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Week of 5.9.08

Transcript: Prisons for Profit

BRANCACCIO: After a decade of judges handing out tougher and longer sentences, America's prison population is going the same direction as the price of food and gas: that is to say: way up.

What may be even more surprising is that government is increasingly outsourcing prisons—and prisoners—to the private sector. Colorado is at the center of this controversy over incarceration for profit...a practice that is happening all over the country.

Senior correspondent Maria Hinojosa along with producers Maryann Vollers and William Campbell have our report.

HINOJOSA: This is the Crowley Correctional Facility... a non-descript structure sitting in the middle of the Colorado flatlands...just east of Pueblo. From the outside this medium security prison looks like any other... but there is a huge difference here - one that is yet another sign of the outsourcing of government ...because this prison isn't run by the state...it's run by private industry - a billion-dollar company called the Corrections Corporation of America...

GREENE: The notion that a corporation making a profit off this practice is more important to us than public safety or the human rights of prisoners is outrageous.

HINOJOSA: Almost seven percent of America's inmates are now housed in private prisons. It's much more here in Colorado, where almost one in four inmates is in a private facility. Colorado's inmate population has exploded - it's six times larger than it was in 1980 as a result, the state forks over almost 95 million dollars a year in taxpayer money to corporate jailers to house its excess prisoners.

Across the country the numbers have been growing faster than the government can build prisons. In fact the U.S. Now has the largest prisoner population in the world...2.3 million people behind bars...more than Russia...more than China.

As the industry grows, so does a backlash - from critics who argue that these private prisons are not only morally wrong but unsafe for both inmates and the people who are paid to guard them.

COMO: I started in the system as a corrections officer.

HINOJOSA: Donna Como has been here on the front lines of this debate, working for both Colorado state prisons and the Crowley private prison.

COMO: From my personal experience, state facilities had lower assault rates. State facilities had lower incidence of staff turnover. State facilities generally have a better level and a better degree of programming and opportunities for rehabilitation for offenders.

HINOJOSA: Are private prisons more violent? There is no standard reporting system to compare violent incidents in private and public prisons, but several years ago the Justice Department published an astonishing report... there were 49% more staff assaults and 65% more prisoner assaults in private facilities.

Is there a difference in safety between working for a state facility or a private facility?

COMO: When I started brand new in corrections in a state facility, it was a little scary. But after about a month I finally figured it—it didn't—it didn't take me very long to figure out that no matter where I went there was somebody watching. There were always eyes. So you didn't have that huge fear. You always have some fear working in that environment. But I didn't have a huge fear.

HINOJOSA: What's going on for you right now? How come you're getting upset?

COMO: It makes me angry.

HINOJOSA: What does? Tell me.

COMO: Well—in the state facility you—you don't worry about getting hurt. But in a private you better worry. You—you better worry.

HINOJOSA: Como was so worried that she reported serious security lapses at Crowley to her superiors. Then she began to worry about her own safety. One day in 2003 she was sent to remove a dangerous prisoner from his cell, and when she called for back-up nobody came to help, she says, leaving her alone and unprotected for half an hour.

COMO: You know, when I left I sat 28 minutes with no responders with a volatile inmate and a brand new staff member who was scared, so he took off down tier on me.

HINOJOSA: Donna Como quit in 2003 and sued the Corrections Corporation, saying she'd suffered retaliation and sex discrimination after reporting security violations. She later settled. But one night in 2004, a major prisoner riot blazed through Crowley. Some of the overwhelmed guards ran away and outside law enforcement had to put down the uprising. A state report later found that the facility was not fully staffed, and didn't follow fundamental security measures. Inmates were angry over bad food and inappropriate use of force. Low pay contributed to a high staff attrition rate...and in an industry where years on the job can literally teach you how to save lives... newly-hired, inexperienced staff were left to deal with an explosive mix of inmates from three different states.

GREENE: For two or three hours the riot went unaddressed by the normal procedures that prison guards are trained to follow when things get out of hand because of a private company that didn't know how to do its business.

HINOJOSA: Judy Greene is a criminal policy analyst based in New York, and an expert on the private prison industry who has studied the Crowley riot report.

What from your perspective is the significance of the riot in Crowley in 2004?

GREENE: The significance is that this is an industry now a few decades old, the Corrections Corporation of America, the company operating that prison is the oldest and the largest of our private prison companies, and the problems that were identified in the wake of that riot are typical of the private prison industry and happen over and over again.

HINOJOSA: The Corrections Corporation allowed us to take a tour of Crowley to see what changes have been made since the riot.

The new warden, Richard Smelser, used to work for the Colorado Department of Corrections or D.O.C. He says that the privately run Crowley is just like any state facility.

WARDEN SMELSER: You'd find that other than possibly the uniforms, if you went right down the road to the Arkansas Valley prison you'd see the same general practices, same general procedures, same general day to day events.

HINOJOSA: Under contract with the state, those day-to day events must include the same security, food, and educational courses as state prisons.

But Crowley also has some unique programs, like a workshop that supports local habitat for humanity projects and a greyhound rescue program.

WARDEN SMELSER: They're just hungry for affection and the guys here that take care of them have done such as great job with them.

HINOJOSA: What has it meant for you as an inmate to have dog like this?

PRISONER: It gives us something to work for, stay out of trouble, keep the dog as companionship.

HINOJOSA: The company provides all these services to the state at what seems to be bargain prices. Colorado pays the Corrections Corporation about 18 dollars a day less than it costs the state to house an inmate in similar medium security prison.

So how does the Corrections Corporation make a profit? They say they reduce expenses through efficiency and innovation—-and, nationwide, they save millions on labor costs.

HINOJOSA: And this security here.

WARDEN SMELSER: This is our unit control and they are they in every one of our pods. The run all these doors and they keep in contact with our control centers.

This is one of our key positions in all of our units and these folks do such a great job.

HINOJOSA: These things are the doors open?

GOMEZ: Well they are sort of messed up but they are closed.

HINOJOSA: Officer Gomez how long have you been watching over this.

GOMEZ: I've been here for over a year.

HINOJOSA: Officer Gomez, there was a riot at this prison. What would make you decide to come to work in a prison where there was once a riot?

GOMEZ: Well, I've had family that worked—that have worked here. And-they've told me that, you know, it's not what you see on TV.

HINOJOSA:Why did you choose CCA over DOC?

GOMEZ: Um..I think it's a lot easier as far as—the testing. And, you know, we do get our training of course. But I think it's more stricter in—D.O.C. to get in.

HINOJOSA: And—and what about the pay? Is the pay better at D.O.C. than here?

Gomez: Of course, yeah. But—

HINOJOSA: Of course?

GOMEZ: Yeah. But—like I said, I like my job. I—I enjoy coming everyday. And the pay isn't the re—the reason I came.

HINOJOSA: This is a place where you had one of the worse riots ever.

WARDEN SMELSER: Things went wrong and they can be analyzed to death from that point we tried to build on that. We didn't add a lot an awful lot of new things. We just tried to take what we were doing and get better at it.

HINOJOSA: Although Warden Smelser says he owns stock in the Corrections Corporation, he also insists he would never sacrifice safety for the bottom line.

WARDEN SMELSER: You don't cut corners to where it's going to be a safety, security or a health issue. You just don't do that.

MCFADYEN: It's a tough job. It's a professional job. It's public safety at its best. It's the toughest beat in law enforcement, but it should not be made into commerce.

HINOJOSA: Buffie McFadyen knows about prisons. She has twelve of them in the district she represents in the Colorado legislature, ranging from the state penitentiary to the notorious federal supermax.

MCFADYEN: There's a veil of secrecy that comes to prisons cause we don't want to talk about it... and we need to start talking about it...

HINOJOSA: She is also the most outspoken critic of private prisons in the state. We sat down with her during a recess in the house chamber to find out why.

MCFADYEN: For me it's just plain and simple. Phil—philosophically, this is wrong. As long as you put money on bodies in a cell, you pay stockholders for those bodies in a cell, you will—we will never see a reduction in our prison populations in this country. And in Colorado where—where we doubled our prison population in less than ten years, it's despicable.

HINOJOSA: Critics say the whole issue with you, Buffie, is you're just allied to the unions that protect these workers that work in the state facilities?

MCFADYEN: Oh, I—I—I'm arm in arm with the American Federation of Government Employees. We really don't have a big union in the state as far as state employees in the prisons. I'm—I'm locked arm in arm. The irony for me that you—the unions at the federal facilities are almost 70 percent Republican. They're retired military. Their—their—their civilian job is working for the Bureau of Prisons. So they're stuck with a Democrat woman named Buffie, and they probably—a lot of them have never elected a Democrat before.

HINOJOSA: This year the Colorado legislature is grappling with a dilemma. If the prison population continues to expand the state will need another 4,600 prison beds by the year 2011. Unless something is done to reduce the growth rate taxpayers will have to spend 800 million dollars to build more prisons or turn to private contractors.

MCFADYEN: I don't wanna keep filling our prisons. I don't wanna keep building prisons. Because every dollar I have to put into a prison takes away from my infrastructure of my roads, takes away my—from my infrastructure of building new bri—buildings on college campuses, takes away insuring the people of Colorado. And it's the same at the federal level.

HINOJOSA: Colorado's cash crunch has finally forced lawmakers to look at the causes of its prison crisis. Last year the governor convened a Criminal Justice Commission to review sentencing laws and parole policies that contribute to the state's dismal 50 percent recidivism rate.

Meanwhile, private prison companies have their own priorities to pursue: they want to keep their beds filled with paying customers. One way is by shipping prisoners from state to state. In 2006 the policy became a matter of life and death for Glen Hoffman when he and - eventually—479 other Colorado inmates were transferred from the Buena Vista state prison in Colorado to a private prison in Oklahoma owned by the Corrections Corporation.

HOFFMAN: He had been told he wasn't gonna move because he got visits and because he had a job and he hadn't had any problems and he was doing well. And then, all of a sudden they came around and threw a couple of bags into him and said, "Pack up, you're going."

HINOJOSA: Colorado officials told us that prisoners like Hoffman are just the kind of low maintenance, low-cost inmates that private prisons are looking for. Even though Hoffman was serving time for assaulting his girlfriend while high on Meth, he was a well-behaved prisoner, and strong enough to win a prison weight-lifting contest.

HOFFMAN: One of the last times that he lifted at Buena Vista, that—he had been lifting and he said, "Mom, they're just—felt like—I tweaked a muscle or something."

HINOJOSA: The pain was actually early signs of bone cancer and according to Hoffman in this home video from his Denver hospital room, the medical staff at the Corrections Corporation facility in Oklahoma ignored his constant requests for advanced treatment.

HOFFMAN: It was taking me five, ten minutes to get from the bed to the toilet in my cell which is two feet apart...

HINOJOSA: By the time the tumor was discovered it had shattered his femur and he was transferred to a hospital back in Colorado.

HOFFMAN: I am convinced in my heart that this whole CCA tour that he did in Sayre, Oklahoma was a—it ended his life. By the time they finally admitted that he had cancer, or finally allowed him to have an MRI, the cancer had already spread to his lungs. Which—reduced his survival rate from 70 percent to almost zero. He was a strong kid, he fought it. But ultimately, he's gonna lose that battle.

HINOJOSA: Glen Hoffman died a week later. His parents blame the Corrections Corporation for neglecting him, and the State of Colorado for moving their son so far from the help of his family...

HOFFMAN: For us it's not natural to—f—for us to bil—bury our children. I just don't think that's right. And it's—that's not the—the crime that he committed. He didn't commit a crime that he deserves to die for. But that's what he got. That's what he got...

HINOJOSA: Meanwhile, with one in every 100 Americans locked behind bars, the industry continues to thrive: thirty-five states and the District of Columbia now have private prisons. At last count, in 2006, there were 113,000 inmates in private prisons —throw in juvenile facilities and jails and the numbers are even higher.

We wanted to learn more about the private prison industry —- so we signed up for the winter conference of the American Correctional Association in suburban Dallas-Fort Worth.

The non-profit association accredits both public and private prisons - sort of like giving them the good housekeeping seal of approval. But it also promotes the corrections industry, and provides a meeting place for state and federal officials and the companies that want a share of the 55 billion dollars the government spends on corrections each year.

The exhibit hall is part carnival, part trade show for what's openly called the prison-industrial complex.

VENDOR: Shut that door I'm back to a normal operating condition.

VENDOR: You don't have that out of control where you aim for the legs and it hits in the upper torso, head area. The launcher is extremely easy to operate, extremely accurate. Load up the six rounds, pull the trigger, pump movement, you can even do sights on it. You have a less lethal prisoner containment application.

HINOJOSA: But the biggest displays were from the private prison corporations. Cornell, the Geo Group, formerly known as Wackenhut, and the giant of the industry, the Corrections Corporation of America, which runs the fifth largest penal system in the country managing 72,000 inmates in 65 facilities. Business has been good: last quarter, its revenues were up nearly 11 percent and it posted a 35 million dollar profit.

Louise Grant is Director of Communications and marketing for the Corrections Corporation. If a state has no place to put all its prisoners, she's got the solution.

GRANT: The primary benefit to the state system is that they are not having to invest the capital dollars to build their own facility. They're not having to wait three to six years, so they get immediate relief.

HINOJOSA: Grant is also a spokesperson for the company when it comes under fire in the media—which happens so often that there is even a section of the company's website to refute what they call myths - among them, that the corporation sacrifices quality and safety for profits.

GRANT: We have never in the company's 25 year history, lost a contract due to poor performance.

HINOJOSA: But there's another charge that won't go away —that private prison companies lobby for harsher and longer sentencing guidelines that would help to keep prisons filled. In Colorado, Buffie McFadyen says that their lobbyists work behind the scenes to defeat reforms.

MCFADYEN: Say, for example, you have a bill on reducing sentencing in a state legislature like mine—and it's time to look at it, you won't hear the private prison industry or the for-profit industry talking against the bill. But you'll see about four to six lobbyists in the room making sure that bill fails.

HINOJOSA: When people hear you say that you believe that private prisons are in essence interested in—in creating more prisoners, people are gonna say, "I can't believe that. I don't believe that."

MCFADYEN: They have an investment in making sure people fail. They'll argue back, no, they do care. But any company that makes money off a body in a cell, how can their mission be anything else?

GRANT: Absolutely and unequivocally no corrections management provider ever is involved in anything having to do with sentencing legislation. We never have been nor will we ever. That is not the role of the corrections management providers in this country.

HINOJOSA: The Corrections Corporation of America told us that they do not lobby to increase jail time, longer sentences - they do not do this under any circumstance. And you say?

GREENE: Perhaps they have a different definition for the word "lobby," but they have great influence on any legislative measure that would affect their business.

HINOJOSA: Pivate prison companies may even have a hand in writing the laws that keep their cells filled. The private prison industry has participated in a free-market think tank called the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, that writes pro-business laws for state legislators. At least one executive with the Corrections Corporation actually sat on the committee that drafted get-tough-on-crime legislation.

GREENE: ALEC has taken a lot of credit for all the laws that have pushed our prison populations beyond the capacity of our public prisons. And the Corrections Corporation of America, the Wackenhut corporation, now know known as GEO, which is the second largest private prison company in the world, both of these companies have participated in ALEC and have made a lot of money off the results of those laws...

HINOJOSA: And back in Colorado, Buffie McFadyen is gearing up for another battle in the state house. Legislators say the Corrections Corporation has made a threat: unless it gets a five percent increase in payments from the state, it may have to start evicting Colorado inmates.

But people will say what about the Colorado inmates? They're in Colorado.

MCFADYEN: Exactly. Exactly. What about the Colorado inmates? And that's where I say we call their bluff because, you know, I—I say this is being held hostage. They're trying to hold us hostage because they have too much power in this state.

HINOJOSA: And do your colleagues look at you and say, "Buffie, I totally understand"? Or do they say, "Buffie, what the heck are you doing taking on this issue?"

MCFADYEN: I—I'm in my sixth year of the Colorado legislature. I've been—this has been my song for six years. I'm no longer singing it alone because we're at a crisis point in our prison system. And it's—sometimes it takes crisis to, as I say, have Papa come around to Mama's way of thinking.

BRANCACCIO: The next prison market opportunity: companies say it is immigrant detainees. Check out a web exclusive video that examines how undocumented workers, including children, are becoming a new private sector profit center.

And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.