Youngstown: Will Justice Be Served?
Prison privatization debate heats up after CCA disasters.
The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is on the run, trying to escape hellish publicity about escapes of dangerous criminals from its prisons, charges of inmate neglect, sky-high turnover among disgruntled employees, and the loudly vocalized distrust of public officials.
As a growing company and the nation’s largest private prison operator — larger than all but four state prison systems — negative publicity is hitting CCA where it hurts. The company’s earnings per share for the year, as of Nov. 1, were down 49 percent from the year before. Prospects for the coming year aren’t too rosy either, as government officials rethink prison privatization and projects with CCA, in particular.
CCA troubles didn’t start in July with the escape of six prisoners from the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center here. But the circumstances surrounding that break and CCA’s response turned prison privatization into a national story, with CCA starring as the villain. NBC’s “Dateline” has aired an exposé of CCA’s dismal performance and CBS’s “60 Minutes” is expected to do the same soon.
The script isn’t what CCA or Ohio officials envisioned when the Youngstown prison project was planned. It was a sweet deal in the making: For $1, CCA could have 101 acres of land on which to build and then operate a prison, plus a 75 percent tax abatement for seven years. In return, Ohio would get its first private prison and Youngstown, with its suffering, steel-dependent economy, would get 450 desperately needed jobs.
But less than two years after his predecessor made that deal, Youngstown Mayor George McKelvey warns other officials, “You better be damned careful that you know what you’re doing, that you have corrections experts on your side negotiating any development agreement for a prison.” He claims CCA is “the most deceitful, dishonest corporation I have ever dealt with.”
THE BREAK. It was broad daylight when six men, including four convicted killers, cut through a prison yard fence at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown in late July. The prisoners, all transferred from Washington, D.C., cut through two chain-link fences and climbed over ground-level razor wire to escape. The break went undetected by prison officials for at least a half-hour before it was reported by an inmate. A month later, all six were back behind bars, but local officials were furious.
The prison escape “is the straw that broke the camel’s back,” claims Mayor McKelvey, noting the string of serious problems at the 1,700-bed prison, including at least 13 stabbings, two of them fatal, since the facility opened in May 1997. By comparison, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, all other state prisons, with 49,000 inmates combined, reported just 12 assaults with deadly weapons and no murders in 1997.
As circumstances of the break emerged, some alarming information came to light. CCA had allowed its prisoners to wear street clothes, which obviously disguises escapees. Also facilitating their escape were several serious security lapses: malfunctioning motion detectors and fence alarms; poor staff training; and limited patrols in the prison yard. Already poor relations with local law enforcement officials were made worse with the apparent two-hour delay in CCA’s reporting the escape to local authorities. Perhaps the worst news of all for Youngstown officials, however, was the realization that violent prisoners remained at the medium-security prison; just two days before the break, CCA told a federal judge that all violent prisoners had been removed.
So outraged was Ohio Gov. George Voinovich (R) that he asked his attorney general to research ways that he could shut down the prison. AFSCME Pres. Gerald W. McEntee issued a statement supporting the governor’s efforts, saying, “The prison break is the latest link in a chain of disturbing events that provide hard evidence of CCA’s inability to run a prison professionally and safely.”
NO ISOLATED INCIDENT. CCA’s problems with inmate classification came to light with the string of assaults at the prison. After inmates filed a class-action suit against CCA, a court directed the prison company to transfer all violent inmates. Approximately 300 inmates were transferred to other facilities over the coming months, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
Several of the inmates were moved to a CCA prison in Torrance, N.M., where, shortly after arrival, they attacked five staff persons. A week later, a gang of inmates attacked other inmates at the same New Mexico prison. State “response teams” were sent to quell the disturbance.
Two other Youngstown inmates were transferred to a CCA prison in Tennessee, despite a federal judge’s directive to separate them. Once in Tennessee, one inmate stabbed the other to death. A consultant hired by CCA to evaluate the Youngstown prison’s inmate classification system, called the failure to separate the inmates “a complete breakdown in security.”
It’s not only Youngstown inmates who’ve caused CCA problems, though:
- A two-man 1996 prison break in Houston alerted officials to the fact that a CCA facility that was supposed to hold only illegal immigrants was also holding 200 sex offenders from Oregon. “The unit was in no way designed for individuals with a violent criminal history,” reports Allan Polunsky, head of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice.
- South Carolina refused to renew a contract with CCA for running a juvenile detention facility after reports that boys were being mistreated there. Observers claimed that as many as 18 boys were held in a one-person cell, with only cups to serve as toilets.
- In September, a convicted rapist escaped from a Whiteville, Tenn., facility run by CCA.
- At another Whiteville prison, CO Jerry Reeves, on the job for just six weeks, was severely beaten by inmates. He was alone at the time, with no way of contacting help outside the recreation area.
- A prisoner at a CCA-owned facility in Mason, Tenn., stabbed a fellow inmate to death in late August.
- And in mid-October, four inmates, including two murderers, a rapist and an armed robber, escaped from the CCA-operated prison in Clifton, Tenn. Attacks at this prison in 1997 were 28 percent higher than in Tennessee state prisons overall, state officials report. Furthermore, the circumstances of the recent escape are eerily like those at Youngstown. Again, inmates cut through fence. Again, there were inadequate patrols of the prison yard. Again, inmates had to alert prison officials to the break, which led to significant delays in the notification of local law enforcement agencies.
Is CCA cutting corners on safety? It looks like it, but CCA keeps throwing up smoke screens to investigators. Members of the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee of the Ohio legislature and their two guests — corrections experts from the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association (OCSEA)/AFSCME Local 11 — were kept waiting for four hours when they went unannounced to the prison last April for an inspection. CCA called the delay a “misunderstanding,” apparently forgetting that Ohio law stipulates the state’s rights to visit prisons without notice.
In the “Dateline” exposé on CCA, a group of former Youngstown prison COs all testified that saving money was foremost at the facility — a much greater priority than safety. According to reports, up until the prison break, CCA posted its daily stock market price on a sign outside of the Youngstown facility.
COs were encouraged to cut costs any way they could, even to hold back on toilet paper for inmates. “I wouldn’t treat a dog the way they treat prisoners there,” one former CO told “Dateline.”
Another former CO said that the July escape occurred at a shift change, a time when inmates knew the prison would be understaffed. COs routinely were encouraged to leave for the day even before someone came to replace them, so that there was no chance overtime would accrue.
The beating of CO Jerry Reeves in Tennessee represents highly disturbing staffing problems, according to Jim Hobbs, a CO with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections and chief steward of OCSEA Chapter 0250. Hobbs says in his prison, the Allen Correctional Institute in Lima, Ohio, a CO never would have been left with prisoners alone or without communications equipment to signal help. But CCA claims no staffing violations occurred at the time Reeves was beaten.
“CCA shifts blame from themselves to almost anyone,” says Hobbs, who monitors prison privatization for his local. Hobbs notes that a CO supervisor has been fired at the Clinton, Tenn., prison for the recent escapes there. “It especially amazes me that this company will blame an officer for a faulty piece of equipment,” he says, referring to the Youngstown escape. CCA officials claim that a misaligned motion detector knocked out during an electrical storm went undetected for several weeks, and that COs were responsible not only for its detection, but also its repair. “Maintenance crews — not COs — are responsible for security technologies at prisons,” says Hobbs.
FALLOUT. Will CCA be held accountable for the mounting deaths and injuries at its prisons, as well as the threats to public safety posed by the escapes?
Several families of inmates killed in CCA prison incidents described above have filed lawsuits against CCA for failing to protect the prisoners. Another lawsuit has been filed by the mother of an inmate at the Clifton, Tenn., prison who died from complications caused by sickle cell anemia after being denied medical treatment by CCA officials.
The U.S. Department of Justice conducted a three-month investigation of the Youngstown incident, the results of which were unavailable as Public Employee went to press.
However, a bipartisan, prison-oversight committee of the Ohio legislature had concluded its investigation and, in October, released recommendations for legislative action. The committee’s findings are a strong condemnation of events leading to CCA’s construction and operation of the Youngstown prison. Recommendations include eliminating tax incentives for private prison operators in the state; requiring annual audits of private prisons to be paid for by prison operators; prohibiting out-of-state prisoners who are classified as maximum security or who have committed violent crimes while incarcerated; requiring immediate notification of local authorities when escapes occur; and banning prisoners from wearing street clothes.
In Tennessee, home to Nashville-based CCA, a once highly favorable prison-privatization environment has soured. Earlier this year, Republican Gov. Don Sundquist announced his support for privatizing the entire state prison system. He backed away from that position recently, saying that there are too many unanswered questions about how much money private prisons will really save.
A U.S. General Accounting Office cost analysis of private prisons in Tennessee, which is considered to be the best such analysis to date, revealed private prisons there are more costly to operate than public prisons. Figures from Ohio show the average daily cost per inmate at a publicly run medium-security prison is $37.86 per day, while CCA in Youngstown is charging $53.50 per inmate per day.
MISUNDERSTOOD. Do the frightening incidents, the lawsuits, the financial struggles today mean an end to private prisons or a crippling of CCA? Unlikely. The drive to privatize prisons stems from cost-cutting efforts, and observers believe that states considering privatization most likely will give it a try of their own.
Besides, as Jim Hobbs charges, CCA has managed to confuse the public with deceptions concerning their safety practices and cost savings.
To ensure that the private-prison debate remains fuzzy — and to divert attention from its flaws — CCA recently announced a giant public relations campaign, whose message will include the line, “Quietly going about the business of public safety.” In print and television ads now being tested in Tennessee, the campaign emphasizes public safety, cost savings, staff professionalism and accountability. One report on the campaign notes that CCA wants the public to know “it’s not a bad company, just misunderstood.”
Hobbs intends to continue his fight to expose CCA and the misconceptions about private prisons in general. In addition to educating his local’s members, Hobbs, with OCSEA support, orchestrated a media blitz in Lima, going to radio, TV and print media to discuss the prison privatization issue. Hobbs also has worked with a local legislator, who introduced legislation to stop the already approved construction of two more private prisons in the state, as well as any future private prison construction.
Hobbs believes the fight against privatization must focus heavily on public education and the lessons learned at Youngstown, where anger still simmers today.
“They [CCA] will be sorry that they did this to Youngstown,” Mayor McKelvey told “Dateline.” “I can assure you they will be sorry.”
By Catherine Barnett Alexander
Chaos Reigned at CCA Prison, CO Says
Bob Oliver, a member of OCSEA Chapter 5041, joined the staff of CCA's Youngstown prison when it opened in the spring of 1997. When he left for a new job in a state prison this past June, Oliver hoped to escape the nightmarish scenes that occupied a regular place in his work days.
At 6'4" and 230 pounds, Oliver isn't afraid of much, but daily he feared for his life at the CCA facility. Violent murderers and most any prisoner were allowed to roam freely. "They had the run of the place," he recalls. Prisoner gatherings were scary enough to keep most COs away.
Last March, Oliver came upon two inmates fighting — one with a knife. The CO stepped in to break it up, but when it was over, one inmate had suffered 17 stab wounds. Oliver wasn't cut, but he was covered in blood.
Today he lives in fear of AIDS, not only for himself, but also for his pregnant wife and the child who soon will be born. The Olivers can't get any medical information on the inmate whose blood soaked him, due to prisoners' rights. While Oliver hasn't tested positive yet, it is sometimes years before one can be sure.
Conditions are very different at his new job at the Ohio State Penitentiary, also in Youngstown. Oliver is particularly impressed with the training there, and overall, he feels much safer. But there are still nights when he can't sleep, fearing that a medical nightmare could take his life and his loved ones.