Mississippi can’t kick the private prison habit

By Alan Bean

Geo Group, the private prison firm that lost three prison contracts in Mississippi earlier this year because of gross violations that turned facilities like the juvenile prison at Walnut Grove into hell holes, has been disciplined again.  This time, Geo is accused of failing to protect the safety of corrections workers at its prison near Lost Gap MS.

You would think that Mississippi officials might be getting the idea that private prisons aren’t such a good idea.  Not so.  Christopher Epps, Commissioner of the MS Dept. of Corrections, immediately announced that all the three private prisons previously run by Geo Corp would be turned over to the Management & Training Corporation of Centerville, Utah.

According to the Associated Press, Epps is hoping for a better result.

“The Mississippi Department of Corrections is looking forward to a great partnership with MTC,” Epps said in a statement Thursday. “There is a need for different types of prisons, including state and regional as well as private facilities in Mississippi. MTC will be held to the same high standards as set by MDOC and I feel extremely confident that MTC will do a great job.”

Epps told reporters he thought Mississippi would get better terms if the three prisons were sold as a package deal.  In other words, Mississippi is trying to do corrections on the cheap, and that’s the problem.  The only way private prisons can turn a profit is by cutting corners.  If they were really held to the same standards as state prisons they would have to hire as many corrections officers as MDOC and pay them comparable salaries.  The private prison industry would also have to invest in a safe working environment for their employees, something that Geo Corp clearly failed to do.

What makes Commissioner Epps think a Utah firm can protect the safety and dignity of inmates and employees when the two biggest private prison firms (Geo Corp and Nashville based Corrections Corporation of America, CCA) have repeatedly failed to deliver the goods.  These companies wouldn’t be profitable if they delivered safe prisons, nutritious food, adequate training, and sufficient staffing.  They make money by refusing to deliver a quality product.

Commissioner Epps works for politicians who have been bitten by the “government is bad” bug (a virus marketed aggressively by the folks at ALEC).  Since governments always screw up and the private sector can do no wrong, privatizing prisons makes perfect sense.  Geo Corp wasn’t a disaster because it sacrificed everything for the bottom line, they simply weren’t the right outfit for the job.

But notice, Mr. Epps didn’t call in CCA to replace Geo Corp; he went with a company in far off Utah with little experience working in grossly underfunded southern prisons.  All the home-grown companies have repeatedly proven that they can’t be trusted with the tax payers’ money.  MTC will either lose money on this deal, or it will manufacture the same horror show that shut down the juvenile unit in Walnut Grove.

Feds: Prison operator in Mississippi fined

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A private prison operator that’s giving up its business in Mississippi could face up to $104,000 in fines from federal workplace safety regulators.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said GEO Group exposed employees to assaults by inmates at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility near Lost Gap.

Citations issued Tuesday by OSHA say GEO Group knowingly failed to provide adequate staffing, fix malfunctioning cell door locks or provide training to protect employees from inmate violence, including stabbings, bites and other injuries.

“Prisons may be inherently dangerous workplaces, but the employer is still required to take every reasonable precaution to protect corrections officers and other staff against safety and health hazards, including assaults,” Clyde Payne, the director of OSHA’s Jackson office, said in a statement.

GEO Group of Boca Raton, Fla., did not respond immediately to a request for comment. OSHA often reduces its fines when a company appeals.

It’s the second time that GEO Group’s management of Mississippi prisons has been questioned. A group of lawyers sued over mistreatment of youth offenders at GEO Group’s Walnut Grove Correctional Facility in central Mississippi.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves wrote that evidence presented “a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world,” including guards smuggling drugs to inmates, employees having sex with inmates, denial of medical treatment and denial of basic educational services.

GEO announced in April it was giving up its prison contracts this summer at Walnut Grove, East Mississippi and at Marshall County Correctional Facility in Holly Springs. The Mississippi Department of Corrections said last week that another private operator, Management & Training Corporation of Centreville, Utah, has signed 10-year operating contracts for all three. MTC will take over the prisons during the summer.

OSHA proposed a $70,000 fine against GEO Group over failure to keep enough guards on duty, fix cell locks and train workers to protect themselves at the 1,500-bed prison near Meridian. Willful violations carry higher fines because an employer knew about them.

Officials said the prison didn’t meet minimum staffing requirements between Dec. 13, 2011, and Jan. 29. For example, guards had to make head counts alone on Dec. 13, without a required colleague. At times, only three guards were present in a unit that was supposed to have eight.

From Dec. 13, 2011 through Feb. 13, 2012, locks on some cells were sabotaged, meaning inmates could open them from the inside, but guards could not open them from the outside. Door lock indicators also gave false readings.

The citations said employees were injured in the head, eyes, face, hands, legs and body by inmate assaults.

GEO Group was instructed to implement a workplace violence prevention program and stress counseling for employees, do better maintenance on locks, increase staffing, and do more to search for weapons and contraband.

The company was also fined $16,500 for failing to conduct medical evaluations for workers required to wear respirators. That was a repeat violation because a similar problem was cited by OSHA in November 2010 at GEO Group’s Pompano Beach, Fla., jail.

GEO Group also faces $17,600 in penalties for violations including failing to make sure that respirators fit employees, that respirators were stored away from dust or chemicals, and failing to make a plan to control bacteria and viruses transmitted by exposure to blood and other bodily substances.

The GEO Group has 80,000 beds at 116 prisons and jails in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and South Africa.

One thought on “Mississippi can’t kick the private prison habit

  1. So said I before, so say I now again, incarceration for profit is inherently unjust, inherently unethical, inherently immoral.

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