Violence plagues private prison in Kansas, critics say, urging Biden to close all such facilities

Eric Ferkenhoff

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — One federal inmate was murdered, his lung punctured in an altercation; another was stabbed 17 times; a third was beaten and needed to be hospitalized; and two inmates died by suicide. Staff members have been attacked, including one doused with hot water and stabbed.

Advocates in four Midwestern states say those incidents and other alleged constitutional violations happened this year at Kansas' Leavenworth Detention Center, which houses federal prisoners awaiting trial. The advocates highlighted those troubles when asking  the Biden administration to make good on an executive order to shutter such private facilities.

In January, President Joe Biden promised when he signed the order that “this is a first step to stop corporations from profiting off of incarceration."

The order built on efforts by the Obama administration to phase out private prisons. Those efforts were reversed under President Donald Trump, when private prison company revenues doubled in value.

The September letter from the American Civil Liberties Union and federal public defenders in Kansas, Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska ramps up the pressure on Biden to effectively shut down the industry by not renewing contracts with corporations that run Department of Justice prisons and detention centers.

More:Biden addresses racial bias in housing, directs DOJ to phase out use of private prisons in new executive orders

"We wanted to sound the alarm on that executive order," said Sharon Brett, legal director at the ACLU of Kansas, who helped write the letter and organize the effort against the maximum security Leavenworth center.

The profit-driven structure of private prisons means they capitalize on high crime rates and mass incarceration, according to critics such as Tammie Gregg of the national ACLU. She said the Leavenworth facility is just the "pinnacle" of problems seen in facilities across the country.

CoreCivic, the privately run, publicly traded company that operates the Leavenworth center, issued an emailed statement pushing back at the letter's allegations that it has poorly served incarcerated individuals and the government.

Sharon Brett, legal director of the ACLU of Kansas

"Claims that our facility is 'dangerously understaffed, poorly managed, and incapable of safely housing' individuals entrusted to our care are false and defamatory,” the statement reads.

A 2016 U.S. Department of Justice inspector general report found that inmate discipline, lockdowns and contraband recovery were more frequent in private than government-run facilities.

Also, inmate assaults on other inmates were nearly 30% higher in private than public federal prisons, according to a federal justice department report, while assaults involving inmates on staff were "well more than twice (the rate) each month on average" than seen at government-run federal prisons.

Since the advocates sent their Sept. 2 letter about Leavenworth, the White House had yet to formally respond.

"The Department of Justice is committed to implementing the President's Executive Order on private detention facilities," DOJ spokeswoman Kristina Mastropasqua told NPR. "The U.S. Marshals Service is carefully examining its existing contracts with these facilities, mindful that any plans should avoid unnecessarily disrupting access to counsel, court appearances, and family support." 

CoreCivic has caught the attention of the government before for reports of illegal and violent episodes inside the facility. 

Prison rights advocates have said the incidents at the 29-year-old Leavenworth center are telling of a broader problem: widespread violence and poor training in private prisons. However, the prisons, which are worth billions for private companies, are so intertwined with the United States’ prison complex that it could be nearly impossible for the federal government to just cut ties, the advocates fear.

How do private prisons operate? 

Inmates in private prisons make up just a sliver of the overall prison population, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Government-run facilities, whether at the city, county, state or federal level, still dominate the landscape. About 8% of inmates are housed in private facilities, which also act as immigration detention centers.

Overall, from 2000 to 2019, the total state and federal prison population grew 3% to about 1.5 million people.

But at the federal level, the total prison population went up 77% between 2000 and 2019, according to The Sentencing Project, based on an analysis of correspondence with facilities and a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. During the same period, private prison populations jumped 32% to about 115,400 people.

The companies that operate the facilities own an enormous amount of real estate, or lease it from the government. Some operate entire facilities. Some contract to run everything from phone and video communications to food service, commissaries, health care and the making of goods.

CoreCivic, which operates about 140 other facilities across the U.S., is one of the nation's largest private prison contractors. It earned $15.62 million on revenue of $464.57 million in the second quarter of 2021, according to company documents

In total, the company is worth about $2 billion, roughly the same as the other big player in the industry, GEO Group. Other nonpublicly traded firms make up another $1 billion.

Companies that focus just on select services, such as commissaries, account for many billions more, according to Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, an advocacy group that seeks to eliminate private influence on America‘s criminal justice system.

More:Inmate dies after incident at Leavenworth Detention Center

Three states — Nevada, California and Colorado — have banned private prisons in their jurisdictions, said Gregg, the deputy director of the ACLU's National Prison Project. In some states, including Ohio and Oklahoma, facilities are being closed at the end of their contracts or have already shuttered.

That, coupled with Biden's order, could leave the private prison industry unstable, with workers leaving their jobs, creating a shortfall in staff that further threatens safety behind the walls of the facilities, she said.

“So we're going to likely see a replication of a lot of these ills across the country where they're still just working through this ban issue,” Gregg said.

Private prisons are in it only for the money, critics say 

Private operators such as CoreCivic, GEO GroupLaSalle Corrections and Management and Training Corp. "clearly place profit motives and financial gain over the health and safety and well-being of the people incarcerated," said Brett, of ACLU Kansas.

"In order to stay in business, and please your shareholders, businesses have to make decisions that are based on the bottom line. That is fundamentally incompatible with keeping people safe and healthy and protected," Brett said.

Stock prices have tumbled at major firms doing prison work, and financing is drying up for further investment, according to Tylek.

The companies effectively monetize high crime rates as contracts are based on the number of filled beds, she said.

"Typically, the guarantees are between 80% and 90%, that their beds have to be filled. Otherwise the government, the agency that they contract with, has to pay them anyway," Tylek said. "It sounds kind of wild, but it's true: Basically they sign these contracts where they say, 'We have to have a minimum occupancy of, let's say, 90%,’ which means the government agency that is responsible has to supply them with 90% of beds filled or pay for it anyway."

Worth Rises CEO Bianca Tylek

The ACLU and the federal public defenders say the lack of transparency at prisons in general and at private facilities in particular means that the public often has little chance to get information on what happens behind the walls of prison, detention and immigration facilities.

But local reporting and letters from detainees make clear, according to the Sept.. 2 letter, that violence is spiking inside Leavenworth's walls. The facility saw a slowdown in violence in only two months this year, in February and August, when the facility was on lockdown.

"The violence in recent months has been astronomical," the letter states. "Between May of 2021 and July of 2021, CoreCivic Leavenworth averaged 36.67 violent incidents a month."

Among other allegations in the letter: "Stabbings, suicides, and even homicide have occurred with alarming frequency in the last year, with weapons, drugs, and other contraband now a common occurrence. Amidst all the violence, basic human needs are not being met: food has been restricted, contact with legal counsel and family denied or curtailed, medical care is limited, and showers are infrequent because the facility is too unsafe."

More:California ban on private prisons, immigration centers is 'largely Constitutional'

Leavenworth prison officials say claims are false and sensationalized

In its emailed statement, CoreCivic denied "the specious and sensationalized allegations."

“These allegations are designed to exert political pressure rather than to serve as an objective assessment of the work our dedicated LDC staff has done to serve the needs of the United States Marshals Service."

CoreCivic alleges the ACLU has tried to leverage Biden's order to achieve the aims of the ACLU's National Prison Project, which has a goal of ending private prisons.

The private companies, the ACLU says, profit off "America’s addiction to incarceration."

In its statement, CoreCivic shot back: "Any assertion that our company or the private sector is operated by 'profit-driven management that leads to unsafe, unsanitary, and unconstitutional conditions on confinement' is blatantly false. We have every incentive to provide outstanding service to our government partners, just as any other business must meet and exceed the expectations of its customers." 

More:No-show prison workers cost Mississippi taxpayers millions

Even with Biden's order, CoreCivic could 'pivot' in Leavenworth

CoreCivic officials have proposed changes to the Leavenworth facility, through working with U.S. Marshals Service or Leavenworth County, to keep the building operating as a pretrial federal detention center after its contract expires at the end of the year.

Local County Commission Chairman Mike Smith told the Leavenworth Times that CoreCivic officials have talked of going in a different direction or possibly presenting a new plan regarding the detention center.

"But we don't have anything in front of us," Smith said.

Advocates decried those talks.

"(The executive order) calls for an end to contracts at the federal level with private prison facilities, including CoreCivic," Brett said. "And we were deeply concerned — given all of the violence within the facility — that CoreCivic's attempt to do an end run around that executive order would result in continued abuse of people and rampant constitutional violations."

Prison Policy Initiative Communications Strategist Wanda Bertram

CoreCivic did not respond to questions about those plans.

Wanda Bertram, a communications strategist at Prison Policy Initiative, said she is not surprised CoreCivic may be seeking other avenues to keep Leavenworth operating.

"You can expect that when a private prison company like CoreCivic is faced with having to cancel a contract, it's probably going to pivot and try to cut its losses," she said.

"What people need to understand is that we have a criminal justice system where private companies do provide a lot of of the services that allow it to keep functioning and it's not going to be easy or simple to get those interests out of the picture," she said.

Eric Ferkenhoff is the Midwest criminal justice reporter for the USA TODAY Network