Skip to content

Private Prisons, Organization, and Accountability


Mother Jones recently featured a lengthy investigative story into a private prison administered by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). It was almost surprising in how dramatically _un_surprising it was.

I fully recommend reading the entire piece. It’s quite long–over 30,000 words–but well worth your time. There’s a lot of information packed within. I’m not here to rehash or summarize, but rather to draw attention to aspects I found particularly salient. One is that Winn Correctional Center, which is the prison the author investigated by working there for four months, comes across as an unusually poorly run prison. Prisons in the US are not run well, as virtually any story (and the supporting statistics) on our prisons can tell you, but Winn strikes me as unusually bad.

The problems begin, perhaps, with the stark disconnect between how CCA presents its corporate culture and the culture that exists inside the prison. Institutions of any size and longevity have cultures, whether intentionally designed and built or not. In the case of Winn, it is evident that CCA has not endeavored to instill any kind of sensible corporate culture, instead feeding its employees low wages, vacuous slogans, and mere lip service to good stewardship. In practice, CCA treats Winn as a profit-seeking enterprise. Every aspect of the prison’s management appears designed to eke every last penny out of the facility. Because providing programs to prisoners costs money, Winn avoids doing so. Prisoners are denied medical care because it’s expensive. The prison is chronically understaffed, and not for a lack of available employees–several CCA employees in the story make mention, often jokingly, that CCA will hire any warm body off the street. The facility is kept in poor repair unless and until they hear auditors are coming, at which point the prison is fixed up and polished just well enough to pass a cursory inspection that scarcely qualifies as regulatory oversight.

Since the prisoners are largely kept confined to their cells with no stimulation, no programming, no useful activity, they grow aggressive and agitated. And with the prison so poorly staffed and the employees paid so little, there is virtually no incentive for such employees to contribute to the smooth operation of the prison as a correctional institution. Instead, the prisoners set the tone, and in many respects run the facility. Correctional officers are overwhelmingly reactive and engage in violent reprisals against uncooperative prisoners at the slightest provocation. Administrative punishments for inmates are minimal–levying new charges or taking any steps that might send a prisoner to another facility is frowned upon, since CCA wants that $34 a day per prisoner. So even an inmate who stabs someone may be kept around just so the money keeps flowing.

Prisoners and COs are both, in many ways, powerless. Prisoners have little recourse when mistreated, and guards have almost no options for improving the prison’s operations since CCA will not support any costly improvements. The CO job, then, is attractively mainly to sadists along with decent people who lack other options–the latter of whom typically burn out in only a few years. When only abusers and hardened cynics make up the senior leadership of the prison organization, it’s no wonder Winn is run so poorly. The infliction of violence and the denial of privileges are essentially the only tools COs have for forcing compliance of prisoners, and these generate an excessively hostile environment that is dangerous for everyone.

CCA, meanwhile, presents itself as a company providing value to taxpayers, that prides itself on good stewardship of prisoners and positive treatment of employees. It is quite possible office employees at CCA believe this, too, since they may never have to set foot inside a CCA-run prison. But the state of the Winn facility brings abundant evidence that CCA has no idea what’s happening in its prisons. A recurring theme in Shane Bauer’s investigation is that Bauer will witness some altercation, some criminal activity, some otherwise reportable incident, only to later learn from CCA that the company had no knowledge of such happenings. Either CCA corporate or its prisons egregiously underreport their problems. This hints at a corporate culture, not of accountability, but “don’t ask, don’t tell.” COs falsify logbooks. CCA says they have no knowledge of this. Guards beat prisoners. CCA denies knowledge. Prisoners are left with untreated medical conditions that deteriorate to a nearly fatal level, and CCA swears they comply with all laws concerning medical treatment of prisoners.

If CCA is so inept at monitoring the conditions within its prisons, why are they even allowed to run any? As mentioned previously, this is a prison that is occasionally subject to audits by the American Correctional Association, which is not a government-authorized regulator but rather an industry trade association. According to Bauer, Winn had passed it’s most recent audits despite clear evidence that the prison did not meet the ACA’s established standards. During Bauer’s tenure, the prison scored 99%–which is, in fact, the average score of all prisons assessed by the ACA. The inspections amount to a pathetic rubber-stamp so that the private prison industry can claim it is self-policing, when it is instead turning a blind eye to everything except profitability.

American prisons being woefully dysfunctional institutions is certainly not news, nor is the fact that private prisons exhibit all the same problems as public ones, only magnified. But it’s long past time to identify the problems–we have known what they are for decades now. It’s time to start debating and implementing solutions. Most people in prison will eventually be returned to society, and it should come as no surprise that someone who spent years in a place like Winn would emerge hardened, traumatized, and unable to cope with life on the outside.

Bauer noted in his investigation how working as a CO made¬†him harder and more aggressive, too, even outside of work. He grew paranoid and suspicious and developed aggressive tendencies that he hadn’t previously experienced. Some of it was from the rush of having power over others–the ability to bark orders and have them obeyed. But some of his changes also stemmed from a need to survive. Prison is not a place that suffers weakness lightly. It is a place that drains compassion and obliterates humanity. Well-functioning people, be they prisoners or guards, do not emerge from inside those walls, and they never will so long as places like Winn exist.

Photo by hagge