The Corrections Corporation of America opened its first immigration detention center in a renovated motel in Houston nearly 30 years ago and now leads the nation’s for-profit prison industry, generating billions of dollars in revenue for housing prisoners, most of whom are Black and Hispanic.
The Grassroots Leadership, a multi-racial organization working to end social and economic oppression, exposed the sordid and controversial history of the “nation’s oldest and largest for-profit private prison corporation” in the report titled, “THE DIRTY THIRTY: Nothing to Celebrate About 30 Years of Corrections Corporation of America.” The report chronicled a history of prisoner abuse, escapes, poor labor conditions, and lawsuits.
“Over the last 30 years, CCA has benefited from the dramatic rise in incarceration and detention in the United States,” the report stated. “Since the company’s founding in 1983, the incarcerated population has risen by more than 500 percent to more than 2.2 million people.”
Blacks account for nearly 1 million of the total prison population and are incarcerated at roughly six times the rate of Whites.
According to the Sentencing Project, Black defendants are 21 percent more likely to receive mandatory-minimum sentences than White defendants and 20 percent more likely to be sentenced to prison.
“[The Corrections Corporation of America] is not like most companies, because it incarcerates people for the purpose of generating corporate profits,” said Alex Friedmann, the associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center and president of the Private Corrections Institute.
As Black and Brown incarceration rates soared, over the last three decades, companies such CCA profited from that growth.
“Now a multi-billion dollar corporation, CCA manages more than 65 correctional and detention facilities with a capacity of more than 90,000 beds in 19 states and the District of Columbia,” stated the report. “The company’s revenue in 2012 exceeded more than $1.7 billion.”
Prisoners’ rights advocates say that the company’s startling success is nothing to praise.
“The NAACP believes that there is nothing to celebrate about an industry that has built a fortune on incarcerating people most of whom are people of color,” said Niaz Kasravi, Director of the NAACP Criminal Justice Program. “In contrast to what they claim, private prisons are more costly, less safe, and have long records of mistreatment.”
According to the Grassroots Leadership report, “private prisons save little, if any, taxpayer dollars, and often correlate with high staff turnover rates, lack of programming, and poor quality of care for those incarcerated.”
After CCA purchased Lake Erie Correctional Institution in Ohio for $72.7 million, crime rates spiked in nearby Conneaut, Ohio as visitors to the prison were arrested while attempting to smuggle drugs and alcohol into the prison. The number of prison-related calls almost quadrupled in 2012, compared to the previous five years combined, straining the small towns limited resources.
According to reports, the Ohio state officials withheld nearly $500,000 in payments from the company for a number of the violations, including delayed medical treatment for prisoners, lack of running water and working toilets, and staff mismanagement.
Violence, prisoner abuse and staff mismanagement became recurring themes at many of the facilities run by CCA.
When prisoners sued CCA over poor conditions at the Idaho Correctional Center, researchers found that some guards worked “24, 36, and 48 hours straight without time off, sometimes without appropriate compensation and in direct violation of state laws.”
CCA also settled lawsuits over workers’ compensation at Louisiana’s Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, La. and the San Diego Correctional Facility in California.
“The low wages of most CCA employees certainly do not extend to its top executives,” stated the report. “In 2011, CEO Damon Hininger was paid $3,696,798, while Chairman of the Board John Ferguson received a salary of $1,734,793.”
According to the most recent self-reported industry statistics recorded in 2000, “the average turnover rate was 53% in private prisons, 16% in public prisons.”
Experts say that the practice of cutting benefits and pay to workers to increase corporate profits greatly impairs the sensitive prisoner-corrections officer relationship, often endangering public safety as poorly-trained, overworked, underpaid guards resort to breaking the law to make quick cash.
A guard at a CCA facility in Tulsa, Okla., was caught smuggling methamphetamine into the prison and in Washington, D.C. an FBI sting netted four guards who trafficked in drugs, pagers and cash for prisoners.
“Most of what we see is predictable, but the profit motive is so strong that it prevents them from making any changes. We see the same mistakes repeated over and over again,” said Joshua Miller, labor economist for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the nation’s largest and fastest growing public services employees union with more than 1.6 million working and retired members.
Grassroots Leadership reported that: “In 2006 at CCA’s Citrus County Jail in Florida, four prisoners filed suit against CCA, alleging that officers had urinated and placed fecal matter in their food and drinks on multiple occasions. CCA admitted that urine had been mixed into juice served to people incarcerated at the jail and two CCA guards, Kevin Hessler and Alexander Diaz, and a supervisor, Charles Mulligan, were fired in connection with the allegations.”
The American Correctional Association, the organization that accredits private prisons in the United States for pay often amounts to little more than a rubber stamp, according to industry watchers. Critics of the prison-industrial complex ask: Who regulates the regulators?
“The company’s cozy ties with the ACA go back to 1984, when CCA founder T. Don Hutto was the president of the ACA,” stated the report. “There is no regulation of the ACA beyond its own employees, who include immediate past president Daron Hall (a former CCA program director), and at least one CCA employee, Todd Thomas, who serves as an ACA auditor.”
According to the report, “ACA-accredited CCA facilities include the notorious Idaho Correctional Center or ‘Gladiator School,’ Kentucky’s Otter Creek Correctional Center, where six CCA employees were charged with sexually abusing or raping prisoners, and Arizona’s Saguaro Correctional Center, in which two prisoners were murdered in 2010,” stated the report.
“All government agencies have the ability to hold these private contractors to the fire, to honor the terms of their contract, to impose fines and stricter monitoring, and to withhold payments for breach of contracts,” said Miller. In the real world, that rarely happens.
Seeking to guarantee future growth in prison populations and company profits, Corrections Corporation of America is also actively pursuing partnerships with public school systems, effectively investing in the school to prison pipeline.
“Despite not being a law enforcement agency or staffed with certified peace officers, CCA employees assisted local enforcement agencies in conducting school drug raids at Arizona’s Vista Grande High School,” stated the report.
CCA joined the American Legislative and Exchange Council’s (ALEC) model to promote legislation “to increase drug law enforcement presence on public school campuses and tougher sentencing for drug offenses in drug-free school zones.”
Opponents of the for-profit private prison model, say that public education is the key to holding companies like CCA accountable for their shoddy business practices that depress worker wages, endanger public safety, abuse prisoners and, in some cases, even cost lives.
“This is a company that reinvests millions of dollars in lobbying and campaign contributions to ensure that its interests are met,” said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership. “It’s a very troubling trend in criminal justice and immigration and it’s difficult for us to move forward on a path where we are able to reduce the prison population and make smart public policy choices when you have a corporation that has that kind of political power involved in the game.”
Alex Friedmann, the associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center and president of the Private Corrections Institute, said that the private prison industry is just one small step removed from slavery.
“These are people’s mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers,” said Friedmann. “If people in the United States gave just a little bit of thought to that, they would see what an enormous conflict of interest and enormous moral and ethical questions are raised by a business model of incarcerating people for profit.”