In February, the Florida Senate rejected what would have become the largest private prison system in the United States. Chasity Owens hopes she played some small roll in that setback to the private prison industry.
“I actually wrote the Senate a letter,” she said. “Hopefully, my letter had an impact on them.”
Owens has particularly strong feelings about private prisons. Her brother was killed in one.
Jason Owens died in March of 2010, two days after being beaten inside the Graceville Correctional Facility in Jackson County, Fla. The facility was operated at the time by GEO Group, Inc., a corporation based in Boca Raton, Fla.
“It’s just a nightmare,” Owens said. “It’s just devastated my family.”
A few months ago, the Owens family filed a lawsuit against the company in federal court. The family contends that an inadequately managed facility led to the inmate’s beating and subsequent death.
“This seems to be par for the course with these guys,” said Eric Stevenson, the attorney representing the Owens family.
Critics of prison privatization argue that corporations tend to put more emphasis on profits than providing care to inmate populations. As a result, they contend, the privatization model is inherently flawed and inevitably leads to corner cutting and environments rife with safety and security concerns.
“Anytime you think about a corporation, you think, ‘oh, it’s all numbers driven,’” Stevenson said.
TICKER TAPE IN A CAGE
A few years back, in 2008, Florida House Speaker Ray Sansom took a trip to Boca Raton, Fla. Soon thereafter, the Destin, Fla. lawmaker slipped a proviso into a house appropriations bill, calling for a $110 million to go toward an expansion of the Graceville Correctional Facility.
Earlier on the legislative calendar, representatives from the GEO Group had made a pitch to lawmakers urging them to up the ante on prison privatization. And while a federal investigation may yet discover otherwise, Sansom has said his Boca venture was personal and unconnected to GEO.
Although the Speaker’s proviso was eventually scrubbed of its Graceville-specific language, it remained largely intact. A few years later, GEO Group was managing the newly minted Blackwater River Correctional Facility in Milton, Fla.
Toward the end of a tour of the new facility in 2011 with state Rep. Doug Broxson (Milton), a Tampa Bay Times reporter described the scene: “Rep. Broxson shook hands with GEO Group officials and told them: ‘Y’all keep working hard, and we’ll try to send you a few dollars every once in a while.’”
The nearby Blackwater facility is by no means a novelty. The number of privately run prisons in America has been increasing for nearly 30 years.
In 1983, the Corrections Corporation of America announced it could build and operate state and federal prisons more efficiently than the government. Shortly after winning a contract for a facility in Hamilton County, Tenn., the company made a bid to take over the entire Tennessee prison system.
Though their Tennessee bid wasn’t realized, CCA continued to expand. According to a 2012 report by The Sentencing Project—a D.C. based research and advocacy organization—CCA and GEO now account for more than half of the country’s privately-run facilities. In 2010, the reports states, the two companies enjoyed a combined revenue of about $3 billion.
According to the report, the number of inmates held in private facilities in 2010 was 128,195; that represents an 80 percent increase since 1999. Nationwide, the percentage of the country’s inmate population that was kept in private prisons jumped 54 percent.
Florida has the second-highest number of inmates—nearly 12,000, or 11.3 percent of the state’s total prisoner population—in private facilities. It is outdone only by Texas, which holds more than 19,000 inmates in private prisons.
The privatization efforts that recently stalled in the Florida Senate would have transferred 14,500 inmates into private facilities. In a 2011 conference call with investors, GEO Group Chief Executive Officer George Zoley called the Florida possibility “the largest single contract procurement in the history of our industry.”
The senate defeat was narrow—a vote of 21 to 19—and the issue is likely to arise again. Governor Rick Scott supports privatization, as does Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos. Supporters claim the plan nixed this past legislative session would have saved an estimated $16.5 million.
Certainly, private prison corporations will keep their attention focused on Florida. The numbers are too good to ignore.
Florida incarcerates nearly 168,000 people. Behind California and Texas, it’s one of the best places on the planet for the private prison industry to dig in.
The United States, in general, is fertile ground for the industry. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, nearly 2.3 million people are incarcerated in this country. That’s more imprisoned people than in any other country on Earth.
The private prison industry is keenly aware of these numbers. A 2011 fourth quarter report from CCA notes that one in every 100 adults in the U.S. is behind bars and informs investors that the country’s prison population is expected to grow by 13,000 inmates a year between now and 2017.
“According to a recent Pew Study,” CCA keys investors into another positive for the industry, “about 45 percent of individuals released from prison in 1999 and more than 43 percent released from prison in 2004, were returned to prison within three years.”
FIXING THE BOTTOM LINE
When Jason Owens was attacked at GEO’s Graceville facility, he was taking a horticultural class. According to his family’s attorney, Owens was attacked by another inmate who had gone after someone with a pitchfork the day before. According to the lawsuit, no prison staff was in the classroom at the time of the attack.
“These two guys should have never been in a room together, much less in a room alone together,” said Stevenson. “—much less in a room together with a guy who tried to stab somebody with a pitchfork the day before.”
These are the sorts of stories that tend to rile people like Frank Smith. Driving to his home on the Oklahoma-Kansas boarder, he explained why he has become a crusader against prison privatization.
“I’m 73-years-old, and I want to make the world a better place,” Smith said. “I can’t stop the war in Afghanistan, but I can sure as hell stop prison privatization.”
As a co-founder of the Private Corrections Institute, Smith travels the country fighting the effort of the private prison industry. Driving home, he explained how he’d be leaving early the next morning for Mississippi, where there was a recent riot at a CCA-managed facility, before traveling on to Illinois, where privatization proponents are attempting to woo a community into hosting an immigration detention center.
“I feel I should be involved in doing something to change the situation,” Smith said. “—there’s a moral problem about making money on people’s misery.”
Chief among critics’ concerns is that private corporations will skimp on services in favor of higher profits. They warn about issues such as poorly paid and under qualified staff, as well as insufficient security measures.
“Everything in a for-profit industry is bottom-line,” Smith said.
Smith isn’t alone in his efforts. A number of organizations have emerged to take a stand against privatization. Most are comprised of folks who can’t seem to wrap their heads around the for-profit incarceration model.
“When I talk to people about privatized prisons, it’s ‘that can’t exist,’” said Bob Libal, of Grassroots Leadership. “That seems like something out of a dystopian science fiction novel, right—people running private prisons for profit?”
Grassroots Leadership is based in Texas and works to counter prison privatization efforts. They focus on the South.
“We are generally opposed to people making money from people being behind bars,” Libal said. “It incentivises the wrong thing. It incentivises increased incarceration.”
According to a 2011 report released by the Justice Policy Institute, private prison corporations work to ensure a steady inmate population. The report—Gaming the System—concluded that private companies were working to ensure criminal justice policies favorable to their business models.
“For-profit companies exercise their political influence to protect their market share, which in the case of corporations like GEO Group and CCA primarily means the number of people locked up behind bars,” Tracy Velazquez, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, said at the time of the reports release.
According the report, for-profit prison companies donated nearly a million dollars to federal campaigns, and more than six million dollars at the state level, over the past decade. It also notes what principle author Paul Ashton refers to as the “revolving door”—a back-and-forth swapping of high level employees between the industry and public sector—and offers the example of Ohio Governor John Kasich proposing to privatize five state prisons following the appointment of a former CCA employee to head Ohio’s Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.
Recently, Ashton pointed to the popularizing of the country’s three-strikes laws, which impose longer incarceration terms for repeat offenders. He explained how the work of groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has been instrumental in passing such tough-on-crime legislation over the past few decades.
“CCA in particular had a high level position on their public safety task force,” Ashton explained the connection to ALEC. “While we can’t say CCA did this, they were definitely at the table.”
In addition to the three-strikes law, ALEC was also a vocal supporter of mandatory minimum sentencing and the Truth-in-Sentencing Act, which requires inmates to serve most or all of their term without the chance of parole. As many states adopted such measures, prison populations grew by a half-a-million people during the 1990s.
That kind of growth is good for business. Over the course of the following decade, the overall prison population grew at 18 percent according to the Sentencing Project report. The private prison industry, during that same time period, saw an 80 percent growth in their populations.
Even as the Bureau of Justice Statistics recently reported that the country’s total prison population dropped slightly for the first time in four decades, the private industry continues to grow. And that keeps guys like Frank Smith busy.
“It’s kept me young, I think,” Smith laughed, before resting up for his drive to Mississippi.
When Smith arrived in Mississippi, he headed to Natchez. The town’s Adams County Correctional Center experienced a deadly riot toward the end of May.
After setting a fire in the prison yard and taking 20 facility workers hostage, inmates attacked a 24-year-old guard, who later died of blunt head trauma. The facility is operated by CCA.
U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat and member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the recent riot is “troubling and brings into question the effectiveness of privately owned and operated prison facilities.” He has asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Homeland Security to investigate the issue.
The May incident in CCA’s Natchez facility is but the latest horror story emanating from the private prison industry. Tales of abuse and security breaches at the facilities routinely surface.
Elsewhere in Mississippi, Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps plans to end relationships with GEO at three different facilities. The GEO-managed sites have been marked by incidents including suicides and injuries to guards, as well as allegations of abuse of teen inmates at a youth detention center.
Also last month, the family of a Hawaiian inmate murdered at a CCA facility in Arizona filed suit against the company. Another suit against CCA was filed earlier this year when another Hawaiian prisoner was killed in the same Arizona facility.
According to a press release announcing the suit, Clifford Medina, 23, was placed in a segregation cell with an inmate known to have anger control issues. Although the other inmate apparently requested that Medina be removed before he was attacked, the men were left together.
“According to a witness,” the release states, “a CCA employee replied, ‘As long as you two don’t kill each other, I don’t care.’”
A 2007 survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics listed a CCA facility in Torrance County, N.M. as having the highest rate of sexual victimization of any facility in the country. That private facility also had the highest rate of staff-on-inmate sexual victimization.
CCA’s Otter Creek Correctional Center in Kentucky—one of the company’s oldest—has also weathered sexual abuse scandals. That facility closes this month after Kentucky opted not to renew CCA’s contract.
But where one contract falls, others are placed on the table. The private prison industry—chiefly CCA—is currently courting Crete, Ill., a community just north of Chicago.
Smith plans to head to Illinois when he’s done in Mississippi. He’s expecting a familiar scene: sugar-sweet promises tossed to a blind sweet tooth.
“They come in and say they’re going to make hair grown on bald heads and make money rain from the sky,” Smith explained the routine he’s watched unfold around the country. “The community is usually stupid officials, a depressed economy, and a public that can’t understand, too in depth, economic issues.”
The road-warrior activist is encouraged during his travels. He said that people usually warm up to his side of the argument.
“There’s a huge opposition to this,” he said. “That’s not because of tax reasons, or because it’s dangerous. It’s because it’s immoral.”
Smith has worn out a few vehicles on his mission. With no intentions of slowing down, he’s starting to get comfortable with his new 1999 Lincoln.
“I had a Buick I put a 180,000 miles on,” Smith laughed.
DAVID AND GOLIATH IN THE LAND OF OPPORTUNITY
While Smith cruises the country crusading against prison privatization, he acknowledges that it’s state legislators that do a lot of the eventual heavy lifting. At the end of the day, opponents look to lawmakers to block privatization efforts.
“I have won these with Democrats supporting me, and fiscally-conservative Republicans—moderate Republican, whatever you want to call them,” he said.
In Florida’s recent legislative session, nine Republicans joined Democrats in rejecting the further privatization of the state’s prison system. Northwest Florida Senator Greg Evers was one of the dissenting votes.
“I feel like there are certain things you can’t privatize fully,” Evers said, adding that he felt privatization raised some safety issues, could cost state workers their jobs and wasn’t convinced the model offered any cost savings.
Although the Florida bill would have meant a windfall to the privatization sector, industry players don’t seem to be sweating the rejection.
“There are still a lot of opportunities,” GEO’s Jorge Dominicis said in Tallahassee, Fla. following the Senate vote. “There are other states looking at doing similar things and you’re seeing things happening abroad.”
The same month that Florida decided to hold back on further prison privatization, CCA issued a letter to governors across the United States. Reminiscent of its 1985 bid to take on Tennessee, the company is looking to purchase and manage government-run facilities throughout the country.
The company announced its new program—the Corrections Investment Initiative—and plans to earmark $250 million to purchase prisons. In exchange for taking on the state facilities, CCA is looking for longer contracts and a guarantee of a 90 percent occupancy rate.
“Ninety percent? How do you do that?” pondered Peter Cervantes-Gautshi, executive director of the National Prison Divestment Campaign. “How do you guarantee 90 percent?”
It’s somewhat of a rhetorical question. Cervantes-Gautshi’s pretty sure he already knows that answer.
“The only way to have a taxpayer-funded private prison system is to manipulate public policy to manufacture felons,” he said.
The privatization opponent points to current immigration legislation being debated around the country. He recalled how S.B. 1070 in Arizona had its origins with ALEC.
“Who in Arizona was really pulling the strings?” Cervantes-Gautshi asked.
The National Prison Divestment Campaign was started in an effort to educate people about the private prison industry and how it uses political influence to further its interests. The group represents a coalition of more than a hundred organizations who oppose prison privatization.
“Nobody knew this, that’s why we started this campaign—because it’s not the kind of thing that can stand the light of day,” Cervantes-Gautshi said. “Politicians can’t go on supporting something like this when their constituents realize they are spending taxpayer money on companies whose only business is putting people in cages for profit.”
One of the NPDC’s primary tactics in its fight against privatization has been to request that shareholders jump ship on moral grounds. This tact has had some amount of success.
In 2011, Pershing Square Capital Management divested itself of about $200 million worth of CCA stock. More recently, the United Methodist Church Board of Pension and Health Benefits withdrew $1 million in stocks from both CCA and GEO.
“I really think that a lot of time it’s kind of David and Goliath,” said Libal. “But sometimes we win.”
Chasity Owens is hoping to strike another blow against the privatization industry with the lawsuit filed on behalf of her brother. She believes that an unsafe atmosphere inside GEO’s Graceville facility (now operated by CCA) set the stage for Jason’s attack and death.
“Things like this are going to keep happening,” Owens said. “Money doesn’t matter to me—I know that my brother wouldn’t want anyone else hurt.”
Florida’s Private Prisons
Bay Correctional Facility: Located in Bay County, Fla. this Panhandle prison is operated by Corrections Corporation of America. The 985-bed facility houses minimum and medium-security, adult male inmates.
Blackwater River Correctional Facility: This relatively new Northwest Florida facility is located in Milton, Fla. and operated by GEO Group, Inc. The 2,000-bed prison houses medium-security and close-custody adult male inmates. Blackwater’s warden—Mark Henry—also oversaw GEO’s operations at its Graceville facility at the time of inmate Jason Owens’ attack and death.
Gadsden Correctional Facility: Operated by Management and Training Corporation, this private prison is located in Quincy, Fla. The facility houses minimum and medium-security adult female inmates and has a 1,520-bed capacity.
Graceville Correctional Facility: The 1,884-bed private prison is located in Jackson County, Fla. Housing community, minimum, medium and close-custody inmates, the one-time GEO facility is now operated by Corrections Corporation of America.
Lake City Youthful Offender Facility: This facility houses youthful offenders, ages 19 to 24. Operated by Corrections Corporation of America, the Columbia County, Fla. locale has an 893-bed capacity.
Moore Haven Correctional Facility: With a 985-bed capacity, this Glades County, Fla. private prison is operated by Corrections Corporation of America. It houses minimum and medium-custody adult male inmates.
South Bay Correctional Facility: In Palm Beach County, Fla. GEO Group, Inc. operates this 1,861-bed private prison. The facility houses minimum, medium and close-custody adult male inmates.