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Privatizing Louisiana Prisons

Charles Maldonado on the state's plan to privatize management of some prisons

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Paul Wilson, head of AVC's corrections officers union, says the state has thrown employees under the bus.
  • Paul Wilson, head of AVC's corrections officers union, says the state has thrown employees under the bus.
The pitch went out in January 2012: a letter to 48 state governments, including that of Louisiana. It was signed by Harley Lappin, former director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Lappin retired from that job in March 2011, one month after he was arrested in Maryland on charges of drunk driving. In June of that year, he took a job with a $300,000-a-year salary, plus bonuses, as chief corrections officer for Nashville-based prison operator Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).

  CCA is the largest private prison operator in the country. According to its annual report, filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in February, the publicly traded company owns or operates 66 correctional facilities in 20 states and the District of Columbia, with a total of 91,000 jail beds. CCA has contracts with county sheriffs, state departments of corrections and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

  "We believe we manage approximately 45 percent of all beds under contract with private operators of correctional and detention facilities in the United States," the report reads. Its closest competitor is the Global Expertise in Outsourcing (GEO) Group, based in Boca Raton, Fla., which controls 79,000 beds and contracts at the local, state and federal levels.

  Six months after CCA hired Lappin, it offered to spend $250 million to privatize publicly owned prisons across the country.

  "I am writing to brief you in advance about a new program — the CCA Corrections Investment Initiative — that we plan to begin discussing with you and other key decision makers in the coming weeks," the letter said. "In short, CCA is earmarking $250 million for purchasing and managing government-owned corrections facilities."

  Two months later, Louisiana had a new prison privatization bill — with the full support of Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Paul Wilson's papers — hundreds of printed pages taken from newspaper articles and Wikipedia entries — are at first stacked in a neat pile by his laptop. Slowly, throughout the course of an April 26 interview with Gambit, the documents spread across the table at Nanny's Restaurant in Marksville, La., ultimately leaving little space to eat.

  Wilson is not terribly concerned with this meal. His main concern is how he — and the nearly 300 employees of Avoyelles Correctional Center (AVC) in Cottonport, La. — will feed themselves and their families if the state Legislature passes a bill handing over the prison to private control.

  "Avoyelles Parish ... there's only two major industries here," says Wilson, a corrections captain at AVC and head of the union local that represents 100 of the 239 corrections officers employed there. One of those industries — the Paragon Casino, opened in 1994 — is a five-minute car ride down Tunica Drive. The other, AVC, is about 20 minutes south, just around the corner from Cottonport Elementary School and past a small row of neat, one-story homes, an apartment complex and a few acres of farmland, at the end of Prison Road.

  AVC opened in 1989, the first of three state prisons to begin operations in that year and the next. The three prisons are nearly identical in size. Each has the capacity to hold about 1,500 inmates. All are medium security. The others, Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield and Allen Correctional Center in Kinder, were ushered in under the auspices of the Louisiana Private Corrections Management Act of 1989, which legalized privately operated public prisons. Since then, more than 20 parish facilities have turned to private management, as has the Lasalle Detention Center in Jena, a federal jail for undocumented immigrants. Lasalle is owned by GEO.

AVC's cellblock unit.
  • AVC's cellblock unit.

  Wilson has been working at AVC for 19 years and oversees more than 500 inmates in two housing units — nearly one-third of AVC's population of 1,546. He makes $60,000 a year, plus benefits, as a state employee. That makes him among the better-paid officers there. Entry-level officers start at about $25,000 a year, or $11 an hour based on an 86-hour biweekly pay schedule. The average salary is about $38,000, according to Wilson, but in an interview with Gambit, Louisiana Department of Safety and Corrections (DPSC) Secretary James LeBlanc placed the figure at $43,000.

As Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration sees it, that's too much. With the state facing a deficit of more than $200 million this year (and much more next fiscal year), Jindal hopes privatization will reduce expenses at AVC by about $8 million per year, savings that LeBlanc says he hopes can be reinvested into rehabilitative programs. He says AVC is a perfect candidate for the plan because it's so similar to privately run Winn and Allen.

  "We know already what it costs at Allen and Winn, so anything we give in at Avoyelles ought to be comparable," he says. Operators, he said, are also more comfortable with running a newer facility, like AVC, than older, oddly designed and ultimately more expensive one. "Know this ... If approved, if we do the [request for proposals], it's going to have to show us that we can save and that they can live by our department regulations."

House Bill 850 — sponsored by Rep. Henry Burns, R-Haughton, and backed by Jindal — is the governor's second attempt to privatize AVC. A similar bill failed last year. It would have sold that prison, along with the Allen and Winn facilities which are owned by the state but are under private management) to private operators. As originally written, this year's bill authorizes the sale and private takeover of AVC.

  Selling the prison ostensibly would net $35 million for the state's reserve fund. The bill was amended during the House floor debate on April 18, however. Now the sale is off the table. Privatization is still in. The bill, which was returned to the calendar after the vote to amend, can be called up for debate at any time.

  "I think they know it will not pass with the sale because representatives and senators know we should not sell state assets," says Avoyelles Parish District Attorney Charles Riddle III. Along with Wilson and Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Marksville, Riddle has been among the bill's most vocal opponents. "They're going to vote for it now because it's just privatization."

  Budget documents show that during the 2010-2011 fiscal year, the state paid nearly $42 per day for each offender at AVC and $53 at the J. Levy Dabadie Correctional Center in nearby Pineville. At privately operated Allen and Winn, the per diem was only $32.44. Private management, according to the fiscal note attached to the bill, would save the state $40 million over the next five years.

  Wilson, Johnson and Riddle say that whatever money is saved, it's not worth the price. They agree that privatization will save money. They just worry about what Louisiana will have to give up in return for private management and fiscal savings.

  "I think private prisons as a policy is antiquated, not modern. It's not on the cusp," Riddle says.

  Louisiana already has the highest rate of incarceration in the country, one that state officials claim they are trying to reduce. Current state contracts with GEO and CCA, however, guarantee minimum occupancy rates of 95 percent. During the last push for privatization in 2011, the state released a request for information — seeking statements of qualifications from prospective operators — based on a guaranteed 96 percent occupancy rate.

  Meanwhile, HB 1, the 2013 fiscal year budget bill, calls for closing the Dabadie facility and moving its 330 minimum-security inmates to medium-security AVC, which is at capacity already. Opponents of the plan say this would require double-bunking minimum-security offenders from Dabadie with AVC's more serious offenders, but LeBlanc says an operator would house offenders together based on classification and vulnerability.

  Then there's the workforce at AVC.

  The 2001 U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ)-sponsored study "Emerging Issues on Privatized Prisons," which questioned the purported savings private operators offer state governments, found that average government savings nationwide were only about 1 percent. In Louisiana, at least, savings appear to have the possibility of being much higher. Last year's general fund allocation to AVC was more than $24 million. Allen and Winn each received about $17 million, approximately 28 percent less.

The study concluded that most of the savings are achieved by reducing salaries and benefits for employees. Dramatic salary and benefit cuts at AVC won't be good for the surrounding community, Johnson says.

  "I can tell you it means a lot," he says. "You talk to bankers and they'll tell you: You cut 80 employees ... you cut that rate of pay in half, which was the plan when it was originally proposed a year ago ... and those people have car notes and house notes. That's going to affect their ability to make those payments," he says. "The local businesses, the grocery stores, the gas station. Some of these people commute ... $38,000 is a good job in Avoyelles Parish. A good job. You cut their salaries in half. You take that kind of money out of the economy. That's a big deal."

  Beyond that, opponents fear that pay cuts will attract a less experienced workforce.

  "You and I both know — and any businessman knows — that if you're paying someone $15 an hour versus $9 an hour, the chances of hiring a qualified person at $15 increase dramatically," Riddle says. He adds that putting under-qualified people into a dangerous, sensitive environment such as a prison endangers AVC staff, inmates and the public.

  Johnson points to DPSC statistics regarding contraband inside the three nearly identical prisons. The stats show that between July 2011 and February 2012, staff found 132 illegal cellphones at privately operated Winn. During the same period, staff found two at AVC and none at Allen. Johnson says that inside a prison, a cellphone is a bigger problem than a weapon because it allows offenders to connect with the outside world: Drug dealers can speak to other drug dealers. Sex criminals can terrorize their victims.

  According to state budget documents, AVC had 35 inmate-on-staff assaults between 2006 and 2011. Winn reported 88, and Allen reported 191 in the same period. Although sex crimes were trending downward at Allen and Winn while going up at AVC during that period, AVC's largest number of sex crimes in one year was 100 in 2010-2011, followed by 77 in 2009-2010. Allen and Winn consistently report more than 200 sex crimes per year. All have populations of similar sizes.

  DPSC spokeswoman Pam Laborde says those statistics are deceptive because they don't indicate the seriousness of the offenses. A minor fight or even a temper flare-up — anything that's reported — could be categorized as an assault. A sex crime could be something as minor as an inmate exposing himself to a guard, Laborde says.

  "You cannot assume that those are serious incidents," she says.

  Spokesmen for GEO and CCA declined Gambit's request for interviews, instead offering the following statements.

  From Pablo Paez, vice president in charge of corporate relations for GEO:

Terry Terrell is warden of Allen Correctional Center in Kinder, one of two state prisons under private management.
  • Terry Terrell is warden of Allen Correctional Center in Kinder, one of two state prisons under private management.

  "We are proud of our long-standing public-private partnership with the State of Louisiana, where we have operated the Allen Correctional Facility since 1990. Our company has always adhered to strict contractual requirements and has operated its facilities, including the Allen Correctional Center, pursuant to the highest standards in our industry including those set by the American Correctional Association."

  And from Steve Owen, CCA director of public affairs:

  "Safety and security for our employees, the inmates entrusted to our care and the communities where we operate is our top priority [sic]. We meet and often exceed the high standards set forth by the independent American Correctional Association (ACA) — the gold standard for professional correctional management services. We take all allegations of wrongdoing seriously and act swiftly if our standards have not been met.

  "CCA is committed to providing solid, lasting career opportunities with competitive compensation and benefits to all of our 17,000 employees. I personally started in an entry-level position in Texas and can attest to the opportunities that are available at CCA. One of the things we're most proud of is how we help veterans find fulfilling careers after leaving active duty. Our company is consistently ranked by G.I. Jobs magazine as one of the top 100 military-friendly employers in America, and we're the only corrections company to earn this distinction."

Neither CCA's nor GEO's corporate offices responded to Gambit's queries about average salaries at those facilities. But privatization supporter Rep. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, the powerful chair of the House Appropriations Committee, admitted that costs would be reduced via labor cuts.

  "There's no question no matter who you ask," Riddle says. "The reason why private prisons operate cheaper is not because they're more efficient. It's because they pay cheaper labor. Food costs are the same. Utilities are the same. Maintenance — they probably save on maintenance. You go to Avoyelles and Allen and you tell me."

  On April 27, Gambit toured Allen and AVC, accompanied by Johnson and DPSC spokeswoman Pam Laborde. Despite Riddle's claims, there were few easily noticeable differences.

  Both have four dormitory units with open sleeping and living areas, and one cellblock for inmates with disciplinary problems. Both were clean and generally well-maintained. The floors were more polished and less cracked in AVC's Hope dorm than at Allen's Saturn dorm, but the windows between the guard center and the corridor in Saturn were better maintained than Hope's.

  AVC has a better library. Allen has more computers in its classrooms. AVC has cattle and a vegetable garden. Allen has a factory where inmates build and repair office furniture for state and local governments. AVC has an inmate newspaper — The Cajun Pride — and a donated chapel in its yard. Allen has a recording studio and is raising money for a chapel.

  There were other differences: AVC deputy warden Gary Gremillion and Allen warden Terry Terrell clearly had different messages they tried to get across during the respective tours.

  In nearly every part of the AVC tour, Gremillion took pains to point out areas where budget cuts already have led to reductions: some guards were replaced with a camera system and pressure-sensitive fences. The newspaper used to publish a quarterly glossy magazine that the prison no longer can afford.

  Outside of the vocational training center: "We used to have a diesel tech program; it got cut. We used to have body and fender repair. We lost our teacher."

  Asked whether there are emergency medical technicians on call in the infirmary: "We've got a couple. We used to have more."

  Terrell, meanwhile, emphasized the perks at Allen, taking an extra-long side trip to Saturn's "elite tier" — a dorm with extra space between beds (which therefore must be double-bunked), a large TV and a video game console — where the best-behaved inmates live.

  Also noteworthy was what appeared to be a significant difference in inmate activity. On the day of the tour, only a handful of inmates were inside the AVC dorms. Most were working or in school. At Allen, however, dorms were nearly full in the middle of the day.

  Allen's school was empty save for a few inmates mopping floors. Two inmates, identified as tutors, worked on a lesson plan for their students. According to education coordinator Ty Pearce, it was the last Friday of the month, when the school building is out of use for cleaning.

  "Right now, today, our road crews, project crews and prison industries, they only work four days a week. They don't work on Friday. So that's why we have a few more inmates right now," said Chris Wharton, who oversees Saturn dorm for GEO.

  The most obvious difference between the two was the age of the corrections officers. Allen's appeared, on average, to be at least 10 years younger than AVC's.

  From a public policy standpoint, Riddle, Johnson and Wilson agree that the main problem at private correctional facilities is an inexperienced, underpaid workforce.

  "The average [worker] at Avoyelles Correctional right now [has] 12-and-a-half years," Riddle says. "Compare that to the private prisons. If they're up to three years, I'd be surprised." (LeBlanc says it's "somewhere around seven years.")

Allen's 'elite tier' is an incentive program for good behavior. Inmates here have more privileges and living space than in the rest of the prison.
  • Allen's 'elite tier' is an incentive program for good behavior. Inmates here have more privileges and living space than in the rest of the prison.

  DPSC personnel reports on the three facilities show that 42 security staff members left AVC between July 2011 and February 2012. Winn has lost 67, and Allen has lost 72. In that same period, AVC reported one security vacancy that had gone unfilled for 30 days or more in September and December 2011. Allen had a 30-day plus vacancy in October, November, December and again in February. Winn, meanwhile reported at least 14 and as many as 23 30-day-plus vacancies every month.

  "Turnover is higher," LeBlanc says. "But let me say that the turnover at Allen and Winn is higher in the first year. Once they get past that first year, they do a pretty good job of keeping them."

  Winn and Allen are the only state prisons currently under private management. They haven't always been. In the 1990s, the state approved two privately owned-and-operated juvenile facilities — GEO's (then operating under the name Wackenhut's) Jena Juvenile Justice Center (now the Lasalle Detention Center) and Trans-American Development's Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth.

  That arrangement ended after the DOJ investigated the juvenile facilities. The feds found serious civil rights violations at both, including inadequate protections from violence and a culture of sadism among the guards. (A 2003 Gambit report by Katy Reckdahl, "The Other Tallulah," reported on the harrowing conditions in Tallulah Correctional Center.)

  A 2000 DOJ report describes one night in November 1999, when, in response to restive inmates, guards rolled a heavy-duty tear gas grenade into their housing unit.

  From the report:

  "The grenade was deployed indoors in a unit housing at least 46 youth (some of whom were being compliant and already in bed) and several Jena staff. With that decision, Jena staff put the lives of at least 46 youth and some staff at risk and used excessive force. ...

  "When the grenade was rolled into Falcon C, staff and juveniles fled through the unlocked door. Juveniles were made to lie face-down outdoors on concrete in the cold, some in only their underwear, for many hours. ... During this time, at least four juveniles were sprayed in the face with a hand-held canister of mace while they were on the ground."

  Such problems aren't limited to Louisiana prisons. In April, the state of Mississippi cut its contract with three GEO prisons after the DOJ cited one of them — Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility — for numerous civil rights violations. U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves concluded that the company "has allowed a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions to germinate" at Walnut Grove.

  Last year, without admitting responsibility, CCA settled a $150 million lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of inmates at Idaho Correctional Center. The plaintiffs claimed guards were encouraging, even compelling, inmates to fight each other as a management tactic, earning the prison the nickname "gladiator school." The Associated Press reports that even during the lawsuit and after the settlement, the prison remains the most violent in the state.

  "We're trying to find efficiencies. I'm trying to maintain our re-entry, rehabilitative programs," LeBlanc says. "That's what this plan does for us. It allows us to reduce our costs and keep our programs and keep probation and parole whole. That's the genesis of this project. Unfortunately, as I've said in committee, this does fall on the backs of our employees. That's the hardest part of this for us. It is hard. It's not easy. But the alternative is shutting down programs, moving backwards with our corrections system."

So why is the state of Louisiana so intent on privatizing prisons? Johnson says he believes it's because Jindal can't stand to lose.

  "I kind of think it's personal and punitive ... because we defeated the bill in committee last year, and we shouldn't have," he says. "I hate to say it's personal, but I think it is personal."

  Wilson, on the other hand, believes it's part of a larger, politically fashionable push to down-size government. He points to tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to Jindal, Fannin and other privatization advocates from companies like CCA and GEO (both contributors to the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC, also a major source of campaign dollars), as well as smaller prison operators like Ruston-based LaSalle Southwest Corrections.

  State campaign finance reports show the Jindal campaign received a total of $10,000 from Lasalle, $11,000 from CCA and $15,000 from GEO (or Wackenhut) between 2003 and 2009. CCA CEO Damon Hininger also gave the Jindal campaign $2,500 in 2009. Fannin received contributions totaling $1,500 from CCA in 2008 and 2009, $500 from GEO in 2010 and $500 from GEO's political action committee in 2011.

  "When you're a state legislator ... and they're going to put several thousand dollars in your pocket, which way are you going to vote?" Wilson says.

  He also sees a political motive in Department of Public Safety & Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc's support of the bill, though Wilson is less forgiving of that.

  "The biggest thing is Secretary LeBlanc works for the governor," he says. "So he's got to do what the governor tells him. I told the representative down there, we had a lot of faith in our previous secretaries, because of the way we've been handled. We don't have quite as much faith this time.

  "That's what hurts a lot of people. It really hurts a lot of correctional officers because they look to [DPSC] to be our protectors and helpers. And it hurts when it looks like they're throwing you under the bus."

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