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.