In September 2010, the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee calculated that over a four-year period, former Governor Bill Richardson (D) failed to collect $18.6 million in penalties from private prison companies that breached their contracts with the state by allowing their for-profit facilities to remain understaffed by 10% or more for at least thirty consecutive days. [See: PLN, March 2011, p.42].
Not much changed throughout 2010 and the first three months of 2011 despite New Mexico having a new governor, Susana Martinez (R), who appointed a new corrections secretary, Lupe Martinez (no relation). Martinez later resigned after her live-in boyfriend shot a snake on corrections property and was accused of tampering with evidence.
Records reveal that the state’s four private prisons had high understaffing rates for most of the period between January 2010 and March 2011. The worst offender was the GEO Group-operated Lea County Correctional Facility in Hobbs, which was above the 10% understaffing threshold for the entire 14 months and had an employee vacancy rate of around 20% for 12 of the 14 months. For seven months, from September 2010 through March 2011, the average vacancy rate was 25.24%.
The Guadalupe County Correctional Facility in Santa Rosa, also operated by GEO, reported an employee vacancy rate as high as 16.93% in July 2010 but was under the 10% threshold during five of the last seven months in the time period examined. The Northeast New Mexico Correctional Facility in Clayton, another GEO prison, had a similar vacancy history. The facility was over the 10% threshold for six months between January and August 2010 (with no information available for July 2010), but improved in later months.
The New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility in Grants, operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), exceeded the 10% threshold four times between January and July 2010, maxing out with an employee vacancy rate of 16.47% in July 2010.
Information for August 2010 through March 2011 was not available.
The problem with understaffing is that it creates a dangerous situation both for prisoners and the remaining short-handed staff. One reason to suspect that private prison companies may be intentionally understaffing is because fewer employees means less payroll, which increases the company’s profits.
New Mexico’s contracts with GEO and CCA include penalty provisions for habitual understaffing; however, an unused penalty is largely useless and the state has largely failed to enforce those contractual provisions.
“We’d like to follow up and perhaps do a performance group review on the private prison operators to see whether they are making excessive profits,” said state Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, who is on the Legislative Finance Committee. Varela noted that he is not opposed to the companies making a reasonable return, but is suspicious of the continuously high employee vacancy rates at the private prisons.
Corrections Department spokesman Shannon McReynolds said there was a question regarding whether the private prisons were in fact understaffed, because the companies may have used overtime to make up for the vacant staff positions. If so, the department “cannot in good faith consider that position to be vacant.”
However, the state doesn’t know whether CCA and GEO are using overtime to cover vacancies, and to find out would require a painstaking review of shift rosters at each privately-operated facility.
“That will take a decision from the administration,” said McReynolds. “We do not have specifics on overtime. Every once in awhile we hear a particular facility has spent a lot on overtime.”
In 2010, the Corrections Department was unable to definitively determine how often CCA and GEO Group had violated the employee vacancy contract provisions due to sporadic record-keeping at the private prisons. Thus, the state was unable to verify the Legislative Finance Committee’s estimate regarding the value of the uncollected penalties.
Governor Richardson’s administration declined to pursue the matter. While Governor Martinez is not holding GEO and CCA completely accountable, at least some fines have been imposed under the new administration. The state fined GEO Group $1.1 million in November 2011 due to understaffing, plus the company agreed to spend an additional $200,000 in 2012 on staff recruitment efforts.
Notably, New Mexico’s corrections secretary under Governor Richardson, Joe Williams, was employed by Wackenhut Corrections (now GEO Group) before he was appointed secretary. After leaving office he then returned to work for GEO.
“Because the private prisons [were] operating safely and securely, I have chosen to exercise my executive power, as have all secretaries before me, not to penalize the private prisons for staff vacancies caused by factors largely beyond their or anyone else’s control,” Williams stated. He had asked his former colleagues at GEO to send him data that he could use to justify his decision not to impose fines on the company.
This well illustrates the revolving door between public officials and the private sector, and why it is difficult to hold private prison companies accountable. “The people who go back and forth come out really well, but the taxpayers are the ones who aren’t well-served,” noted state Senator Cisco McSorley.
Sources: Santa Fe New Mexican, Albuquerque Tribune, www.capitolreportnewmexico.com
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