Private Prison Empire Rises Despite Startling Record Of Juvenile Abuse

By Chris Kirkham: Huffington Post – October 22, 2013

 

From a glance at his background, one might assume that James F. Slattery would have a difficult time convincing any state in America to entrust him with the supervision of its lawbreaking youth.

Over the past quarter century, Slattery’s for-profit prison enterprises have run afoul of the Justice Department and authorities in New York, Florida, Maryland, Nevada and Texas for alleged offenses ranging from condoning abuse of inmates to plying politicians with undisclosed gifts while seeking to secure state contracts.

In 2001, an 18-year-old committed to a Texas boot camp operated by one of Slattery’s previous companies, Correctional Services Corp., came down with pneumonia and pleaded to see a doctor as he struggled to breathe. Guards accused the teen of faking it and forced him to do pushups in his own vomit, according to Texas law enforcement reports. After nine days of medical neglect, he died.

That same year, auditors in Maryland found that staff at one of Slattery’s juvenile facilities coaxed inmates to fight on Saturday mornings as a way to settle disputes from earlier in the week. In recent years, the company has failed to report riots, assaults and claims of sexual abuse at its juvenile prisons in Florida, according to a review of state records and accounts from former employees and inmates.

Despite that history, Slattery’s current company, Youth Services International, has retained and even expanded its contracts to operate juvenile prisons in several states. The company has capitalized on budgetary strains across the country as governments embrace privatization in pursuit of cost savings. Nearly 40 percent of the nation’s juvenile delinquents are today committed to private facilities, according to the most recent federal data from 2011, up from about 33 percent twelve years earlier.

Over the past two decades, more than 40,000 boys and girls in 16 states have gone through one of Slattery’s prisons, boot camps or detention centers, according to a Huffington Post analysis of juvenile facility data.

The private prison industry has long fueled its growth on the proposition that it is a boon to taxpayers, delivering better outcomes at lower costs than state facilities. But significant evidence undermines that argument: the tendency of young people to return to crime once they get out, for example, and long-term contracts that can leave states obligated to fill prison beds. The harsh conditions confronting youth inside YSI’s facilities, moreover, show the serious problems that can arise when government hands over social services to private contractors and essentially walks away.

Those held at YSI facilities across the country have frequently faced beatings, neglect, sexual abuse and unsanitary food over the past two


decades, according to a HuffPost investigation that included interviews with 14 former employees and a review of thousands of pages of state audits, lawsuits, local police reports and probes by state and federal agencies. Out of more than 300 institutions surveyed, a YSI detention center in Georgia had the highest rate of youth alleging sexual assaults in the country, according to a recent report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

In Florida, where private contractors have in recent years taken control of all of the state’s 3,300 youth prison beds, YSI now manages more than $100 million in contracts, about 10 percent of the system. Its facilities have generated conspicuously large numbers of claims that guards have assaulted youth, according to a HuffPost compilation of state reports. A YSI facility in Palm Beach County had the highest rate of reported sexual assaults out of 36 facilities reviewed in Florida, the Bureau of Justice Statistics report found.

The state’s sweeping privatization of its juvenile incarceration system has produced some of the worst re-offending rates in the nation. More than 40 percent of youth offenders sent to one of Florida’s juvenile prisons wind up arrested and convicted of another crime within a year of their release, according to state data. In New York state, where historically no youth offenders have been held in private institutions, 25 percent are convicted again within that timeframe.

Slattery and other Youth Services International executives declined interview requests over several months. In an emailed response to written questions, a senior vice president, Jesse Williams, asserted that the company carefully looks after its charges and delivers value to taxpayers.

“We are the best operators in the state of Florida, and that is why we continue to have contracts awarded to us,” Williams said. “While there have been occasional issues, we are inspected regularly and overwhelmingly receive positive reports.”

He added that the company has introduced “independent, third-party reviews” of the programs listed in the Bureau of Justice Statistics report and has engaged national experts on prison sexual abuse in an effort to improve conditions.

More than a decade has passed since a Florida judge tongue-lashed Correctional Services Corp., Slattery’s former company, during a hearing convened to probe widespread complaints of violence at one of its facilities two hours north of Miami. Juvenile Judge Ron Alvarez was so horrified by the descriptions of that particular institution — a fetid, graffiti-covered jail called the Pahokee Youth Development Center — that he compared it to a “Third World country that is controlled by … some type of evil power.”

In a recent interview, the same judge expressed amazement that Slattery has continued to run facilities in Florida right up to the present day. “I don’t know how the hell they still have business with the state,” Alvarez said.

This is how.


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Federal Bureau of Prisons official Del Matthews, left, with James Slattery at a meeting with community residents in March 1989. (Richard Lee / Newsday)


 

Forging Connections

A one-time New York City hotelier who began renting out rooms to prisoners in 1989, Slattery has established a dominant perch in the juvenile corrections business through an astute cultivation of political connections and a crafty gaming of the private contracting system.

Even as reports of negligence and poor treatment of inmates have piled up, his companies have kept their records clean by habitually pulling out of contracts before the government takes official action, HuffPost found.

In Florida, his companies have exploited lax state oversight while leaning on powerful allies inside the government to keep the contracts flowing. Slattery, his wife, Diane, and other executives have been prodigious political rainmakers in Florida, donating more than $400,000 to state candidates and committees over the last 15 years, according to HuffPost’s review. The recipient of the largest share of those dollars was the Florida Republican Party, which took in more than $276,000 in that time. Former Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos, an avid supporter of prison privatization, received more than $15,000 from company executives during state and federal races.

The company has given more in Florida over the past 15 years than the combined donations of Office Depot and Darden Restaurants, Inc., two of the state’s largest Fortune 500 corporations.

Among the company’s lobbyists in Tallahassee is Jonathan Costello, who served as legislative affairs director for Republican Florida Gov. Rick Scott in 2011 and 2012. Gary Rutledge, another YSI lobbyist, served on Scott’s inaugural committee after his 2010 victory.

“We regularly hire companies that have abysmal track records of performance, but great track records of political campaign contributions,” said Dan Gelber, a former Florida senator and state representative who has been critical of the state’s juvenile justice policies.

Williams, the YSI spokesman, said the company is “committed to supporting people who we believe will be effective in a political position, regardless of whether they would have an impact in our industry.” Lobbyists, he added, “can be extremely helpful” in “clarifying to legislators the realities of the operations of juvenile facilities.”

A former executive who worked with Slattery for five years in Florida said the company’s success in the state reflected two areas of expertise — relentless cost-cutting and political gamesmanship.

“There was always the sense that I was working for a businessman who didn’t understand the system of juvenile justice,” said the former executive, who spoke on condition he not be named. “My mandate was to cut positions, cut programs, look for efficiencies — all the while making sure that the state we were contracting with remained happy. I always felt like there was more priority at the highest level given to managing political relationships than running the core of the business.”

Over the years, YSI has brought in seasoned former government bureaucrats who are savvy about the often arcane federal and state processes through which private companies secure contracts to run public facilities.

The company’s executive vice president, Woodrow Harper, is a former deputy secretary of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice – now the company’s primary source of revenue.

“It’s everything that’s wrong with politics rolled up in a package,” said Evan Jenne, a former Florida state representative who toured one of YSI’s youth facilities after local public defenders raised concerns. “You’re talking about society failing children. It’s politically motivated, and it’s money-motivated.”

 

POLITICAL CONTRIBUTIONS FROM PRIVATE PRISON FIRMS

  1. Youth Services International – $418,110

  2. G4S Youth Services – $28,000

  3. Gulf Coast YouthServices – $7,000

  4. Henry & Rilla White Foundation – $6,850

  5. Eckerd Youth Alternatives – $6,700

  6. Twin Oaks Juvenile Development – $1,600

  7. Universal Health Services – $8,000

  8. Vision Quest – $7,400

  9. Three  Springs – $1,000

  10. Premier Behavioral Solutions – $2,000

  11. Gateway Community Services – $1,155

Political contributions in the state of Florida since 1998 from contractors who handled residential facilities for the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. Source: Influence Explorer.



 

Officials at the state Department of Juvenile Justice did not respond to questions about YSI.

A department spokeswoman, Meghan Speakes Collins, pointed to overall improvements the state has made in its contract monitoring process, such as conducting more interviews with randomly selected youth to get a better understanding of conditions and analyzing problematic trends such as high staff turnover.

“Our primary concern is the health and safety of the youth in our care and we take any allegation of misconduct very seriously,” she wrote in an emailed statement. “We have a comprehensive reporting system in which any incident is thoroughly investigated and corrective action is taken as necessary.”

Experts say the continued growth of for-profit prison operators like Youth Services International amounts to a cautionary tale about the perils of privatization: In a drive to cut costs, Florida has effectively abdicated its responsibility for some of its most troubled children, leaving them in the hands of companies focused solely on the bottom line.

“One of the problems with private corrections is that you are trying to squeeze profit margins out of an economic picture that doesn’t allow for very much,” said Bart Lubow, a leading juvenile justice expert who heads the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. “So you either hire people for minimum wage who are afraid of the environment in which they work, or you don’t feed people properly. There are not a lot of margins.”


Rats in a Maze

Florida logs reports of serious incidents that occur inside its juvenile prisons, but the state does not maintain a database that allows for the analysis of trends across the system. HuffPost obtained the documents through Florida’s public records law and compiled incident reports logged between 2008 and 2012. According to the data, YSI’s facilities generated a disproportionate share of reports of prison staff allegedly injuring youth offenders by using excessive force.

Although YSI oversaw only about 9 percent of the state’s juvenile jail beds during the past five years, the company was responsible for nearly 15 percent of all reported cases of excessive force and injured youths.

In 2012, 23 incidents of excessive force were reported at YSI facilities. By comparison, G4S Youth Services — the state’s largest private provider of youth prison beds — generated 21 such reports, despite overseeing nearly three times as many beds.

Among the other key findings from HuffPost’s investigation:

  1. Staff underreport serious incidents such as major fights and staff assaults in an effort to keep the state in the dark and avoid additional scrutiny – a violation of the company’s contracts as well as Department of Juvenile Justice rules requiring that contracted staff report such incidents to state authorities.

  2. Though state guidelines prohibit “unnecessarily harsh or indecent treatment,” YSI guards have frequently resorted to violence in confrontations with youth, slapping and choking inmates and sometimes fracturing bones, according to police reports. Former employees told HuffPost that YSI often fails to document such incidents.

  3. Staff turnover at YSI’s prisons is rampant, leaving inexperienced guards to manage a tough population.

  4. At YSI facilities, food is often in short supply and frequently undercooked. Youth interviewed by HuffPost recounted being served bloody, raw chicken and sometimes finding flies inside pre-cooked dishes. In order to get enough food, youth are allowed to gamble through card games and sports bets while trading “picks” — the right to take someone else’s food at the next meal.

Former employees recall going without basic supplies such as toilet paper, deodorant and tampons — also violations of department policy. They say they lacked the funds to provide activities for the youth held in YSI’s prisons.

“We were kept like rats in a trap, in a maze,” said Angela Phillips, a former shift supervisor at Broward Girls Academy in Pembroke Pines, northwest of Miami. “There was no outlet and no stimulation, so they would just turn on each other, and turn on staff. That’s how it was day in, day out.”

The company spokesman, Jesse Williams, dismissed claims that YSI fails to report incidents, saying the company always complies with state guidelines. “Our reporting process is the best in the industry,” he said.

He argued that YSI’s employee turnover rate and salaries are in line with the industry average. “The job is a difficult one,” he said. “Despite our best efforts to assess a candidate’s fitness for the position, which include employment and background screening and proper training, we don’t know of their true suitability until they are well into the job.”

Local public defenders and groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center have for years forwarded concerns about YSI facilities to the state, but Florida has done little to investigate allegations of verbal and physical abuse.

In the summer of 2012, after the Broward County Public Defender’s Office sent a letter to the Department of Juvenile Justice outlining issues with food and fighting at a different facility, the state inspector handed out a pro-forma questionnaire to about 20 boys there.

Last year, the state declined to renew YSI’s contract for that program, a 154-bed facility called Thompson Academy where state officials over the years had documented frequent violence and failures to report serious incidents. But that decision was not due to poor performance, according to a letter the state sent to the company in August 2012. Indeed, this year, the state awarded YSI another contract to manage a facility less than a mile away.

“I always think it’s ironic that you can’t get a job as a janitor for the Department of Juvenile Justice — understandably so — if you have any kind of conviction on your record,” said Marie Osborne, the chief juvenile public defender in Miami-Dade County, who has followed YSI for more than a decade. “They’re scrupulous with individual employees, but a corporation can have this corporate rap sheet, and it’s no problem. They can get contracts.”


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