Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest private-prison company, runs the Otter Creek Correctional Center (OCCC) in Wheelwright, Kentucky. The facility was a medium-security men’s prison until Indiana removed its male prisoners in 2005 following a riot several years earlier.
When CCA threatened to close OCCC in the fall of 2005, which would have resulted in the loss of local jobs, the Kentucky Department of Corrections (KDOC) sent 400 female prisoners to the facility. More than 160 female prisoners from Hawaii soon joined them.
Inadequate Medical Care, Deaths, Resignations
Problems at OCCC began almost immediately. OCCC prisoners regularly complained about inadequate medical care, including denial of access to treatment and medication shortages. Also, the number of grievances filed at OCCC was almost twice as high as at the state-run Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women, and the CCA prison had a higher number of staff vacancies.
The Community Alliance on Prisons, a Hawaii-based organization that advocates for prisoners and their families, reported receiving numerous complaints from OCCC prisoners regarding inadequate medical care, including delays in medical treatment.
OCCC prisoner Sarah Ah Mau, 43, died in December 2005 after she was reportedly threatened with lockdown if “she continued to ask for medical help for severe stomach pains.” CCA failed to promptly notify Hawaiian prison officials of Ah Mau’s death.
According to a subsequent lawsuit filed by her family, although Ah Mau had submitted a grievance complaining about poor medical care, CCA officials “ignored her, insisted she was faking and threatened to put her in segregation if she continued to complain.” The case settled in November 2008 under undisclosed terms. See: Ah Mau v. State of Hawaii, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Ky.), Case No. 7:08-cv-00133-ART.
Another Hawaiian prisoner who became ill while confined at OCCC told her family that her pleas for medical attention were ignored. After she died, CCA claimed that her medical care had been “appropriate and provided promptly, in a quality manner.”
OCCC prisoner Beverly Murphy suffered severe physical and emotional illnesses. In June 2008, CCA staff allowed Murphy to refuse her diabetes medication, resulting in her death. A state investigation found a “significant lack of communication” between security staff and mental health and medical professionals at OCCC. Numerous deficiencies in Murphy’s treatment were also noted, including inconsistent diabetic monitoring. KDOC fined CCA $5,000 for breaching a contractual obligation by failing to timely report Murphy’s death, but no sanctions were imposed for the inadequate care she received.
Prisoners’ complaints about medical care at OCCC were corroborated by former staff members, including Dr. Mark Hovee, who was a clinical psychologist at the facility for six years. Before resigning in 2007, Hovee gave a series of interviews in which he said he repeatedly complained to coworkers, OCCC Warden Joyce Arnold, and KDOC and CCA officials about insufficient medical and mental health treatment, but his concerns were ignored.
Dr. Hovee testified in a sworn deposition that prisoners were routinely segregated without regard to their emotional problems and without consultation with mental health staff. He also noted a lack of staff training in regard to prisoner mental health issues, and routine verbal abuse of prisoners by guards. Hovee reported that prison officials denied him access to OCCC dormitories where prisoners routinely complained of mistreatment. He received “a stack” of requests from emotionally disturbed prisoners – including those having “panic attacks” – for a transfer from the open dormitories to individual cells. However, CCA staff ignored his recommendations to move those prisoners.
“Things were going on [at OCCC] that were tearing down inmates psychologically, as opposed to building them up,” Dr. Hovee stated.
OCCC physician James Hurm “quit the facility because he was so aggravated and frustrated that this situation was never being dealt with,” according to Hovee. Similarly, a University of Kentucky (UK) medical team began working at OCCC in 2005, but left about 18 months later when CCA ignored or refused to comply with their requests to improve prisoner medical care. The UK team quit “because the relationship between them and Otter Creek administration was so poor,” claimed Dr. Hovee. A December 2008 state monitor report found that OCCC had “run out of some medications” for prisoners, including “critical meds.”
CCA has dismissed claims of inadequate medical care as a “myth,” declaring on its website that the company offers “high-quality medical treatment.” KDOC Director of Communications Lisa Lamb refused to respond to Hovee’s concerns. “We consider this matter closed,” she said. CCA spokesman Steve Owen also declined to comment.
Staff Suicide in the Warden’s Office
Apparently employee dissatisfaction was common during the tenure of OCCC Warden Joyce Arnold, with some staff members describing her management style as “abrasive.”
The family of 43-year-old OCCC secretary Carla J. Meade would likely use harsher words.
Meade was hospitalized on January 15, 2008 for possible heart problems and diabetes-related complications. Hospital records suggest that she was in “some distress” and had not taken prescribed medications because she could not afford them.
After Meade entered the hospital, Warden Arnold transferred her to a less favorable job position for disciplinary reasons. Arnold ordered former OCCC Assistant Warden Jeff Little to notify Meade of the transfer while she was hospitalized.
Little later testified that he protested, arguing that it “should wait until she got out of the hospital.” Warden Arnold, however, “was adamant that it had to be done that day,” claimed Little. He admitted that when he delivered the letter to Meade she wept and asked why she was being demoted.
Meade was “found to have a very bad anxiety problem during her hospital stay,” according to medical records. “Also she got a letter from her job that she had a demotion because of continuous illness over the last few months, so the patient seems to be very emotionally upset and anxious.”
When Meade was discharged from the hospital three days later, she was “not much better.” She then attended a January 22, 2008 meeting with Arnold concerning her demotion. At what was most definitely the end of the meeting, Meade announced that she was quitting, threw her CCA identification card and keys on Arnold’s desk, pulled out a .22 caliber pistol and shot herself in the chest, dying almost immediately.
It was later discovered that she had sent herself an e-mail reminder for January 22, 2008, which stated, “Carla is dead. Carla is dead.”
State investigators found that the incident was a “critical breach of security.” Yet they had no explanation for how Meade managed to smuggle a loaded handgun into the prison.
Meade’s family sued Arnold and CCA, alleging they had caused her suicide through “outrageous” conduct, including demoting her due to her medical problems.
The suit was dismissed in July 2009 because the court found that informing Meade of her demotion while she was hospitalized “was inconsiderate at best.” While that action “perhaps shows a lack of concern by Arnold for Ms. Meade’s emotions,” and “was perhaps reckless, wanton or negligent,” the district court concluded that it did not establish that CCA or Arnold had a “deliberate intention” to harm Meade. See: Meade v. Arnold, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Ky.), Case No. 7:08-cv-00084-ART-EBA.
Arnold, who was later transferred to CCA’s Gadsden Correctional Facility in Florida, claimed that she “had a supportive and encouraging relationship with Carla Meade.” CCA spokesman Steve Owen called Meade’s death a “tragedy” but declined to comment further.
Rampant Staff Sexual Abuse Forces States to Act
In April 2006, OCCC guard Eldon Tackett was charged with sexual abuse for giving food and candy to a prisoner in exchange for oral sex. Another report of sexual abuse in October 2007, involving a Hawaiian prisoner, resulted in a CCA employee’s termination and arrest for a misdemeanor sex offense. However, those were far from isolated incidents. There were four reports of staff sexual abuse at OCCC in 2007, and in July 2009 KDOC and Hawaiian officials investigated allegations that CCA employees had sexually abused 19 female prisoners.
The following month, nine Kentucky state representatives called for Governor Steve Beshear to terminate the state’s contract with CCA due to pervasive sexual abuse of prisoners at OCCC. Beshear declined, and spokesman Jay Blanton claimed the state had nowhere to move the 425 female prisoners then housed at the CCA facility.
A September 2009 investigative report by the KDOC revealed that CCA officials had failed to report 11 incidents involving possible sexual misconduct to state officials. In four of those incidents there was “sufficient evidence to warrant a PREA [Prison Rape Elimination Act] investigation...,” and the accused CCA staff members in those cases were terminated. Criminal charges were brought against at least six OCCC employees, including the facility’s chaplain. Hawaii declined to renew its contract with CCA and all 165 Hawaiian prisoners remaining at OCCC were removed as of the end of September 2009. [See: PLN, Oct. 2009, p.40].
To their credit, KDOC officials denied CCA a 2009 rate increase request due to the allegations of sexual abuse by guards, prisoner fights, improper reporting of prisoner deaths, substandard hygiene and other problems. OCCC “has not performed to a level that warrants a rate increase,” KDOC Commissioner LaDonna H. Thompson wrote in a letter to CCA.
When additional details about the sexual abuse allegations at OCCC surfaced in January 2010, Governor Beshear announced that KDOC would transfer its female prisoners to the state-run Western Kentucky Correctional Complex. In return, nearly 700 male KDOC prisoners would be moved to OCCC. The last female prisoners left the CCA-run facility in June 2010.
A number of lawsuits were filed against CCA in the wake of the sex abuse scandal, including a complaint filed in U.S. District Court on January 5, 2011 by Funda Hammonds, a German citizen who was held at OCCC. Hammonds claimed that she was sexually assaulted by Dwight Crowell, an internal affairs officer at the CCA prison, and that she engaged in sex acts in exchange for being allowed to call her mother, who was sick. Crowell allegedly threatened to hurt her chances at parole and have her deported if she reported the abuse. See: Hammonds v. CCA, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Ky.), Case No. 3:11-cv-00008-JGH.
At least four other lawsuits were filed by OCCC prisoners alleging sexual abuse by CCA staff. In one of those cases, CCA filed a motion to dismiss because the plaintiff, Alisha Brewer, who said she was threatened and raped by CCA guard Kevin Younce, did not file an institutional grievance concerning the abuse and thus did not exhaust her administrative remedies under the Prison Litigation Reform Act. See: Brewer v. CCA, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Ky.), Case No. 7:09-cv-00089-KKC.
Lax Oversight and Enforcement Efforts
Kentucky law requires a full-time state employee to monitor conditions at private prisons that house state prisoners. Experts in corrections policy and management explain that full-time, on-site monitors are necessary to quickly identify serious violations so state officials can take remedial action.
“That’s what they’re there for, to uncover the stuff that’s really bad,” said Gerald Gaes, a former research director for the federal Bureau of Prisons.
Since 2005, however, the presence of state monitors at OCCC has been sporadic at best. As a result the monitors failed to respond to egregious violations. For example, of the 19 prisoner claims of sexual abuse at OCCC investigated by Kentucky and Hawaiian officials, only a single incident was cited by monitors.
In 2008, OCCC had no monitor for nearly three months after the assigned monitor was placed on administrative leave for five weeks and then suspended for another six weeks due to unspecified misconduct.
In May 2009, the assigned monitor was fired during her probationary period for work performance issues, including failing to file a report in April. She was not replaced for nearly three months. At other times, gaps in monitoring ranged from four to ten weeks.
Even when monitors were present at the facility, chronically unacceptable conditions were frequently ignored; staff complaints were ignored, too. “Neither prison officials nor the Kentucky Department of Corrections ever showed an interest in talking to mental health” staff, said Dr. Hovee, who often did not know who the monitor was at OCCC.
The state monitors are authorized to enforce contractual compliance by imposing monetary sanctions if they find violations, such as substandard medical care. Yet other than the single $5,000 fine imposed on CCA for failing to timely report the death of Beverly Murphy, no monetary sanctions were levied for other violations at OCCC.
In contrast, in June 2010 the Idaho Department of Correction fined CCA more than $68,200 for violating a contractual obligation that the company employ qualified drug and alcohol counselors at the state-owned, CCA-run Idaho Correctional Center.
“If they don’t enforce the requirement, what’s the point?” asked Michele Deitch, an attorney who teaches criminal and juvenile justice policy at the University of Texas.
KDOC Commissioner LaDonna Thompson, however, claimed the problems at OCCC “had not reached a level that we felt like it should result in a fine.” If inadequate medical care resulting in a prisoner’s death, pervasive sexual abuse by staff and “a critical breach of security” do not warrant a fine, one must wonder what does.
Given “all the things that have happened” at OCCC, University of Kentucky law professor Robert Lawson said the KDOC had failed to provide adequate oversight. “Will [state officials] take the actions they need to do?” he asked. “I’m not sure that they will.”
Lawson is not alone in his beliefs. “I would say they weren’t doing their job,” stated Kentucky state Representative Brent Yonts, who is a member of the House committee that oversees the state’s corrections budget.
“We went back and reviewed the entire situation, and we did see some gaps,” Thompson admitted. The state is “trying to work with [CCA] to try to get [problems] resolved,” she said.
Thompson and Justice & Public Safety Cabinet Secretary J. Michael Brown described the state’s relationship with CCA as a “partnership” that requires collaboration and persuasion. Others disagree, suggesting that part of the problem stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the relationship between the private prison company and the KDOC. “It’s not a marriage,” noted Rep. Yonts. “We’re in a supervisory role, not a partnership.”
Few Alternatives, or Cost-Savings, Exist
Kentucky has a prison population of approximately 20,200 prisoners, which has been growing steadily despite a slight decrease in 2009, and the KDOC’s annual budget is nearing $500 million. Most of the state’s prisons and jails are operating at or above capacity.
Proposed sentencing reform measures have in the past been given little consideration because lawmakers fear appearing “soft on crime.” That changed in August 2010, when the state formed a Task Force on the Penal Code and Controlled Substances Act to study sentencing reform. And on March 3, 2011, Governor Beshear signed into law a bill that will channel more nonviolent drug offenders into treatment programs, which is expected to reduce the prison population.
Until that occurs, though, KDOC officials “do not have very many really good options” for removing state prisoners from OCCC, said Brown. Yet even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Brown declared that “does not at all mean that CCA is going to get in a situation where it abuses its side of the partnership with us.”
Cost is also a factor. The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce claims that on average it is nearly $2,500 less expensive, annually, to house a state prisoner at a CCA prison than in one of Kentucky’s 13 public prisons. That comparison does not involve an apples-to-apples look at the actual costs of private versus public prisons, however, such as the fact that private prisons tend to house lower security prisoners without serious medical problems, who are less expensive to incarcerate.
Indeed, a recent Kentucky Legislative Research Commission (LRC) report echoed a vast body of research that questions private prison cost savings. The LRC found it was not possible to accurately compare private and public prisons. It is “very difficult” due to the many factors affecting prison cost, agreed KDOC spokeswoman Lisa Lamb, who admitted that “private prisons are not less expensive than all of our institutions” despite a state law that requires a 10 percent savings at privately-run prisons.
“The evidence on potential cost savings is too weak and too questionable to warrant so radical and risky an experiment,” concluded a 1988 study for the Economic Policy Institute prepared by John Donahue of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. In a 2010 e-mail, Donahue said his views have not changed in the 22 years since that research was first published. At least 10 studies since the mid-1990s – including several by the Bureau of Prisons – have echoed Donahue’s findings.
CCA cites a 2008 Vanderbilt University study that supports the company’s claims that privately-operated facilities, when operated in conjunction with public prisons, result in cost savings. Then again, CCA partially funded that study.
Gaes suggests that estimated cost savings “are typically exaggerated” by advocates for prison privatization. Rep. Yonts agreed, calling private prisons “bad public policy and bad social policy.” Lamb, however, said the KDOC “does continue to assert that the private prisons are a cost effective option in housing Kentucky’s felon population.”
“I’d like to know what the hell they’d do with them,” Professor Lawson countered. “They can’t break the relationship because they don’t have the facilities to house the inmates they have. I think they’re locked in everywhere they turn, and don’t have any alternative to CCA.”
Which is a problem when your private prison “partner” is plagued by problems such as inadequate medical care, staff sexual abuse and security deficiencies that are compounded by deficient monitoring and oversight by state officials.
Sources: The Courier-Journal, New York Times, www.kentucky.com, www.courierpress.com, Community Alliance on Prisons report on OCCC (August 18, 2009), OCCC Investigative Report memo (KDOC, Sept. 14, 2009)
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Related legal cases
Hammonds v. CCA
|U.S.D.C. (W.D. Ky.), Case No. 3:11-cv-00008-JGH
Meade v. Arnold
|U.S.D.C. (E.D. Ky.), Case No. 7:08-cv-00084-ART-EBA
Ah Mau v. State of Hawaii
|U.S.D.C. (E.D. Ky.), Case No. 7:08-cv-00133-ART