Prison firm optimistic about Arizona bid despite incidents

by Bob Ortega - Aug. 8, 2011 12:00 AM The Arizona Republic

Despite the country's economic downturn, Corrections Corp. of America says it's optimistic about the future of its "product": prisoners.

"This is the most favorable new-development environment the industry has ever seen," the company's president and CEO, Damon Hininger, told investors recently.

He said that CCA, the largest private-prison operator in the country, hopes to soon add 40,000 new prison beds worth $700 million a year in revenue.

That would include 4,500 beds in Arizona, where CCA is one of four bidders for a new private-prison contract with Arizona's Department of Corrections.

Public hearings on their four proposals are being held throughout the state this week and next to gauge community sentiment.

From the viewpoint of the Nashville-based company, the signs are good that it might land at least part of the contract for new prison beds.

City officials in Eloy are welcoming the bid - hardly surprising, since Eloy's mayor is a longtime CCA corrections officer and the company, which already runs six prisons in the area, is a major local employer.

Then, too, Gov. Jan Brewer's senior policy adviser and former campaign manager, Chuck Coughlin, runs a consulting company, HighGround, that lobbies for CCA.

But a look inside some of CCA's prisons in Arizona and elsewhere offers a less-than-rosy picture.

Last December, California's inspector general found serious security flaws and improper treatment of inmates at the three CCA prisons in Arizona - the La Palma, Red Rock and Florence correctional centers - that hold California inmates.

CCA's facilities here also hold immigration detainees, federal prisoners and inmates from Hawaii and Washington state.

Inspectors found flaws with the incident alarm-response systems at the three prisons because there was no audible alarm. At La Palma and Florence, they found malfunctioning and out-of-focus security cameras.

They found a wide variety of poor security practices, noting, for example, that inmates could - and did - easily get around metal detectors at La Palma because CCA didn't have adequate staff on hand when it was moving inmates.

Many inmates at Red Rock had no ID cards, or damaged ID cards, which makes it more difficult for officers to identify when a prisoner is missing.

At all three prisons, inmates had unsupervised access to secure areas.

At Florence, cell searches weren't well-documented. And at Red Rock, inspectors found no evidence that 31 significant incidents from January to May 2010 were investigated for wrongdoing.

Inspectors also said that at Red Rock, CCA's "hiring process does not include a comprehensive criminal-background and arrest-history review," that state arrest records weren't being checked and that at Red Rock and La Palma, the company didn't do enough to check whether people applying for jobs might know or have relationships with inmates.

In California and elsewhere, corrections officers with gang affiliations have been a recurring problem.

CCA spokesman Steve Owen, without responding to the specific allegations in the report, said that as a result of the audit, CCA is working with California "to enhance and improve the quality of our operations."

He said that California recently renewed its contract with CCA.

That state is struggling to meet a federal court order to reduce prison overcrowding by 34,000 inmates within two years.

A recent congressional report found that CCA's Eloy Detention Facility had the most deaths of any immigration-detention center in the country last year, with nine fatalities.

Meanwhile, officers at CCA's Saguaro Correctional Facility, also in Eloy, are accused of stripping, beating and threatening 18 Hawaiian inmates last year in retaliation for a fight at the prison in July 2010.

An inmate lawsuit, filed in Hawaii last December, also alleges that Warden Todd Thomas threatened the inmates' families and that CCA "deliberately destroyed and failed to preserve" videotapes and other evidence and falsified reports. A new complaint filed last month in federal court in Honolulu alleges that guards continue to beat, kick and issue death threats to the prisoners in retaliation for their earlier lawsuit.

Separately, last January another Hawaiian inmate sued CCA, saying that an officer at Saguaro forced him to perform oral sex in October 2009.

Guard Richard Ketland, charged with unlawful sexual contact, pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was sentenced to probation.

Two other Hawaiian inmates were killed by other inmates at Saguaro in separate incidents in February and July 2010.

"I'm suing CCA all over the country," said Myles Breiner, the Honolulu attorney representing the inmates in the two beating lawsuits.

Breiner said he has filed three suits against CCA on behalf of female inmates who say they were sexually molested by officers at CCA's Otter Creek Correctional Center in Kentucky.

After a series of sexual-assault cases, including one involving the prison chaplain, that led to convictions, Hawaii removed its female prisoners in September 2009.

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear ordered all female prisoners removed from Otter Creek in January 2010, placing male inmates in the facility instead.

As the operator of more than 60 facilities that house about 75,000 inmates and detainees, CCA has frequently been the target of lawsuits.

Among the most significant pending is one alleging that officers at the company's Idaho Correctional Center, nicknamed "the Gladiator School," intentionally allowed inmates to assault one another.

The suit cites 23 assaults since July 2009, including 13 in which guards are alleged to have opened doors to let violent inmates attack other prisoners. In one case caught on videotape, guards didn't intervene as one inmate beat another for so long that he stopped, took a drink of water, caught his breath and then continued his attack.

Asked about the suits, CCA's Owen said, "These are allegations that have not yet been proven in a court of law. These are not established facts, and we respond in court, so I'm not at liberty to respond."

He said that in June, Hawaii awarded CCA a three-year, $136.5 million contract to continue housing that state's inmates in Arizona.

"That was a competitive-bid process," Owen said.

CCA was the only bidder.

"There isn't a corrections system in the country that's immune to lawsuits or incidents," Owen said. "Those don't necessarily tell the whole story. You have to look at our overall track record. . . . Do incidents occur? Yes. Are we responsive when things happen? Do our partners continue to trust and work with us? Yes.

"The states and federal agencies and other partners that continue to do business with CCA are confident in our ability to provide quality services in a cost-effective manner."

CCA, which last year reported $157.2 million in net income on $1.67 billion in revenue, spends heavily on lobbying. From January 2008 through April of last year, according to an analysis by the Institute for Policy Studies, CCA spent $4.4 million lobbying Congress, the federal Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and other government bodies.

In Arizona, eight CCA executives contributed $1,080 of the $51,193 in seed money that Brewer received for her gubernatorial campaign.

CCA also gave $10,000 to the "Yes on 100" campaign, pushed by Brewer to temporarily raise the state sales tax by 1 percentage point.