On Wednesday, news broke that Idaho is dumping the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and searching for a new company to run the state’s biggest prison. The prison is so violent that prisoners call it the “Gladiator School,” and it has been the subject of both an ACLU lawsuit and an Idaho State Police investigation. And earlier this year, CCA admitted that its employees had falsified nearly 4,800 hours of staffing records at the prison over a seven-month period, billing the state for security posts that they actually left unfilled.
Idaho’s decision to end the Gladiator School contract with CCA will make it the fourth termination of a CCA prison contract that the company has announced this month.
The week before the Gladiator School announcement, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice announced that it would be closing down two CCA prisons for budgetary reasons. (One of the two prisons, the Dawson State Jail, was the site of multiple high-profile prisoner deaths, including a baby girl who was allegedly born into a prison toilet after staff ignored her mother’s requests for medical assistance.)
The same week, CCA announced that the Mississippi Department of Corrections decided not to renew CCA’s contract to run the state’s Wilkinson County Correctional Facility. Earlier this year, a prisoner was stabbed to death during a prison riot at Wilkinson – which was the second riot in twelve months at Wilkinson and the third uprising at a CCA prison in Mississippi during the same time period.
The grisly records of these CCA prisons exemplify why handing control of prisons over to for-profit companies is a recipe for abuse, neglect, and misconduct. A study conducted by the Idaho Department of Corrections in 2008 found that there were four times more prisoner-on-prisoner assaults at ICC than at Idaho’s other seven prisons combined. As detailed in the ACLU’s 2011 report, Banking on Bondage, several studies suggest that prisoners in for-profit prisons face greater threats to their safety than those in publicly-run prisons – a possible reflection of the higher staff turnover in private prisons, which can result in inexperienced guards walking the tiers. Additionally, numerous religious groups – including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Presbyterian Church USA, and the United Methodist Church – have condemned the perverse incentives involved in for-profit incarceration, often emphasizing the inherent conflict between the goal of rehabilitation and the company’s profit motive.
One worrisome aspect of the Idaho and Mississippi contract terminations, however, is that these prisons aren’t actually being returned to state hands. In Idaho, Board of Corrections Chairperson Robin Sandy said that the state won’t be allowed to take over the Gladiator School because that would amount to “expanding” state government. And in Mississippi, the state has awarded the new Wilkinson County contract to MTC – the same company that runs East Mississippi Correctional Facility (the subject of a new prison conditions lawsuit filed just last month by the ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center) and the Walnut Grove Correctional Facility (which was recently found to have the highest inmate assault rate of any prison in Mississippi).
Rather than repeatedly handing off authority to a revolving door of contractors, states need to both take responsibility for their own prisons and reduce the number of people entering the criminal justice system in the first place. Only then can they unshackle themselves from the false promise of for-profit imprisonment.