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California Inspector General Expresses Concerns About Out-of-State Private Prisons

In December 2010, California Inspector General David Shaw sent a letter to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), informing CDCR officials about concerns related to housing California prisoners in out-of-state privately-operated facilities.

The concerns arose when the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) visited five out-of-state facilities that house California prisoners. Those facilities included the Florence Correctional Center, La Palma Correctional Center and Red Rock Correctional Center in Arizona; the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Mississippi; and the North Fork Correctional Facility in Oklahoma – all operated by CCA.

The state has since contracted with GEO Group to house prisoners at the North Lake Correctional Facility in Michigan, effective May 1, 2011. Presently, the CDCR contracts for approximately 12,800 private prison beds outside of California.

The out-of-state program was initiated in 2006 in an effort to address the problem of California’s severely overcrowded prison system. With 33 adult facilities housing around 170,000 prisoners, roughly twice their design capacity, California’s prisons are so dangerously overcrowded that former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger deemed them a threat to the safety, security and well-being of both prisoners and guards.

Lawsuits were filed and the federal courts intervened, placing prisoner medical and mental health care under the control of a Receiver and special master, respectively.
Ultimately, a three-judge panel determined that notwithstanding the efforts of the Receiver and special master, prisoner medical care remained constitutionally inadequate and that the primary cause of the inadequacy was overcrowding. The panel ordered state officials to reduce the prison overcrowding to what it considered a manageable level, and that order was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court on May 23, 2011. [See: PLN, July 1, 2011].

Meanwhile, CDCR officials had started the California Out-of-State Correctional Facility (COCF) program, which is now codified at Section 3379(a)(9) of Title 15 of the California Code of Regulations (CCR). Every male state prisoner is potentially eligible for a COCF transfer, though the rules currently exclude “level IV” prisoners and those deemed to pose security concerns, as well as prisoners with serious medical or mental health conditions.

Significantly, prisoners transferred to an out-of-state facility remain under the legal custody of the CDCR and are subject to the rules, rights and privileges established in Division 3 of Title 15 of the CCR.

The purpose of the OIG’s out-of-state facility inspections was to identify issues that, if left unaddressed, could develop into more significant problems. While OIG inspectors toured the out-of-state private prisons, interviewed management, employees and prisoners, and reviewed the terms of CCA’s contract with the CDCR, the inspections were nonetheless considerably less extensive than an audit.

The OIG expressed concerns in four general areas: 1) denial of prisoner rights and privileges; 2) safety and security weaknesses; 3) unenforced rules, policies and practices; and 4) other “notable” issues. The OIG instructed the CDCR to assess the impact of the identified issues at each out-of-state facility, implement corrective action and report on its progress. The CDCR was urged to act quickly with respect to the denial of prisoner rights as well as safety and security issues identified by the OIG, which indicated that it would evaluate CDCR’s corrective actions in future follow-up inspections.

In regard to prisoner rights and privileges, the OIG found that prisoners held in administrative segregation (ad seg) were kept there longer than necessary after being found not guilty of disciplinary charges, did not receive required staff assistance, and were not timely classified within ten days of placement in ad seg. Of particular concern, the OIG noted that because none of the out-of-state facilities were designed to house general population prisoners classified as level IV, prisoners who committed rule violations which resulted in an increase in their classification level to level IV status were being housed in ad seg without any of the programming opportunities they would likely receive in a level IV facility in California.

The CDCR speculated that some prisoners were deliberately committing rule violations in an attempt to get transferred back to California. However, due to a limited number of level IV beds in CDCR facilities, those attempts were proving to be largely ineffectual. The OIG was concerned that the CDCR was allowing level IV prisoners to remain out-of-state despite inadequate security provisions.

The OIG also expressed concern that CCA employees were not adequately trained to manage validated gang members. As a consequence, when security became an issue, Northern and Southern Hispanic prisoners were denied programming opportunities for unnecessarily prolonged periods of time.

The OIG observed cases where prisoners did not have identification cards, wore clothing similar to that worn by custody staff, and had unsupervised access to restricted areas.

The inspectors found that CCA did not adequately screen employees before hiring them; that evidence was not always properly handled, resulting in chain-of-custody problems; that significant incidents were not always investigated; and that employees did not always carry critical safety equipment such as whistles, pepper spray and handcuffs.

The OIG expressed concern that the CDCR had never approved CCA’s use-of-force policy at the company’s out-of-state facilities.

In Oklahoma, the OIG noted (with apparent incredulity) that gang affiliations of Inmate Advisory Committee members were posted on bulletin boards, while in Mississippi, boxes containing prisoners’ letters and grievances were unsecured. At two of the CCA prisons, “custody staffing levels were insufficient to adequately monitor inmates.” As a result, the inspectors observed “approximately 15 of 60 inmates move a barrier” to go around, rather than through, a metal detector when leaving their housing unit.

The report noted a number of other problems at the out-of-state prisons, ranging from poorly documented cell searches, outdated institutional rules and insufficient oversight of the Inmate Welfare Fund by the CDCR to a gap under an inner fence that “was large enough for a man to crawl through.”

Source: OIG letter to CDCR Secretary Regarding Out-of-State Facilities (Dec. 2, 2010)

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