On Thursday, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates released an official Department of Justice memo that reveals the government’s decision to reduce and eventually eliminate privately owned prisons within the United States.
“They simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department’s Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security.”
The decision to eliminate private contract prisons in America follows publication of a recent exposé in Mother Jones magazine. The not-for-profit periodical released one of its biggest — and most important — investigative news stories in June.
Investigative journalist Shane Bauer went undercover and spent four months working as a guard at a Louisiana prison owned and operated by the for-profit Corrections Corporation of America. CCA, as it is more commonly called, touts itself as the fifth-largest corrections system in the nation with prisons, jails, detention centers, and residential reentry “halfway houses” in 20 states.
“As a journalist, it’s nearly impossible to get an unconstrained look inside our penal system. When prisons do let reporters in, it’s usually for carefully managed tours and monitored interviews with inmates. Private prisons are especially secretive. Their records often aren’t subject to public access laws; CCA has fought to defeat legislation that would make private prisons subject to the same disclosure rules as their public counterparts. And even if I could get uncensored information from private prison inmates, how would I verify their claims? I keep coming back to this question: Is there any other way to see what really happens inside a private prison?”
Mother Jones’ private prisons project required a year-and-a-half to complete. In addition to the four months Bauer personally spent working as a prison guard in Louisiana, he and numerous other Mother Jones staffers spent more than a year fact-checking and reviewing the legalities of the investigation. Higher-ups at the magazine lauded Bauer’s extended efforts, without which private prison contracts may have remained de rigueur indefinitely.
“The only people who can describe what really goes on inside are prisoners, guards, and officials, all of whom have a strong interest in spinning the story. To get at the truth, we had to take time, and go deep.”
Go deep, he did.
Shane Bauer applied for a job with Corrections Corporation of America under his real name. In his job application, he did not deny writing for Mother Jones. Within weeks, he was contacted by several private correctional facilities that are part of the CCA prison-for-profit conglomerate. Bauer noted that CCA was not terribly interested in his job experience or whether he himself had an arrest record.
“They weren’t interested in the details of my résumé. They didn’t ask about my job history, my current employment with the Foundation for National Progress, the publisher of Mother Jones, or why someone who writes about criminal justice in California would want to move across the country to work in a prison. They didn’t even ask about the time I was arrested for shoplifting when I was 19.”
Bauer had been offered several jobs as a private prison corrections officer by the time he decided to go undercover at Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana.
When Bauer spoke with the human resources director at Winn, she told him all about the job.
“The job only pays $9 an hour, but the prison is in the middle of a national forest. Do you like to hunt and fish?” Bauer said he likes to fish. The HR interviewer then asked if he enjoys squirrel hunting. Bauer replied that he’d never tried it.
“Well, I think you’ll like Louisiana. I know it’s not a lot of money, but they say you can go from a CO [corrections officer] to a warden in just seven years! The CEO of the company started out as a CO.”
Bauer grew a beard, removed his earlobe gauges, and went to work as a prison guard at Winn in November, 2014. He recorded events within prison walls with a wristwatch that doubled as a camera, and a pen with a built-in voice recorder. The “deficiencies” he discovered and reported in the July/August issue of Mother Jones were insightful and more than a little bit frightening.
Before describing the things that are wrong with private prisons in America, the writer outlined his first orientation meeting at the Winn medium-security facility. Bauer told of being promised $500 for each acquaintance he could convince to work at the prison. He and other newly-hired prison employees were instructed to not eat food offered by inmates, to never say “thank you” to an inmate for any reason, and to advise prison managers if any close friends or relatives were incarcerated at Winn. New employees were advised that having sex with an inmate could result in a $10,000 fine or a decade at hard labor.
New hires were reminded that Corrections Corporation of America does not pay sick leave, but they do offer employees a refrigerator magnet emblazoned with the number of a suicide hotline.
The privatization of prisons in America was the brainchild of former Tennessee Republican Party leader, Thomas Beasley. Neither Beasley, nor CCA co-founder Robert Crants, had any experience with correctional facilities when they signed “the first contract ever to design, build, finance, and operate a secure correctional facility in the world.”
The year was 1983, when the Immigration and Naturalization Service gave the pair, along with businessman T. Don Hutto, 90 days to construct a private prison in Houston, Texas. Hutto recalled transforming a Houston hotel into the first-ever private prison in America.
“We opened the facility on Super Bowl Sunday the end of that January. So about 10 o’clock that night we start receiving inmates. I actually took their pictures and fingerprinted them. Several other people walked them to their ‘rooms,’ if you will, and we got our first day’s pay for 87 undocumented aliens.”
According to an article published in The Nation last January, privately-owned contract prisons in the United States are exclusively used to incarcerate undocumented immigrants. The publication explains that prior to the 1990s, entering unlawfully into the U.S. was treated as a civil offense that resulted in deportation, not imprisonment.
The Nation notes that there is no evidence to prove that making border-crossing a crime slowed the pace of unlawful entry. Prior to the for-profit prison system, fewer than 4,000 undocumented immigrants were detained and deported annually. On George W. Bush’s watch, that number skyrocketed to around 31,000 so-called “illegal aliens” incarcerated in private, for-profit prisons. Private prison populations peaked in 2013, with approximately 91,000 non-citizens incarcerated in contract prisons.
This week, the Department of Justice announced it will “substantially reduce the scope” of for-profit contract prisons due to inadequate security, inadequate inmate and employee safety, inadequate oversight, and other damning reasons. Read the full text of the DOJ memo here.
David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project, responded to the news that private prison contracts will be phased out.
“This is a huge deal. It is historic and groundbreaking. For the last 35 years, the use of private prisons in this country has crept ever upward, and this is a startling and major reversal of that trend, and one that we hope will be followed by others.”
[Photo by Jose F. Kubes/Getty Images]