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Mississippi Private Prisons Have High Prisoner Assault Rates

Mississippi Private Prisons Have High Prisoner Assault Rates

by Matt Clarke

A report on the number of prisoners assaulted in Mississippi prisons shows that the assault rates in private prisons average two to three times the rate of assaults in state-run prisons. One extreme example, the Walnut Grove Correctional Facility (WCGF), had a prisoner assault rate of 27 per 100 prisoners while the highest prisoner assault rate in a state-run prison was 7 per 100. The GEO Group ran WGCF and two other Mississippi prisons until it left the state in 2012. Management and Training Corporation (MTC), which currently runs WGCF and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) continue to operate private prisons in Mississippi.

"On its face, that's a huge disparity [between violence rates at private prisons and state prisons]. If inmates in private prisons are not as safe as those in the state [prisons], something needs to be done about it," said prisoners’ rights attorney Ron Welch.

"The PEER (Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review) committee should investigate and come up with recommendations as to whether the [private prison] contracts need to be changed, whether there are performance requirements that ought to be included."

The use of private prisons in Mississippi took off after the legislature passed a 1996 statute requiring prisoners to serve at least 85% of their sentences. State law also requires that private prisons contract their services for 10% less than it costs the state to house prisoners. The increase in prisoners brought on by the 1996 law placed emphasis on budgets and cost-cutting measures, making the discounted private prisons more desirable.

"That’s really when private prisons started booming, especially in Mississippi, because we were poor, like we are now," said Mississippi Department of Corrections commissioner Christopher Epps who oversees the department’s $340 million annual budget. "It sounded good that you could go out and contract to build a prison and get somebody to operate at 10 percent cheaper than we can."

The state spends $49.76 per prisoner per day on average while WGCF contracts with the state for $37.68 per prisoner per day. But those savings have to come from someplace and the places private prison companies typically skimp on are staffing, staff training and prisoner programs. Thus, private prisons often run understaffed, pay staff less, have a high guard turnover rate, fire employees more quickly, and offer fewer prisoner vocational training programs compared to state-run prisons. The low pay and severe understaffing result in corruption and unsafe conditions for guards and prisoners in the private prisons.

"I’ve had two [guards] arrested in the last two days," said WGCF deputy warden Patricia Doty, who complains of problems keeping staff; noting that half the guards who started in January 2013 were gone by mid-April.

In December 2011, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) filed a complaint against the East Mississippi Correctional Facility citing employee exposure to violence due to lack of staff and inadequate training after a prisoner stabbed a guard in the face earlier that year. OSHA fined the prison's operator, GEO Group, $100,000.

Patrick Perry, a former guard at the CCA-run Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility, remembered trying to call in a report of a riot to supervisors but not being able to because his calls wouldn’t go through. He described unsafe conditions at the prison due to understaffing and poor training.

"We were supposed to have a five-week [training] class, and we were barely in class three weeks when they put us on the floor," said Perry. "We never went back to finish our training because they were always short [staffed]. Every day it's at least 40 or 50 officers short, and people are frustrated because they got to do the job of three or four officers."

In April 2013, a disturbance at the CCA-operated 1000-bed Wilkinson County Correctional Facility resulted in one prisoner being killed, nine prisoners being transported off-site for medical treatment and other injured prisoners being treated at the prison. Medical transport helicopters landed at the prison at least five times. In May 2012, a disturbance at a CCA-run prison in Adams County resulted in the death of one guard and injuries to several other employees.

"The state has done a better job of keeping violence lower than private prisons can...[W]hatever discount private prisons offer, they do so at the jeopardy of the inmates in their care," said Jody Owens, managing staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center.


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