World’s Largest For-Profit Prison Blasted in Federal Audit

The world’s largest for-profit prison has minimal oversight, overcharged the federal government by $2.1 million, arbitrarily punishes protesting inmates and suffers from severe understaffing, according to a report released Thursday morning by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General.

Run by private prison company GEO Group, the Reeves County Detention Complex in Pecos houses nearly 4,000 federal prisoners, mostly undocumented immigrants serving sentences for drugs and immigration-related offenses. Over the last decade, Reeves has been rocked by riots, persistent complaints about inadequate medical care and allegations that prison officials use solitary confinement to punish inmates who complain. In 2009, Reeves was the site of two back-to-back prisoner uprisings after an epileptic inmate, Jesus Manuel Galindo, was found dead in his isolation cell. Galindo, his family and other inmates had repeatedly pleaded with GEO officials for better medical care.

The Reeves complex consists of three compounds. The Department of Justice investigated two of the three sub-complexes, which together hold about 2,400 low-security immigrant inmates.

Perhaps the most alarming finding is that the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) asked GEO Group to eliminate minimum staffing requirements for correctional officers, medical care providers and other personnel in its original bid for the facility. Not surprisingly, the prison was almost continuously understaffed from 2007 to March 2009, following two riots in late 2008 and early 2009 that did more than $1 million worth of damage. “BOP officials told us they removed these staffing requirements to achieve cost savings and grant the contractor flexibility and discretion to manage the staffing of the facility,” the report states.

“This audit confirms what we’ve suspected about the BOP’s contracts for private prisons for immigrants for many years,” said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, a Texas-based group that opposes private prisons. “An extreme lack of accountability has created an unsafe and inhumane system of incarcerating immigrants in substandard private prisons. While immigrants suffer, unaccountable prison corporations are making big bucks off these contracts paid for by taxpayers.”

The private contractor providing health services at Reeves, Tennessee-based Correct Care Solutions LLC, also has persistently understaffed the prison, despite a requirement imposed by BOP in December 2010 that contractors maintain staffing levels of at least 85 percent of the contract requirement. Nonetheless, for three years, Correct Care failed to meet the 85 percent threshold more than 90 percent of the time. The report also found that the company has a “potential financial incentive” to maintain vacancies rather than fill positions at market rates, based on the BOP’s accounting methods.

A staff shortage in the Special Housing Unit—the solitary confinement unit where Galindo was found dead—was so severe that the BOP issued an emergency “cure notice” to GEO Group in September 2012, the report found. The BOP reviewed a video feed from July and August of that year and found that 47 of 70 required inmate counts were simply not conducted, that 30-minute irregular rounds were not consistently or completely conducted and that orderlies weren’t properly supervised.

The BOP saved an estimated $10 million by keeping staffing levels low.

The report states that correctional staff levels were boosted after the riots and that medical personnel have been added because of concerns raised by the Office of Inspector General during its investigation.

The audit also criticized GEO Group for arbitrarily sending inmates to an isolation unit called the “J-Unit.” Created in the wake of inmate protests in October 2013, the J-Unit is intended to isolate prison leaders who have been “found to be coercing other inmates to join demonstrations,” according to the report. (In a footnote, the authors state that they did not investigate the inmates’ demands for things like better pay and additional movement in the recreation yard.) After the demonstrations, prison authorities sent 364 inmates it considered ringleaders to Reeves’ Special Housing Unit (SHU), or solitary confinement unit, which is designed for only 210 people. To deal with the overcrowding, the prison converted a general housing unit into a kind of SHU-lite. Investigators found that in 9 of the 10 cases they looked into, the prisoners didn’t belong in the J-Unit by the prison’s own criteria.

In early 2015, the BOP renewed GEO’s contract for the third time.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is the editor of the Observer.

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Published at 4:26 pm CST