The concept of private prisons has triggered much controversy. Proponents of private prisons claim they're more efficient and cost effective. Opponents claim that private contractors cut corners and use underpaid and undertrained corrections staff. Many facilities under contractor management have experienced serious inmate disturbances.
The latest private prison contractor under fire is Management & Training Corporation, headquartered in Centerville, Utah. They have been criticized by former Alaska State Rep. Vic Kohring in this Anchorage Daily News article. Kohring spent about 10 months at the low-security federal prison camp at Taft, California following his conviction on federal corruption charges in 2007; the smoking gun was a videotape of Kohring taking money from then-VECO CEO Bill Allen. If you're further interested in Kohring's case, you can read a series of Daily News articles HERE.
Taft is a federally-owned facility, first opening in 1997 as a demonstration project to test how private companies could operate a federal prison. Wackenhut Corrections and Geo Group Inc. held contracts there. In 2007, Management & Training Corp. took over operations under a four-year, $144 million contract. And Kohring is critical of their operations, accusing them of neglect and cutting corners.
"It seemed pretty apparent they were cutting -- they were trying to be ultra-efficient, cutting back as much as they could," Kohring said. "If things would break down, they'd stay broken down for a long time -- exercise equipment, telephones." Meals were loaded with carbohydrates, "too many processed foods, not enough fresh produce," he continued. "There was a lot of complaints that the food there wasn't up to par, at least not in comparison to, say, Sheridan."
Kohring also said that medical care was inadequate. "I witnessed some pretty bad injuries when I was in Taft there. Guys falling over, one guy broke his femur, another broke his hip, one guy was punched in the face and he had glass embedded in his eye and it took him about a day before they finally took him to the doctor, at Bakersfield, in the hospital. It was horrid."
His own pre-existing back and neck injury, from a car accident, got him neither sympathy nor care. "My back didn't get any kind of attention at all, other than ibuprofen. I was told by the director of medical to shut up ... They said no to everything." He was warned that if he kept complaining, he'd wind up cleaning the kitchen, he said.
ADN contacted Management & Training Corp for a response, and their communications director, Carl Stuart, was immediately forthcoming. He said his company does what's required under its federal contracts. Bureau of Prisons officials regularly inspect its operations, and some contract prisons have full-time, on-site government monitors, although he didn't know if that was the case in Taft. Management & Training operates county, state and federal facilities in five states. But delaying repairs on equipment and not seeking timely medical assistance for inmates wouldn't seem to be in compliance with contractual standards - at least I would hope not. Delaying medical care was instrumental in triggering a full scale riot in February 2009 at the Reeves County Detention Center in Pecos, Texas, operated by GEO Group. It was the second riot at that facility in two months, and it resulted in $320,000 damage.
Surprisingly, Kohring still believes in the concept of private prisons. He actually believes the inmates' needs can be met in a profit-making environment. "They certainly have a moral obligation, perhaps even a legal obligation, to meet the basic needs in terms of health and welfare," he said. When he was a state lawmaker, he did promote legislation designed to establish private prisons in Alaska. But Alaskans, skeptical of the concept itself, rejected four different private prison schemes in South Anchorage, Delta Junction, Kenai and Whittier during the past 15 years.
And Alaskans' skepticism is justified. Law enforcement is an essential government function, which should be controlled by persons accountable to the government and ultimately the people. Private prisons are controlled by persons accountable to the corporation and ultimately their shareholders. There is no transparency with corporations as they consider some information to be proprietary. In addition, if the company underbids a contract, they'll start cutting corners to make up the difference. They may hire undertrained, underexperienced, or undervetted COs who may not be able to recognize a potential disturbance situation before if flames into a riot. Some retired public sector COs work for private firms, but not enough to make a significant difference. Some cogent criticisms of private prisons have been published by Mediafilter and Alternet.