Lawsuit Puts Private Prisons in Spotlight


Antoney Jones, a gay African-American man imprisoned in Idaho, needed protection from other inmates who thrived on assaulting vulnerable prisoners, especially those who were black and gay, his lawyers said.

He especially needed protection after testifying against a criminal defendant for California prosecutors in an undisclosed case. Not only was he black and gay, but he was also considered to be a rat within the prison population. He was housed in 2007 at the Idaho Correctional Center in Kuna, just outside of Boise, which is a privately run prison considered so violent that it is dubbed "gladiator school" because of its kill-or-be-killed mentality among guards and prisoners, says Monica Hopkins, director of the ACLU of Idaho.


But Jones did not get protection. Instead he endured a beating worthy of a Martin Scorsese movie. It was so bad that he is part of a federal class-action suit filed in March 2010 by the ACLU and the ACLU of Idaho against the ICC, alleging that officials promote and facilitate "a culture of rampant violence that has led to carnage and suffering among prisoners," Hopkins says.

Jones was struck violently in the face within minutes of being housed in a dangerous pod at the ICC, the suit says. He bled for half an hour, his face was swollen, and both eyes turned black and blue.


"Prisoners throughout the pod lined the rails and began yelling, 'Kill the nigger,' 'Get the fag' and 'Kill the rat,' " the complaint reads. "It was a mini riot, and yet no guards intervened."

A spokesman for the Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's largest private prison company, which runs the ICC, declined to comment via email to The Root. But in a response to the complaint, court records show that the company denies that it inadequately investigated assaults, refused to discipline guards and failed to protect prisoners.


Lower Costs, Higher Risks?

The case is emblematic of a growing number of problems that are endemic among private organizations that run prisons, according to Hopkins and other activists. As of June 30, 2008, there were 126,249 prisoners in private facilities nationwide, accounting for 7.8 percent of all prisoners, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That's up from 6.5 percent in 2000. The United States, with 7.2 million prisoners, has the highest incarceration rate in the world.


Pressure to save taxpayer dollars and create jobs in states and communities across the nation is part of what's driving this growth in privately run prisons. Some proponents argue that private prisons house so-called easy prisoners — those in relatively good health — thus reducing the cost of housing them.

Opponents say that private prisons provide fewer services than public facilities in a bid to save money, thereby endangering the lives of inmates. The service reduction disproportionately affects African Americans, who accounted for 39.4 percent of the total prison and jail population in 2009, according to the BJS. (Blacks make up about 13 percent of the population.)


"I do think the violence at ICC is the result of it being privately run," Hopkins says. "When profit is the motive, it is not in the prison's best interest to preserve civil liberties. If you give inadequate care, your profits go up. If you under-staff, profit margins go up. At state-run agencies, officials are beholden to taxpayers and entities allowed to question procedures. It's more difficult to find out information from private entities. They can hide behind arguments that there are trade issues about how they run a facility, so they can't release information."

Indeed, the fact that private facilities tend to take healthier — and therefore less expensive — inmates can mask their relative cost compared with public institutions. Citing a study by the Arizona Department of Corrections, the New York Times recently reported that "privately operated prisons can cost more to operate than state-run prisons — even though they steer clear of the sickest, costliest inmates."


A Response to Prison Overcrowding

Still, the warehousing of prisoners in private prisons has marched steadily upward as corrections departments seek to cut costs during the economic crisis. Florida recently passed a measure to privatize facilities currently housing 15,000 of the state's inmates. Additionally, Ohio plans to privatize facilities housing 6,000 of the state's prisoners, and Arizona plans to nearly double its private inmate community. The move has helped foster a $3 billion private prison industry, according to NPR, which ran a series about the industry in March.


The number of private prisons has grown steadily across the nation since the 1980s, when the entities first sprang up to help address overcrowding as a result of crack-cocaine convictions, increased violence and stiff sentences. Proponents of private prisons argued that they cost less and operate efficiently, helping them to garner a number of contracts.

Not so, according to Randall C. Berg Jr., executive director of the Miami-based Florida Justice Institute, a private, not-for-profit organization that handles civil rights for people confined in Florida's prisons and jails; housing and disability-related discrimination; and class-action suits for indigent populations.


"Philosophically, government should not be contracting away the housing of inmates to private companies, because they cannot incarcerate any cheaper or more effectively than government," Berg told The Root. "If they do, it's the prisoners who pay."

There is very little data on the rate of violence in private prisons because they are exempt from federal Freedom of Information requests. What you end up with is anecdotal evidence.


The Root recently ran a story about privately run youth prisons, including Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Jackson, Miss., which is embroiled in a lawsuit. The suit charges that children are forced to live in barbaric and unconstitutional conditions and are subjected to excessive force by prison staff. The prison houses 1,200 young men between the ages of 13 and 22 who have been tried and convicted as adults. More than two-thirds of the facility's inmates have been incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, and the population is about 90 percent African American.

But private prisons are currently struggling to survive as the crime rate drops. Now, instead of building prisons, they are taking over state facilities. Danny Davis, city manager of Littlefield, Texas, told The Root that he is looking for a way to sell or rent the Bill Clayton Detention Center, which the city borrowed $10 million to build 11 years ago. It was a breadwinner for the city for about eight years, until contractors from Wyoming and Idaho left the building idle when they fell on hard times. Controversy also loomed over the suicide of a prisoner.


"We have done what we could to avoid default," Davis says. "We've reduced street maintenance and the replacement of police cars, putting off as much as we can. We increased property taxes to handle 15 percent of the debt. We're doing the things we have to do when we get in circumstances like this."

A Culture of Violence

 The Idaho Correctional Center is profitable, says the ACLU's Hopkins, who filed the federal class-action suit on the heels of a video, released by the Associated Press in January 2010, of a vicious beating of an inmate by another inmate in a separate incident there. Tapes from prison surveillance cameras show prison guards looking on without making any attempts to intervene. The footage prompted an FBI prison investigation.


The suit highlights a deeply entrenched culture of brutality that has resulted in higher levels of violence at ICC than at Idaho's eight public prisons combined, Hopkins says. It tells the stories of men involved in 24 different cases of assault that have occurred at ICC since November 2006, all of which were entirely preventable and the direct result of failures by ICC officials to protect prisoners, despite being placed on notice that those prisoners faced a substantial risk of serious harm, she says.

Even though he was taken to the infirmary, Antoney Jones received no X-rays after his assault to determine whether there were broken bones or he needed hospitalization. He received cotton balls to stanch the bleeding, and ibuprofen for intense pain. "Jones was placed in segregation without being offered additional medical care," the suit says. "Jones felt desperate, depressed and forsaken. Three days later, while still in the segregated cell, Jones attempted suicide by tying bed sheets around his neck. Jones lost consciousness. Fortunately, a guard saw him and cut him down."


No charges were filed in Jones' case because the incident was viewed as mutual combat, the suit says. The case, still in discovery, is scheduled to go to trial next year, Hopkins says. (He is now incarcerated at Idaho Correctional Institution, a state-run prison, on charges of eluding a peace officer and possession of a controlled substance, according to the website for the Idaho Department of Corrections.)

"A staff attorney who has been litigating prison cases for years said he had not seen such a case of atrocities and human suffering caused by issues in this lawsuit," Hopkins says. "If the court issues an order against the prison, the state has agreed to aggressively enforce it. That may mean termination of the contract with CCA. Our goal is to promote change so this doesn't happen again."


Lynette Holloway is a frequent contributor to The Root. The Chicago-based writer is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine. Follow her on Twitter.

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