Private Prisons’ Place in Communities Scrutinized


In a stunning 2016 exposé, Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer went undercover working as a private prison guard at Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana. Armed with a notebook, an audio-recording pen, and a photo-taking watch, Bauer uncovered a number of red flags at the facility, privately run at the time by Corrections Corporation of America. CCA has since rebranded itself as CoreCivic. In Bauer’s four months at the facility, he documented instances of everything from neglect of a dangerously ill inmate to a near lackadaisical approach to confiscating contraband. Many of his findings were denied by CCA.

In light of this and other stories, one might question why private prisons are in use, let alone why a community would want such a facility. The answers — and their implications — are complicated.

In the Rio Grande Valley, the East Hidalgo Detention Center in La Villa is a privately owned prison facility, run by The GEO Group Inc., the nation’s largest private prison company. The facility has a capacity of 1,300 beds, and its client is the U.S. Marshals Service. In 2017, it achieved an initial accreditation with the American Correctional Association with a score of 100 percent. On GEO Group’s website for the detention center, the organization states that it provides $10,000 in scholarships in the area every year.

The companies that own private prisons give back to the community. According to its website, GEO Group’s The Geo Foundation made around $1.9 million in charitable donations in 2016. And the prisons offer employment opportunities and stimulation for local economies.

It was this same need to create jobs and revenue that led a Montana town with an empty privately owned facility to gain national attention in 2009 by offering to house prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, according to an NPR article.

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“And that desperation is going to be fatal,” said Santiago Hernandez, who works in security at CHRISTUS Spohn Hospital in Corpus Christi. “It’s going to end up getting someone hurt.”

Hernandez spent his life working in corrections. Before Spohn, he worked for 22 years at the Federal Correctional Institution in Three Rivers, Texas. He pointed out a number of concerns with the way privately run prisons are operated.

“I can tell you that the management styles of inmates are different compared to a private prison to a federal prison,” he said. “The policies are different. The quality and the experience of staff are different. We are obligated by federal law and policies on how to manage inmates everything from food service to recreation to education to medical to discipline — every aspect of what an inmate’s supposed to do in prison is all written down in policy.”

When Hernandez still worked for FCI Three Rivers — he retired in 2013 — federal prison unions would regularly lobby against private prisons.

“Our unions in federal prison would go and testify in Congress or fight because private institutions, first of all, lacked the experience of correctional officers and staff to manage inmates,” he said. “That’s why there was essentially a high statistical record of inmate violence in private prisons.”

A 2016 Department of Justice report found that private prisons had more security and safety issues than federal facilities. The report analyzed and compared 14 private prisons with similar federal facilities. Per capita, private prisons reported a 28 percent higher average of inmate-on-inmate violence. The report also found more than twice the amount of inmate-on-staff violence at private prisons than federal facilities.

“I can tell you that the way we used to manage inmates is a lot safer and more humane than it is in a private institution,” Hernandez said.

He added that he had heard “horror stories” from former colleagues who worked in private prisons.

“I’ve heard they go work in a private prison and they only last three or four months,” Hernandez said. “They say, ‘man, you can’t believe what these guys do in there. Man, they go in there and they do stuff and it’s unethical.’ And the way they run this prison, no wonder there’s a big turnover in a private prison because a lot of people don’t know how to handle and don’t know how to manage inmates. It puts at risk the safety of staff and inmates.”

Some 2,000 inmates at the Willacy County Correction Center rioted in 2015 over what they perceived was inadequate care at the privately run facility. The facility had been plagued with reports of issues, from instances of sexual abuse to complaints of pests inside tents where inmates were housed to inadequate food and clothing. Three of the 10 tents were burned, all of the inmates were transferred to other facilities, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons ended its contract with Management and Training Corp., the company that ran the facility. The center closed, MTC laid off 400 employees, and Willacy County, losing the revenue it received from MTC, experienced a financial crisis that resulted in cutting one-third of the county’s general fund budget, according to a 2017 Valley Morning Star article.

But with an increasing demand to house detained immigrants, more privately owned facilities have gotten the green light from the Trump administration, including a new center in Conroe, Texas. Under this administration, the Bureau of Prisons has also restored contracts with private prisons housing immigrants convicted of committing crimes in the United States after the Obama administration began cutting ties, according to a 2017 NPR article.

As for Willacy County, officials there sold the former correction center to MTC in March 2017, as reported by the Valley Morning Star. In addition to the $2.025 million asking price, MTC also repaid bond holders who were out $68 million when the facility closed. MTC will pay the county $3 per inmate housed there per day, though it is still working to secure a contract for holding inmates.