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Overcrowding Forces Alabama Prisoners Into Private Prison Web

Court orders have forced Alabama to reduce the number of prisoners in its county jails and send half of its prison population to two other states. Until recently the Alabama Department of Corrections (DOC) had crammed 28,000 prisoners into cell-space designed to hold half that many.

On June 27, 2003 the Birmingham News reported that overcrowding in county jails had become so intolerable that Montgomery County Circuit Judge William Sashy ordered officials to cut their populations. The Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women was placed under preliminary injunction after being cited for Eighth Amendment violations by the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama. (PLN Sept. 2003) Violations, according to Judge Myron Thompson, showed that Tutwiler was overcrowded, understaffed, inadequately ventilated and a generally dangerous place to live.

Meanwhile at the capitol, lawmakers scurried to approve an emergency package for the survival of the state's prison system after being threatened with a special session by Governor Bob Riley. The $25 million package was literally an eleventh-hour deal, approved minutes before midnight, at the end of the regular session, on June 18, 2003.

Politicians pouted and grumbled but Prison Commissioner Donal Campbell insists that funding was vital. Without the $25 million Alabama lacked the money to pay prison employees.

"It would be several hundred employees and several thousand inmates, up to 7,000 inmates that would not be funded in next year's budget," Campbell said. "I don't know where they would go. I know it would mean we would not have the money to house them."

These ultimatums forced Alabama to enter its first ever contracts with private prison vendors.

Just across the border, in Tutwiler, Mississippi, sat an 1,100-bed prison with only 40 prisoners. Corrections Corporation of America opened the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility (TCC) in 2000 at a cost of $35 million but had been unable to fill it until now. On June 16, 2003 Alabama DOC publicly announced its intention to relocate 1,400 male prisoners to TCC. The news came as a boon to all three parties involved. Alabama needed the space, Mississippi needed the jobs and CCA needed to fill the prison that has sat virtually empty for the last three years because of poor business speculation. The company had been banking on a continued increase in incarceration, an increase that occurred but at a time when many states had increased their own prison capacity by building more prisons. Instead, CCA was faced with bankruptcy until the Federal Government bailed them out of their financial difficulties. (PLN, May 2002).

CCA is charging Alabama $27.50 per-day, per-prisoner for a no frills package which offers no programs other than recreation and religious services. Jimmy Turner, vice president of operations for CCA, says TCC has full-time doctors and nurses but admits that any prisoners who become seriously ill will be sent back to Alabama.

TCC originally housed over 300 prisoners from Wisconsin and was intended to bolster the job-starved Mississippi residents. But hopes quickly faded when those prisoners were moved to Minnesota and most of the guards were laid off. The first 300 men from Alabama arrived at TCC in mid-July, 2003.

Meanwhile, the women in Tutwiler prison may be exchanging one problem prison for another. Nearly 300 female prisoners were sent to Southern Louisiana Correctional Center (SLCC) in Basile Louisiana in an attempt to comply with Judge Thompson's order to reduce the Alabama population. But SLCC has had troubles of its own. In July 1997 there was a riot at the prison. Two months later five transfer prisoners from the Idaho DOC cut a hole in the fence and escaped. Four were recaptured but one is still at large.

When Idaho sent a monitor to the facility his audit showed that the warden only spent two days a week at the prison. Cell windows had been painted over so that prisoners were completely deprived of natural sunlight. The audit also noted that prison staff were inadequately trained. By January 1998, less than eight months after they arrived, all Idaho prisoners were removed and no attempt was ever made to send more.

SLCC is run by Louisiana Correctional Services (LCS) Inc. LCS was founded 13 years ago and operates six prisons, two in Texas and four in Louisiana. Gary Copes is Executive Warden of LCS.

In 1994, Copes resigned as Chief of Police in Lafayette after he was accused of tipping off strip club owners of an upcoming sting. In 1995, Copes was involved in a prison disturbance at the Tenses Parish Correctional Center which very nearly led to federal criminal charges. In 1999, Copes was indicted on federal charges of civil rights violations against prisoners at another LCS facility. During the trial, Copes was accused of witness tampering while jurors were mysteriously unable to reach a verdict.

Now Copes and Company are under fire from the mother of a dead prisoner and several female employees who have sued the chief warden and several guards for sexual harassment.

Gregory Lee died June 22, 2003 while a prisoner at SLCC. His mother claims her son was beaten and tortured by guards just before he died. Attorney Willie Nunnery, who represents Lee's family in the suit says, "we believe he was severely beaten and brutalized before he left Basile."

Post-autopsy photographs of Lee show scrapes on his elbows, knees, face and back. Attorney Christopher Edwards, who represents Copes and LCS, says that Lee was "mad and angry and trying to run."

Warden C.M. Lensipg insists that "he [Lee] mutilated himself...I think what happened was a big misunderstanding."

However, Nunnery points out that the injuries on Lee's back are not consistent with self-mutilation.

"I expected him to do his time and come out," said his grieving mother. "Not to be murdered and sent out in a body bag."

Meanwhile, Maggie Dupre and Bethani Benjudah were fired from SLCC in September 2003 after they filed complaints of sexual harassment and intimidation against their superiors. The two women join Fonda Autin, Sandra Whittington, Carla T. Zeno and Laurie Ardoin who have similar charges against ranking officers at various LCS facilities.

Dupre, a nurse at SLCC, filed charges of battery against Capt. Ray Rider after he poured a bottle of water down her chest. Rider was placed on a three-day suspension and required to watch a sensitivity tape. Before she was fired, Dupre told reporters of the Louisiana Daily World, "He's back now and he's making my life a living hell. He basically told me he can do whatever he wants."

Autin filed a formal complaint after being groped by a ranking male guard. "I couldn't make him leave," she said. "He has rank over me. I could still feel his hands on me five hours later. I feel safer around the prisoners than the guards."

Autin claims that her complaints have gone unanswered by management. All of the women have filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a necessary step before they can file formal suit.

Attorney Bruce Rosa represents four of the six women. Rosa says, "It seems starting with Warden (Gary) Copes on down there is a disregard toward enforcing the sexual harassment laws. I now have four cases naming three different officers. You have to blame management. One complaint is a campfire four is a bonfire. The problem is clearly at the top."

Elsewhere, on June 16, 2003, an LCS employee was booked into Evangeline Parish Jail, accused of having sexual relations with a female prisoner. Todd Daniel Arnold, a guard at Pine Prairie Correctional Center (PPCC), is charged with malfeasance in office which carries a sentence of up to ten years.

Two years ago PPCC warden Michael J. Savant received a six-month jail term and three years probation for the same charge after being found guilty of extorting sexual favors from family members of prisoners.

However, LCS doesn't have a corner on controversy. The CCA-run Kit Carson prison in Burlington Colorado gained notariety for a sex scandal less than a year after it opened. A nurse, a teacher and nearly a dozen female guards were either fired or forced to resign for having intimate relations with prisoners.

Touted as the largest private prison vendor in the U.S., CCA controls fifty-nine facilities, nearly sixty-thousand beds and an incalculable amount of corruption in twenty states.

Other CCA scandals include at least one convicted felon hired as a guard, a prisoner death by heroin overdose, staffing problems in which over half of the prison employees, including the warden, were either fired or quit in less than a year, failed state inspections, a $1.65 million settlement, escaped killers, predators housed in medium-security prisons and much, much more.

When asked to comment on the scandals CCA spokesperson Steve Owen said, "Those are so far in the past, really I would rather not address them."

Alabama is currently considering a $1 billion proposal by Carter Goble Associates Inc. (CGA) to build six new prisons over the next four years. CGA also suggested that 2,100 non-violent prisoners would fare better in community corrections facilities. However, the aggressive expansion proposal, which would increase lock-up space by 11,420 beds, mentions nothing about changing sentencing practices or laws.

According to David Azbell, press secretary for Governor Riley, the administration is aware of past problems with SLCC but is doing "what's in the best interest of both the taxpayers and the inmates."

No doubt the new alliance will benefit both the state and the private prison pushers. But how much it will benefit the prisoners remains to be seen. By April, 2004, the male Alabama prisoners had been returned to that state. However, the women prisoners remain in Louisiana. A number of LCS guards have been criminally charged with raping the prisoners, PLN will report the details in an upcoming issue.

Sources: Birmingham News, Mongomery Advertiser, Clarion. Ledger, The Advocate, Daily Advertiser (Lafayette, LA) Gannett News Service, LA Daily World

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