TOPEKA — One of the United States’ largest and oldest private prison companies will house up to 600 Kansas inmates in a facility in Eloy, Arizona.
CoreCivic, formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America, owns and operates 129 prisons, immigration detention centers and other facilities in more than 20 states, including the Leavenworth Detention Center. Its revenues total more than $1 billion a year.
In emailed statements, CoreCivic spokeswoman Amanda Gilchrist told the Kansas News Service that it will offer Kansas inmates services that are just as good or better than what they’d receive at state-run prisons.
“CoreCivic cares deeply about every person in our care,” she said. “We work hard to ensure those in our facilities are treated respectfully and humanely.”
However, the company has been subject to several federal and state government audits and state investigations. Here’s a look at a few of the controversies.
In 2012, a group of inmates at the Idaho Correctional Center sued CoreCivic, arguing the company intentionally understaffed the prison and allowed a prison gang to attack them. A federal jury ruled the company wasn’t adequately staffed, but did not owe the inmates damages. Two years later, the state took over the facility, citing that lawsuit and other issues.
In Tennessee, a 2017 audit of the state’s Department of Correction found three CoreCivic prisons kept incomplete or false staff records or did not hire enough people to manage inmates or comply with the state’s contract. Tennessee inmates had sued CoreCivic earlier that year, alleging that the lack of staff resulted in inadequate medical care for diabetics.
The same year in Kansas, the federal government audited CoreCivic’s maximum security prison in Leavenworth — the same prison where the company allegedly violated attorney-client privilege by secretly taping conversations between inmates and their lawyers. The audit found the prison struggled to hire enough guards. At one point, the vacancy rate was 23 percent. Despite this, CoreCivic transferred guards from Leavenworth to another prison in Louisiana.
Violence and sexual abuse
A Tennessee man reported being raped and sexually harassed by his cellmate at a CoreCivic prison in 2018. In a lawsuit, he alleged that even though he reported the harassment several times, the guards did nothing, a violation of prison policy and the U.S. Constitution. A CoreCivic representative told a Nashville TV station that only one report was made, which the prison investigated but couldn’t substantiate.
Also in Tennessee, a recent report found CoreCivic prisons had higher rates of homicide than those run by the state.
In 2009, Hawaii removed 168 women from a CoreCivic-run Kentucky prison after reports of guards sexually assaulting inmates. The incident was one reason Kentucky stopped using private prisons entirely in 2013. However, citing concerns about inmate crowding, the state signed another CoreCivic contract in 2017.
Amid growing opposition to private prisons, several cities and states have declined to renew their contracts with CoreCivic in recent years.
Denver voted to let its agreements with CoreCivic expire this summer, although the city council recently extended the contracts while it figures out what to do with the people living in halfway houses run by the company. Other places like Tuscon, Arizona and Nevada have banned or ended contracts with private prisons entirely, citing concerns about safety and prisoners’ rights.
Treatment of detained immigrants
CoreCivic also has come under fire for running detention centers for federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, though Kansas inmates will not be housed in any of these centers.
Fourteen people detained at the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona died between 2003 and 2015, five due to suicide. At the time, it was the highest number of suicides at any detention center in the country. Many people at Eloy complained that medical staff didn’t treat them and told them to drink water for ailments. CoreCivic public affairs manager Brandon Bissell said in an email to the Kansas News Service that the company is not in charge of medical services at the detention center.
Last year, migrants detained at La Palma Correctional Center, also located in Eloy, went on hunger strike, saying they were abused and harassed by guards, given only one meal a day and had limited access to showers and bathrooms. ICE told KJZZ that there was no hunger strike, and CoreCivic’s Bissell concurred.
In July, Yasmin Juarez sued CoreCivic, arguing the company neglected to provide medical treatment for her daughter when the two were detained in the South Texas Family Residential Center. The lawsuit alleges 1-year-old Mariee Juarez had a high fever and was coughing and vomiting shortly after being admitted to the facility, but staff didn’t provide proper medical treatment. The girl was admitted to the emergency room one day after leaving the facility and died six weeks after she was released.
Bissell said that the federal government, not CoreCivic, provides medical care at the South Texas Family Residential Center.
“Our hearts go out to the Juarez family for the tragic loss of their child six weeks after leaving the South Texas Family Residence Center. We care deeply about every person in our facilities. Our government partners rightly have very high standards for those in our care that we work hard to meet and exceed each day,” Bissell added.
Where Kansas inmates will go
The employee vacancy rate at Saguaro Correctional Center, where Kansas inmates will be housed, is 3%. Hawaii also has a contract to send inmates to Saguaro, and CoreCivic's Gilchrist pointed to recent audits from the Hawaii Department of Public Safety that show the facility to be compliant with all of the state’s requirements.
“All of our correctional facilities are monitored very closely by our government partners,” Gilchrist said. “Each and every one is required to undergo regular review and audit processes to ensure contract compliance and appropriate standard of care for all inmates.”
In an email, Gov. Laura Kelly said Kansas has a legal obligation to provide safe conditions for prisoners and prison employees.
“It’s a constitutional right, not an option,” she said. “My administration takes this very seriously.”
She emphasized the contract with CoreCivic will allow a Kansas state employee on site to monitor conditions and report back. Other Kansas officials are also allowed to visit and inspect Saguaro at any time.
“The decision to send some of our inmates to a private prison wasn’t made lightly,” Kelly said. “I share a number of concerns that have been raised by anti-private prison advocates.”
The Kansas Department of Corrections declined to comment.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Mississippi ended its contract with CoreCivic. The private prison company served out its contract, but did not win another contract during a rebidding period with the state.
Clarification: According to an The Associated Press story that we link to, the lawsuits against CoreCivic were among the reasons why Idaho decided to no longer contract with private prisons. The same story notes that CoreCivic already had decided not to re-bid for a contract with the prison, and private prison company GEO Group also did not.
Nomin Ujiyediin reports on criminal justice and social welfare for the Kansas News Service. Follow her on Twitter @NominUJ or email nomin (at) kcur (dot) org.
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