Reporter goes undercover to expose harsh conditions at La. prison

Among the allegations: New COs in 2014 were paid $9 an hour, well below the beginning pay of roughly $12.50 an hour at state prisons

Gordon Russell
The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

A recent exposé by a reporter who went undercover to work as a guard at a privately run state prison in north-central Louisiana raises questions about the operations of Winn Correctional Center and, more broadly, about the case for privatizing corrections.

The article, by Shane Bauer, of the left-leaning magazine Mother Jones, alleges that Corrections Corp. of America, the oldest and second-largest for-profit prison operator in America, skimped on services at Winn — which it no longer runs — to protect its bottom line.

And with fresh cuts to Louisiana’s budget, Winn will be run with almost one-fourth less money this year.

Among Bauer’s allegations:

  • New correctional officers at Winn Correctional Center in late 2014 were paid $9 an hour, well below the beginning pay of roughly $12.50 an hour at state prisons. The base rate was raised to $10 during Bauer’s tenure.
  • Required checks of the tiers in the 1,500-bed facility were routinely skipped, and logs documenting those checks were falsified with management’s knowledge. One guard told Bauer he also falsified checks on suicidal inmates.
  • The prison was badly understaffed, and guards were often afraid or unwilling to walk the tiers as a result. Shanks were commonplace and were used often. The prison also had dramatically reduced programming, with little vocational training or opportunity for prisoners to use the recreation yard.

According to Bauer’s data, CCA was underreporting to state officials the number of stabbings that occurred on its watch. He counted 12 of them in the first two months of 2015 but said CCA reported five in the first 10 months of that year.

CCA officials strenuously dispute Bauer’s allegations, in particular his claims about under-reporting of prison violence and falsified paperwork. The company also faults his methodology and ethics, saying the reporter has an “activist agenda,” wasn’t clear about whom he worked for and violated his duties as an employee by not reporting to his superiors some of the things he saw.

But Bauer — who earlier gained wide fame as one of three American hikers taken into custody by Iranian border guards in 2009 for crossing into Iran, finally being released in 2011 — writes that he received a glowing job review and says one supervisor hand-picked him for advancement before his correctional career came to a surprise end after a Mother Jones photographer got arrested taking pictures outside the prison.

Not long after Bauer left in March 2014, CCA called it quits at Winn as well. The company announced it was walking away from its contract in April, and since October, Winn has been managed by LaSalle Southwest Corrections, a Ruston firm that runs 14 prisons, all but one of them in Louisiana or Texas.

Winn, a medium-security prison, had been the only lockup in Louisiana run by CCA, which operates about 60 other prisons around the country.

In an interview with The Advocate, LaSalle’s managing director, Billy McConnell, was careful not to criticize CCA, but he stressed that his company has made significant improvements since taking over in October. On various key metrics — inmate-on-inmate assaults, attacks on staff, hospitalizations — the prison is a much safer place than it was, he said. State correctional officials said they are pleased with the progress.

But new and draconian cuts are on the way. With Louisiana’s budget bleeding red ink, legislators reduced funding for corrections for the fiscal year that started Friday. As a result, the state is planning to slash by nearly a quarter what it pays to house inmates at Winn Correctional Center and the only other privately run state prison — Allen Correctional Center, which is operated by GEO Group, the largest private correctional firm in the nation.

In other words, the understaffed, dangerous prison Bauer described will now have to be operated on a much smaller budget — roughly $4 million less per year, by McConnell’s count.

A tumultuous time
Bauer’s stint at the prison — from December 2014 through March 2015 — came during a tumultuous period.

State prison officials had become aware of major problems at Winn: For example, state records show the number of weapons confiscated shot up from 14 in 2010 to 324 in 2014, while the number of attacks on staffers went from 11 to 39 over the same period.

Emails and other correspondence obtained by The Advocate through a public records request, along with documents posted by Mother Jones, make it clear that Louisiana corrections officials had grave concerns about CCA’s management of Winn by late 2014. No other state prison was under such a microscope.

But Louisiana officials say they have no evidence that suggests CCA was trying to cover up the level of violence in the prison. Though they didn’t vouch for the company’s data, corrections officials said their increased scrutiny of Winn was the result of the high number of troubling incidents that CCA was reporting to the state.

A Dec. 31, 2014, letter from Louisiana corrections chief Jimmy LeBlanc to CCA brass in Nashville, Tennessee, enumerates a multi-page laundry list of demanded improvements and says a group of Louisiana prison officials would be in charge of making sure the company complies.

Those officials ended up issuing regular progress reports, many of them discouraging. One email, dated Feb. 23, 2015, listed the items found during a search of one of the five tiers: 51 homemade weapons, 19 cellphones, 24 bags of a “green leafy substance,” 16 pills, two tattoo guns, 11 syringes.

The report was forwarded to LeBlanc with a short introduction: “See below. Horrible.”

Amid that backdrop, Bauer depicts CCA officials as scrambling, desperate to convince Louisiana corrections brass that they hadn’t lost control of the place. They feared their contract would be canceled.

Wardens from various other Louisiana prisons visited Winn periodically, and at one point, after an 11-day lockdown, a larger contingent of Department of Public Safety and Corrections employees showed up to help right the ship. While they were present, “everything is quiet and smooth,” Bauer wrote, but when they left, “the order they imposed vanishes with them.”

Nonetheless, he wrote that company officials soon got word that “CCA has hung onto the prison,” and they were thrilled.

“The great state of Louisiana came in with both guns a-blazing,” Bauer quotes one assistant warden as saying. “They were ready to tear Winn apart.”

But despite that reprieve, company officials decided just weeks later to pull out of the prison they had been managing for decades.
Bauer remains puzzled at the about-face.

“I don’t know for sure whether the discovery of my presence had anything to do with CCA’s decision, but the timing was notable,” he said in an email. “It was interesting to see them trying so hard to hang onto it and to see the assistant warden get so excited when it appeared they had succeeded, then to hear that they’d given it up shortly after I left. These decisions, of course, have little to do with the administrators of Winn and much more to do with the corporate office, but I’ll probably never know what was happening there when they found out about me and any decisions they might have made as a result.”

In an email to The Advocate, CCA public affairs director Jonathan Burns said the decision came down to dollars and cents. The company “felt that Winn ultimately could not be managed to our company’s standards within the budget constraints,” he said.

Burns declined to elaborate, but the per-diem rate paid by the state — $31.52 per inmate per day — hadn’t been raised for nearly a decade. According to the article, when adjusted for inflation, the state’s spending per prisoner at Winn was 20 percent lower in 2014 than it was in the late 1990s.

New round of cuts
That grim budget picture is about to get worse.

When the Legislature refused to approve all of the new taxes sought by Gov. John Bel Edwards, corrections was one of many areas of the budget that took a hit.

McConnell, of LaSalle, said LeBlanc has informed him that the state will be making deep cuts to what it pays private prison operators. Instead of $31.52 per inmate per day, the rate will now be $24.39, the same amount paid to sheriffs who house inmates in local jails.

By comparison, the state spends roughly $52 per inmate per day on those in state-run prisons.

The upshot, McConnell said, is that the Winn and Allen correctional centers will be run like jails, not prisons, with little or no rehabilitative programming.

Louisiana, which incarcerates a greater percentage of its residents than any other state, has been widely criticized for warehousing about half of its inmates in local jails that do little to prepare them for life on the outside.

LeBlanc has repeatedly warned legislators of the dangers of such an approach, but the recent cuts essentially mean that another 3,000 state prisoners — nearly 10 percent of the total — will be getting what the secretary has called the “lock and feed” treatment. That will mean more recidivism when they are released, he said.

McConnell said LeBlanc offered to let LaSalle out of its 10-year contract. But he said the company already had invested $2 million into the operation at Winn and is committed to seeing it through, shoestring budget or no.

“There are going to be big cuts to programming, which I hate,” McConnell said. “But we have to be able to pay our bills. We’re going to continue trying to make a difference in the lives of inmates, just on a lesser budget.”

Copyright 2016 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

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