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License to Abuse? Time for Bureau of Prisons to Sever Ties With CCA

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Last week, the ACLU of Georgia submitted comments to the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to ask that the agency not renew its contract with Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) for operation of the McRae Correctional Facility.

McRae is located in Telfair County, Georgia. The prison is owned by CCA, which purchased it in 2000. McRae currently houses a population of low security, adult male, primarily non-citizen prisoners. The contract between CCA and the BOP is set to expire in November 2012.

In addition to McRae, CCA currently manages 4 facilities in Georgia, including the largest immigrant detention facility in the country, the Stewart Detention Center, in Lumpkin. In 2009, a 39-year-old Stewart detainee, Roberto Martinez Medina, died after a heart infection was allegedly allowed to go untreated.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. Indeed, CCA, the largest owner and operator of privatized correctional and detention facilities in the U.S., has had a reputation for poor management, neglect, and turning a blind eye to abuses within its facilities for over 20 years. Since 2003, there have been at least 19 deaths in facilities operated by CCA, including 3 in Georgia.

This pattern of neglect and abuse is also seen at McRae, which has a record of violations of constitutional and BOP standards governing the medical treatment of prisoners. The lack of medical treatment for prisoners at McRae, as demonstrated by letters received from the prisoners by the ACLU of Georgia, is in violation of the 8th Amendment.

One prisoner at the facility suffered from epilepsy as a result of an accident in 2000. He arrived at the facility in 2011 and was taken off his epilepsy medication by the facility's doctor even though he had extensive documentation of his condition. His complaints to the facility medical unit went unheard. A couple of months later, he had a seizure and had to be taken to the hospital. The doctors at the hospital insisted that he be given medication for his condition. Even though McRae guards now give him medication, they only provide him with half the amount of medication prescribed by the hospital doctor.

Another prisoner at McRae complained numerous times of pain in his abdomen. When he was finally taken before a doctor, he was diagnosed with a hernia and surgery was recommended. However, he was denied this medical treatment that could have abated his pain and suffering. He had to wait months and file numerous complaints before receiving treatment.

According to another prisoner, after a birthday celebration held at the facility, all the prisoners who consumed the meal suffered food poisoning. Because of the low medical capacity of the facility, most of the prisoners suffering from severe diarrhea, dehydration, and stomach cramps did not receive medical care for almost a week.

McRae also has a record of abusive disciplinary practices that violate BOP standards.

One prisoner was placed in the Special Housing Unit (SHU) on February 5, 2010, but did not receive the required notice until March 26, 2010. He was segregated for a total of 97 days, but the disciplinary hearing at which he had a chance to explain his actions only took place on April 12, days before his release into the general population. Documents prepared by McRae employees themselves, such as the incident report, confirm the dates for the various stages of the proceeding which deviate from the Program Statement requirements and reveal other inconsistencies in data entry that may variably suggest carelessness or falsification of records. Another prisoner's experience of placement in the SHU is similarly replete with McRae employees' failure to follow the applicable standards, including 5 months of SHU placement without the required notices to the prisoner, periodic reviews, or hearings.

Perhaps most disturbing is the pattern of McRae employees' possibly retaliatory conduct that begins to emerge from these accounts. The prisoners subjected to discipline were all active in exercising their right to pursue legal activities as provided for in federal regulations and BOP policy. They had either previously filed grievance reports against the facility, provided legal assistance to other prisoners, or both. And they were all placed at the SHU for prolonged periods of time without the observance of procedural safeguards such as the periodic review process.

On July 13, 2011, three representatives from the BOP met with residents of McRae and surrounding communities for a public hearing on whether the agency should renew its contract with CCA for operation of McRae. Among those who addressed the panel of BOP representatives were employees of the correctional facility, including two guards and two medical staff. The image touted by McRae employees was that of a "humane, secure, and safe" facility. One CCA officer said that the facility is known for its hospitality and friendliness: "CCA at McRae is good to the inmates here, and the inmates know it." One of the facility nurses said that inmates at McRae "know medical cares about them and will care for them."

Voices of McRae prisoners were absent from the hearing. Had they been offered an opportunity, they would have presented a very different account.

The Supreme Court has stated: "Prison walls do not form a barrier separating prison prisoners from the protections of the Constitution." Incarcerated people depend on the facility operators to provide for basic human needs, adequate living conditions, food, and medical treatment.

CCA has failed in its obligation to run the McRae Correctional Facility in a manner comporting with basic human dignity. Should the BOP choose to renew this contract, it will demonstrate the agency's condoning of CCA's failure to live up to its contractual and social obligations.