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Making a Profit from Incarceration — The Human Rights Concern of Contract Prisons

By McKenna Christmas |

The country was first introduced to for-profit or “contract” prisons as a response to the influx of immigrants as well as overall increasing incarceration rates during the 1980s. The decade between 1980-1990 saw the greatest growth in state incarceration rates. The 107 percent change is largely attributed to greater enforcement of drug-related offenses. Contract prisons were presented as a way to reduce overcrowding and improve cost-effectiveness for the federal government. The Sentencing Project reports that from 2000 to 2016, the number of people housed in private prisons increased five times faster than the total prison population and the proportion of people detained in private immigration facilities increased by 442 percent. Today, the majority of for-profit prisons are used to house undocumented immigrants. The Detention Watch Network and Center for Constitutional Rights state that 73 percent of all people in immigration detention were confined in privately-run facilities on a daily basis during fiscal year 2017.

Contract prisons are located in twenty-seven states with the highest use reported by Montana, Hawaii, Texas, and Florida. The facilities are run by three corporations: Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the GEO Group, Inc. (GEO), and Management and Training Corporation (MTC). But this privatization as a seeming solution to overcrowding has raised its own human rights concerns. When contracts are competitive they are awarded to the lowest bidder. Josue Vladimir Cortez Diaz is an immigrant from El Salvador recently awarded asylum who reports being severely mistreated in a contract prison, his lawyer, Rachel Steinback, stated in her interview to the New York Times,

“The main goal of a private prison company is to maximize profit, and to maximize profit, you minimize your expenditures. All of the incentive is to get more people in, hold them there for longer and provide them with the barest necessities possible.”

Her statements find support in a recently published report by the Department of Justice. The report was conducted in 2016 by the Office of the Inspector General in response to multiple instances of violence, unrest, and reports of inhumane conditions. As summarized by the document, a comprehensive investigation of the 14 facilities found that “contract prisons incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) institutions and that the BOP needs to improve how it monitors contract prisons in several areas. Analysis included data from 2011 through 2014 in eight key categories: (1) contraband, (2) reports of incidents, (3) lockdowns, (4) inmate discipline, (5) telephone monitoring, (6) selected grievances, (7) urinalysis drug testing, and (8) sexual misconduct. The contract prisons had more incidents per capita than the BOP institutions in all categories except incidents of positive drug tests and sexual misconduct. Contract prisons also had higher rates of assaults, both by inmates on other inmates and by inmates on staff.

Oversight is addressed by the BOP’s Large Secure Adult Contract Oversight Checklist that contract-prisons are expected to follow. However, not only have problems been found in checklist compliance but the checklist itself is unsatisfactory. For health services, the checklist does not include observation steps to verify that inmates receive certain basic medical services. For example, the observation steps do not include checks on whether inmates received initial examinations, immunizations, and tuberculosis tests, as BOP policy requires. Additionally, the findings state that monitoring of healthcare for contract compliance lacks coordination from BOP staff responsible for health services oversight. More specific findings included improper housing of new inmates in Special Housing Units (SHU), which are normally used for disciplinary or administrative segregation. These new inmates had not engaged in any of the behaviors cited in American Correctional Association standards and BOP policies that would justify being placed in such administrative or disciplinary segregation. An audit identified almost $3 million in costs that were either not allowed, unsupported, or funds that should be put to better use. From the start of the contract in January 2007 to March 2009, there were no minimum staffing requirements for the institution because it sought to reduce costs. After an inmate riot in 2009, the BOP established the minimum Correctional Officer staffing requirement in the contract. Nevertheless, the Office of Inspector General’s 2015 audit also found that the institution had significant issues with meeting its minimum staffing requirement in health services.

The struggle for adequate services is also reflected in cases brought forward by the American Civil Liberties Union. The Case of Dockery v. Hall dated March 2, 2017 began in May 2013. The ACLU, in conjunction with the Southern Poverty Law Center and other private firms, filed a federal lawsuit accusing the East Mississippi Correctional Facility (EMCF) of “operating in a perpetual state of crisis” where prisoners are at “grave risk of death and loss of limbs”. Further case submissions in December of 2016 exposed the EMCF’s practices of holding those with serious psychiatric disabilities in solitary confinement for extremely long periods of time and the lack of proper sanitation, as well as, mental and medical care. Throughout the duration of the case, the EMCF refused to relinquish medical and mental health reports despite being granted an extension to compile the necessary information. Personal testimonies included that submitted by Christopher who suffered from constant pain and pressure on his eyes and worsening eyesight as a result of being denied the eye drops he had used all his life. Christopher stated that he paid prisoners to help him fill out medical forms to request for an appointment with a glaucoma specialist. Christopher never saw a specialist. At one point the prison stopped giving him any medication at all because the corporation running the prison at the time refused to provide anything but life-saving medication. Not only was Christopher’s testimony one of many submitted in Dockery v. Hall but there are similar cases brought before the Federal Courts. Kelly v. Wengler cited a dangerously hostile prison environment due in large part to guard misconduct, and Minneci v. Pollard presented a case of medical negligence to the Supreme Court in hopes of establishing that contract prison guards can be sued for violating prisoners’ constitutional rights.

Reports of human rights violations (most disturbingly for the United States Department of Justice itself), coupled with the United States’s status as the country with the highest prison population and incarceration rates in the world bring the practices of these institutions into question. This concern is amplified by the current policy that BOP contracts place the responsibility for quality control on the contractor rather than on the BOP. The risks this policy enables have most recently become apparent in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The issue first arose when it was noted that the BOP completely excluded contract prisons from its initial COVID-19 case tally. The number of cases in private prisons was not released until weeks later and even then did not address the specificities needed by public health experts such as how many prisoners, guards, and staff members were tested and if any staff members had been confirmed positive. There is also concern that the number of cases are inaccurate. Reported by the Marshall Project, “Two of the federal prisons run by private companies qualify as clusters of the disease under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines: Great Plains Correctional Institution in Oklahoma, with 27 prisoners with confirmed cases, and Rivers Correctional Institution in North Carolina, with 18.” The classification as “clusters of the disease” is significant, because the results of tested state prison clusters have shown the majority of inmates to be positive. In regards to this concern, Professor Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein of the Center for Health Equity Research in the University of North Carolina School of Medicine stated to the Marshall project, “You cannot convince me that there are only 110 cases in these prisons [...] It’s impossible to understand what is going on at the facilities.”

From this research and in light of current events, it is my firm belief that human rights oversight and practices must improve. At minimum action should adequately address the values emphasized on the checklist, oversight, and policy. When thinking about issues such as immigration and incarceration justice, we must question the power of contract prisons and their place in a country where basic rights and humane treatment are supposed to be a guarantee.


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