhardstein, an attorney who works on prisoner-rights cases.
“He then got transferred to Hobbs,” Gerhardstein says. “His medication was terminated, he was placed in a lockdown unit, and he started deteriorating.”
As Hopson’s condition worsened, staffers responded with violence. In his lawsuit, Hopson claims that he was gassed so severely that he passed out. When he awoke, prison guards required him to walk down public corridors naked.
At a hearing on the case, New Mexico Department of Corrections Mental health Director Dr. Don Davidson testified about the condition of mental health care at Wackenhut,s Hobbs facility; Davidson concluded that such services didn’t exist.
“It was my impression that they didn’t have a mental health program in place,” Dr. Davidson said following a visit to the facility.
More insidious than cutting corners on inmate health care is the way the privates target isolated, economically depressed communities, where they ingratiate themselves with local officials and finagle sweetheart deals–such as in Youngstown, Ohio, where CCA bought land for its Northeast Ohio Correctional Center for just $1.50.
According to Roberto Marquez, editor of the Santa Rosa News, the same thing happened in Santa Rosa, New Mexico.
“As soon as Wackenhut smelled that these people wanted economic development in their community–man, they were in here like stink on shit,” Marquez says. “They wined them, they dined them, they blew them, they screwed them–they did whatever they could to get them to do whatever. And they fixed themselves up.”
People in impoverished areas where prisons-for-profit do business are often desperate for work and not likely to report corruption and human-rights violations.
“These people need these jobs,” says former warden Terry Peiz. “You don’t have any kind of employee organization, so you just kind of go with the flow. You don’t raise hell, you look the other way when you see something passed under the table, or you cover up your buddy’s excessive force and don’t report it.”
Filling prison beds with any and every convict is the main goal of private prison companies, regardless of whether the facility is designed to hold them or not.
“In essence, private corrections is dungeons for dollars,” says Lance Corcoran, vice-president of the California Correctional Peace Officers association. “As long as they’re filling those beds, they really don’t care what they’re getting. And even though many of these facilities were not designed for higher-level custody, in that drive for the dollar, they’ll take in higher-level custodies and risk it.”
When there’s always room at the inn, psycho killers and nonviolent offenders end up crammed in together, leading to soaring rates of violence and assault.
“Inappropriate mixing of violent and predatory inmates with more peaceful inmates–that’s caused a lot of major disruption in various facilities,” says Alphonse Gerhardstein. In 1998, Gerhardstein represented inmates at the CCA facility in Youngstown, Ohio, in a lawsuit concerning excessive force and improperly housed maximum-security prisoners.
In just 14 months of operation, CCA’s Northeast Ohio Correctional Center, built for minimum- and medium- security inmates, racked up 47 assaults on inmates and guards, two fatal stabbings and six escapes. Gerhardstein’s case resulted in the first ever settlement to date for private prisoners: $1.65 million. Much of the trouble in Youngstown stemmed from the importation of more than 900 maximum-security prisoners from Washington, D.C.’s Lorton Correctional Complex.
A fierce debate over prisoner classification rages in New Mexico corrections circles. Defenders of private prison companies blame the state for misclassifying hard-core offenders and then dumping them on private prisons.
“Wackenhut is a victim of a dysfunctional classification system,” says Les Houston, chief lobbyist for Wackenhut Corrections in New Mexico and a former senator pro tem in the state legislature. “if Charles Manson came into New Mexico, he’d be classified as medium-security. A medium-security inmate is more hard-core in New Mexico, and Wackenhut was not made aware of this.”
Terry Pelz finds Houston’s position hard to swallow. “That is such a crock,” Pelz says. “Wackenhut raises this red flag and says, ‘Hey, you’ve been sending us misclassified inmates.’ I say to myself, Wackenhut, you are supposed to classify every inmate you get. You can reject an inmate you don’t want. “
Private prison companies don’t just hire former legislators such as Les Houston to lobby on their behalf–they put current pols on the payroll as well. As Wackenhut built its New Mexico facilities in June of 1998, the company hired senate president pro tem Manny Aragon–a former critic of private prisons–as a consultant and lobbyist. The move was attacked as a blatant conflict of interest, but Aragon saw no reason to abstain from voting on legislative matters involving Wackenhut. Soon after the riots at Santa Rosa in August though, Aragon decided to resign.
“I had no consultation agreements with Wackenhut in the state of New Mexico,” says Aragon. He quit “because it became a divisive issue here in New Mexico; they thought it was a conflict of interest. Even though it wasn’t, I didn’t think it was worth the controversy.”
A few months after Aragon quit, Wackenhut made another key hire–Michael Olguin, vice chairman of the state Democratic party and former state house majority leader. Olguin was once a harsher critic of Wackenhut than Aragon.
After the Santa Rosa riots, Olguin issued a press release that said in part, “Privatization is a dismal failure. New Mexicans were deceived by Wackenhut, by Governor Johnson and by the Republican party.”
As soon as Olguin was on Wackenhut’s payroll, he recanted his critical letter, saying, “Maybe [that] wasn’t a fair thing to do without actually observing firsthand what’s going on.” When it’s time to make friend with influential people, prison companies gleefully morph from Warden Scrooge to Santa Claus. Cultivating cozy personal relationships with political leaders and making large donations are standard tactics within the private prison system.
CCA cofounder Thomas Beasley–previously chairman of the Tennessee Republican party–is partners with current Governor Don Sundquist in the Red Hot and Blue barbecue chain. From 1993 to 1997, Beasley, his wife, CCA executives and company board member donated at least $110,000 to Tennessee lawmakers and politicians, including $38,000 to Sundquist’s reelection campaign. Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, a driving force in bringing private prisons to his state, has received at least $29,000 from the industry over his last two campaigns. In New Mexico, Governor Johnson received a total of $1 1,000 during and after his last reelection campaign–$9,000 from Wackenhut and $2,000 from CCA.
Private prison companies also pay off state inspectors who directly oversee their facilities. The Bobby Ross Group hired Robert Dearing, then-deputy director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, as a $42,000-a-year consultant. The expense paid off handsomely when Dearing gave Bobby Ross a perfect inspection report for its Dickens County Detention Center in Spur, Texas; the corporation had recently lost its contract with Montana due to poor conditions.
Even the ivory tower is not immune to private-prison payoffs. professor Charles Thomas, former director of University of Florida’s Private Corrections Project and a consultant for the state’s Correctional Privatization Commission, was long cited in the press as an academic guru on prison privatization and a major producer of research lauding the industry. He was also found to be receiving a $3 million consulting fee from CCA and to be holding about $660,000 in industry stock. Following an investigation, the Florida ethics commission fined Thomas $20,000, and he retired from the university.
Discounting research from the likes of Professor Thomas, there’s never been conclusive proof that private prisons do what they’re supposed to do–save taxpayer money. In fact, when taking into account such exploding off- budget expenses as riot control, recapturing escapees and massive lawsuits–frequently paid for by the state–private prisons often cost much more than state-run facilities.
“Private prisons aren’t working. We’re pouring more and more money into corrections–we’re spending a million dollars more a month,” says New Mexico Speaker of the House of Raymond Sanchez. “Saving money did not happen. It was a shell game.”
SOURCE: Hustler Magazine September 2000