Despite Continued Violence, Private Prisons 'Only Relief Valve' For Overcrowding

Mar 23, 2016

Oklahoma’s three privately-operated prisons house roughly one-third of the state’s imprisoned population and cost the Department of Corrections more than $92 million last year. But a recently released video offers a glimpse into a series of violent disturbances at one facility.


The video, from what appears to be a contraband cell phone, shows a group of inmates throwing another prisoner over a balcony onto the floor below.

It’s the most recent violent incident at the privately-run Cimarron Correctional Facility in Cushing, but it’s not the first. Four inmates died during an outbreak in September in the deadliest recorded event in the Department of Corrections’ history. Before that, a fight broke out in June that sent nearly a dozen inmates to the hospital.

Interim Director Joe Allbaugh says many incidents at all prisons are gang-related.  

“We don't have the flexibility in our system to segregate these gangs, so they are together in close quarters and so sometimes things happen,” Allbaugh said.

DOC officials say they plan to make changes to the Cushing facility’s operations because of the deadly incident more than six months ago. But so far, none has gone into effect. And this month’s disturbance is still under investigation.

Even though private prison companies say they deliver equal or superior service, Allbaugh says he’s seen some differences.

“Sometimes private prisons are a little more lax with their population than we would like to see when we have incidents like what happened Thursday night,” he said.

Brady Henderson, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma,  says his organization receives “a great deal” of complaints from Oklahoma prisoners.

“I would say we get roughly double the number per capita from private prison inmates from public prison inmates,” Henderson said.

He says the complaints range from safety concerns to lack of appropriate food and medical care.

There’s no definitive study on privately- versus publicly-run prisons. There are studies showing financial and performance benefits for both private-sector and state facilities.

Corrections Corporation of America -- or CCA -- runs the Cushing prison and declined multiple requests for a recorded interview, but Len Gilroy from the libertarian group Reason Foundation says all prisons face similar challenges.

“You can have very bad incidents that will happen in well-managed prisons, and that can be in well-managed public prisons and in well-managed private-sector prisons,” Gilroy said.

The benefit to private facilities, he argues, is what he calls a healthy tension.

“If a private contractor continued to have performance issues and continually failed to live up to the expectations of the contract, the state government has the ability to fire that operator and either install its own state people in there or hire another outside company,” Gilroy said.

Allbaugh insists there’s no talk of ending CCA’s contract for the Cushing facility. There are other options, he says. For instance, Allbaugh’s agency could issue a notice to cure, which lets the contractor know about shortfalls and gives the company a predetermined amount of time to remedy the situation.

“It is kind of a formalized process that the contract calls for, that way you don't get in a he said, she said routine,” Allbaugh said.

Oklahoma’s Department of Corrections last sent a notice to cure to a private prison in October to inform Cimarron Correctional Facility it was over seven months behind in reporting use of force standards and reportable incidents. According to DOC’s contract with CCA, a prison is given five days to submit proper forms. The letter says the state was waiting on reports dating back to March 2015.

The ACLU’s Brady Henderson says this points to a practice of concealing records within corrections systems.

“Even in public facilities, there's an incredible amount of secrecy, there's an incredible lack of transparency. It's already hard to know. It gets 10 times harder with a private facility,” Henderson said.

Reason Foundation’s Len Gilroy disagrees and says private prisons are typically under more scrutiny than state-run institutions.

Corrections Interim Director Joe Allbaugh says for now, his agency is stuck.

“As much as I don't think the state ought to be doing business with private prisons, I'm glad they're around because they're our only relief valve available to us during this crunch.”

Editor's Note: The Reason Foundation identifies itself as a libertarian organization, whose motto is "Free Minds and free Markets." Private prison firms such as Corrections Corporation of America are among its contributors. 


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