DOJ Audit Rips Privately-operated Federal Facility; Trump Administration Presses Forward
by Derek Gilna
In December 2016, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), a watchdog agency within the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), issued an audit of the federal Bureau of Prisons’ contract with private prisoner company CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America, to operate the Adams County Correctional Center.
That 2,232-bed facility, located in Natchez, Mississippi, gained notoriety in May 2012 following a major riot that left one prison employee dead. [See: PLN, June 2014, p.48]. A post-riot report recommended changes, which the OIG’s 2016 audit found still hadn’t been completed. Further, according to the audit, CoreCivic had not been held accountable by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The Inspector General wrote it was “deeply concerned” that the Adams facility remained “plagued by the same significant deficiencies” that had sparked the deadly riot.
The audit directly echoed the findings of a multi-part investigation released earlier this year by The Nation, in partnership with the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute, which uncovered serious problems at the Adams facility and 10 other privately-operated federal prisons used to incarcerate non-citizens convicted of crimes. The investigation found that CoreCivic had failed for years to correct inadequacies in the provision of medical care, and prisoners had died as a result.
Prison Legal News has published numerous articles exposing the deficiencies essentially built into the for-profit prison industry’s business model, including chronic understaffing, inadequate training of correctional employees, substandard health care, and dangerous conditions for both prisoners and staff. [See, e.g.: PLN, Jan. 2012, p.20].
Federal monitoring reports obtained by The Nation through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit revealed that BOP monitors had documented 34 prisoner deaths following shoddy care at privately-run federal prisons between January 2007 and June 2015. Fourteen of those deaths occurred in facilities managed by CoreCivic, including at least seven at the Adams County Correctional Center.
The Adams facility first came under scrutiny by federal investigators after the 2012 riot left guard Catlin Carithers dead and 20 other employees and prisoners with injuries. The after-action report for the riot determined that it was a consequence of what prisoners perceived to be “inadequate medical care, substandard food, and disrespectful staff members.”
The OIG’s December 2016 audit found little had changed in the four years since the riot. Nonetheless, the BOP had continued to renew its contract with CoreCivic, extending it to July 2017 and increasing the total contract value to approximately $468 million. The company is still operating the facility following another contract renewal.
The audit noted that CoreCivic continued to have difficulty hiring and retaining Spanish-speaking employees for the prison’s largely Hispanic population, while it also continued to suffer high staff turnover – in part due to a salary structure lower than that at comparable federal facilities.
In addition, the OIG said CoreCivic had failed to adequately report the status of five critical health service positions, including two dentists, two physicians and one advanced registered nurse practitioner at the Adams prison.
Even more troubling was the lack of adequate oversight of the facility by federal prison officials, with OIG investigators stating they found “several aspects of the BOP’s control and oversight of the contract performance to be inadequate,” noting the BOP “did not implement appropriate performance standards to measure and evaluate CoreCivic’s performance.”
The audit made recommendations for improvements, similar to the suggestions that the BOP allowed CoreCivic to ignore following the after-action riot report issued four years earlier.
In August 2016, the DOJ had released a memo directing the BOP to begin ending its use of for-profit prisons. The memo followed a contemporaneous OIG report that described a litany of problems at privately-managed federal prisons, including violence between prisoners and staff, poor security and misuse of solitary confinement. The report concluded private prisons were less safe and no less costly than those operated by the BOP. [See: PLN, Oct. 2016, p.22].
The DOJ ordered the federal private prison population to shrink from 22,000 to roughly 14,000 prisoners by May 2017, and in five years the total private federal prison population was to reach zero.
However, on February 21, 2017, the U.S. Attorney General for the Trump administration, Jeff Sessions, rescinded the memo phasing out for-profit facilities. [See: PLN, April 2017, p.30].
Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, a Texas-based civil rights organization that opposes the private prison industry, called Sessions’ announcement “a significant step backwards for criminal justice reform and a sign that the administration wants to cozy up to the private prison industry, which gave it a lot of money in terms of campaign contributions.”
“This is a sign that under President Trump and Attorney General Sessions, America may be headed for a new federal prison boom,” added Carl Takei, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Prison Project.
Trump spoke favorably of private prisons while on the campaign trail, and private prison companies donated generously to one of his affiliated political action committees and his inauguration. Further, Sessions has long touted himself as a criminal justice hard-liner throughout his career, and he apparently intends to continue along that tough-on-crime path as Attorney General.
Sources: www.oig.justice.gov, The Nation, Forbes, www.shadowproof.com, www.news.vice.com, “Audit of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Contract with CoreCivic, Inc. to Operate the Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, Mississippi,” by OIG, Audit Division 17-08 (Dec. 2016)