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Wackenhut's Legacy of Shame in Austin

by Matthew T. Clarke

The price of attending the March 1997 South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, came very high for Dallas record producer David Prater. Busted for a minor drug possession, in 1998 Prater was sentenced to 250 days in the Wackenhut-run Travis County Community Justice Center (TCCJC).

TCCJC is a state jail, intended to house prisoners convicted of minor felonies. State jail felonies came into existence in 1994, following the successful lobbying by a group of Texas district attorneys for the legislature to create a new class of felonies and new prisons (state jails) to keep nonviolent prisoners with convictions for minor felonies out of hard core prisons. In theory, the state jails were to intensively focus on rehabilitation and education. There are 17 state jails and 8 substance abuse prisons under the auspices of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice-State Jail Division (TDCJ-SJD). Some of them are operated by private companies, such as Wackenhut and Corrections Corporation of America. From its opening in March 1997 until November 1999, TCCJC was run by Travis County which subcontracted with Wackenhut to operate it as a private prison.

Just ten days into his incarceration at TCCJC, Prater made an understandable mistake. He requested that gang members, who were holding a conversation in painfully loud, screaming voices at close quarters, to hold it down so others could sleep. The request came after the sleeping Prater was awakened at three or four in the morning by "a kid yelling a foot away from my head, as loud as he could." According to Prater, this is the normal way gang members conversein tones so loud that they are painful to Prater, who mixes rock concerts for a living.

More painful was the beating Prater received following his request. Prater alleges eleven gang members attacked him, kicking him in the head and breaking his jaw in seven placesincluding compound fracturesand rendering him unconscious while two guards acted as spectators. Prater claims he regained consciousness in the multipurpose room, but guards who were present still failed to respond to the ongoing attack.

Prater claims that, during the next three and one half months his jaw was reconstructed with titanium plates and wired shut. He was kept in isolation and illegally given "diesel therapy" (transferred from one TDCJ prison to another). He alleges his family had to send him Ensure because Wackenhut employees didn't know how to liquefy food and were feeding him only chicken broth and denying him pain medication, apparently as punishment for causing the incident.

"The whole time I was told that I had, basically, brought this whole situation down onto myself and it was not their problem," said Prater.

Indeed, after Prater and Austin attorney Sidney Childress filed a lawsuit in federal district court alleging that Wackenhut didn't fulfill its obligations under its contract with Travis County, Wackenhut used the defense that Prater had provoked the assault. According to Wackenhut attorney Gary Fuller, Prater was the instigator and told prisoners who wouldn't comply with his request for quiet, "Well, fuck you then, and see you in the multipurpose room."

The suit filed by Prater following his release April 1, 1999, is based on the theory that he and other prisoners were intended third-party beneficiaries of the contract Wackenhut signed. Wackenhut allegedly violated the contract when it failed to employ and train sufficient guards to maintain a safe environment and failed to provide the contracted education and rehabilitation programs (which allegedly would have helped make the environment safer by keeping the prisoners out of trouble and potentially rehabilitating them). Childress claims that, Wackenhut cut programs and staffing, falsifying paperwork to cover up the shortages, so it could pocket at least $7 million of its contract (at $32.17 per prisoner per day) with no services provided in return.

Prater's chief problem has been one of standing. Federal district judge William Wayne Justice refused to allow the jury to be instructed on contract law. Asked only to determine who was at fault for Prater's injuries and whether there was unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment involved, the jury rejected the constitutional issue and decided that Wackenhut was 5% negligent while Prater was 95%. This led Justice to summarily dismiss the case

On appeal, Childress fared even worse, drawing sanctions from the Fifth Circuit against him and his client for filing a frivolous appeal. This may be indicative of the Fifth Circuit's hostility toward prisoner litigation.

"The courts have really moved in the last 10 years to limit access to themselves, especially in prison cases," said Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, who described the Fifth Circuit as "very punitive."

Supporting Prater's allegations is the testimony of former TCCJC guard Kathryne Cool, who filed a sexual, racial, and age-based discrimination suit against Wackenhut. Cool claims to have suffered harassment after documenting and reporting several incidents of staff misconduct while serving as a grievance officer from 1997 until 2000. In that capacity, she also became privy to the circumstances surrounding the beating of Prater and several other similar beatings of prisoners. In January 1999, Cool composed a memo to her supervisor suggesting that the Prater beating was racially-motivated attempted murder and should have been referred to the district attorney's office. Cool confirmed that the beating occurred while two guards watched and noted that such incidents were common. "I was one of the few morons who would actually walk in there and break it up," said Cool.

Undisputed is the fact that TCCJC was a disaster-in-the-making while it was operated by Wackenhut. Cool blamed many of the problems on Wackenhut's failure to hire sufficient personnel, noting that there was sometimes as few as one guard for 178 prisoners. Further problems were caused by the kind of employee attracted by Wackenhut's $6.50 per hour average pay. The guards were often gang members themselves, or related to the prisoners according to Cool. In addition to the beatings, Cool alleges she witnessed guards asleep and/or intoxicated while on duty, guards leaving loaded weapons and security keys in prisoner areas, prisoners allowed into guards' areas, male prisoners allowed into female prisoners' dorm area while the females were naked, guards trafficking in drugs, and guards denying prisoners access to prescription medication.

Not long after TCCJC opened in March 1997, county officials realized there were problems according to Dinah Dinwiddie, Executive Manager of the Travis County Justice and Public Safety Division. Wackenhut was not providing the required number of 158 well-trained guards and was nowhere near the required level of educational programs. By November 4, 1997, the county felt compelled to send Wackenhut a default notice based on understaffing and the high guard turnover rate. Despite angry notes, improvement at Wackenhut-run TCCJC seemed unattainable so that, by May 1999, Dinwiddie was calling it a "frigging dilemma" and questioning Wackenhut's good faith in attempting to solve the staffing shortage.

"We finally got the idea that they were double-dipping (counting one guard working overtime as two filled guard positions)," said Dinwiddie.

Additionally, when Dinwiddie finally received long requested documents from Wackenhut, they showed that the participation rates in educational programs "were nowhere near the 95% participation the corporation boasted."

What happened to the money paid to Wackenhut to fulfill the contract? "I'd say Wackenhut scammed us pretty well," said Cool. "Somewhere between just pocketing the money and 100% putting it where it was supposed to be, is what was happening," according to County Commissioner Darwin McKee.

Oddly enough, although Wackenhut was fined $625,000 by the state over the three year they operated TCCJC, there is no record of any money ever having been withheld from the payments to pay the fines. This raises questions about how well the state was monitoring its subcontractor.

"What you're seeing is pretty much what happens elsewhere," according to Edith Flynn, a professor at Northwestern University's College of Criminal Justice. "It is routine for private companies to oversell and under deliver," said Flynn. Furthermore, according to Flynn, states often fail to properly budget for oversight of private prison companies, spending all their allocated money on the contracts and leaving nothing for oversight.

Clearly, Wackenhut is in need of oversight. TCCJC was taken over by the state after widespread sexual abuse of female prisoners was discovered [PLN, Aug. `00 and May `01]. A total of 14 guards were indicted for sexually assaulting 16 different female prisoners. In Louisiana, widespread accusations of abuse of juvenile prisoners by Wackenhut guards led to the state taking control of the Jena Juvenile Justice Center [PLN, Jan. `99, Aug. `00, and Feb. `01]. Reportedly, the Jena prison also suffered from a lack of rehabilitation programs, and shortages of food, supplies, medical care, and clothing.

In New Mexico, riots, guards beating prisoners, and prisoner-on-prisoner assaults lead to the deaths of one guard and four prisoners at Wackenhut-run prisons in Santa Rosa and Hobbs [PLN, Jun., Sep., Dec. `99; Jun. `00]. Additionally, the warden and six guards at the Hobbs prison were recently convicted in federal court of brutally beating prisoners and attempting to cover up the beatings. [PLN, Jan. `03].

In Florida, an escape and allegations of sex between guards and prisoners led to disciplinary actionincluding firingsagainst five Wackenhut guards at a Broward County work release center. Recently a former prisoner at a Wackenhut-run private prison in Lockhart, Texas, filed suit against Wackenhut alleging that she was repeatedly raped by Wackenhut guards and that Wackenhut failed to discipline the guards even after a prison internal affairs investigation concluded that the sex was not consensual.

What was Wackenhut's reaction to the lawsuits spawned by the aforementioned abuses?

"The lawsuits were filed against us on allegations by inmates who are convicted felons," a Wackenhut spokesman told the St. Petersburg Times, "So they have a record of dishonesty and misleading people." One must wonder if Wackenhut will impute the same characteristics to its former employees who are now convicted felons.

Sources:, St. Petersburg Times, Austin American-Statesman, Albuquerque Journal, Baton Rouge Advocate, Palm Beach Post

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