by Ron Young
After a decade as a leading operator of corporate-owned prisons, Wackenhut Corrections has become a prisoner of its own problems.
In New Mexico, a 500-page legislative report written by five consultants calls for a near-total overhaul of state prison operations, including two run by Wackenhut. After an August 31, 1999, riot that left a prisoner and guard dead [see PLN Dec. 1999],Wackenhut was faulted for having inadequate and ill-prepared staff earning Wal-Mart wages. Four prisoners have died in Wackenhut prisons in Santa Rosa and Hobbs since their opening in 1998. Three were stabbed to death, and one fatally pummeled with a laundry bag containing two rocks. But it was the murder of guard Ralph Garcia last August 31 at the Santa Rosa prison that put Wackenhut on the hot seat.
In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., five guards at a Wackenhut work-release facility were fired or punished for having sex with prisoners in the summer of 1999. No charges were filed, but Sheriff Ken Jenne wants to renegotiate contract terms with Wackenhut. Wackenhut operates two medium-security prisons in Florida-one in South Bay and one in Moore Haven. In June 1999, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the company to turn over records to support allegations of sexual harassment and prisoner abuse in South Bay, but the case was settled confidentially.
On April 5, 2000, Wackenhut agreed to surrender control of its 15-month-old juvenile prison in Jena, Louisiana. That came a week after the U.S. Justice Department named Wackenhut in a lawsuit seeking to protect imprisoned boys from harm at the hands of guards and fellow prisoners. On March 30, 2000, the Justice Department added Wackenhut to its own civil rights lawsuit against Louisiana's juvenile prisons. The government asked a federal judge in Baton Rouge to enjoin Wackenhut from using harsh behavior-control methods at the Jena Juvenile Justice Center. The government accused Wackenhut of beating boys, throwing tear gas indoors, spraying them in the face with pepper spray, and not providing them with adequate education and counseling. [See pg. 8]
But the biggest of Wackenhut's scandals has occurred in Texas where Wackenhut was stripped of a $12 million-a-year contract in September 1999, and fined $625,000 for failing to live up to promises in the running of a state jail. Twelve former guards were indicted for having sex with female prisoners. Civil lawsuits were brought by women who claimed they had been raped in three Wackenhut prisons in Texas. Allegations of poorly staffed prisons and rampant sex behind bars have Wackenhut on the defensive.
Wackenhut runs 11 facilities in Texas ranging from prisons to residential drug treatment centers. It used to have 12. Then, in August 1999, Wackenhut was booted out of a state jail in East Austin, Texas. Eleven former guards and a manager were indicted in December 1999, on charges of sexually assaulting or harassing 16 female prisoners at the 1,033-bed Travis County Community Justice Center in 1998 and 1999. In Texas, having sex with prisoners is a felony whether the prisoner consents or not. Texas officials called the Travis County case the biggest prison sex scandal in state history.
The Travis County state jail opened in 1997 as a community-based rehabilitation center to offer counseling, education and job training to noviolent criminals. But in 1998, a state audit showed that the jail barely employed the minimum number of guards required by contract. At the time of the audit, Wackenhut started its guards at $6.50 an hour, a puny wage in Austin's robust economy. Wackenhut raised salaries, but openings remained plentiful.
One former female prisoner, in an interview with The Austin American-Statesman, said sex was routinely traded for such things as shampoo and underwear. She said she was doped up on psychiatric medication late one night when a guard entered her cell and raped her. Over the next three months, she said, guards hit her to keep her from reporting the crime. Only after she appeared in court heavily bruised and emaciated did an investigation begin. In the meantime, she tried to kill herself twice. The guard she accused of rape is one of those under indictment.
"Some of these were outright rapes," said Ron Weddington, an Austin lawyer who represents another one of the rape victims in a civil suit against a former Wackenhut guard and Wackenhut itself. "I've been practicing law for about 30 years, and I've never heard of anything like this in the state- or county-run jails. This is pretty much off the charts."
The criminal case could grow bigger. In addition to the possibility of sex charges being brought against 20 more guards, the district attorney is looking into whether Wackenhut impeded the investigation by shredding documents at the lockup.
In Lockhart, Texas, where Wackenhut runs a women's prison, a grand jury looked into allegations of sexual misconduct by guards, and document tampering. No indictments were issued, but one former prisoner brought a private case against a former guard and Wackenhut in civil court. She accused the ex-guard, a lieutenant, of repeatedly raping her for four months in 1996. She accused Wackenhut of ignoring her pleas for help. The case was settled under confidential terms.
The allegations from East Austin and Lockhart seem to pale in comparison with the lurid accounts coming out of a girls prison run by Wackenhut in Bronte, Texas. The Coke County Juvenile Justice Center opened in 1994 with 200 beds. It was to be a place where troubled girls as young as 12 years old would benefit from a number of innovative programs of education, rehabilitation and care. Wackenhut receives $80 per prisoner per day to run the Coke County prison-its highest daily rate. But according to a 1999 lawsuit filed by Dallas lawyer Penny Raney, girls were forced to live in subhuman conditions.
"The girls were made to live in an environment in which offensive sexual contact, deviant sexual intercourse and statutory rape were frequent. This resulted in a hostile, permissive sexual environment, and where young prisoners were physically injured to the point of being hospitalized with broken bones," the suit states. The state filed criminal charges of sexual misconduct against two
guards. Both pled guilty. Raney, in her lawsuit, accuses Wackenhut of failing to properly screen, train and supervise its employees. A previous suit Raney filed against Wackenhut over the prison was settled. The former prisoner she represented killed herself the day the settlement was signed.
During a personal interview, Wackenhut CEO George Zoley became visibly angry when asked about Coke County. He declined to discuss it because, he said, the case is in litigation. He said, however, the company reiterated its "zero tolerance" policy on employee misbehavior and its willingness to cooperate with investigators. Additionally, Zoley said he has hired a female consultant to review prison policies and procedures. One alteration supposedly already made is that only female guards will supervise female prisoners. "I think we have adopted all of the progressive policies to impede and stop these kinds of incidents," Zoley said. He also said the company has taken a number of steps to regain its footing in the prison and financial markets. "We obviously have to make sure we're doing what we're suppose to be doing ... and in conformance with American correctional standards," he said.
Analysts who follow Wackenhut Correction's shares on Wall Street still consider the company investment-worthy in spite of its problems. The stock was rated a "buy" or "strong buy" in each of the six ratings issued in the past year.
Wackenhut said in a March 30, 2000, filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that negative verdicts in its civil cases could have a "material adverse effect" on its financial condition, which in turn could impair its ability to raise money. At that time the stock had already plummeted by 26.5 percent of its value. In addition to that, Wackenhut does not provide employee pensions, instead offering stock options which could be on the verge of becoming worthless.
Wackenhut ended 1999 with $439 million in revenue and $22 million in profits, both record amounts. It's conceivable that pending litigation against the company could wipe out all profits.
In the meantime, Wackenhut Corrections still faces a class action lawsuit in New Mexico over inadequate medical care for the mentally ill, conditions of confinement, and rip-off phone call rates.
Source: Miami Herald
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