CCA Go Away by Florida Immigrant Coalition on Flickr

Bureau of Prisons and CCA Remain Silent on Evaluation After Canceling Youngstown Prison Contract

The Federal Bureau of Prisons has finally told officials at Corrections Corp. of America why they cancelled their contract at the private prison in Youngstown, Ohio. According to Youngstown Mayor John McNally, “CCA has learned that a Florida based company scored higher on a list of criteria and was awarded the next contract.”

CCA and the BOP have not disclosed any details on the evaluation upon which that decision was reportedly made, angering people on both sides of the issue.

The ‘Florida based company’ Mayor McNally is referring to would be GEO Group, CCA’s main competitor and another legendary purveyor of violence and abuse at various private prisons around the country. And Mayor McNally really should have said ‘contracts,‘ because GEO Group actually inked two contracts with the BOP to take most of the prisoners leaving NEOCC — one of which entails re-opening a prison that had been vacant since 2010.

CCA is not lying when it says it won’t share the evaluation out of “competitive reasons and a ‘long-standing relationship’ with the government.” Those competitive reasons are that if the public finds out about the abysmal conditions CCA harbored at NEOCC for so many years on the taxpayer’s dime, they open themselves up to a backlash that could put an end to their ‘long-standing [and very lucrative] relationship’ with the government, and rightfully so.

But this kind of behavior is to be expected from a multi-billion dollar corporation like CCA. Their massive profits depend on an absence of transparency, even if it means alienating employees and supporters, who are, by the way, quite angry at the moment. The Vindicator, which has been a vociferous advocate for CCA over the past few months, reacted by writing in an OpEd, “We believe that most of the people of this region have no qualms about supporting the private prison operator, but they aren’t prepared to do so blindly.”

Of course, what is far more disconcerting is the federal government’s apparent decision to favor its contracts and relationships with private prison companies over transparency and its duty to serve the public. I can see absolutely no reason why the BOP would not make this information public, other than to cover-up their complicity in allowing federal prisoners to be incarcerated in conditions so horrific they cannot be known.

If prison privatization really is the great “cost-saving” and “efficiency” solution that free market capitalists love to tell us about, why not release the evaluation and let the public — the free market — decide whether such contracts and corporations are worth our money? What do the BOP and CCA have to hide?

How much will Rikers reform help mentally ill prisoners?

Rikers Island Reform: the Good, the Bad and the Omitted

After a summer and fall wracked with reports of violence, corruption and abuse on Rikers Island, it seems like change, in some form, is finally on its way. Growing protests over law enforcement brutality and the advent of prosecutions, federal lawsuits, committee reports and policy changes now conspire to face down many of the NYC Dept. of Corrections’ worst demons.

Some of the possible reforms have yet to germinate, such as those stemming from the Justice Department’s lawsuit aimed at improving conditions for juvenile prisoners. It could take months or even years before cases like these are resolved and begin to influence the situation on the island. The same goes for the slow drip of prosecutions against individual guards like Terrance Pendergrass and Austin Romain.

The most immediate changes, however, can and will likely come from Mayor de Blasio’s administration, which delivered its own plan to tackle some of the major problems facing the city’s prison system at the end of last year. De Blasio is taking aim at the out-of-control state of prison mental healthcare, made more imperative by a surge in the number of such inmates: roughly 40% of Rikers inmates have been diagnosed with mental illness.

Rikers reform has been trickling out of the mayor’s office for a few months now. In November, at a press conference in which the mayor alluded to some of the greater reforms he would propose a month later, de Blasio said the city would spend $15.1 million to triple the number of security cameras in its jails. He also ordered a new unit for transgender women and “proposed placing the most violent inmates in new units, called enhanced supervision housing, where they would be locked in their cells 17 hours a day.”

In December, the mayor’s task force provided a concrete outline for reform that attempts to reach beyond prisons to other parts of the system in hopes of breaking the cycle of incarceration. The plan also contains a strategy for ‘multi-agency teams’ to oversee implementation, measure progress and hold people and agencies accountable. Here are some of the more-promising and immediate changes listed in the task force report: Continue reading

The Boldest by peterkreder, on Flickr

Are NYPD Protests Reaching Rikers Island?

In December, the New York Times ran a story on a sadly historic event:

The first Rikers Island correction officer to be tried for civil rights abuses in more than a decade was found guilty on Wednesday by a jury for his role in the death of an inmate in 2012.

Terrence Pendergrass could serve up to 10 years in federal prison for refusing to seek medical attention for Jason Echevarria, 25, a pretrial detainee, who cried out for help after swallowing a highly toxic packet of detergent that burned through his digestive tract.

Mr. Pendergrass was found guilty of one charge of violating the constitutional right of a prisoner to receive attention for serious medical needs. His lawyer, Samuel M. Braverman, said he would appeal the decision, which was handed down in Federal District Court in Manhattan.

This was the first time in over a decade that a Rikers corrections officer went to trial for civil rights violations. Before him was Roger Johnson in 1996, after he and several other Rikers guards beat inmates and then falsified reports.

After representing a man who refused medical attention for a dying and helpless prisoner, defense attorney Samuel Braverman said he believed it was “a very tough time for a law enforcement officer to be on trial.” He told reporters he felt the recent protests against police brutality in the city ‘influenced the jury’ and said he thought the jury was trying to ‘compensate for other systemic issues at Rikers.’

While I’m willing to give Braverman the benefit of the doubt that these were more off-hand remarks meant to explain away the guilty verdict than they were honest, deep analyses of the system, these kinds of statements are revealing nonetheless.

If the protests are, in fact, moving juries to finally bring convictions against criminal Rikers guards, we should all go out and thank a protester today for bringing an end to an 18 year freeze in justice for inmates. But it remains to be seen whether this is an isolated case or the beginning of a thaw in legal accountability for Rikers officers. If it does continue, there is little doubt in my mind that we can expect to see the same reaction from them as we have from the NYPD and its unions. Rikers Island has its own history of lashing out against threats to their impunity that bares striking resemblance to the actions of the NYPD in recent months. Continue reading

"Private Prison Industry, USA by War on Error1, on Flickr

Federal Government Drops CCA Contract in Ohio, But Remains Committed to Private Prisons

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has decided not to renew Correction Corporation of America’s (CCA) contract to hold around 1,400 low-level federal inmates at the North East Ohio Correctional Center (NEOCC) in Youngstown.

As the deadline for renewal approached, the for-profit prison contractor launched an aggressive PR and letter-writing campaign focused on “the value of CCA” in the community and the jobs that Youngstown could lose without the contract. Prisoners and advocates sought to instead  raise awareness about the facility’s ugly history of violence and mismanagement under CCA, and in August, 240 inmates staged a 14-hour peaceful protest against poor conditions, high commissary prices and abuse and mistreatment by prison guards.

In the end, the BOP decided to let their contract expire on May 31st of this year. CCA spokespeople told reporters they were not briefed on the government’s reasoning. They are seeking meetings with federal officials and are planning to mount an appeal in the coming days.

What is clear, however, is that the BOP has not lost confidence in for-profit incarceration. Most if not all of its prisoners at NEOCC will be transferred to two separate private facilities operated by GEO Group: the Moshannon Valley Correctional Center in Phillipsburg, PA (which, like NEOCC, holds immigrant prisoners) and the Great Plains Correctional Facility in Hinton, Oklahoma (which was vacant and is now being reactivated thanks, at least in-part, to this contract).

CCA will continue to hold some 580 prisoners for the US Marshals Service at NEOCC.

The federal government appears to be warming up to the idea of improving prison conditions, but it does not appear ready to give up on the private prison experiment. This would require a confrontation with the for-profit incarceration industry that they’ve now helped become deeply rooted in communities across the country. Continue reading

Laughably Bad Security Allows Rikers Staff to Make Thousands of Dollars Selling Drugs, Alcohol and Weapons to Inmates

A new report by New York City’s Department of Investigation found rampant security violations on Rikers Island that allowed corrections officers and staff to sell contraband such as weapons, alcohol and narcotics to inmates for a sizable profit. DOI has been investigating the Department of Corrections since early January and plans to release a full report by the end of the year.

Security is so lax and inconsistent at Rikers facilities that a high schooler could get through the checkpoints without a problem. Smuggling vodka in a Poland Springs bottle? That’s the oldest trick in the book! But if you’re feeling lazy, lying works, too: one undercover investigator was able to smuggle contraband past a checkpoint by telling the security guard he had already emptied his pockets and didn’t need to do it again.

Here’s how the DOI described the ease with which CO’s and staff could make it through security with prohibited items: Continue reading

New York City Jails Need More than Resignations and Reforms

There has been a flurry of activity surrounding the NYC Department of Corrections and Rikers Island after a series of horrendous reports exposing subhuman conditions, abuse and corruption at the city’s largest jail. But I am unconvinced that the situation is moving in the right direction.

The top uniformed official at the Department of Corrections, William Clemons, resigned at the end of October. Clemons was one of two men to have been promoted by DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte after corrections staff fudged statistics on jail fights to make it look like the number of violent incidents were down on his watch, when in fact they just weren’t making their way into the reports. (The other was Turhan Gumusdere, who Ponte promoted to become the warden of the Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers.)

Ponte, who was appointed by de Blasio and is said to be a ‘reformer,’ stood by the promotions even after the public became aware that the performance reports at their foundation were completely fraudulent. It was only after the department came under fire for conditions at Rikers that Clemons tendered his resignation. Two of Clemons’ deputies — Joandrea Davis and Gregory McLaughlan — resigned along with him. Continue reading

Enough is Enough - Stop Homophobia, Adam Groffman 2013 via Flickr

Homophobia, Fear of AIDS Allegedly Drove San Bernadino County to Skip Safety Checks for LGBTQ Prisoners

In a white male supremacist society, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ) prisoners face the compounded misery of discrimination based on their race, income, and/or sexual orientation and gender identity.

They are three times more likely to be assaulted behind bars than other prisoners, and are grossly overrepresented in our prisons — particularly our disgraceful juvenile detention centers. While only 4-8% of youth identify as LGBTQ on the outside, 13-15% of prisoners in juvenile prisons are LGBTQ.

In some jails, administrators willfully place transgender inmates with the wrong gender population — for instance, placing a transgender woman in a male population. In California, transgender women in men’s prisons were found to be 13 times more likely to be assaulted than other prisoners. Continue reading