No Room in Prison? Ship Em Off Prisoners have become unwitting pawns in a lowest-bidder- gets-the-convict shuffle game
No Room in Prison? Ship Em Off Prisoners have become unwitting pawns in a lowest-bidder-
gets-the-convict shuffle game
by Silja J.A. Talvi
It has been an arduous, surreal journey for eight Hawaiian female prisoners sent to do their time
on the mainland.
The plight of this group of women housed, most recently, in a prison in the small eastern
Kentucky town of Wheelwright, would have escaped unnoticed, had it not been for the death of
43-year-old Sarah Ah Mau, on New Years Eve 2005. Mau, serving a life sentence for second-
degree murder, had been incarcerated since 1993 and had a shot at parole eligibility in August
She never got that chance. Instead she died of as-yet-unexplained natural causes after two
days in critical conditionand a month after first complaining of severe gastrointestinal distress.
Family members and fellow prisoners say that Ah Maus pleas for medical care were ridiculed,
downplayed or ignored by prison employees. As her stomach distendedand other body parts
began to swell visibly, prisoners say that Ah Mau was fed castor oil and told to stop complaining
unless she wanted to face disciplinary action.
What was Hawaiian resident Ah Mau doing in Kentucky in the first place? She was a commodity in
an increasingly common practice: interstate prison transfers. Prison transfers, while not unusual,
have a profound effect on prisoners and family members alike. Children and spouses of
shipped prisoners have little, if any, opportunity to see their loved ones. And due to special
contracts with phone companies, telephone calls are prohibitively expensive. Prisoners
themselves are sent to culturally unfamiliar facilities where they are supposed to be treated
according to the laws and regulations granted by their home states but rarely are. Home state
law and prison regulation books are rarely available, making the prisoners' appeals or grievance
requests even more difficult to file.
Most of the prisoners transferred out of their home states (which include but are not limited to
Alabama, Colorado, North Dakota, Vermont, Washington and Wyoming) end up in privately run
facilities in rural communities. Many of the guards hired for such prisons are under-trained, ill-
prepared for their stressful work environments, and are paid fast-food restaurant wages,
according to Ken Kopczynski, executive director of Private Corrections Institute (PCI), a prison
This is a major issue, says Kopczynski. The private prison companies have found a real niche
Hawaii represents the most extreme example of these practices because all of its transferred
prisoners are sent to the mainland, and because all of those prisoners are sent to facilities run by
just one private prison operator: Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).
Today, Hawaii leads the nation in interstate prisoner transfers. Nearly 2,000 prisoners, roughly
half of the states adults convicted of felonies, are serving out their sentences in CCA-run
prisons in Arizona, Kentucky, Mississippi and Oklahoma. Notably, 41 percent of the shipped
prisoners have been native Hawaiian, although they represent only 20 percent of the state's
Such prisoners have few recourses. A 1983 U.S. Supreme Court ruling based on a Hawaiian
prisoner's lawsuit protesting out-of-state relocation, Olim v. Wakinekona, held that prisoners
have no right to be confined in a particular prison, region or state. More recently, a 7th Circuit
Court of Appeals ruling reinforced and enhanced the Supreme Court decision by deciding that
neither parents in prison, or their children, had a right to insist on staying in their home state for
the sake of their children. All subsequent legal challenges to out-of-state prison transfers have
These transfers are very problematic for a number of reasons, notes David Fathi of the ACLUs
National Prison Project in Washington, D.C. Visitation is all but impossible, and visitations are
very important to prisoner mental health. [Visits] are usually correlated with positive prison
adjustment behavior as well as decreased recidivism rates.
A 1993 study focused on the recidivism rates of Hawaiian prisoners found that 90 percent of
prisoners sent to other states to do their time eventually returned to prison. Those incarcerated
in their home state had recidivism rates ranging from 47 to 57 percent.
Studies like these notwithstanding, the situation in Kentucky isnt likely to change in the near
future. In fact, most of the Hawaiian women incarcerated in Kentucky have already experienced
four transfers within the continental United States.
Sarah Ah Mau was one of the 62 Hawaiian women who first arrived in Southern Texas in May
1997, at the Crystal City Correctional Center, 40 miles from the Mexico border. The facility was
in dire shape, and the heat extremes were completely unfamiliar to the prisoners, according to
local news reports. But the prisoners, including Mau, seemed to do what they could to fit in.
There, Mau gained the trust of the guards and facility officials, and was even allowed outside of
facility walls on work detail.
In August 1998, 64 Hawaiian women were moved to the Central Oklahoma Correctional Facility
(COCF) in McCloud, newly built by the Correctional Services Corporation. The women seemed to
accept the situation because, at least, the living conditions were acceptable. That is, until
February 2003, when the Oklahoma Department of Corrections announced its intent to purchase
that facility. By late summer of that year, the Hawaiian women reported to the Hawaii Department
of Public Safety (DPS) that the overall operations and security of COCF had gone downhill.
According to reports received by Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons in
Honolulu, the situation involved disgruntled unionized staff, lack of programs, sick leave abuse
and staff having sexual relationships with inmates.
The Hawaii DPS decided to move the women to another facility. On Aug. 1, 2004, the 64
Hawaiian women were transferred to the Brush Correctional Facility (BCF) in Colorado. There,
according to Brady, things went from bad to worse. At BCF, the women were discouraged by
leaky rooftops, broken plumbing, lack of drug treatment programs and inadequate medical care.
BCF prison employees were hired quickly and, as it turned out, without the requisite background
checks. Allegations of sexual harassment and abuse were soon to follow. Initially dismissed by
GRW internal investigators, many of the charges turned out to be true. Not only had five
convicted felons been hired as staff members, but four prison employees were ultimately
charged and convicted of criminal offenses ranging from running a cigarette smuggling ring to
sexually abusing female prisoners. BCF's prison warden resigned and was later indicted as an
accomplice in one of the sexual misconduct cases.
It was time to send the women somewhere else. That is, anywhere but back home, where the
state's sole female prison was packing three women into cells designed to accommodate one to
Our women have been moved around like chess pieces, says Brady, who has stayed in close
contact with many of the female prisoners from Hawaii. Most of these women would be better
served in community programs to directly address their needs: drug addiction, PTSD resulting
from various forms of abuse and anger management. Instead, the Hawaii DPS settled on the
CCA-run Otter Creek Correctional Center.
Located in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, Wheelwright (population 1,048) was once a
successful coal-mining town with a Nashville Steel plant that employed 3,000 people. That all
changed in 1970, when the plant shut down; the town quickly dwindled in both population and
resident income. Building a prison in 1993 on the site of a former coal camp seemed to be a
great solution to this town's intractable problem of unemployment. Indeed, when CCA bought
the facility in 1999, the corporation quickly became the town's biggest employer.
Private prisons know the advantages of moving into economically devastated rural communities:
generous tax incentives, low construction costs and a cheap labor market are key among them.
Once built, the private prison companies strive to keep their facilities at maximum capacity.
Whenever these bed counts go below 10 to 20 percent of maximum capacity, these corporations
can't make it. They need to import prisoners, says Frank Smith, field director for PCI.
And that's what CCA did with Otter Creek, initially bringing in male prisoners from Indiana to fill
the available cells. In July 2001, the Indiana prisoners staged a nine-hour riot, which was brought
under control only after 100 outside law enforcement officers had been brought in to subdue the
prisoners. By 2005, Indiana had transferred the last of its state prisoners out of the facility, after
which CCA converted Otter Creek into a 656-bed women's prison.
Past riots weren't the concern of Hawaiian authorities. CCA was offering a great deal. According
to the contract, each prisoner would cost the state only $56 per daycompared to an average of
$108 in Hawaii. (According to Smith's research, costs are kept this low at Otter Creek because
entry-level guards make $7.60 per hour.) CCA also agreed that Hawaii could send out a new
group of higher-security close-custody inmates. Approximately 40 such prisoners were
promptly shipped out.
Today, Otter Creek houses 120 Hawaiian women alongside Kentucky state prisoners. Half of the
Hawaiian women are serving crystal methamphetamine-related sentences, and most of them are
incarcerated on nonviolent charges. Ninety-five percent of these women are mothers, and
according to Brady, not a single woman has gotten a visit from a child or other family member
since the September 2005 transfer. Collect phone calls from the prison to Hawaii can run more
than 60 cents per minute.
Since arriving at Otter Creek, women at the facility have complained consistently about cold
temperatures in cells; loss of property during their transfer; racial and sexual harassment;
bizarre medical care and commissary hours (at 2 to 4 a.m.); and drinking water that has caused
widespread diarrhea and vomiting. In separate letters and phone calls, prisoners have echoed
each other's concerns of being threatened with administrative segregation if they complain about
Correspondence from Otter Creek prisoners received by the Community Alliance on Prisons
has pointed to at least two other serious medical situations in the recent past.
In one situation, a Hawaiian prisoner, who asked to remain nameless, was coughing up blood
and asked for medical assistance repeatedly. When she was finally seen by the medical unit at the
prison, she was given a nasal moisturizer and told she had a sinus infection. The prisoners
condition worsened, and she was eventually rushed to the Hazard Regional Medical Center in
leg shackles and at gunpoint. The prisoner had to have emergency surgery; one lung had
completely filled with blood. Prison officials ignored a follow-up appointment scheduled by the
surgeon until Brady intervened on the woman's behalf.
Another female prisoner, who also requested anonymity, told prison staff about severe chest,
arm and leg pain for several months, only to be told that she would be placed in administrative
segregation if she continued to complain. When she was eventually taken to the hospital in
critical condition, a triple heart bypass surgery had to be performed.
DPS did not respond to a request for an interview on the medical care and general conditions
facing state prisoners at Otter Creek. The state agency announced earlier this year that it was
sending its own investigative medical team to Kentucky to determine the actual cause of Ah
Mau's illness and death, but has yet to release its findings.
This is inhumane, Brady insists. She and others have called for an independent investigation,
stressing that Ah Mau's death is unlikely to be the last tragedy to befall this group of female
Postscript from the author: After this story went to press, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported
that Eldon Tackett, a 43-year-old guard at Otter Creek, had been accused of providing food and
candy to a female prisoner in exchange for oral sex. In addition, the Kentucky-based Floyd
County Times reported that Otter Creeks drug counselor, Tanya Crum, 32, had been arrested for
trafficking in methadone. Employees of privately-run prisons often take on second (or third) jobs
to subsidize their low prison wages earnings. For the former CCA employee, methadone delivery
appears to have been one of those jobs.
Silja J.A. Talvi is a senior editor at In These Times, an investigative journalist and essayist with
credits in many dozens of newspapers and magazines nationwide, including The Nation, Salon,
Santa Fe Reporter, Utne, and the Christian Science Monitor. She is at work on a book about
women in prison (Seal Press/Avalon). This article originally appeared in In These Times, it is
reprinted with permission.
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