When Elizabeth Forbes, director of the prisoner advocacy group NC-CURE, received a call from a family whose incarcerated son was planning to commit suicide, she immediately contacted the prison he was housed in: Rivers Correctional Institution, a private prison in Winton, North Carolina.
After several phone calls, prison officials promised to follow up with her. “They absolutely never did call, nor did they speak to the family,” Forbes said. She said the inmate was placed in solitary confinement after attempting self-harm.
Rivers is one of 14 private prisons nationwide whose contract will not be renewed by the Department of Justice after an Aug. 18 announcement. The Department’s Office of the Inspector General reported private institutions had a higher number of incidents per capita for most categories than federal facilities. Forbes said the difference can be attributed to a lack of accountability and oversight. “It really makes it a dangerous situation for people that are going inside a private prison system, particularly people with chronic illnesses and serious mental health issues,” she said.
Rivers, owned by The Geo Group, Inc., has a capacity for 1,450 low-security inmates, about half non-citizens and half from Washington D.C., because it has no state prisons. The other federal private prisons in the report house non-citizens in Criminal Alien Requirement facilities. Carl Takei, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, helped write a report on several of these prisons in Texas, some of which are owned by Geo Group. “Prisoners described how they were denied medical care, how they were subjected to abuse, how the constant theme of their treatment was putting profits before people,” he said.
For example, Takei said one of the prisons in the report went without a full-time doctor for 8 months because it was cheaper for the company to pay the understaffing fee than to pay the doctor’s salary. In the DOJ memo, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said as the private prison companies’ contracts come up for renewal, the Bureau of Prisons would decline to renew them or reduce their scope. During a conference call on Aug. 19 in which no media questions were allowed, Geo Group CEO George Zoley said the company was disappointed in the DOJ’s decision. “We believe all of our BOP facilities meet or exceed quality standards comparable to government facilities,” Zoley said.
He said the facility received positive ratings during its last inspection, and that the company has no reason to believe the contract won’t be extended. The contract for Rivers is up for renewal in March of 2017. North Carolina ended its use of private prisons in 2000 after little cost-savings, said Daniel Bowes, an attorney at the Second Chance Initiative at the N.C. Justice Center. “A lot of the benefits that were touted regarding privatizing prisons just based on the DOJ report haven’t proven to be true,” Bowes said. Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, a Texas prison reform group, said Criminal Alien Requirement facility inmates are often convicted of drug or immigration crimes. “(This decision) will essentially reintegrate the federal prison system,” Libal said.
The decision does not apply to immigration detention facilities contracted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. According to a report by Grassroots Leadership, 62 percent of all beds in ICE immigration detention centers are operated by private corporations. Forbes said that the government will have to address the question of what to do with the prisoners formerly housed in these institutions. “Does that mean building more prisons or does that mean we’re going to let more people out?” she said.