illegal immigrant inmates, prison inmates
photo source:

Sonni’s note: Earlier today as I was driving around town I was listening to NPR on the radio. This interview was just beginning to play. Because this issue has been in the media quite a bit the past few days I wanted to hear what was said.  I learned quite a bit I didn’t know. This post is fairly long because it covers so much, but I broke it into two parts.  Many people showed a lot of interest when they learned about the Federal prisons being closed, but those articles left out some very important facts so please read this carefully.

I had a discussion with my medical doctor about a year ago about doctors in prisons.  I told him the experience Jamie has had with his medical care. He came right out and told me it wasn’t true; there was a doctor on the premises every day.  It was the law.  He said the HAD to provide care to the inmates.  I didn’t argue with him.  It was obvious he really didn’t know the facts.

I have also wondered why a doctor would want to be a prison doctor.  Was it because they couldn’t get a job anywhere else because of their own record of care?  I couldn’t see them being paid well. According to the four years of research this journalist did, some prisons may go for up to a year without a doctor at all and the only medical care the inmates get are from fairly untrained nurses who provide care illegally above their degrees of training.

Jamie – and other inmates have told me, Tylenol and ibuprophen  are the drugs they hand out no matter what the medical problem.  For Jamie’s heart problem, they denied the cardiologist wrote down he had a problem at all.  When I called the medical unit all the person in charge did was talk me around in circles because his chart was empty.  It said he went to the cardiologist, but there was no report.  I wonder why?

So why are there so many deaths from lack of care? that is an easy answer.



This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who’s off this week. Last week, the Justice Department announced it would start to phase out the use of private for-profit prisons to hold federal inmates.

Our guest today may have had something to do with that. 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.

Wessler sought records under the Freedom of Information Act from the Bureau of Prisons, which finally released them after Wessler sued and got a court order. The resulting 9,000 pages of medical records and 20,000 pages of monitoring reports paint a troubling picture, particularly in the area of medical care for inmates.

Wessler wrote a series of stories which told of crowded conditions, understaffing, inmate deaths from untreated illnesses and four prison riots, all related to complaints about medical care. Seth Freed Wessler is an independent reporter working for The Investigative Fund. His series on conditions at the 13 privately run federal prisons appeared in The Nation.

Well, Seth Wessler, welcome to FRESH AIR. How long has the Federal Bureau of Prisons been using private correctional facilities?

SETH FREED WESSLER: The Bureau of Prisons in the mid-and-late ’90s began a process of privatizing a subset of the federal prisons that it manages. In the ’90s, the size of the federal prison population was growing massively.

And the federal BOP decided that to house some of this population of prisoners, they would start contracting with private corrections companies. And very soon, the Bureau of Prisons decided that they would use these facilities – these private separate facilities – to hold noncitizens convicted of federal crimes.

And the logic was that noncitizens, because they’ll later be transferred to immigration officials and deported, are an ideal group of people to hold in these sort of explicitly stripped down federal prisons because unlike citizens who the federal government says need to be provided re-entry services to return to their communities, noncitizens will be deported and so don’t have to be provided those same services.

DAVIES: Right – even though the sentences are pretty long – right? – in some cases.

WESSLER: Yeah. Yeah. People spend years in these prisons. Usually, the last few years of their sentences – and are then transferred to immigration authorities and deported. So men I talked to who had been held in these facilities for three, four, five years – really languishing there, often just sort of waiting out their time with little access to programs or services before, later, they’ll be deported.

DAVIES: Just to be clear here, these are not – we’re not talking about immigration detention facilities that the immigrations customs enforcement folks do. These are people who have committed crimes and are in federal custody, right?

WESSLER: That’s right. There’s a separate immigration detention system operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold people who are waiting for deportation, who are – who may be deported.

These facilities are used only for people who are convicted of federal crimes and are being held by the Federal Bureau of Prisons for those convictions. Many of the people in these facilities are held for a crime called re-entry after deportation. That is returning to the United States after they’ve been previously deported.

And increasingly over the last 15 years, that act of crossing the border after a deportation has been treated not as a civil violation that’s responded to with – just by deportation – but as a crime. And sentences for crossing the border after deportation can be years and years.

The average sentence for illegal re-entry is a couple of years. And so many of the men inside this sort of separate segregated system of federal private prisons are held for just that crime of crossing back over the border.

DAVIES: The logic here was that it was easy enough for people once deported to return that they had to really impose a tough penalty so as to discourage that? Is that the idea there?

WESSLER: That’s right. In the mid-2000s, the federal government started prosecuting huge numbers of people – tens of thousands of people a year – criminally for crossing the border in an attempt to deter them from crossing again.

In fact, when federal investigators went looking for evidence that that deterrence worked, they didn’t find any. But last year, more than 70,000 people were charged criminally for illegal entry or illegal re-entry. Those prosecutions now make up about half of all federal prosecutions and have helped to grow the size of the federal prison system.

So while the prison system has expanded in significant part because of drug prosecutions – and that gets a lot of attention – in the federal context, these immigration violations that have been criminalized are also helping to expand the size of the population of federal prisoners.

DAVIES: OK. Before the Justice Department made this announcement that it would try and wind down the use of these private prisons, how many prisoners, roughly, are being held in these private correctional facilities?

WESSLER: There are currently 22,000 federal prisoners held in private facilities. Most of those are used only to hold noncitizens. And they make up about an eighth of the federal prison system.

At one point, that number was about 30,000. It’s started to fall a bit in the last few years. And the Department of Justice announcement says that the Bureau of Prisons will have to begin diminishing its use of these facilities, closing them over the next few years as the contracts end.

By next year, that number of prisoners in federal private facilities will have dropped to about 14,000. And within five years, the federal BOP is to sort of zero out the number of people held in private facilities altogether.

DAVIES: So you spent a couple of years getting documents, interviewing people. In broad terms, what kinds of problems did your reporting discover?

WESSLER: When I began investigating these prisons, I found that the men held inside were being held in conditions that were incredibly disturbing. And this is especially true in the context of medical care, which I investigated at length.

I found that in case after case, prisoners who were sick with treatable illnesses were not being provided even baseline levels of medical care and were complaining time and again about pain and illness. And those illnesses got worse and worse. And in some cases, without any substantive care at all, men died as a result of substandard care.

I wrote about the case of a man named Claudio Fajardo Saucedo (ph). He was in his early 40s and was held at the Reeves Facility, a GEO Group-run facility in West Texas. And soon after he arrived at that facility, he started to complain of pain – back pain, headaches, other pain. And he complained over and over again.

In fact, he complained 18 times – at least 18 times in two years. And every time he complained of this pain, which was getting worse and worse, he was seen only by low-level medical staff – in this case, licensed vocational nurses who go through training for about a year and are supposed to act as support staff to registered nurses.

Well, those were nearly the only people that Mr. Fajardo Saucedo was seeing when he went to these clinics. He was sent back to his cell only with Ibuprofen or Tylenol until finally, after two years of being held in this facility, he collapsed outright in the facility and was sent to a local hospital, where he immediately tested positive for AIDS and died days later of AIDS-related illnesses.

What’s striking about this is not only that he was completely neglected for these two years – that he wasn’t provided any substantive care from doctors or more highly trained medical providers. But also, this prison – Bureau of Prison rules require that prisoners who arrive at new facilities be tested for HIV, and he was never tested for HIV, even as he complained of illnesses that would have suggested he might have been HIV positive. Doctors who I asked to review his medical records said that had he been tested and had the facility known that he was HIV positive, he very likely could have survived.

DAVIES:  I want to talk about the conditions in some of these facilities that are – 13 facilities, right – at which non-citizens are kept in and – that who are convicted of federal crime. You described in some detail a prison in Raymondville, Texas, Willacy County. And I was struck by the description of just the housing units, where people slept. How did that work?

WESSLER: The Willacy County facility in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas is a facility that the bureau – the Bureau of Prisons decided to start using several years ago. It’s a prison that has had a long history of problems. In fact, the Willacy facility was actually built to be a detention center where people would be held for a pretty short amount of time. And as a result, it’s not a regular prison. It’s not built out of concrete. There are no real walls in most of the facility. It was actually a facility built entirely out of Kevlar tents. There were rows of these massive Kevlar domes that stretched for a couple of football fields and held in each of them 200 prisoners, men charged with and convicted of federal crimes.

Inside of these tents, men who I talked to who had been held there said that the facilities would get incredibly hot, that it would smell terrible inside, that sometimes the toilets would back up. And they were held in these – in these tents for months and sometimes years at a time. This same facility, the Willacy facility, actually lost a contract with federal immigration authorities years earlier largely because of really terrible conditions inside.

And just months after the immigration agency got out of this contract, ended its contract with the Management and Training Corporation to run this prison, the Bureau of Prisons reopened the facility as a federal prison or prison for federal prisoners contracting again with the Management and Training Corporation to hold its inmates.

DAVIES: And in these big domes where you say 200 inmates would live together, did anybody have private cells or were they just racks of bunks?

WESSLER: No, they were rows of bunk beds, and so men would sleep a couple of feet apart, and they had no privacy whatsoever. They were left largely alone to manage their own affairs, usually with one guard overseeing a whole crowd of prisoners. And from time to time, they’d be let out of the domes and allowed to spend time on a concrete yard. And in the middle of all of these tents, guards would walk back and forth, watching what happened inside of these yards. But by and large, men spent months, sometimes years, held in these Kevlar domes in this – what started to be called the tent city in Willacy.

DAVIES: And was it typical in these private prisons that prisoners stayed in group dwellings as opposed to cells with just one or two inmates?

WESSLER: You know, what’s interesting about these private prisons is that they’re all very different because they’re often built in haphazard ways. There’s another facility called Big Spring in another part of Texas that was constructed on the premises of an old Air Force base and in an old hotel in this town of Big Spring. And so some prisoners in that facility were held in cells that where 10 people were sleeping in a room the size of about a normal hotel room. In other places, prisoners were held in much larger areas in other places in several people – in cells that held just several people. There’s no real order to how these places are built. The private companies find spaces and then rent these spaces out to the federal government.

DAVIES: Health care is a – was a big issue in – among the inmates and led to riots. I mean, there were – what? – four riots, all of them related to medical care, right?

WESSLER: That’s right. You know, it’s incredibly unusual in federal prisons for unrest, for protests to turn into riots. But at least four times in these for-profit prisons, prisoner protest turned into massive riots. And at Willacy, the south Texas facility I talked about, that riot, which started as a protest and then as a result of incredible force used by prison guards – rubber bullets, tear gas, these sort of BB-filled exploding grenades that prison officials used to respond to that protest – a riot erupted.

And prisoners actually so decimated this facility, burning holes and – cutting and burning holes in the sides of those Kevlar tents, that in that case the federal government determined that the facility was, quote, “uninhabitable” and closed it down last year.

When I spoke with prisoners who were held in the facility, men who were now locked in other prisons or had not – or who had been deported and I spoke to in Mexico, as well as with prison guards, it became immediately clear that this was a protest that had emerged over issues including, most substantively, bad medical care in this facility.

DAVIES: These privately run prisons in the system are for non-citizens, I mean – very typically people who were arrested – illegal immigrants who were arrested for trying to enter the country after having been deported, and the standards are different, right? How are the requirements and standards different for a regular Bureau of Prisons facility which citizens are housed? How are the standards different for them as opposed to these privately run prisons?

WESSLER: The Federal Bureau of Prisons, when it runs its own facilities, it applies hundreds of rules and standards, these things called program statements to the operation of those facilities. Those program statements guide how everything works from the nitty gritty of medical care to how many guards will be on any given unit to how prisoners are fed and so on. When it began contracting with private companies to hold some federal prisoners, one of the ideas was that these companies could help the Bureau of Prisons save on costs, and in an attempt to help these prison companies do that, the BOP, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, applied fewer rules to these facilities. So only a few dozen of those program statements actually apply to the way these facilities operate. And what that means is that the kinds of programs and services that exist in regular Bureau of Prisons facilities simply don’t operate in these facilities.

In the context of medical care, the contracts that the companies sign with the federal government require the companies to follow some of the Bureau of Prisons’ own rules. But in other areas, the prisons are allowed to sort of make it up as they go. And that includes the prisons staffing plans, so one of the things that I found in my reporting was that in these for-profit prisons, the companies are using much lower-trained kinds of medical workers, often licensed vocational or licensed practical nurses, who have about a year of training. These LVNs are the sort of front-line workers in this medical system. So when a sick prisoner has a problem, the person that they’re talking to is somebody who’s really not trained to provide substantive care, and that can be the only person that this – that an inmate sees for months sometimes at a time.

DAVIES: So in that case, you have a, you know – a medical person who typically provides medical support services, and they’re the one diagnosing what could be a serious or complicated medical issue.

WESSLER: Well, what ends up happening is that somebody comes in and complains of a headache or of back pain or of another kind of illness, and it’s this low-level medical worker who’s making decisions about what should happen next. And often that decision is that nothing should happen next or that this person just needs some Tylenol. And so the prisoner will be sent back to their cell with a couple of pills of Ibuprofen, and that’s it.

And then again, that same person will come back and complain again of a similar illness and see only one of these low-level nurses. I asked doctors to review the medical files I obtained of prisoners who were held inside of these facilities. And they said over and over again that these low-level licensed vocational nurses were really operating outside of their legal scope of practice, outside of what they’ve been trained to do.

And then when I got to obtain more records from the Bureau of Prisons, I found that the Bureau of Prisons itself, the monitors that the agency sends into these facilities to check on how these private companies are operating – they found that 10 of these private prisons had actually broken state nursing practice laws by pushing nurses to work outside of their legal scope of practice of what they’re trained to do.

DAVIES: Seth Freed Wessler’s stories on privately run prisons appeared in The Nation. After a break, he’ll tell us about what federal monitors reported on conditions in those prisons and why those reports didn’t lead to change.

End part one . . . Start part two

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