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Private Nightmare: Corporate Prisons Face Concerns About ‘Unacceptable’ Conditions

Lake Erie Correctional Institution, Ohio Private Prison, Faces Concerns About ‘Unacceptable’ Conditions

Chris Kirkham
Huff Post

When a private prison corporation paid Ohio $72.7 million in 2011 to purchase one of the state’s facilities, the company touted the deal as a “groundbreaking” move that would serve as a model for other states looking to cut costs.

But in the year since Corrections Corporation of America took over the 1,700-bed Lake Erie Correctional Institution, state audits have found patterns of inadequate staffing, delays in medical treatment and “unacceptable living conditions” inside the prison — including inmates lacking access to running water and toilets. The state docked the company nearly $500,000 in pay because of the violations.

In addition, a major uptick in crime near the private prison has burdened the small town of Conneaut, Ohio, with police there making a series of recent arrests related to attempts to smuggle drugs and alcohol into the facility. Officers responded to 229 calls related to the prison last year, nearly four times as many as the previous five years combined, according to the city’s crime data.

“We understand that it’s a private entity now, and that it’s for-profit, but nothing can come at the expense of the safety and security of our citizens,” said Conneaut Councilman Neil LaRusch, who recently sent a letter to Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s office requesting assistance with the crime problem. “With the city finances the way they are right now, I can’t go put 20 more people on staff at the police department.”

Private prison companies such as CCA have pushed for a growing share of the nation’s inmate population, promising to save states and the federal government money by managing their prison systems. Yet criminal justice experts say the experience in and around the Lake Erie prison amounts to a cautionary tale for other states considering whether to hand over their own facilities to private corporations.

“This is not a bargain for the states,” said Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer and criminal justice expert at the University of Texas School of Public Affairs. “The longer the contracts are, the more likely you are to give rise to poor conditions and problems. It gives the states very little leverage to demand improvements.”

CCA spokesman Steve Owen said the company has a “very strong track record” of transitioning prisons from state to private management, and said more recent audits have shown improvements at the Lake Erie prison. He said its sale offered immediate revenues for the state of Ohio, and as a private entity, the facility will provide local property tax revenue.

Private prison companies typically build their own facilities or manage existing prisons; the Ohio prison sale was the first of its kind. In an attempt to trim the state’s corrections budget, Kasich, a Republican, in 2011 proposed selling off and privatizing up to five state prisons. After studying the costs, the state decided to sell only one: the Lake Erie Correctional Institution(The state previously owned the prison but it had been managed by another contractor, Management & Training Corp.).

For its purchase price, CCA obtained not only the prison but a 20-year management contract to house inmates for the state and an initial guaranteed 90 percent occupancy rate(The state has the option of renegotiating the occupancy rate down the line).

Seeking to expand its market, CCA then used its successful Ohio purchase as a centerpiece of a nationwide sales pitch last year, offering to buy state prisons in exchange for long-term management contracts. In a letter sent to 48 states, CCA called the Ohio purchase a “seamless” acquisition that would build on the company’s history of “safe and efficient operations.”

Critics argue that the Lake Erie facility offers a textbook example of the problems that can arise from prison privatization: high rates of staff turnover, problems in administering health care and poor physical conditions.

“CCA has positioned this as a seamless transition,” said Mike Brickner, public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. “It’s been anything but that from the very beginning.”

A September state audit found that inmates being disciplined in segregation at the prison were using plastic containers and bags as a makeshift restroom, in the absence of working toilets and running water…

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