This is the second part of an interview on August 25 on the real conditions of Federal prisons for profit that most people are unaware exist. It’s time to bring this out in the open.

The way it was reported, like the way the release of 6000 Federal inmates released last year was reported, it gave you the feeling that it directly affected our own citizens, but really that percentage was very small.  CCA and GEO and others are prevalent through the state prisons as well as the Federal, but most of the inmates by far are in state prisons.  Everyone who has a friend or loved one in a prison knows exactly what these corporations do and have been fighting them for a long time. Lousy food, inadequate education if they give it at all, medical care that kills people and on and on. 

So these corporations have no had their wrists slapped. Stock temporarily took a hit, but they didn’t get hit where it hurts.  They need to be ousted from all of the prisons.  But which politicians are in bed with them?  that is what we need to know. Make the government do their job.  They can give lip service and say things like they know how bad it is but as long as they have contracts with these companies they can’t put their money where their mouth is. If they continue to renew contracts with them after this, they are letting themselves in for trouble from many people because then it becomes yet another line of bullshit about wanting to change the prison system and take care of the vast amount of people who have been given outrageous sentences or shouldn’t be in there in the first place – yet not actually do anything about it.

************

DAVIES: Our guest today, Seth Freed Wessler is an investigative reporter who spent much of the past four years looking into conditions at the 13 privately operated prisons in the federal corrections system.

fair care for all
Enter a caption

Let’s talk about how this whole financial arrangement works and how it might connect to some of these issues. You know, a lot of the services that government provides aren’t provided by public employees. They’re done in private contracts.

You know, building roads – I mean, typically, private construction companies competitively bid for work. They complete it. It’s inspected. And they’re paid. Let’s talk about how it works for prisons. How does a contract typically work for a private prison?

It must be a big, expensive thing to build a prison. How long are the contracts? What are the provisions? What are the standards and the methods for making sure that the contractors live up to them?

WESSLER: So the Bureau of Prisons puts out calls for proposals when they want to open a new private prison. And a group of companies – at this point, really, only three companies – Corrections Corporation of America, GEO Group and a company called Management and Training Corporation bid for these contracts.

cca. prison corporations, prison industrial complex
photo source: correctionsproject.com

The contracts usually last about 10 years. And during that period of time, there are points when the Bureau of Prisons can decide whether to extend the contract further. One of the main reasons that the federal government decided to contract in the first place is that it believed that contractors could save money.

And there are real questions about whether that’s actually happened. But even if the prisons cost about the same, which is what research suggests, what’s different about private prisons from prisons run by governments is that – let’s say you’re spending – the government spends a hundred dollars per prisoner.

In a public prison, a prison run by the government, all of that money is going to the management of the facility. But in the context of private prisons, some of that money is profit for these companies. And so there is an incentive to cut down on costs.

And one of the most expensive parts of federal prisons – of prisons in general – is the operation of medical care. What I found in my reporting – interviewing people who worked inside these prisons – is that there was this sort of constant pressure to cut costs, a culture of austerity inside of these facilities.

I talked to an older doctor in his mid-80s, a man named John Farquhar, who worked for several years as the prison doctor in Big Spring Prison, a private facility in West Texas run by the GEO Group.

Just days after he arrived, took the job as the medical director of Big Spring, his corporate bosses arrived to tell him that they felt that they needed to cut down on the number of 911 calls made out of the prison because those calls cost too much money.

DAVIES: Those are cases where they need an ambulance to get someone to a higher level of care?

WESSLER: That’s right. You know, I came across this doctor because through Freedom of Information Act request, I obtained thousands of pages of medical records of men who had died in these facilities – 103 men who died inside of these facilities.

And in some of those records, I found notes from nurses or physician’s assistants and, in this case, from the physician. And in those notes, it was remarkable because not only was he appearing to provide sort of more care and a higher level of care than most of the other doctors in the facilities that I looked at were providing – that is, in facilities that had doctors at all.

But he left these sort of indignant notes behind about how upset he was about the quality of care that he was able to provide. He said in one note, this prisoner will almost certainly die.

This was in the context of a case where he had been trying to transfer somebody out to get care outside of the prison. And he was told by his corporate bosses that he wouldn’t be allowed to do that. In another note, he wrote, I feel badly for the shabby care.

Medical Treatment behind bars
photo source: prison.uk.blogspot.com

You know, this is a guy who clearly wanted to be providing higher-quality medical care. He’d been a doctor for decades. He’d been a military doctor. He’s now a doctor for the Veterans Administration in Texas. And he felt that these pressures to cut costs made that very difficult to do.

DAVIES: You know, I’m sure it’s not easy to get highly trained medical personnel to work in a prison system. It’s not the kind of environment most medical professionals would imagine working in. They’re often in remote places.

So there is going to be a difficulty, I think, in getting good-quality people to do that. And they’re probably going to have to pay more. Is that addressed at all when this arrangement was set up?

It’s simply going to – you’re going to have to spend some money – aren’t you? – to take care of literally thousands of people who can have health issues.

WESSLER: That’s right. You know, the Bureau of Prisons across the board has struggled to fully staff its medical units. And that’s especially a problem in rural areas where it’s hard to find doctors to come and work.

But there were facilities in my investigation that for months – nearly a year in some cases – had no medical doctor at all or who significantly understaffed their nursing departments for months and months at a time.

In fact, the Office of Inspector General from the Department of Justice found in a previous investigation that a prison called Reeves in West Texas, another GEO Group-run facility, was systematically understaffing its medical unit.

And only after the investigation did that begin to change. But the fact that it did change after the investigation suggests that it’s a problem that could be fixed and that the contractors weren’t fixing.

DAVIES: You know, you said that in these private prisons, which are for noncitizens – I mean, typically, illegal immigrants who were caught trying to re-enter the country – they’re designed to have fewer services – rehabilitative services, educational program, addiction counseling, mental health services.

But they are supposed to provide some standard of medical care and decent living conditions. And as with all government contracts, there’s a monitoring system, right?

Somebody’s supposed to come in regularly, examine the conditions, review records and see whether the public is getting what it’s paying for to these private companies. You looked at a lot of these monitoring reports. What did they show?

WESSLER: Well – so after the Bureau of Prisons set up this system of private facilities, it also set up what is really a pretty robust system of contract monitoring. So it hires a couple of people for each facility to actually be on-site and watch over what the facilities are doing.

And then every year or every six months, a group of monitors trained very specifically in subject areas go into these facilities to check to see if the prisons are following the terms of the contract. I obtained nearly   decade of these monitoring reports. And the reports show that for years, monitors documented deep and systemic problems in these facilities.

And the monitors would send these reports back to Washington. And what I found is that despite these ongoing problems, officials in Washington – contracting officials in Washington – didn’t impose the full fines or use their full enforcement muscle available to them to force changes inside of these facilities.

In fact, the Office of Inspector General report from the Department of Justice that came out recently found that when prisoners died inside of these facilities, and those deaths were connected to medical negligence – that the Bureau of Prisons didn’t have an effective way to force the companies to correct those problems. And so prisoners would die. And the problems would go on.

DAVIES: Now the contracts provided for specific monetary penalties, right? I mean, this is the way you build a contract. I mean, if you don’t deliver the service, you are penalized. And presumably for-profit providers would pay a lot of attention. As you looked at these records in cases where monitors said things are not working here, people are being endangered, do you have a sense of why financial penalties weren’t imposed? What led to those sets of decisions?

WESSLER: I interviewed a number of former Bureau of Prison monitors who were tasked with overseeing the operations and contracts of these facilities. And what I found was that on-the-ground monitors were proposing quite significant fines when things went wrong. So when a facility failed to provide prisoners with infectious disease care or a prisoner died as a result of not receiving the kind of medical care that they needed that the onsite monitors would ask the Bureau of Prisons in Washington to impose significant fines.

DAVIES:  Let’s talk about how this whole financial arrangement works and how it might connect to some of these issues. You know, a lot of the services that government provides aren’t provided by public employees. They’re done in private contracts.

You know, building roads – I mean, typically, private construction companies competitively bid for work. They complete it. It’s inspected. And they’re paid. Let’s talk about how it works for prisons. How does a contract typically work for a private prison?

It must be a big, expensive thing to build a prison. How long are the contracts? What are the provisions? What are the standards and the methods for making sure that the contractors live up to them?

WESSLER: So the Bureau of Prisons puts out calls for proposals when they want to open a new private prison. And a group of companies – at this point, really, only three companies – Corrections Corporation of America, GEO Group and a company called Management and Training Corporation bid for these contracts.

The contracts usually last about 10 years. And during that period of time, there are points when the Bureau of Prisons can decide whether to extend the contract further. One of the main reasons that the federal government decided to contract in the first place is that it believed that contractors could save money.

And there are real questions about whether that’s actually happened. But even if the prisons cost about the same, which is what research suggests, what’s different about private prisons from prisons run by governments is that – let’s say you’re spending – the government spends a hundred dollars per prisoner.

In a public prison, a prison run by the government, all of that money is going to the management of the facility. But in the context of private prisons, some of that money is profit for these companies. And so there is an incentive to cut down on costs.

And one of the most expensive parts of federal prisons – of prisons in general – is the operation of medical care. What I found in my reporting – interviewing people who worked inside these prisons – is that there was this sort of constant pressure to cut costs, a culture of austerity inside of these facilities.

I talked to an older doctor in his mid-80s, a man named John Farquhar, who worked for several years as the prison doctor in Big Spring Prison, a private facility in West Texas run by the GEO Group.

Just days after he arrived, took the job as the medical director of Big Spring, his corporate bosses arrived to tell him that they felt that they needed to cut down on the number of 911 calls made out of the prison because those calls cost too much money.

DAVIES: Those are cases where they need an ambulance to get someone to a higher level of care?

WESSLER: That’s right. You know, I came across this doctor because through Freedom of Information Act request, I obtained thousands of pages of medical records of men who had died in these facilities – 103 men who died inside of these facilities.

And in some of those records, I found notes from nurses or physician’s assistants and, in this case, from the physician. And in those notes, it was remarkable because not only was he appearing to provide sort of more care and a higher level of care than most of the other doctors in the facilities that I looked at were providing – that is, in facilities that had doctors at all.

But he left these sort of indignant notes behind about how upset he was about the quality of care that he was able to provide. He said in one note, this prisoner will almost certainly die.

This was in the context of a case where he had been trying to transfer somebody out to get care outside of the prison. And he was told by his corporate bosses that he wouldn’t be allowed to do that. In another note, he wrote, I feel badly for the shabby care.

You know, this is a guy who clearly wanted to be providing higher-quality medical care. He’d been a doctor for decades. He’d been a military doctor. He’s now a doctor for the Veterans Administration in Texas. And he felt that these pressures to cut costs made that very difficult to do.

DAVIES: You know, I’m sure it’s not easy to get highly trained medical personnel to work in a prison system. It’s not the kind of environment most medical professionals would imagine working in. They’re often in remote places.

So there is going to be a difficulty, I think, in getting good quality people to do that. And they’re probably going to have to pay more. Is that addressed at all when this arrangement was set up?

It’s simply going to – you’re going to have to spend some money – aren’t you? – to take care of literally thousands of people who have health issues.

WESSLER: That’s right. You know, the Bureau of Prisons across the board has struggled to fully staff its medical units. And that’s especially a problem in rural areas where it’s hard to find doctors to come and work.

But there were facilities in my investigation that for months – nearly a year in some cases – had no medical doctor at all or who significantly understaffed their nursing departments for months and months at a time.

In fact, the Office of Inspector General from the Department of Justice found in a previous investigation that a prison called Reeves in West Texas, another GEO Group-run facility, was systematically under-staffing its medical unit.

And only after the investigation did that begin to change. But the fact that it did change after the investigation suggests that it’s a problem that could be fixed and that the contractors weren’t fixing.

DAVIES: You know, you said that in these private prisons, which are for non-citizens. I mean, typically, illegal immigrants who were caught trying to re-enter the country – they’re designed to have fewer services – rehabilitative services, educational program, addiction counseling, mental health services.

But they are supposed to provide some standard of medical care and decent living conditions. And as with all government contracts, there’s a monitoring system, right?

Somebody is supposed to come in regularly, examine the conditions, review records and see whether the public is getting what it’s paying for to these private companies. You looked at a lot of these monitoring reports. What did they show?

WESSLER: Well – so after the Bureau of Prisons set up this system of private facilities, it also set up what is really a pretty robust system of contract monitoring. So it hires a couple of people for each facility to actually be on-site and watch over what the facilities are doing.

And then every year or every six months, a group of monitors trained very specifically in subject areas go into these facilities to check to see if the prisons are following the terms of the contract. I obtained nearly a decade of these monitoring reports. And the reports show that for years, monitors documented deep and systemic problems in these facilities.

And the monitors would send these reports back to Washington. And what I found is that despite these ongoing problems, officials in Washington – contracting officials in Washington – didn’t impose the full fines or use their full enforcement muscle available to them to force changes inside of these facilities.

In fact, the Office of Inspector General report from the Department of Justice that came out recently found that when prisoners died inside of these facilities, and those deaths were connected to medical negligence – that the Bureau of Prisons didn’t have an effective way to force the companies to correct those problems. And so prisoners would die. And the problems would go on.

DAVIES: Now the contracts provided for specific monetary penalties, right? I mean, this is the way you build a contract. I mean, if you don’t deliver the service, you are penalized. And presumably for-profit providers would pay a lot of attention. As you looked at these records in cases where monitors said things are not working here, people are being endangered, do you have a sense of why financial penalties weren’t imposed? What led to those sets of decisions?

WESSLER: I interviewed a number of former Bureau of Prison monitors who were tasked with overseeing the operations and contracts of these facilities. And what I found was that on-the-ground monitors were proposing quite significant fines when things went wrong. So when a facility failed to provide prisoners with infectious disease care or a prisoner died as a result of not receiving the kind of medical care that they needed that the onsite monitors would ask the Bureau of Prisons in Washington to impose significant fines.

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***************

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