They should come to an end nationwide; they are an abomination. If Biden wins, they might. Obama had begun phasing them out, then tRump came along. Because the wealthy owners of private prisons had donated millions to his campaign, he thought they were a great idea! 🙁
Thirty-six years ago, international attention rested on a county jail that sat alongside a narrow road in the northeast corner of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Journalists from Switzerland and Canada toured the prison. The CBS Show “60 Minutes” featured it in an episode, according to newspaper clippings found at the Chattanooga Public Library.
The Hamilton County Commission voted to hand over operation of the facility to Corrections Corporation of America, known today as CoreCivic, and the company took over the penal farm on Oct. 15, 1984.
Silverdale was a step up. Before it, CoreCivic had only begun managing an immigration detention center in Texas and a juvenile facility in Memphis. This was one of the first times a private company in recent history, riding the idea of privatization, would take over an adult facility. Today, it is one of the largest private prison companies in the nation.
It caught the attention of the world. “Silverdale is the place where everyone will decide if a private company can or should operate a prison,” then-Warden Bob Landon told the Chattanooga Times in 1985.
But this summer, CoreCivic sent a letter to the county saying it was exercising a clause that allowed it to withdraw from the facility within 180 days. The Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office is now quickly attempting to take over the aging facility.
And then there was news back in mid-February that two federal judges directed all 52 federal inmates who were housed in the facility to be transferred out and housed in neighboring facilities. They did so, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, for the prisoners’ safety, and the sheriff’s office launched a criminal investigation.
“There was a general understanding, not just among the judges, federal judges, but also the state judges that Silverdale was not being repaired the way it needed to, there was too much laxness in the way that the private company was dealing with the issues,” Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond said in an interview with Courthouse News.
At the request of the judges, Hammond launched an investigation – which included an undercover component – that found many repairs in the facility were left unaddressed. Hammond handed the results over to the county’s Security and Corrections Committee.
For several years, at least one criminal court judge in Hamilton County expressed concern over the access to medical care at Silverdale. While Judge Tom Greenholtz declined a request for an interview, he pointed out several court records where, for instance, he suspended a man’s sentence because when the man developed a “shoulder condition,” the facility gave him Tylenol instead of administering an x-ray; the facility also said the man “refused” treatment for a “cancerous condition,” according to the 2017 order.
In February, federal judges in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee had “suggested strongly” Hammond move federal prisoners from Silverdale but did not issue an order, the sheriff said.
Reports of the conditions at Silverdale, Hammond said, “reinforced a lot of people’s thinking that you need to get rid of a privatization and take it back under government.”
“Because it may be a little more costly in the front end, but with government you’re assured these people’s rights are being protected, which are just the basic rights like proper ventilation, proper lights coming in, proper food schedule,” he said. “The things that are just human rights.”
CoreCivic sent its letter announcing it was pulling out of Silverdale on July 3.
Prison Legal News, a publication Wright helped start in 1990, has reported on and sued CoreCivic over the years, including a suit seeking to have some of the company’s records subject to Tennessee’s open record laws.
The industry faces a threat during an administration change. As the Obama administration wound to a close, it announced it planned to do away with federal private prison contracts. But when Trump won the 2016 election, CoreCivic’s stocks jumped. It prompted a securities lawsuit, which is scheduled to go to trial in Nashville in 2021.
Furthermore, Wright said, the highest profit margin for companies like CoreCivic is in immigration centers: about $160 a day for a person housed in immigration detention while some of the company’s state contracts house prisoners for a third of that amount, according to Wright.
“Basically, it’s those immigration contracts that keep the private prison industry afloat,” Wright said. “Like, if they lost those federal immigration contracts tomorrow, I don’t know that we would have a private prison industry of Geo and CoreCivic by the end of the month.”
Recently, Wright said, CoreCivic seemed to have transitioned some of its business into government leasing, buying office space in Maryland to rent out to the federal government agencies like the Social Security Administration. CoreCivic is also working with Alabama to build two facilities, which it would then lease to the state. Meanwhile another private prison firm, Geo Group, has purchased an electronic monitoring company.
Wright, who spent 17 years incarcerated for murder in Washington state, said private prison firms have not been expanding the number of clients they have, despite the industry existing for three decades, with the biggest client being the federal government.
“None of the promises of big savings to taxpayers — none of that’s materialized,” Wright said. “They haven’t shown they can do anything better than the government. They turn a profit for their shareholders but a lot of that has to do I think with the scams of government procurement and contracting.”
In May, the company released an environmental, social and governance report in which CoreCivic CEO Damon Hininger said when the company started, the courts had declared eight corrections systems unconstitutionally dangerous because of their conditions and had intervened in 40 states because of the states of the jails.
Hammond estimates that about 40% of the prisoners currently housed at Silverdale don’t need to be there but are there because of underlying social issues. With the county spending about $100,000 a day on housing prisoners, a reduction in inmates could mean big savings for the county, Hammond said.
To accomplish that, he hopes to lean into “criminal justice reform social programs,” pushing inmates to get their GEDs and providing them with psychological and medical help.
In February, the Department of Justice granted the county $2.2 million to provide “intensive treatment,” services and housing subsidies for people who are homeless, have mental health issues and frequently need the attention of the area’s hospitals and law enforcement resources. The FUSE program, according to the county, is used by only 30 agencies in the nation, and the sheriff’s office has identified about 100 people to help under the program.
“I think we’re entering an age when the public in general expects more social programs involved in reentry for people who are in and out of jail, such as beefing up programs to help them get better education, so they won’t recidivate, programs that will help them get jobs, so they won’t recidivate, counseling programs to help them with their marriages and their personal life,” Hammond said.