by Matt Clarke
On April 24, 2007, about 500 Arizona and Illinois prisoners at a privately-run facility owned by the Indiana Department of Corrections (IDOC) participated in an uprising. The prison is operated by the Boca Raton, Florida-based GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut Corrections), a NYSE-listed company that manages 68 prisons in the United States, Australia, South Africa and the U.K.
The New Castle Correctional Facility (NCCF) was built by the IDOC in 2002, when the state's prison system was experiencing an overcrowding crisis and prisoners were being housed in county jails and exported to Kentucky.
Ironically the Indiana legislature, faced with an $800 million budget deficit, refused to appropriate operational funds for NCCF, making it impossible for the IDOC to staff the prison. The 2,416-bed medium-security facility remained empty until it became an issue in the 2004 governor's race. In September 2005 the IDOC entered into a $53 million contract with GEO Group to operate NCCF for four years, and Indiana's prisoners were brought home from Kentucky.
GEO also negotiated with California's overcrowded prison system to house prisoners at NCCF. A deal to transfer 1,260 California prisoners to the privately-run prison was announced in October 2006, but cancelled on December 28, 2006 after the legality of shipping prisoners out-of-state under California's constitution was challenged in court. [See related article, this issue of PLN: California DOC Guards Win Injunction to Stop Prisoner Transfers Out-Of-State; Transfers Continue While State Appeals].
At the time, NCCF was only housing 1,068 Indiana prisoners. Then a private prison company in Texas cancelled its contract to hold 1,500 Arizona prisoners. With a prison population of 36,000 and capacity for only 31,000 in its own correctional facilities, Arizona became desperate for bed space. Anxious to fill its empty beds at NCCF, in March 2006 GEO signed a $6.1 million contract to house Arizona prisoners for $64 per prisoner per diem.
The first 104 Arizona prisoners arrived at NCCF on March 12, 2006; by April 24, 630 had arrived. Prior to being transferred, the Arizona prisoners were not told they were being shipped out-of-state, nor were they given an opportunity to contact their families. When they arrived at NCCF they were placed in lockdown conditions, no longer had smoking privileges, and were not allowed cherished personal possessions such as TVs, radios and sexually-explicit magazines, which were considered contraband at NCCF. None of the Arizona prisoners had volunteered for the 1,700-mile transfer.
As specified in GEO's contract, all of the transferees were lower-custody prisoners with clean disciplinary records. They now found themselves faced with banishment, property deprivation, loss of privileges and lockdown, which they perceived as undeserved punishment for their prior good behavior.
Why weren't the Arizona prisoners told about their impending transfer? "The last thing you want to have happen is to let them know and have them riot or protest," said Arizona DOC spokesman Bill Lamoreaux. The Arizona DOC's secrecy thus succeeded in transferring the potential for problems right along with the state's prisoners. Such problems didn't take long to surface.
The April 24 uprising at NCCF began around 2:00 p.m., when over 50 Arizona prisoners on their way to the dining area removed their shirts and refused to put them back on as a sign of defiance. There was a confrontation and one guard was shoved; the others fled. Simultaneously, around 100 Indiana prisoners -- who were kept physically separated from the Arizona transferees per GEO's contract -- noticed the disturbance and became verbally disruptive.
The two disturbances eventually involved between 220 and 500 prisoners from both states, some of whom attacked each other, set mattresses on fire, and trashed the facility -- breaking windows and furnishings and opening cells. Some of the prisoners reportedly armed themselves with broom and mop handles. The uprising ended around 4:45 p.m. after guards deployed chemical weapons and fired warning shots. One guard, a counselor and eight prisoners received minor injuries.
Arizona DOC Director Dora Schirro had visited NCCF about a week before the uprising, and what she saw caused her to put future transfers of Arizona prisoners to the GEO facility on hold. When Schirro visited on April 19, 2007 she discovered insufficient and inexperienced staffing -- only 37 guards for 630 Arizona prisoners. The state's contract with GEO called for 131 staff members to supervise a total of 1,260 prisoners, a ratio of more than one employee per ten prisoners; Schirro found a 1:17 guard-to-prisoner ratio.
"They were pulling staff from other areas around the state to put them into these [security] positions, and we needed to be sure there was a permanent professional crew on site. It wasn't just a quantity issue, it also was quality and the level of experience," said Arizona DOC spokesperson Katie Decker. The staffing situation raised "serious security concerns," according to Decker.
Following the uprising, Decker questioned the future of Arizona's contract with GEO. "Is the facility going to be capable of housing the inmates we have there?" she asked. "Are the things that caused this going to be addressed?" After control was restored, 69 Arizona prisoners and 151 Indiana prisoners were transferred to other facilities. A report issued by IDOC officials on May 23, 2007 cited austere conditions at NCCF, idleness among the prison population, breakdowns in communication between staff and prisoners, inexperienced prison staff, and transferring Arizona prisoners to NCCF too quickly as contributing factors to the disturbance.
In August 2007, Indiana officials stated that future prisoner transfers from Arizona were unlikely. "We don't plan on opening up any additional housing units for Arizona," stated IDOC spokesman Randy Koester. The NCCF riot was not the only factor involved in reaching that decision, he said.
Also in August, 28 NCCF prisoners, all of whom were from Arizona except one, were charged with various offenses related to the disturbance -- including rioting, criminal confinement, battery and intimidation.
How did the uprising affect GEO's bottom line? It was barely a blip on Wall Street, with GEO's stock regaining the 2.2% post-riot drop it experienced within two days. By the end of the week following the incident at NCCF, the company's stock had gained $1.30 over its pre-disturbance price, closing at $51.20 per share. GEO Group is the second largest private prison company after industry leader CCA, and is experiencing 22% revenue growth annually. Private prisons house approximately 6% of the U.S. prison population.
However, private prisons in general and GEO in particular are a risky business with a number of problems. For example, the employee turnover rate in private prisons is around 50%, compared with about 15% in state-run facilities. Also, GEO's New Mexico prisons have a prisoner murder rate of one per 400 prisoners, in comparison with a nationwide rate of about one in 22,000.
Additionally, GEO has a history of lax drug security among its underpaid staff. In March 2007, two prisoners were charged with running a marijuana-dealing operation at NCCF. At the Lawrence Correctional Facility, a GEO-run prison in Virginia, twice as many prisoners were caught with drugs than at all other Virginia prisoners combined. The prisoners who were found with drugs reported they had been provided by GEO guards, along with cell phones.
Then there's the risk of private prison companies providing substandard living conditions, programs and treatment to prisoners in order to cut costs, as was the recent case at the GEO-run Coke County Juvenile Justice Center in Texas. An audit of the facility released in early October 2007 found "deplorable" conditions, including youths living in filth, inadequate medical care, and an over-reliance on pepper spray by guards.
Texas Youth Commission authorities quickly canceled the agency's $8 million contract with GEO and removed all 197 juvenile offenders from the facility.
So why do lawmakers find private prisons so attractive? In Indiana's case it could be the $226,000 in campaign contributions to state political candidates from private prison companies between 2001 and 2004. This included $52,900 in donations to Governor Daniels, who was elected in 2004. In 2006 alone, GEO contributed more than $200,000 to political candidates and organizations. State prisons don't generate such contributions, and politicians always pay attention to the source of the money that flows into their campaign coffers.
Sources: Indianapolis Star, South Bend Tribune, Terre Haute Tribune-Star, Associated Press, Hendricks County (Indiana) Flyer, timesdispatch.com, privateci.org, The Arizona Republic, www.azcentral.com, www.eastvalleytribune.com, International Herald Tribune
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