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State Auditor Blasts Colorado DOC's Private Prison Oversight Failures

by Matthew T. Clarke

In June 2005, the Colorado State Auditor released its April 2005 report of the performance audit of private prisons contracted by the Colorado Department of Corrections. The report strongly criticized the private prisons performance and the lack of oversight by the DOCs monitors.

The DOC uses six private prisons. Three medium-security private prisons in Colorado are operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) as is one maximum-security prison in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi. The CCA prisons all house male prisoners. One medium-security private prison for female prisoners, in Brush, Colorado, is owned and operated by Tennessee-based GRW Corporation. It was the site of recent sexual assault and drug scandals that caused Hawaii and Wyoming to withdraw their prisoners from the facility. One of the CCA prisons, Crowley County Correctional Facility (CCCF), recently experienced a riot that the DOC blamed on the lack of experience and poor training of CCA guards. [PLN, Jan. 2005, pp. 26, 31]. The auditors found the lowest staffing ratio at CCCF. The monitors failed to conduct a security or emergency activation audit at CCCF prior to the riot.

The method by which the private prisons are contracted is odd. The DOC contracts with the county government where the prison is located. The county government keeps a cut of the contract and passes the rest on to the private prison company. Prisoners from other states are also incarcerated in the private prisons.

Around 2,800 of Colorados 18,000 state prisoners were in private prisons in fiscal year 2004. This cost the taxpayers of Colorado $53 million in private prison contracts and another $1.1 million to pay for the 15-member private prison monitoring board whose duties include oversight of the contract compliance of the private prisons. However, the taxpayers didnt get a good value for their money when it came to the monitoring board. The report painted a picture of too few employees for the load and heavily criticized the fact that only 10 of the 15 allocated employee slots were actually being used for private prison oversight.

The report was critical of many aspects of private prison operations: (1) none of the five Colorado private prisons had medical clinics licensed by the state Department of Public Health and Environment as required by state law; (2) prisoners with serious mental illness were not being timely seen by mental health staff; (3) staffing levels were too low, often only 80% of typical DOC staffing levels; (4) the private prisons were not following the DOC menu plan and often substituting less nutritious food for food required by the plan; (5) the private prisons often failed to deduct and transmit restitution and child support payments from prisoners accounts; and (6) the private prisons often fail to deduct the three days of earned time a month from sex offenders who refuse to participate in, or are terminated from, treatment programs required by law, resulting in the unlawful early release of some sex offenders.

The medical and mental health failings were especially worrying. The State Auditor identified nine deaths of prisoners in private prisons that should have been, but were not, reported to the Colorado Department of Health. They concluded that seven of the deaths were from natural causes, but two may have been caused by medical personnel at the unlicensed clinic at the Bent County Correctional Facility changing prisoners medication without ever having seen the prisoners. This enraged Sen. Deanna Hanna, D-Lakewood.
Obviously, they have been having a free-for-all in practicing medicine the way they want to for a long time, Hanna said. We are paying a lot of money to these private prisons for health care, and we need to get a better product than we are getting.

In 2004, CCA settled a suit brought by the mother of Jeffery Buller, 26, who died shortly after his release from Kit Carson Correctional Facility in 2001. Buller had an inherited disease that caused his breathing passages to swell. CCA had refused to spend $35 for medication Buller needed during his final ten days of incarceration, switching him to another medication instead. Evidently, CCA learned nothing from Bullers death.

There were also criticisms of the DOCs handling of its part in the operation of private prisons: (1) there was no process to identify out-of-state prisoners in private prisons whose classification was higher than medium security (under Colorado state law, such prisoners may not be incarcerated in private prisons); (2) some Colorado prisoners classified higher than medium security were incarcerated in Colorado private prisons in violation of state law; (3) about 100 high-security Colorado prisoners were incarcerated in a private prison outside of Colorado, possibly in violation of the intent of state law; (4) the DOC did not properly oversee staffing levels in the private prisons; (5) the DOC and private prisons did not adequately screen potential private prison employees for criminal backgrounds resulting in the hiring of employees with criminal backgrounds and unscreened employees; (6) the DOC did not screen visitors to private prisons for criminal backgrounds as frequently as they did visitors to state prisons; (7) the DOCs audit process was ineffective in finding and documenting noncompliance in private prisons; (8) the DOC was using four employees appropriated to the private prison Monitoring Unit for other tasks and left the position of head of the monitoring unit open for three years so that only four of the fifteen allocated employees are actually visiting the private prisons; (9) the DOC failed to take any enforcement action on documented instances of contract noncompliance by private prisons; (10) the DOC failed to use a competitive bidding process to award the private prison contracts; (11) the DOC had not discovered many of these inadequacies using its own monitoring and auditing procedures.

The overall picture that emerged is one of overworked private prison monitoring Unit staff with far too many duties to perform for the staffing level. Even if the full fifteen full-time equivalent positions were available, the work load would be onerous. The monitoring unit is responsible not only for monitoring contract compliance, but for classifying out-of-state prisoners incarcerated in Colorado private prisons and performing background checks on visitors to private prisons. Monitors are supposed to spend twenty hours a week on site in the Colorado private prisons. They are also supposed to audit security and monitor emergency activation drills. With six prisons to monitor, one of which is out-of-state, the task is impossibly large for ten people to do. It is little wonder that the monitors fell far short of their targets in monitoring the prisons. State auditors discovered reports by the monitors that were obvious redated copies of previous reports. Often the monitors reports were so vaguely worded as to be useless. The DOC admitted that it does not even review the monitors reports, so it was unaware of the problem.

The DOCs response was positive. It accepted all of the recommendations and said it was taking steps to correct the problems discovered by the auditors.

Its clear that the for-profit prison industry has no desire to follow their contracts, and it is costing taxpayers money every day, declared Rep. Liane Buffy McFadyen, D-Pueblo West. That said, Colorado is poised to award thousands of new prison beds to the private prison industry.
Questions have also been raised about the political contributions by CCA and whether it influenced the lax oversight of private prisons. CCA and its executives gave a minimum of $43,000 to Colorado state political parties and candidates for the legislature and governors office. Recipients of CCAs largess include Governor Bill Owens, former Senate Minority Leader and current Interim State Treasurer Mark Hillman; two former presidents of the Senate, two legislative budget committee members and the Speaker pro tem of the House. Owens was the largest beneficiary in Colorado.

They give large contributions both to win contracts in the state, and, one would also presume, to have as much free reign as possible, said Pete Maysmith of Colorado Common Cause, a campaign-finance limits advocacy group. Therefore, Maysmith sees a direct link between campaign donations and lax oversight. Lets not pretend otherwise, said Maysmith.

Whether there is a link or not, it should be clear from all of the misfortunes of CCA and its charges that private prisons are a bad idea and a poor investment of public funds. But this bad idea seems to be gathering steam as Colorado prepares to house up to 3,000 more prisoners in private prisons rather than enact sentencing reform.

Sources: Report of the State Auditor-Private Prisons/Department of Corrections-Performance Audit (April 2005), Rocky Mountain News, Pueblo Chieftain, Denver Post, Casper Star-Tribune.

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