By Christopher Zoukis
A federal prison in Natchez, Mississippi, run by the largest private operator of correctional facilities drew a scathing audit report from the Inspector General of the Department of Justice (DOJ) in mid-December, just weeks before a new administration likely to be more favorably disposed toward private prisons takes office.
Since April 2009, DOJ's Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has contracted with the Nashville-based company CoreCivic, Inc. -- which changed its name from Corrections Corporation of America in October -- to run the low-security Adams County Correctional Center. It houses up to 2,567 male, noncitizen -- primarily Mexican -- inmates. The agency signed two-year renewals twice, as recently as 2015, and another renewal option arises in July 2017. Since October 2009, DOJ has paid $468 million for the private facility, making it the agency's third-largest contract during that time.
Despite the sizable outlay, all did not run smoothly. In May 2012, during an inmate riot, a young guard was beaten to death, and 20 prison staff and inmates injured. After the riot, BOP identified understaffing, inexperience, and communication problems as contributing factors. An FBI agent characterized the riot as inmates' protest against bad food, inadequate medical care and allegedly abusive staff.
The DOJ inspector general's just-released audit showed, even four years later, the Natchez prison has not fixed many of its earlier-identified problems. The audit's authors voiced deep concern the prison was still "plagued by the same significant deficiencies."
In half the months following the riot, the audit found, prison staffing levels were even lower than at the time of the riot. The audit calculated staffing levels differently from the company's method, saying it didn't reflect actual hours worked. The DOJ audit also said company staffing levels frequently fell below the minimums set by BOP regulations.
The audit further claimed medical staffing levels were similarly overstated, with just one doctor and dentist available much of the time, in violation of standards in BOP's contract. One press account drawing on prison-monitoring documents claimed at least seven inmates at the Natchez prison likely died from inadequate medical care.
The audit also faulted the facility for having very few Spanish speakers on staff. In July 2015, the facility's 367 staffers included only four fluent in Spanish for about 2,300 foreign nationals, predominantly Spanish speakers. And the company's pay and benefits substantially lagged levels at BOP and state prisons, resulting high turnover and a deficit of experienced staff. The company disputed the audit findings and claimed it had made improvements.
The new audit by the DOJ inspector general's office is its latest -- but not its only -- sharply criticizing private prisons. In April 2015, the office made similar criticisms of the Reeves County Correctional Center, a West Texas facility run by the Geo Group (formerly known as Wackenhut).
This August, the DOJ inspector general issued an extensive report stating both inmate safety and security were generally worse at private prisons than at federally operated ones. One week later, DOJ announced that it intended to phase out its use of private prisons within five years. However, since then, it has renewed contracts with two private prisons. Eliminating federal use of private prisons was a plank in the Democratic presidential platform, but during the campaign, Republican standard-bearer Donald Trump spoke favorably of private prisons.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com