Private Prisons May Be Phased Out, But Industry Leaves Trail of Bodies from Medical Neglect & Abuses

StoryAugust 19, 2016
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News that the Department of Justice will phase out 13 private prisons sent stocks plummeting on Thursday for for the companies that operate them: Corrections Corporation of America, The GEO Group and Management and Training Corporation. We look at the companies’ track record with Shane Bauer, whose 18-month investigation of a CCA prison for Mother Jones recently took up its entire issue. Titled "My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard," it chronicles his time as an undercover correctional officer at Louisiana’s Winn Correctional Center. His most recent article is titled "This Prisoner Hanged Himself at the Private Prison Where I Worked. His Family Says He Didn’t Have to Die." We are also joined by reporter Seth Freed Wessler, who investigated several CCA prisons for the federal government that are now set to close.

NEXTAs Feds Close Prisons Run by Private Companies, Will They Do Same for Immigrant Detention Centers?
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking about a historic decision, an announcement out of the Justice Department to close the federal government’s contracts with private prisons. Shane Bauer is with us, an award-winning senior reporter at Mother Jones, as well as Seth Freed Wessler, an investigative reporter, and Democracy Now!’s Renée Feltz.

But, Shane, we want to turn to you right now. We last had you on, just a little while ago, based on this remarkable issue of Mother Jones magazine that you wrote as an undercover prison guard you acted as in Louisiana. Your most recent article, "This Prisoner Hanged Himself at the Private Prison Where I Worked. His Family Says He Didn’t Have to Die," this based on your four-month investigation as a private prison guard. Talk about your reaction to this news and what actually happened to this prisoner you spoke of.

SHANE BAUER: Well, this news is certainly unprecedented and surprising. I mean, the findings of the Inspector General’s Office are not surprising. They’re consistent with findings from the Department of Justice over the years, from, you know, reports by journalists. They’re consistent with things that I saw at Winn in Louisiana. But, you know, this measure is certainly bigger than anything I expected.

As far as Damien Coestly, Damien was somebody who I had met while I was working at Winn. And after I left the prison, I learned that an inmate had committed suicide and that, you know, it was Damien Coestly. Damien was somebody who was very troubled. He, over the years, reported being suicidal. He also had been trying to change the way that CCA provided services, mental health services. At that prison of 1,500 inmates, there was only one part-time psychiatrist, one part-time psychologist and one full-time social worker. Damien had been trying to get into mental health programs; he had been waitlisted for two years. And he frequently went on suicide watch. And just to describe briefly what that is, it’s a solitary confinement cell, where a prisoner is naked, has only a tear-proof blanket. He’s given worse food, food that falls below USDA standards, and usually has no reading material or anything whatsoever in his cell. So this is the mental health services that Damien had. Damien went on hunger strike to try to get better mental health services. And eventually, Damien was put on suicide, and he was taken off, even though he was still claiming to be suicidal. He was not checked on the way that he was supposed to. And from what I saw at Winn, this was standard procedure. And he hung himself. And at the time of Damien’s death, he weighed 71 pounds.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Shane, you mentioned this happened in a CCA prison.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the role of CCA in particular.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: After the DOJ announced Thursday that it would no longer use private prisons, stock prices for Corrections Corporation of America and GEO both plunged about 40 percent. But a financial analyst at Canaccord Genuity said, quote, "The massive falloffs in the stocks imply the risk will spread to other federal, state and local jurisdictions. ... We believe it is unlikely. As such, we think today’s stock action is more based on fear than actual cash flow risk," unquote. But in June, the CEO of Corrections Corporation of America, Damon Hininger, told a forum of investors that his firm will be, quote, "just fine," no matter who is elected to the White House this fall. This is him speaking.

DAMON HININGER: We’ve had some nice growth in our business under those three respective presidents. We had a lot of growth under Clinton, we had a lot of growth under Bush, and we’ve had a lot of growth under President Obama. And so, with that, if we continue to do a good job on the quality, and, with that, we can demonstrate savings, both on capital avoidance but also cost savings in our services, then I think we’ll be just fine.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Damon Hininger, CEO of Corrections Corporation of America, just in June. Talk about this company. How did it rise, and its role within this general federal prison contracting?

SHANE BAUER: Well, CCA and GEO both, you know, started operating prisons in the 1980s. This was a time when the prison population was skyrocketing. States were trying to build prisons to take up, you know, some of that increased population, and they couldn’t build them fast enough. And CCA stepped in and said, "Look, we’ll operate prisons. We’ll also build prisons. We’ll run them more cheaply. And, you know, we’ll be helping you deal with this overcrowding problem." So they kind of, you know, had—there was a need for them at one point.

And their argument now has consistently been that they’re saving money. And this is questionable, as the Department of Justice inspector general pointed out. But what’s important is that the—you know, to look at how they’re saving money. The main way that they save money is through staffing costs. The prison that I worked at, guards were paid $9 an hour. This was $3.50 less than the starting pay of guards at state-run facilities. Medical costs—you know, the company at the prison I worked, they had—if they sent a prisoner out for medical care, they had to bear that cost, so there’s, you know, a lot of resistance to sending prisoners out to the hospital. They had less mental health staff. There were days that I came into work where there were 24 guards for 1,500 prisoners. This is far below what their contract requires. And this problem has been found throughout CCA’s state and federal prisons. The inspector general has made reports on their audits showing that in one prison, where there were riots in the prison, that the riot was caused by understaffing and poor medical care. After they issued the report, they went back and found that that problem had not been corrected. This has happened in several states, as well.

And, you know, I think, to your question about how this is going to affect the states, I think it remains to be seen, but what I did see at Winn is that the company was under a lot of pressure by the state at that time to kind of get its act together, to improve security, improve healthcare, prevent escapes. There had been escapes while I was there. You know, the question is: How consistent is this throughout the country? But I certainly had a sense, from inside that one prison, that the company was struggling to try to hang onto it.

AMY GOODMAN: Shane, in your remarkable investigation, where you went undercover at the Winn Correctional Facility, again, run by CCA, the Corrections Corporation of America, you met a prisoner who had lost his fingers and legs because of inadequate medical care. We want to go to a clip from one of the videos that accompanied your report for Mother Jones.

ROBERT L. MARRERO: Gangrene. Mr. Scott complained about that for months to the medical staff at Winn. They gave him some—the equivalent of a couple of Motrin and told him to go away.

ROBERT SCOTT: Never saw a doctor. The whole time.

SHANE BAUER: He’s now suing the prison.

JENNIFER CALAHAN: The people that are working there as nurses and all that, they’re really not that qualified.

ROBERT L. MARRERO: There are doctors they can hire. There are doctors who are more or less affordable. I did some background checking on them, and one of them was a pediatrician who had lost his privileges to treat children.

AMY GOODMAN: Corrections Corporation of America said it’s, quote, "committed to ensuring that all individuals entrusted to our care have appropriate access to medical services as needed." Now I want to turn to a clip from our other guest Seth Freed Wessler’s report, that also deals with substandard medical care at private prisons. This is part of his interview with Dr. John Farquhar, the former clinical director at the Federal Correctional Institution in Big Spring, Texas, which is run by The GEO Group. It was featured on Reveal, a podcast from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

DR. JOHN FARQUHAR: There are times when I was critical. I’m a critical person, starting with myself.

SETH FREED WESSLER: You actually wrote at one point, "I feel bad for his shabby care."

DR. JOHN FARQUHAR: Well, I stand by that statement. I don’t know who it’s about, and I can’t comment on any single record of any person, but there are times when the care was not what I wanted for any patient, period.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Dr. John Farquhar, the former clinical director at the Federal Correctional Institution. Seth Freed Wessler, weigh in here.

SETH FREED WESSLER: Well, I talked to medical workers, doctors, physician’s assistants and nurses who work in this subsystem of federal prisons that will now begin to be shut down. And across the board, they said that they were pressed to cut costs. That particular doctor said that his corporate bosses, soon after he got his job as the medical director, had come to town to tell him to cut down on the number of 911 calls made, because they were expensive. In that very prison, shortly after he left his job, a prisoner died after suffering a stroke, and the prison decided to just leave him in his cell until morning. The only medical worker on the shift that night was a licensed vocational nurse with about a year of training. And across the board, these prisons are operating with deep understaffing, using undertrained workers. And I found stories in 30,000 pages of federal records I obtained through an open records request, an open records lawsuit—I found stories of people who went months, even more than a year, in some cases, seeing only nursing staff, often only licensed vocational nurses, complaining of increasing pain, increasing illness, until they became so ill that they died inside of these prisons.

What’s remarkable about the documents that I obtained and the interviews I did with people who work in these prisons, as well as letters from prisoners who later died, is that the Bureau of Prisons knew for years about the very problems that I’m talking about. After the Bureau of Prisons set up this subsystem of federal private prisons, they actually established a monitoring system, an oversight system, hired monitors to go in and check on these facilities. And those monitors would flag repeat and systemic failures, especially in medical care, over and over again, send those flags to Washington in hopes that something would change. In fact, when those flags went up, federal officials in Washington refused to impose the fines, the full penalties available to them. And when monitors tried to shut down federal prisons that were failing, the top officials in the Bureau of Prisons in Washington actually refused to let those monitors shut these prisons down. So, the decision today about—rather, yesterday, to shut down these private prisons comes as a great surprise, because monitors have been saying for years these prisons are failing, documenting these problems, the very same problems, in some cases, that the inspector general found in its report and that I found in my reporting. Now, finally, these facilities are going to start being closed as their contracts come up for renewal.

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