For The Observer/Guardian UK
New Mexico’s privately operated prisons are filled with America’s impoverished, sometimes violent outcasts – and they are just the guards. That’s the warning I took away from confidential documents and from guards who spoke nervously on condition of anonymity.
The prisons’ owner operator, Wackenhut Corporation, has not had a very sunny summer. Three weeks ago, Texas terminated its contract to run a prison pending the expected criminal indictment of several members of staff for sexually abusing inmates. The company has also been yanked from operating a prison in its home state of Florida, and mass escapes in June, July and August threaten their Australian contracts.
And in New Mexico, Wackenhut’s two prisons, open barely a year, have been the scene of riots, nine stabbings and five murders, including, two weeks ago, the killing of a guard. Wackenhut’s share price plummeted. But there is a ray of hope. Last month, between the fourth and fifth murder in New Mexico, Jack Straw’s office announced it would award new contracts to the company, including one to build and operate a prison at Marchington in Staffordshire.
Ralph Garcia, a rancher driven to financial ruin by drought in New Mexico, signed on at Wackenhut’s Santa Rosa prison. For $7.95 an hour he guarded medium-security inmates including multiple murderers, members of a homicidal neo-Nazi cult and the Mexican Mafia gang. Although he had yet to complete his short training course, Garcia was left alone in a cell block with 60 unlocked prisoners. They ran amok, stabbing an inmate and then Garcia, several times.
Why was Garcia left alone among the convicts? It wasn’t a mistake, but simply Wackenhut’s cut-rate Jails ‘R’ Us policy: one guard in a ‘pod’ and two prisoners in each cell. This reverses the ratio in government-run prisons: two guards per block, one prisoner per cell. Of course, the state’s own prisons are not as ‘efficient’ (for which read ‘cheap’) as the private firm’s. But then, the state hasn’t lost a guard in 17 years. Wackenhut hasn’t yet operated 17 months.
Sources have told The Observer that two weeks prior to Garcia’s stabbing, a senior employee warned Wackenhut corporate honchos that the one-guard system is a death-sentence lottery. The executive’s response: ‘We’d rather lose one officer than two.’
How does Wackenhut get away with it? It cannot hurt the company that it put Manny Aragon, the state legislature’s Democratic leader, on its payroll as a lobbyist. ‘Isn’t that illegal?’ I asked state Senator Cisco McSorley. The Democratic Senator, a lawyer and vice-chairman of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said: ‘Of course it is.’ Welcome to New Mexico.
Wackenhut agreed to house, feed, guard, and educate inmates for $43 a day. It can’t. New Mexico found it had to maintain a costly force of experienced cops at the ready to enter and lock down prisons every time Wackenhut’s ‘green boots’ lost control. A riot in April required 100 state police to smother 200 prisoners with tear gas – and arrest one Wackenhut guard who turned violent. The putative savings of privatisation literally went up in smoke.
New Mexico threatened to bill Wackenhut for costs if the state had to save the company’s prison again. That was a deadly error. On 31 August, state police heard the sounds of chaos during a phone check to the prison.
Wackenhut said all was well. By the time the company sent out the mayday two hours later, Garcia had bled to death. Why so many deaths, so many riots at the Wackenhut prisons? The company spokesman told me: ‘New Mexico has a rough prison population.’ No kidding.
We have obtained copies of internal corporate memos from line officers pleading for life-saving equipment such as radios with panic buttons and for more personnel – written just weeks before Garcia’s death. When politicos and inspectors visit, they are paraded through what looks like a fully staffed prison because, claim guards, they are ordered to work 16- and 20-hour shifts for the official displays.
With low pay and dangerous work, recruitment problems are inevitable. Wackenhut fills part of the gap by hiring teenage guards, some of them too young to qualify for a driver’s licence. A few of these youngsters make up for their inexperience by getting macho with the prisoners, slamming them into walls, says a witness. ‘Just sickening,’ she said.
Immediately after the prison opened, a pack of guards repeatedly kicked a shackled inmate in the head. You may conclude that these guards needed closer supervision, but they had that. A court officer and a prison worker bothsay that the deputy warden directed the attack. The company fired those guards and removed the warden – to another Wackenhut prison.
Conscientious guards are fed up. Four staged a protest in front of the prison, demanding radios – and union representation. Good luck. The American labour federation, AFL-CIO, tags Wackenhut as one of the nation’s top union-busting firms. The guards face dismissal.
Senator McSorley has soured on prison privatisation. New Mexico, he says, has not yet measured the hole in its Treasury left by a mere few months of Wackenhut operations. The company’s latest move is to dump 109 of its problem prisoners on the government, which must spend millions to ship them to other states’ penitentiaries.
Still, let’s-get-tough politicians praise Wackenhut’s ‘hard time’ philosophy: no electricity outlets for radios, tiny metal cells, lots of lock-down time (which saves on staffing). And, unlike government prisons, there’s little or no schooling, job training, or library books, although the state pays Wackenhut for these services. The company boasted it could arrange for in-prison computer work, but for now the few working prisoners sew uniforms for 30 cents an hour. However, most are left to their metal cages. Brutality is cheap, humanity expensive – in the short run. The chief of the state prison guards’ union warns that Wackenhut’s treating prisoners like dogs ensures they lash out like wolves.
Wackenhut Corporation does not want to be judged by its corrections affiliate only. That’s fair enough. This column has already described its other services. In March we reported that a British Petroleum unit had wiretapped and bugged the home of a whistleblower working with the US Congress. This black-bag job was contracted to, designed by and carried out by a Wackenhut team. With state after state handing Wackenhut walking papers, what could have motivated HM Prison Service to invite it to operate a UK prison?
The Home Office at first denied it had offered new work to the company, noting huffily that the UK, too, cancelled a Wackenhut contract, ending its operation at Coldingley Prison in Surrey on 1 February by ‘mutual agreement’. (In fact, it was not so mutual. A confidential audit leaked to a prison expert and passed to The Observer accuses Wackenhut of dubious accounting and ‘total dis regard for fundamental tenets of Prison Service financial policy’.)
I suggested the Home Office look under the corporate alias, Premier. Next morning came a call: Yes, we have several contracts with Premier, including operation of the Doncaster Prison (aka ‘Doncatraz’) and the planned Marchington prison. Wackenhut is ‘a part of the Premier consortium’. That’s one way of putting it. Wackenhut owns 50 per cent of Premier and controls Premier’s UK prison operations.
Did the Prison Service contact US prison authorities? No. Did it ask Wackenhut to explain the deaths, riots, criminal indictments and contract terminations in the States? ‘Uh, we have no reason to contact Wackenhut.’ This eyes-wide-shut indifference chimes with the Home Secretary’s born-again faith in prison privatisation.
A civil action in Texas charges that at Wackenhut’s juvenile detention center, ‘offensive sexual contact, deviant sexual intercourse and rape were rampant and residents were physically injured, hospitalised with broken bones’. Yet this week, Wackenhut will open a new Child Prison in County Durham for the Home Office.
It wasn’t a convict but an employee who told me: ‘My 15 months in the prison were hell on Earth. I’ll never go back to Wackenhut.’ Those sentiments need not worry the company so long as they are not shared by a Home Secretary mesmerised by the free market in human misery.
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Gregory Palast writes the award-winning column, “Inside Corporate America” fortnightly in Britain’s Sunday newspaper, The Observer, part of the Guardian Media Group, where this first appeared.
For The Observer/Guardian UK