By Rahsaan Thomas
Despite years of warnings that private prisons gave substandard medical care, federal officials failed to act, according to an investigative report in The Nation.
The warnings included monitoring reports, riots, a prison guard’s murder and unnecessary deportees’ deaths, reported journalist Seth Freed Wessler.
He reviewed 20,000 pages of previously unreleased documents about the federal use and oversight of private prisons and found “constant alarm from investigators — and disregard from leadership.”
Wessler detailed his findings in The Nation in an article titled, “Federal Officials Ignored Years of Internal Warnings About Death at Private Prison.” The story was in the magazine’s July 4-11 issue.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) started using two private prisons decades ago under a mandate from President Bill Clinton. At the time it was considered an experiment. BOP created a monitoring system to oversee them and Congress ordered comparison studies. A study slated for 2001, but never released until a recent lawsuit, “concluded that privatization had not saved substantially on costs yet had eroded the quality of care.”
The private prison became “the fastest, easiest way” to house violators of illegal re-entry prosecutions that doubled under the implementation of zero-tolerance immigration enforcement policies between 2004-2013.
Today BOP uses 12 private prisons to hold non-citizens convicted of federal crimes. About one-third of the private prisons are owned and run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private-prison company. BOP’s 2015 fiscal year budget for private contractors “was over $1.05 billion,” according to Wessler’s article.
A riot happened May 20, 2012, in Adams, one of CCA’s 2,500-bed prisons. The incarcerated men took two guards hostage during the riot, including 24-year old Catlin Carithers, a member of the emergency-response team. One of the men incarcerated there called a TV station and said, “We’re trying to get better food, medical, programs, clothes, and we’re trying to get some respect,” according to The Nation.
“Federal officials ignored years of internal warnings about death at private prison”
When the tear gas cleared, Carithers was dead and 20 other people were injured.
The Adams’ uprising marked the fourth riot in BOP’s private prisons over medical care grievances since 2008.
“Even before the officer was killed, there were significant issues,” with CCA’s management, said Doug Martz, the chief of BOP’s private-prison contracting office at the time of the 2012 riot. “Inadequate medical care, low staffing levels, food-service issues; when you put all those together, it became ignitable.”
At least 38 men died due to inadequate medical care in BOP’s privately run prisons from 1998-2014, the story said. Files showed that “gravely ill prisoners had been left untreated, or relegated to the care of low-level medical workers,” according to the article.
“The records and interviews with former BOP officials reveal a pattern: Despite dire reports from dozens of field monitors, top bureau officials repeatedly failed to enforce the correction of dangerous deficiencies and routinely extended contracts for prisons that failed to provide adequate medical care,” wrote Wessler.
The BOP has the power to deduct from the amounts owed to CCA on their contract or to cancel contracts when they find violations.
Martz, who retired in frustration, says BOP’s failure to shut down Adams was due in part to a cozy relationship between bureau leadership and private operators, according to the article.
For example, BOP Director Harley Lappin left after eight years to become the CCA executive vice president, where he earned more than $1,600,000. Two other former BOP directors now have leadership position with BOP-contracted companies.
When on-site contracting officials proposed imposing contract deductions on private prisons due to clear deficiencies, their proposals were met with a “No” or a proposed deduction of $250,000 would be reduced to $25,000, according to the article.
The Department of Justice launched an investigation into how BOP monitors its contract prisons in 2014. Since the investigation was launched, five deportees died in 2014 because of substandard medical care and monitor reports show that Adams has ongoing signs of negligence, the article stated.
An $811,000 deduction was imposed on Adams, but its contract was extended for another two years.