Americans enjoy freedoms not heard of in other countries. We have freedoms of speech, expression, and a free press. We are able to openly oppose our leaders and even insult them without fear of reproach. For instance, if I wanted to call America’s current leader a sentient Cheeto lacking a moral compass or ideology other than the pursuit of ego-boosting wealth and superficial pleasures with all the intelligence of a poorly-trained chihuahua, I am free to do so.
America is great, isn’t it? However, one might be surprised to learn that the country with all these freedoms also incarcerates more than any country on earth — and it’s not even close.
There are worthy conversations to be had about the causes of mass incarceration, but that’s not why we’re here today. Instead, let’s take an inside look at an often overlooked subsection of incarceration in America: private, for-profit prisons.
Private prison companies like GEO Group and CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) will tell you they exist to ease the pressure of overcrowding that mass incarceration has caused. They will tell you they work in tandem with the government to perform a public service.
In reality, however, they exist only for profit. They make their money on the misfortune and misery of others and are a cancer on American society.
What follows are personal stories from my time as a Correctional Officer (from February 2014 to July 2015) in a private jail. Because these are mega corporations with overpaid lawyers, I will refrain from name-dropping the specific jail. It has since been acquired by one of the two big private prison companies, showing how they continue to expand the multi-billion dollar industry.
The initial hiring process was much like any other; I was interviewed by the Deputy Warden of Security, run through a background check, and received a call with my start date. My father is a Correctional Officer in a public, government-operated jail, as are other extended family members, so I came in excited and eager to share my own experiences.
The first surprise was the pay. While family members I knew were paid an average of over $20 per hour (to start), I was shocked to learn the starting pay was a paltry $12 per hour for the first three months, with a bump to $14 per hour after the initial 90 days in an area with a high cost of living.
My spirits were dampened, but I was in school and had bills, so I took what I could get.
Had I looked into the varying pay rates at all, the pay wouldn’t have been such a shock. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary of a CO in a private jail is just over $30,000 per year, while the same CO in a public jail makes roughly $39,000 annually.
Naturally, the differing pay rate is a cost-cutting measure. After all, these are private companies with shareholders to please. That drop in pay saves them money, but also affects the quality of candidates, as I would soon discover.
The training lasted four weeks and consisted of both classroom work and shadowing current officers. While there were genuinely helpful portions of the training, such as hands-on defensive tactics and restraints, teaching of the force continuum, and how to interact with inmates, there was also a lot of training devoted to how to avoid lawsuits and the history of the organization.
By itself, learning about the organization and minimizing the jail’s exposure to potential lawsuits isn’t a terrible thing, but it becomes an issue when it receives the same, if not more, time than practical training like how to effectively use handcuffs.
In all, there were two days devoted to using handcuffs and learning defensive tactics like pressure points, holds, and takedowns. For comparison’s sake, there was equal time devoted to how to use fire extinguishers and learning the names of the higher-ups.
Shadowing, I believed, would be more helpful. Surely the other officers would want cadets properly trained since they would very quickly become their co-workers and, in some cases, their only backup in an emergency.
Instead, we were confronted mostly with officers who didn’t want to be bothered. They were busy, they had things to do, and were not at all interested in showing us the ropes. Occasionally there was an officer who would make an attempt, but for the most part, we were told to find a chair and stay out of the way.
We were also informed not to pass that information along to the instructors because they would find out if a new class complained about their training or lack thereof. They would know the new class of cadets were snitches and no one would want to work with them.
I expected that behavior from inmates, not officers. It would become abundantly clear during my time there that a large portion of the officers blurred that line regularly.
In the middle of the fourth week, we were given a test on what we had learned thus far. This test, it turned out, would decide if we had passed the training. Why was it given in the middle of what was supposed to be the fourth and final week of training? Because they needed multiple days to re-test those who didn’t pass the first time, of course.
See, while the test technically decided if one would keep their job or not, no one was actually fired for failing. Instead, they were walked through the test to ensure they would pass and could begin work the next week. If the test was given on a Friday, they wouldn’t have time for the inevitable re-testing.
Inevitably, a few people in a class of about a dozen (I don’t recall an exact number anymore) failed. They spent the next couple days testing while the rest of us passed the time.
We were given a certificate of completion on that Friday and told to report to work the next week. We were now all Correctional Officers.
On The Job
The day-to-day of a CO isn’t as exciting as it may seem on Orange Is The New Black or other shows — though I will admit the show does a good job of exploring the issues with private prisons after Litchfield’s acquisition by MCC, a fictional private prison company — so there isn’t really much to tell in that regard.
We were expected to do an initial count, which included making sure everyone was present and moving, and then do so every half hour at varying times. Other than that, it was really monitoring prisoners’ movements around the jail.
There were visits to medical, their lawyer or public defender, visitation, groups, and even jobs for the lucky few. For the most part, however, the inmates stayed in the dayroom playing cards, watching the one TV that picked up only what the antenna could bring in or walking laps for exercise. The units did not have access to a yard, so they were inside at all times.
The units at this particular jail were set up like a hub inside, while separated into six different sections. There was a control room (or “bubble”) in the center with control panels — be they physical panels with buttons or in rare cases on computers — that sat on the second tier with windows that could see into the four pods or blocks. Directly beneath the bubble was a vestibule with four doors to the blocks.
The blocks were separated by V-shaped areas that contained one basketball net and a cage in the roof that allowed fresh air. There were four blocks and only two of these V-shaped areas — which we unironically called “the yard” — meaning the blocks had to share the only thing even resembling outdoor space.
Each unit was assigned three officers. One ran the bubble and the other two had blocks ‘A and B’ or ‘C and D’. ‘A’ and ‘D’ block held 55 inmates, while ‘B’ and ‘C’ held 48. This meant one officer was responsible for up to 103 inmates at a time, but could only see 55 or 48 at once.
Needless to say, that caused issues. The lack of visibility led officers, at times myself included, to conclude that the easiest way to keep an eye on the inmates was from the bubble, where one could quickly see out the windows into the dayroom and the yards.
This meant increased visibility but a decrease in response times and a lacking presence of authority. Each officer decided the pros and cons and acted accordingly, though there were certainly drawbacks no matter what the approach.
Poor set-up is an issue many prisons have, but in a private prison with sub-par staff the issue was exacerbated and sometimes even meant an inmate winding up injured or even dead.
Inadequate Mental Health Care
One of the biggest issues facing prisons today is the inability to care for the sick and mentally ill. After spending time inside, I can attest the situation is even worse than anything you have heard in the media.
As far as caring for the sick or infirm, the jail largely treated them as a nuisance not worth the time or effort. There was a small medical section devoted to those who needed more constant care that sometimes shoved as many as six inmates in one room. They were given cots to sleep on with absolutely no space to speak of, even those requiring wheelchairs.
Medical was split into two sections — upper and lower — stuck in the middle of the jail. Lower medical was on the ground floor, naturally, so there were usually people walking by should an inmate need something. Upper medical, however, was a much different story.
It took a flight of steps to reach and rarely saw any activity. Because medical was in the middle of the jail, there were no windows. The only other people these inmates saw were nurses twice a day, inmates delivering food three times a day, and officers sporadically doing count. Some were fortunate enough to have cellmates, but not all.
Otherwise, they had no human interaction or sunlight.
The issues of those kept in medical ranged from those with physical handicaps to those so mentally distressed they had to be kept separate and near medical staff at all times.
One such inmate was kept separate and often wound up in the padded room — yes, they’re real — because he would chew on his own arms to the point they would bleed and require stitches. He would then proceed to chew on the bandages to get to the stitches, opening the wounds all over again.
Another was a man with such advanced dementia he could no longer use the bathroom on his own and was forced to wear a diaper. If the nurses were able to bathe him, he would shout “Rape!” at the top of his lungs. Often times the nurses didn’t want to be bothered and he would be kept in a soiled diaper for days on end until it began spilling over onto his bed.
More than once I witnessed the man sleeping in his own filth.
Inmates with mental health needs not requiring a stay in medical were housed on their own block of the Maximum Security unit, where I worked for over a year. The unit’s four blocks were split in Administrative Segregation, or “the hole,” maximum security offenders, protective custody, and then the mental health block where they were kept with 40–50 other inmates.
Maximum Security was assigned five officers — one per block and one in the bubble. The jail would rotate us around the five positions, so I wound up working the mental health block several times. It was here I witnessed the most egregious failings of the jail’s medical care.
Twice a day, nurses would go around the jail with a pill cart. For most inmates, the pills were often over the counter medications to help with intestinal issues or occasionally something to treat chronic illnesses. It was not uncommon for the jail to run out of these medications and not replace them for days, even weeks.
This meant inmates with Multiple Sclerosis and other severe, chronic conditions would go untreated. The angry outbursts were met with shrugs and an invitation to the hole if they didn’t calm down.
While that’s bad, nothing was worse than watching a mentally ill inmate go from almost level to a complete breakdown over the course of a week because the jail could not be bothered to get their medication. Unfortunately, it happened more than I can count.
One inmate in particular sticks out as particularly heartbreaking; he was a former Marine and, while I never knew his exact diagnosis, I know he had delusions and hallucinations that would sometimes make him violent depending on what he happened to be seeing or hearing.
He began his stay at the jail in the medical unit after attacking the officers who were working intake. A mountain of a man — probably 6'4" and pushing 300 pounds — with military training was not easily subdued, but he took his meds and was eventually moved off medical to the mental health block, where he continued making steady improvements.
During casual conversations with him, he was articulate and well-mannered, showing the discipline learned through service. There was one occasion where he even threatened another inmate for daring to talk back to me and my fellow officers (not encouraged behavior, but the thought was nice).
However, one day, he was told they were out of his medication. He was disturbed, but stayed calm and respectful, assured by the nurse the medication would be coming within a few days. Every day for the next week he asked for his medication, every day told it still hadn’t arrived.
After being off for a few days, I returned to work and was assigned the mental health block. I walked on to do my count and was greeted by this inmate as was his custom. This time, however, he was kneeling by the open tray slot in his door, with an open Bible on the floor outside his cell.
I asked him if he’d like his Bible back, and was informed it was there so he could read it to his daughter, who was visiting him.
It wasn’t much longer before that gentle giant was back in the medical unit, kept by himself and suffering from less pleasant hallucinations.
Recounting the story fills me with an anger that’s hard to describe. This is just one story of many like this, but this sticks out as not just failing a human being, not just failing a fellow American citizen, but failing a veteran who at the very least has earned proper medical care.
Instead, he was the victim of the bottom line.
Let me first note I do believe there are instances where, for short periods, solitary confinement is a useful tool. It becomes dangerous when abused and used for extended periods of time, which this jail did constantly — even to those who didn’t deserve it in the first place.
As mentioned above, sometimes the only infraction by an inmate to result in solitary confinement was a medical issue. Inmates that were deemed a pain to deal with because of their physical or mental illness were stashed in the upper part of medical and locked away.
Those in the Special Management Unit (or SMU) were kept alone in their cells for months at a time. Yes, these were the worst of the worst in terms of violence on staff or other inmates, but they were kept in their cells 23 hours a day with no sunlight and no interaction besides officers a few times a day.
When they did come out, they did so in shackles.
They had access, like the other blocks, to a slab of concrete with a basketball net and a cage in the ceiling that allowed fresh air. In the yard, their shackles were taken off. While some took this as an opportunity to pick up a basketball or do a little exercise, most just went into the corner with the most sunlight and sat there, staring blankly ahead.
Even juveniles brought to the jail waited their time out in solitary confinement. The youngest I saw come through was 14 years old, and he was kept in a single cell by himself for 23 hours per day, just like the rest. They were not to speak with one another or interact in any way. Fortunately, their stay was usually short-lived.
Studies have been done on the effects of solitary confinement, with horrifying results. The most famous, by University of Wisconsin psychologist Harry Harlow in the 1950’s, showed the effects on monkeys.
Per PBS Frontline:
Harlow placed rhesus monkeys inside a custom-designed solitary chamber nicknamed “the pit of despair.” Shaped like an inverted pyramid, the chamber had slippery sides that made climbing out all but impossible. After a day or two, Harlow wrote, “most subjects typically assume a hunched position in a corner of the bottom of the apparatus. One might presume at this point that they find their situation to be hopeless.” Harlow also found that monkeys kept in isolation wound up “profoundly disturbed, given to staring blankly and rocking in place for long periods, circling their cages repetitively, and mutilating themselves.” Most readjusted eventually, but not those that had been caged the longest. “Twelve months of isolation almost obliterated the animals socially,” Harlow found.
While the situations described sound abhorrent, it’s important to note this particular jail was, relatively speaking, not that bad in their abuse of solitary confinement. Often times the rules were relaxed and inmates supposed to be in solitary were allowed extensive contact with others, even allowed out at the same time.
In other private prisons, especially those meant for ICE detentions, the situations are much worse.
Officers Blurred The Thin Blue Line
Most correctional officers are good people who believe in what they’re doing as a public service. That is true of those I know and even of those I worked beside. However, the movie trope of the dirty officer willing to bring in contraband — which is anything not authorized by the jail — is unfortunately true.
During my relatively brief stay, I witnessed no less than a half dozen officers lose their jobs because they were caught bringing in contraband. In addition, at least one caseworker was fired for improper contact with an inmate.
Some were caught with the contraband on them coming into the jail, others were found out because inmates are a gossipy bunch, and yet others simply chose the wrong inmates to trust. The ideals behind “no snitching” tend to go out the window quickly when an inmate is looking at added time or even just a trip to the hole.
One officer was paid $500 by an inmate’s cousin to bring in a cell phone. Another was simply buttered up to the point she, out of the kindness (and naiveté) of her heart, brought in gum and sunflower seeds. That’s right, she lost her job over gum and sunflower seeds for an inmate that rolled on her the minute someone came across the contraband.
One inmate was caught with a cell phone (it’s a popular commodity, as you might imagine), and rolled on the officer who brought it in before it was even confiscated. He was already in the hole at the time, so I’m not sure why exactly he was so willing, but he sang like a canary.
I never received a story on the others past “they brought in something they shouldn’t.” Honestly, I didn’t care too much for details, I was just happy to see them go. Officers like that made the rest of us less safe.
This sort of thing happens in every jail, but the incentive to bring in contraband for an officer in a private jail is astronomically higher than one in a public jail.
Think about it: If an inmate offers you $500 to bring in a cell phone, it might at first sound like a tempting offer. That’s a pretty easy feat, they’re only asking for a flip phone — something just good enough to make calls and send texts — and who doesn’t like easy money?
If you’re an officer in a public jail, you’re making an average of $39,000 annually. Include overtime and some top-notch benefits and that figure goes way up. Your bills are paid, you’ve got some in your pocket, and the insurance is just too good to give up, why would you risk all that for a quick $500?
You likely wouldn’t. And that’s not even mentioning the real possibility that you could wind up a resident in the jail yourself if you’re caught. For most officers, that risk-reward assessment just doesn’t add up.
Now imagine you’re like one of my coworkers or the thousands of others working in a private jail. You’re sometimes making half of what the officers in the next county over are making, you’re barely making ends meet at a high-stress job, and the benefits are minimal if they exist at all. Are you going to risk that job for a quick $500?
Well, yeah, you might. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that you’re unlikely to face any legal ramifications whatsoever.
Oh, right, I guess I didn’t mention that of the people I saw fired, precisely zero of them had charges pressed against them.
Why would a public jail run by the government press charges while a private jail run by a publicly-traded company avoids it completely? As is the case with most things, it boils down to money — money and public perception.
For a public jail, the news that an officer has been caught and is being prosecuted likely comes across as the government holding their own accountable and weeding out the bad ones. Even if that’s not how it plays in the media, a public jail stands to lose very little from bad press.
A private company, however, has a lot to lose.
First of all, it plays terribly in the media. A corrupt officer in a private jail will always read as a failing of the parent company to provide oversight and as an indictment of the entire for-profit prison industry. And what happens when a publicly-traded company gets bad press? Stock prices fall.
What happens when stock prices fall? A lot of people lose money.
It quickly becomes easy to see why private jails are less likely to prosecute, which officers at those jails understand. If the absolute worst-case scenario, in their mind, is losing their job, that’s a lot less scary than losing your job and potentially winding up on the wrong side of the bars.
The incentive is therefore much higher in a private jail to give something like that a try as the risk-reward assessment tilts in the wrong direction.
However, quick disclaimer: don’t take the attack on private jails as an endorsement of all government-run jails. Low pay and poor benefits is an issue in many of those as well, but it’s much more likely in private jails, as the average salary disparity shows.
Some government-run jails are also guilty of not only failing to prosecute but keeping on bad officers, as well. The key difference, however, is it’s a problem in government-run jails, but the norm in private, for-profit jails.
Honey Buns And Coffee
Besides something as bad as bringing in contraband, the line blurred in other ways as well.
Some officers were not above extorting inmates, sometimes for no reason at all other than they wanted some snack the inmate had. In jail, snacks are currency — specifically honey buns and coffee.
My first day on a real unit (working third shift), a veteran officer asked me if I would like some coffee to help keep me awake. I said that would be great, but I didn’t see any coffee anywhere on the unit. He told me to hang tight and walked onto one of the blocks.
A couple minutes later he returned with coffee and a cup of Ramen noodles. I innocently and naively asked him where he got them, to which he responded with a cell number. Perplexed, I asked him why an inmate would willingly hand over what little items he had.
He laughed and told me the inmates understand that if they don’t, they will lose their work detail. For many inmates lucky enough to get a job within the jail, this is their only source of income and the only way they can afford to buy anything from the commissary.
The cup of noodles and packet of coffee was likely a full day’s labor.
He assured me this wasn’t just something he did, everybody did it and, eventually, I would be doing it too. Throughout my time, I learned he was half right — an awful lot of officers partook, but I can honestly say I never did.
Inmates would even offer sometimes with the thought they might as well get in my good graces before I made them turn something over, but to me it felt a bit like the scene out of the Disney Robin Hood remake where the mean Sheriff of Nottingham takes the last gold coins from the old dog in a cast.
As I said, most officers were good people who didn’t abuse their authority. The environment, however, bred a winner-take-all attitude that permeated through the ranks. It’s important to keep in mind — before I’m called an “inmate hugger” — most of these inmates had only been accused of crimes, not convicted.
Still, there was no Robin Hood fox to protect them from officers abusing the badge and intentionally blurring the already thin blue line.
Death By Poor Design
I alluded previously in the “On the Job” portion at the beginning about the poor design of the jail leading to injury and even death of inmates. In one such instance, the jail’s poor — even negligent — set-up led directly to the death of a distressed inmate.
As mentioned previously, the units, and therefore the blocks, were separated into two tiers. This meant cells on both the top and bottom tier. Of the 10 units in the jail, only two had fencing on the second tier. The fencing ran from the second tier platform to the ceiling to prevent inmates from jumping.
The unit housing the new arrivals, arguably the most vulnerable inmates in the jail, was not one of the two outfitted with fencing.
The following story was not witnessed first-hand but passed on from witness officers.
One night, after a new batch of arrivals was strip-searched and placed in their temporary cells, the nurse came on to the unit to hand out medications. As is customary for the new arrivals, cells are simply opened in batches and any inmate expecting any medication waits in line by the nurse’s pill cart.
During this process, there are two officers present on the block. One officer stays with the nurse while the other is there to handle any miscellaneous issues including retrieving inmates from their cells or locking them back in, if necessary.
One batch of inmates finished receiving their medications and were locked back in, so a batch of cells on the top tier was opened. As one cell door swung open on the top tier, an inmate saw his opportunity.
As described by the officer, the inmate ran out of his cell and dove head-first between the railing, landing directly on his neck. Life-saving procedures were initiated by the nurse on the scene, but the inmate was pronounced dead at the hospital hours later. He never regained consciousness.
Whether it was cost control or simple incompetence, the jail did not take the steps to prevent something like that happening. It’s worth pointing out this was not just an old jail unequipped with modern upgrades — it was built brand new in the late 90's.
This one instance is by no means an outlier, either. From 2005 until earlier this year, a span of 13 years, this particular jail has had no less than 14 deaths, with at least six of them suicides. While some are truly unavoidable, still others come as a result of poor health care, undertrained and underqualified staff and, yes, by poor design.
The Future of Jailing
This story only scratches the surface of my experience within the correctional system but is told with the hopes of shining a light on just a few of the injustices and inadequacies present in today’s jails — especially those run by private corporations.
When profit becomes the goal in running a jail, there is no hope for rehabilitation. The average person might not sympathize with the harsh conditions found in private prisons and perhaps even applaud an unpleasant stay, but this a short-sighted view.
These people will eventually be thrown back into society. Is it therefore in our best interest to reintroduce them as more educated and better prepared to be productive members or to inflict as much psychological pain on them as possible in pursuit of some poorly-contrived notion of justice?
As is, our method of jailing does not work. According to a study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the recidivism rate — or the rate of prisoners who return to jail — was 68 percent within three years and 77 percent within five years.
Clearly, there is little rehabilitation or “correction” taking place at what appear to be ironically-named “correctional” facilities.
Some localities, states, and even the federal government have decided the fix to an already broken system is to introduce private prisons, an idea that only exacerbates the issues. The fix, however, is more obvious than it seems.
Rather than putting dollar amounts on prisoners and encouraging incarceration, we must shift to a society emphasizing rehabilitation. Drug addicts, for example, are not cured by a stint in jail. Instead, send drug offenders to rehab so they have a chance at recovery.
Rather than simply locking people away and telling them to behave better next time, give them the tools necessary to be productive in society and competitive in a labor market that demands specialized skills more than ever before. Without these tools, we produce only more hardened criminals not only for our present, but often times across generational lines.
There must be a societal shift in our thinking. Investing in bettering the lives of those we deem criminals may seem counterintuitive but our instinct to only punish has proved a failure not only recently, but for centuries. If the goal of incarceration truly is for the betterment of society, then there is no other option.
If we are to be a compassionate and civil society, we must eliminate the very existence of for-profit prisons. These corporations have only their shareholders’ interests in mind, not society’s. While they remain, the American legal system will never truly have a chance at reform.