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Private prisons help with overcrowding, but at what cost?

June 24, 2017 at 4:33 PM EDT
The Obama administration last year announced it would phase out privately-run prisons, citing little benefits to public safety and higher rates of assault and violence on the inside. The Trump administration reversed that decision while pointing to potential increases in crime and issues of overcrowding, resurfacing a debate about which strategy is more effective. NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano reports.

By Ivette Feliciano, Zachary Green and Sam Weber

IVETTE FELICIANO: Tucked between oil fields in Central California’s Kern Valley is the Taft Correctional Institution. Craig Apker has been the warden for the past three years.

CRAIG APKER: I simply want to run and be part of the best prison ever.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Taft is a low-security prison that has dorm-style housing, a medical unit, and offers prisoners high school equivalency classes and work-training programs. Warden Apker asked us not to record video for security reasons, but he allowed us to take these photos — later reviewed and cleared by a prison official.

CRAIG APKER: It really comes down to how we operate our institutions. Do we have meaningful programs? Do we have a respectful relationship with the inmates?

IVETTE FELICIANO: On the surface, Taft looks a lot like the more than 100 facilities overseen by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. But this one is operated by a private, for-profit company, Management and Training Corporation, or MTC.

IVETTE FELICIANO: As with all privately-run federal prisons, Taft has two Bureau of Prisons monitors on site to enforce compliance with federal guidelines. Before starting his job with MTC, Apker worked 28 years for the BOP, including 10 as a warden.

CRAIG APKER: I didn’t just change how I view my responsibilities, my belief in what we do here, because I’m in the private sector. I brought with me the same need to try to achieve excellence.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Taft is one of the 11 low-security federal prisons run by MTC or two larger private prison companies, CoreCivic and the GEO Group. Saving money was one reason the government initially turned to private prisons. The Bureau of Prisons says they cost, on average, 17 dollars a day less per prisoner to operate, suggesting those 11 facilities save taxpayers 144 million dollars a year.

A 2016 study by the Brookings Institution found those savings are achieved primarily by hiring fewer correctional officers and paying them less.

Another reason for turning to private prisons was overcrowding. Between 1980 to 2013, with the advent of harsher sentencing laws like mandatory minimums for drug crimes the federal prison population increased eight-fold. A big part of that increase was a massive spike in prosecutions of immigrants accused of coming back to the U-S after deportation, or “illegal re-entry”. The BOP relies on those 11 private prisons, like Taft, to house non-citizen offenders.

At two of those prisons, in Texas and in Mississippi, there were riots in 2009 and 2012 following the deaths of several inmates in custody.

The incidents sparked investigations by Justice Department’s Inspector General, Michael Horowitz.

MICHAEL HOROWITZ: In one of those riots, a correctional officer was killed. Many other inmates and correctional officers were injured. Several of these riots had followed complaints by inmates about correctional staffing, healthcare staffing. Concerns about the provision of food and other services. The BOP had not held the prisons accountable and made sure that they had in fact taken the actions that they needed to take.

IVETTE FELICIANO: The Inspector General’s findings led to a broader four-year investigation that compared federal privately-run prisons to similar government-run facilities. The report revealed that, per capita, privately-run facilities had more contraband smuggled in, more lockdowns and uses of force by correctional officers, more assaults, both by inmates on other inmates and by inmates of correctional officers, more complaints about medical care, staff, food, and conditions of confinement, and two facilities were housing inmates in solitary confinement to free up bed space. The findings also highlighted chronic understaffing as the root of many problems.

MICHAEL HOROWITZ: It goes right to the core of making sure that there are enough correctional officers to watch over the inmates, to make sure that all inmates are maintained in a secure and safe environment, and that correctional officers, very critically, are safe from the inmates.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Horowitz also faulted the BOP itself for failing to hold the companies accountable to their contract requirements…contracts worth more than half-a-billion dollars each year.

IVETTE FELICIANO: So how are these things falling through the cracks?

MICHAEL HOROWITZ: Because there isn’t effective oversight going on. The responsibility primarily falls on the BOP with connection with their contracts. And these are substantial contracts.

IVETTE FELICIANO: The Bureau of Prisons agreed to implement his recommended reforms. But the companies disputed the Inspector General’s findings, telling Newshour Weekend what they told the Justice Department–that the investigation didn’t account for how their largely non-citizen inmate populations are more difficult to manage.

One positive note for private prisons — the Inspector General did find their inmates passed more drug tests and faced fewer accusations of sexual misconduct than inmates in government-run institutions.

Last August, President Obama’s Justice Department decided that all BOP contracts with private companies would be phased out.

CRAIG APKER: I was disappointed. I think the critics tend to view a private corrections companies as being bottom-line driven to the extent that shortcuts–in an effort to save money– lower quality. But I have never been asked to take a shortcut to address any bottom-line concerns here at Taft.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I know that you want safe neighborhoods where the streets belong to families and communities…

IVETTE FELICIANO: This year, the Trump Administration reversed the decision to phase out The Bureau of Prisons private contracts. Stock prices for CoreCivic and the GEO Group, which had plummeted after the Obama directive, have soared since Election Day.

CARL TAKEI: For the private prison industry, of course, the Trump administration is an enormous gift.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Carl Takei heads the American Civil Liberties Union’s prison project.

CARL TAKEI: All of the expansion of immigration detention– the revival of the war on drugs, the increased criminal prosecution of immigrants, and the longer sentences for immigration prosecutions all add up to an enormous boondoggle for the private prison industry.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Immigration and Customs Enforcement already houses more than 70 percent of its detainees in privately-run facilities. And President Trump supports a new mandatory minimum sentence of five years for illegal re-entry.

Takei is concerned the companies have a profit incentive to keep prisoners in the criminal justice system longer.

CARL TAKEI: You could end up in a circumstance where you get arrested, held in a GEO Group jail, serve your sentence in a GEO Group prison, get released to a GEO Group halfway house, and then end up supervised on a GEO Group GPS monitor. And this is extraordinarily dangerous because it allows the private prison companies to manipulate the demand for their own products.

IVETTE FELICIANO: While the federal government incarcerates about 20-thousand individuals in private facilities, state and local governments house more than four times that amount, with over 90-thousand people in private institutions. Texas is among the top states using private prisons, the industry’s contracts here in the state, are worth hundreds millions of dollars every year.

Texas, which, has the nation’s largest prison population, began using private prisons in the 1980s and houses the highest number of state inmates inside them.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Have you been satisfied with what you’ve seen?

MARK JOHNSON: So far everything’s been working good.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Since January, Sheriff Mark Johnson has overseen the 96-bed Fannin County Jail in Bonham, Texas. He says hiring the GEO group to run the jail is saving the county money.

MARK JOHNSON: It is expensive to operate one of these things. Is there money to be made in it? Yeah.

IVETTE FELICIANO: The money the companies make often includes reimbursements from local governments for jail and prison beds that go unused… falling short of occupancy quotas in the contracts.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Would you recommend GEO to a neighboring county that was looking to deal with overcrowding?

MARK JOHNSON: Absolutely. I think it would be a benefit to them. I haven’t seen anybody here that I wouldn’t be happy to have on my team working for me. It would be a huge concern to think that they weren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing. Or that the prisoners weren’t being treated right, being given their basic needs, their everyday needs that are required by law.

IVETTE FELICIANO: A 2008 report by the Texas legislature found that staff at private prisons were generally paid less than their state counterparts and had much higher turnover rates.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Since 2011, with a declining prisoner population, the state has closed three private prisons, and to save money, the legislature has proposed closing three more.


IVETTE FELICIANO: Sheriff Johnson says whether his jail is run by the county or a private company, ultimately, he’s the one responsible for oversight.

MARK JOHNSON: Under law there’s no getting out of it. It says the sheriff is the conservator of the people and shall maintain and operate a jail. And to be responsible for those inmates and that is our responsibility. When something bad happens to one of them the lawsuit is going to have my name right at the top of it.