4/18/00 - Wackenhut Corrections A Prisoner of Its Own Problems
Apr. 15 (The Miami Herald/KRTBN)--After a decade as a leading operator of corporate-owned prisons, Wackenhut Corrections has become a prisoner of its own problems. A series of scandals in at least four states has hurt Wackenhut where it hurts the most -- on its bottom line. But it has also sullied the company's reputation in an industry that is trying to overcome widely held apprehensions about housing prisoners for profit. Criticism is mounting:
In New Mexico, a 500-page legislative report written by five consultants calls for a near-total overhaul of state prison operations, including two run by Wackenhut. After an Aug. 31, 1999, riot that left an inmate and a guard dead, Wackenhut was faulted for having inadequate and ill-prepared staff earning Wal-Mart wages.
In Texas, Wackenhut was stripped of a $12-million-a-year contract last September and fined $625,000 for failing to live up to promises in the running of a state jail. Twelve former guards were indicted for having sex with female inmates. Civil lawsuits were brought by women who claimed they'd been raped in three Wackenhut prisons in Texas.
In Fort Lauderdale, five guards at a Wackenhut work-release facility were fired or punished for having sex with inmates last summer. No charges were filed, but Sheriff Ken Jenne wants to renegotiate contract terms with Wackenhut.
Finally, on April 5, Wackenhut agreed to surrender control of its 15-month-old juvenile prison in Jena, La. That came a week after the U.S. Justice Department named Wackenhut in a lawsuit seeking to protect imprisoned boys from harm at the hands of guards and fellow inmates. The government accused Wackenhut of beating boys, throwing tear gas indoors, spraying them in the face with pepper spray, and not providing them with adequate education and counseling.
"It was run so poorly and is so violent and dangerous for the kids incarcerated in it that the Justice Department felt it imperative to name them in the lawsuit," said David Utter, an attorney for the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, an advocacy group in New Orleans.
Housing prisoners for profit is one of the more expansive forms of privatization, wherein cash-strapped governments outsource traditionally public functions to the private sector. In the United States, nearly 100 prisons are run by corporations. About 15 percent of all new prison beds are going the corporate route.