The nation’s largest private jail operator is facing a new public relations fight following multiple high-profile incidents this year in three states – Idaho, Texas and Arizona. The Corrections Corporation of America based in Nashville, Tenn. experienced a meteoric rise during the 1990s when Washington opened its doors to privatization during the Clinton administration and helped set the stage for public-sector outsourcing that is now commonplace in the United States, notably at the still-young Department of Homeland Security.
Officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement revealed in late May that a guard at the company’s T. Don Hutto Residential Center located 35 miles east of Austin, Texas, sexually assaulted women detainees held there. The federal government has since reportedly directed CCA to institute changes, such as prohibiting male guards from being alone with women in custody, and ICE said it would enhance oversight of the government’s larger detention facilities. A letter to the company from ICE obtained by the Associated Press said the guard’s alleged actions occurred because CCA failed to follow federal guidelines regulating the transport of detainees.
During a past life when CCA helped lead the movement toward privatization, it so anticipated limitless fortunes that the company nearly went bankrupt building more beds than federal, state and local governments wanted to fill. But Washington pumped new life into CCA partly after the Bush administration moved to dramatically scale back the federal government’s “catch-and-release” policy in which suspected immigration violators were freed before being required to appear at a deportation hearing unless they had a criminal record.
Detention facilities ballooned after the change creating significant new demand for CCA’s services and a path for the company back to big earnings. Today CCA is a top five contractor for ICE and earned more than $200 million in revenues from the agency last year alone, according to the jailer’s Securities and Exchange Commission filings.
Executives at CCA also believe that the economic downturn and a perception by public officials that outsourcing is a solution for money woes will make it more competitive on Wall Street.
The company’s latest successes, however, are occurring alongside allegations of misconduct among guards and other episodes that have attracted the attention of critics.
The Hutto facility in Texas is named after one of CCA’s founders and houses not just individuals accused of entering the country illegally but also asylum seekers, the investigative journalism outfit Texas Tribune noted earlier this month. According to the most recent accusations against Hutto, women were allegedly molested while being patted down by a guard and one was propositioned for sex.
The ACLU of Texas called the revelations part of a pattern at immigrant detention facilities in the Lone Star State. A guard in Los Fresnos, Texas, was sentenced to prison time in April for the repeated sexual abuse of detainees. The man admitted that he “snuck into medical isolation rooms at the detention center infirmary to grope female patients. He frequently volunteered for infirmary duty so that he would be alone with the victims, and his victims were usually asleep when he entered the room,” the Justice Department says.
Also at the Hutto facility in 2007, a CCA guard was reportedly fired amid an investigation into whether he had sex with a woman inmate in her cell.
According to Lisa Graybill, legal director for the Texas ACLU:
Sadly, the most unusual aspect of this incident [at Hutto last month] may be that the abused women actually complained. Immigrant detainees, particularly women, are especially vulnerable to abuse because they may not speak English, and may be afraid of retaliation if they speak up. Victims may be promised help with citizenship proceedings if they comply, and threatened with rapid deportation if they resist.
Further west in Idaho, meanwhile, CCA found itself in another controversy when the Associated Press reported that state officials would be fining the company over $40,000 and demanding that it improve health care services and overhaul weak alcohol treatment programs. The Idaho Correctional Center near a town called Kuna (not an immigrant detention facility, to be clear) was described by one local paper in a recent editorial as “easily the most trouble-prone prison in the state’s history.”
The Magic Valley Times-News recounted how three years ago state leaders imagined savings for taxpayers by contracting out the costly responsibility of incarceration to a company like CCA, which has long lured government officials into contracts by promising fewer headaches and expenses. But documents later obtained by reporters showed that most of the facility’s alcohol and drug counselors lacked necessary qualifications.
A probe also cast CCA’s procedures for carrying out medical care as flawed, while the ACLU sued the company earlier this year over how it was generally managing the Idaho prison – inmates allegedly described the facility as a “gladiator school” due to its reputation for widespread violence. The suit in addition charged that CCA guards enforced control by allowing inmates near others likely to commit brutality and withheld medical treatment to save on costs. An ACLU attorney claimed he’d brought cases against at least 100 prisons and jails nationally but none were as violent as CCA’s facility in Idaho.
An AP investigation last year revealed that carnage at the prison was three times greater than elsewhere in the state, and authorities believed occurrences were underreported by inmates and CCA employees. According to the Times-News:
The ACLU contends that [Idaho Correctional Center] is understaffed, with sometimes only two guards on duty to control prison wings with as many as 350 inmates. Which may be one of the reasons that the publicly traded company was able to report a four percent revenue increase for the fourth quarter of the last fiscal year, and a 12.5 percent increase in earnings per share. Not many legislators have much appetite anymore for another [such] facility in the state. There’s much more enthusiasm for alternative sentencing and drug, alcohol and mental-health courts to keep Idaho’s inmate numbers as low as possible. But stay tuned. Thanks to CCA’s actions, a federal judge – and not the state – may soon be dictating how Idaho handles its prison population.
Finally, at a CCA-managed facility in Arizona where nearly 2,000 inmates from Hawaii are held as part of a contract with that state’s Department of Public Safety (also not a center that holds immigrants, for the record), two convicts have died already this year. One was killed during a dispute with another prisoner, and police concluded only in recent days that the second was strangled to death by his cellmate. The latter victim was discovered unresponsive June 8, according to news accounts, and authorities from Hawaii traveled to Arizona following both incidents to investigate what happened.
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