Incarcerated Women in California Pen Open Letter Against GEO Group’s New Private Prison

In April, The Bakersfield Californian reported that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) signed a contract with private prison company GEO Group to re-open and operate a women’s facility in Mcfarland, California.

GEO Group will own and operate the 260-bed facility and is expected to make around $9 million per year at full occupancy. Unfortunately, due to the lack of public access to private prison contracts, most of the details are unknown.

This week, a group of ten female prisoners from the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) and the California Institution for Women (CIW) have written an open letter calling on “California state legislators to direct CDCR to cancel the contract with GEO and implement existing release programs instead of opening a new prison!”

The women write that they are being “shuffled around without regard for our well-being or our human rights” due to overcrowding. They note that CCWF’s facility is currently operating at 185% capacity, and as a result, prisoners’ access to critical services such as food and healthcare have declined.

They are concerned, however, that this move by the state will not positively impact its mass incarceration problem, and women transferred to GEO Group’s new facility might not see their treatment improve.

GEO GROUP’S RECORD

The letter points to a few instances of abuse and human rights violations at GEO Group facilities, including the 2012 mandated closure of their youth detention center in Walnut Grove, Mississippi. It was there that a judge accused GEO Group of allowing “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions to germinate, the sum of which places the offenders at substantial ongoing risk.”

The letter also mentions another big part of GEO Group’s work: incarcerating immigrants on behalf of the federal government. At a private immigrant facility in Tacoma, Washington, inmates went on hunger strike “to protest the grossly inadequate medical care, exorbitant commissary prices and low or NO pay for work within the center. ”

But GEO’s rap sheet is actually much longer than this, and provides a deeply troubling glimpses into life for female prisoners at their institutions. From PR Watch:

GEO Settles Suit with Family of a Woman who Committed Suicide after Reporting Rape – A woman committed suicide at GEO Group-Operated Val Verde County jail in Texas. Shortly before her death, the woman reported that she had been raped and assaulted by male inmates who were housed in the same cell block. She also reported being sexually humiliated by a GEO guard after reporting to the warden that guards allowed male and female inmates to have sex. The woman’s family sued The GEO Group and several of its guards (PDF). In March 2007, the company reportedly settled with the family for $200,000.

And also:

State of Texas Fines Company $625,000 and Terminates $12 Million Contract for Mismanagement of Jail; 12 Employees Charged with Sexual Assault – In 1999, the AP reported that the state of Texas terminated GEO Group’s (then known as Wackenhut) $12 million a year contract to run a jail in Travis County due to mismanagement that eventually led to eleven guards and one case manager being charged with sexually assaulting female inmates. Over a period of two years, the state levied $625,000 in penalties due to chronic staffing shortages at the facility. A state audit showed that the jail barely kept the minimum number of guards required in the contract.

Under GEO’s watch, other private service companies have abused prisoners as well. A doctor from Corizon Health, Inc., a private contractor that “provides medical care and pharmacy services,” was the subject of a lawsuit alleging he sexually abused nearly 20 prisoners at two GEO facilities in New Mexico.

Like other private prison companies, as GEO fills its beds, it makes more money with which it can lobby elected officials for favorable laws and to secure more contracts. Successive California governors have taken thousands from private prison corporations. Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) gave $100,000 to Gov. Schwarzenegger’s PAC in 2009/10. This year — the same year CDCR announced this deal with GEO Group — Gov. Brown’s reelection campaign took $54,400 from the private prison contractor.

Their lobbying operation, however, is much bigger than giving money to a couple of Golden State governors. The women acknowledge in their letter that “GEO Group has spent $7.6 million on lobbying and campaign contributions in the U.S. in the last decade,” and has even partnered with ALEC to draft a bill to profile immigrants in Arizona. As they note, “These legal changes resulted in significant profits for GEO.”

A NIGHTMARE FOR WOMEN

Violence, sexual assault and a lack of medical and mental health care are just a few of the issues women must endure behind bars at for-profit institutions. Medical staff have been found to be poorly trained and under-employed, sometimes dishing out wrong or different prescriptions to inmates.

The personnel problems (poor training, failure to conduct background checks, etc) contribute significantly to the abusive atmosphere at these prisons. Undertrained guards and an absurdly zero-tolerance rule system also conspire to quickly land prisoners in prolonged solitary confinement, sometimes for relatively benign infractions.

Older incarcerated women (who require more medical care, constitute a lower threat to public safety and cost more to imprison) are particularly vulnerable in these situations.

Take, for example, the case for 73 year old prisoner Carol Lester, who was put in solitary for 34 days at a CCA prison in New Mexico as her health seriously declined. Lester was put in solitary for starting a letter writing campaign after she was given the wrong medication and ultimately denied medical care for her thyroid cancer.

The denial of medical care can be especially threatening to pregnant prisoners, who make up 2/3 of the female prison population. At some private facilities, those women are herded like cattle and forced to give birth in chains. In one case at a CCA prison in Dallas, a four-day-old child died after her mother gave birth to her in a toilet because officials at the private prison refused her medical care.

Finally, it must be noted that the majority of incarcerated women are victims of violence (domestic, sexual, or otherwise), often serving mandatory minimum sentences for defending themselves against their attackers, like the case of Marissa Alexander. Their incarceration represents a perpetuation of that violence on both sides of the prison walls.

CALIFORNIA IS ADDICTED TO PRISONS

What makes this call to action all the more important is that it’s coming from California, which not only has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation, but has one of the highest incarceration rates for women. According to the Women’s Prison Association, the number of women in prison has surged 800% in the past 30 years.

Private prisons are indeed a big problem for California, but the public system does not offer women much respite from administrative violence, either. For over two decades, CDCR was found to have sterilized hundreds of female inmates without state approval. Some of the women who fell victim to CDCR’s unauthorized sterilization campaign came from CIW, where a few of the women who wrote the open letter are being incarcerated.

California’s prison addiction is out of control, and it’s truly shameful that few politicians (particularly those with national ambitions) are willing to risk the label of being another Michael Dukakis in order to do what’s right for their people. This is how we get to a place where Governor Brown appears to be willing to do anything to avoid court-ordered decarceration, including increasing the state’s patronage of private prison corporations while taking money from the industry at the same time for his reelection.

Governor Brown claims that focusing on sentence reduction and speeding up the release and re-entry of prisoners could put communities at risk. This claim has no basis in reality, but for the sake of argument, hasn’t mass incarceration put these communities through enough already? Didn’t decades of tough-on-crime policies steal away thousands of mothers, daughters, fathers and sons from their communities, contributing to an endless cycle of abject conditions that landed even more people in those prisons? Does the mistrust in law and order and simmering resentment promulgated by these policies not put communities at risk as well? Are we not to blame the New Jim Crow for continuing this social isolation after prisoners have been released, denying them job and housing opportunities?

And are we to forget that these are indeed human beings in California’s prisons, who are forced to toil away in subhuman conditions while the governor kicks the can further down the road?

The women behind the open letter know that a new private prison for women is just about the furthest thing from what the state needs to be doing right now to address its addiction to mass incarceration. They write, “It is shameful that CDCR is about to open a for-profit “boutique prison” that does nothing positive to solve the disproportionate overcrowding in the women’s prisons at this time. […] Instead use this $9 million to fully implement existing release programs immediately and fund community-based not-for-profit reentry programs.”

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