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Yes, West Virginia, a private prison transfer is a terrible idea
The Mountain State is the latest to consider outsourcing its jailhouse duties
A private prison in Adelanto, Calif., for immigration detainees.
A private prison in Adelanto, Calif., for immigration detainees. (John Moore/Getty Images) 
W

est Virginia is the latest state to contemplate sending its prisoners to private prisons beyond its borders.

The Mountain State is considering a plan that would transfer as many as 400 inmates to a private prison in Kentucky run by the Corrections Corporation of America. The move is necessary, authorities say, because West Virginia's prisons remain overcrowded even after inmate-reduction plans were ordered by the state supreme court, and state lawmakers have failed to provide adequate funding for programs that would help prisoners gain parole more quickly. Instead of spending money in West Virginia to fix a West Virginian problem, in other words, officials want to send their money, and their inmates, out of state.

There are so many things wrong with this plan that it is hard to know where to begin. Let's start with the CCA itself, the sole bidder for the work. The national private prisons company is enormously profitable, politically connected, and has a business model based upon a chilling premise: Many of its contracts with state and local officials mandate occupancy requirements.

Indeed, at a time when lawmakers of both parties are looking for ways to save money by ending mass incarceration, the CCA wants to keep jails and prisons as full as possible. "[W]e actually have been working on West Virginia for about two years," CCA's president said last year when the state first issued a "Request for Proposal" for the transfer.

In many states, the private prison business has been very lucrative. One report last year suggested that industry profits have increased by more than 500 percent in the past two decades. But what do states get for their money, aside from removing inmates off the public books?

The business model is counterproductive, say prison reform advocates. Many of these private prisons, they contend, are minimally staffed with officers who earn low wages, and who in turn provide only minimal services to inmates. Training for these guards is inadequate or nonexistent, prison reformers say, and turnover is high, resulting in high rates of violence and abuse.

What does that look like in real life? The group Grassroots Leadership — which is spearheading the effort to keep West Virginia's prisoners in West Virginia, and otherwise keeping tabs on the private prisons industry — offers these details:

  • In 2012 and 2013, deadly riots broke out in a facility run by CCA under contract with the Mississippi Department of Corrections, and in another facility run under contract with the federal Bureau of Prisons.
  • CCA was assessed hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial penalties from state auditors in Ohio for violations that included inadequate staffing, delays in medical treatment, and unacceptable living conditions inside the prison. CCA was also fined for placing a financial strain on the community, after the facility became so dangerous that it required the local political department to dispatch officers to maintain security.
  • CCA was also found in contempt of a federal court for persistently understaffing an Idaho prison and then lying about it, meaning that taxpayers were charged for hundreds of hours of staff time that CCA simply never delivered.

Meanwhile, the private prison in Beattyville, Ky., to which the West Virginian inmates would be transferred is a mess. It's a dangerous and unstable place where 205 inmates from another state, Vermont, have, as near as anyone can tell, been on lockdown since Jan. 15. Last week, the warden of this facility, euphemistically called the Lee Adjustment Center, resigned. To give you a sense of the misperceptions in play here, just one month earlier a review team from West Virginia's Department of Corrections visited this prison and reportedly came away "impressed." The team, according to local media reports, "said it was a clean, well-run facility."

It must not be too clean or well-run, since Kentucky itself, after three decades of reliance upon private prisons, decided last June not to renew its contract with CCA. There was a 2010 scandal involving allegations of sexual abuse of female inmates. There were riots in 2004 at another private prison in the state amid allegations of inmate abuse and mistreatment.

That's why there are Vermont inmates in a Kentucky prison, and why there has been such an aggressive move by the company to fill up it up with West Virginians. To these companies, an empty or underinhabited prison is not a sign of progress on criminal justice. It's a lost opportunity for profit.

And, speaking of those Vermont inmates, CCA just last month lost a round in a legal battle over transparency inside its Kentucky prison, with the plaintiffs arguing that "it's a matter of common sense to treat the state's private jailer as the functional equivalent of the Department of Corrections." But there also might be a more urgent need for transparency. An ACLU lawyer involved in this lawsuit, filed by Prison Legal News, was blunt with me on Tuesday: "We are concerned that staffing shortages at Beattyville have led to the lockdown, and are worried that Vermonters were being made to live in a dangerous, poorly supervised environment and are now being punished for staffing shortcomings beyond their control."

There are no clear financial benefits to sending the inmates out of state — at least none that have been made public — and the figures that have been bandied about suggest West Virginia could more cheaply resolve this problem at home. There are constitutional dimensions to the problem as well. The inmates would have to waive their legal rights to be kept in their home state — effectively granting West Virginia permission to forego its constitutional obligations to provide them with basic rehabilitative services.

If West Virginia transfers these prisoners to this private jail in Kentucky, it will be consigning them to a prison that appears to be in serious turmoil amid questions of transparency and accountability on the part of prison officials. With no clear financial benefit, and perhaps with even avoidable financial burdens, West Virginia will be transferring these inmates into the custody and control of a private corporation that has a dubious recent record of care. Furthermore, the state is ignoring the well-meaning efforts of local prison officials who say they can take care of the problem if the state legislature gives them the money to do so.

Yes, West Virginia, there is a solution here. It begins, and ends, at home.

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News. He has covered the law and justice beat since 1997 and was the 2012 winner of the American Bar Association's Silver Gavel Award for commentary.

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