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Trouble in Private US Jails Preceded Job Fixing Iraq's
Published on Sunday, June 6, 2004 by the New York Times
Trouble in Private US Jails Preceded Job Fixing Iraq's
by Fox Butterfield
 

SANTA FE, N.M. - Tyson Johnson was in the Santa Fe County jail here in January 2002, awaiting trial on charges of stalking and aggravated assault, when his longtime claustrophobia gave him anxiety attacks and he asked to see a psychiatrist.

But the jail, which is run by a private prison company, Management and Training Corporation, did not have a psychiatrist or a psychologist. So Mr. Johnson tried slitting his wrist and neck with a razor, and when that failed, he told the jail's nurse, Sheila Turner, "Today I am going to take myself out."


A survey by James Austin, a criminal justice researcher based in Washington, found there were 49 percent more assaults on guards per capita and 65 percent more assaults on other inmates in privately run prisons than in government-operated prisons nationwide.

A guard, Crystal Quintana, told investigators that the nurse replied, "Let him." Ms. Turner denies this, her lawyer says.

Ten minutes later, Mr. Johnson, 27 and with no previous criminal record, was found hanging from a sprinkler head in a windowless isolation cell where he was supposedly being closely watched.

The account is taken from a lengthy Justice Department report, depositions in a civil lawsuit filed by Mr. Johnson's mother, Suzan Garcia, and statements by guards to investigators. And the Justice Department report prompts another question: Why did Attorney General John Ashcroft pick an executive of Management and Training, Lane McCotter, to lead a mission to Iraq to restore its prisons only a month after the report was released in the spring of 2003, charging unconstitutional practices in the jail?

Justice Department officials have repeatedly declined to answer questions about how Mr. McCotter was picked, including a series of written requests from Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York. But the department's findings about Management and Training's operation of the jail were so severe that the United States Marshal's Service withdrew more than 100 inmates it was housing there.

It was Mr. McCotter, by his own account in Corrections.com, an industry online magazine, who selected Abu Ghraib to be the main American prison in Iraq and then directed its reconstruction after the major fighting ended. (Mr. McCotter left Iraq in September 2003, before the worst abuses by American guards there took place, and no one has suggested he bears responsibility.)

Mr. McCotter, who is director of business development for Management and Training, has declined all requests for interviews.

Experts say the troubles in the Santa Fe jail are emblematic of the problems that often happen when cities and states turn to private companies to run their jails and prisons. Private prison companies are in business to make money, for their owners or shareholders, and the only way they can do that is to operate at a lower cost than city- and state-operated jails and prisons, said Judith Greene, a criminal justice policy analyst in Brooklyn who has written extensively about private prisons. In practice, Ms. Greene said, this has often meant private prison companies pay their guards less, provide less training and skimp on services like medical and mental health care.

"This goes to the heart of the problem in the private prison business," Ms. Greene said. "You get what you pay for."

Carl Stuart, a spokesman for Management and Training, in Centerville, Utah, said he could not comment on questions raised by the Justice Department report about the size of the jail's staff or its medical personnel "because there is still pending litigation."

But Mr. Stuart said that after the Justice Department issued its critical report last year, "we've worked hard to remedy their concerns and we feel like we have gained a lot of ground."

The Justice Department investigation of the Santa Fe jail, conducted by four experts for the department's Civil Rights Division, cataloged a series of problems that seemed to stem from an effort to keep costs down.

The nearest doctor on contract was in Lubbock, Tex., a two-hour plane flight away, and he visited the jail on average only every six weeks, seeing only a few patients each time, the report found. The nurse had an order in her file to spend no more than five minutes with any inmate patient, which the report said was not enough time.

There was no psychologist or psychiatrist, and although the nurse had no mental health training care, she was distributing drugs for mentally ill inmates, the report said.

The jail did have a mental health clinician, Thomas Welter, who was employed by Physicians Network Association, a subcontractor. But he never did any evaluations of mentally troubled inmates, the report said. Instead, he boasted to them about his own history of drug use, according to a recent deposition by Cody Graham, who was then warden of the Santa Fe jail. Not long after Mr. Johnson hanged himself, Mr. Graham escorted Mr. Welter to the gate and told him not to come back.

Asked to comment, Mr. Welter's lawyer, Robert Corchine, said Mr. Welter "categorically denies the allegations in the suit filed by Tyson Johnson's estate as well as the findings in the Justice Department report."

In his deposition, Mr. Graham also said there was no increase in guards or supervisory staff even though Mr. McCotter arranged a sizable increase in the number of inmates, to 580 from 180 in a matter of months, Mr. Graham said. But Mr. McCotter and other officials of Management and Training ignored his requests for a bigger staff. Another former official at the jail, Gregory Lee, a major who was second in command, said in his deposition that he grew frustrated because the pay for guards was so low - $8.50 an hour with no benefits - that the jail constantly lost staff members to a New Mexico state prison across the street.

Management and Training was spun off from the training division of Morton Thiokol, the defense contractor, and at first concentrated on training low-income youths for the Job Corps, said Mr. Stuart, the spokesman. But in the late 1980's, as the number of prisoners exploded around the nation and private prison companies began to boom, Management and Training, known as M.T.C., branched off into running its first prison, in California.

The company says on its Web site that it now guards 7,500 inmates in 11 jails and prisons. Until the recent publicity surrounding Mr. McCotter, it was less well known than its larger competitors like Corrections Corporations of America and the GEO Group, formerly Wackenhut Corrections Corporation. Both have been criticized for understaffing, inmate escapes and their medical care.

In the Justice Department report on the Santa Fe jail, Manuel Romero, a prison consultant, wrote that the jail was so short staffed that one guard was expected to monitor 120 inmates for a 12-hour shift, with no relief for meals or going to the bathroom.

"This indicates that the staff are not in sufficient quantity to adequately supervise inmates," Mr. Romero wrote.

The Justice Department report also found that some inmates had to go two or three weeks without being given a pair of underwear. In addition, the report said, the jail's mattresses were old and cracked and some inmates were not given sheets.

The booking area was so crowded that some inmates lay on mattresses on the floor next to each other for up to five days, the report said. Some cells had no light, either from windows or electric lights.

Last December two inmates were stabbed and bludgeoned to death and seven others were injured in a riot at the company's Eagle Mountain Community Correctional Facility in the desert east of Los Angeles. After the riot, California closed the prison. In early May, an inmate was stabbed to death at the company's supermaximum-security prison in Penetanguishene, Ontario.

A survey by James Austin, a criminal justice researcher based in Washington, found there were 49 percent more assaults on guards per capita and 65 percent more assaults on other inmates in privately run prisons than in government-operated prisons nationwide.

Mr. Johnson's mother, Ms. Garcia, said her son had called her often after being put in jail to complain about how his claustrophobia was bothering him. "He called and told me he couldn't breathe, that he was getting more and more claustrophobic," she said.

"I called the jail and asked to speak to a doctor, but they said they didn't have a doctor," Ms. Garcia said. "When I asked to speak to the warden, they just put me on hold and then the phone would disconnect."

In the end, said Jeffrey Haas, another lawyer for Ms. Garcia, when a guard noticed Mr. Johnson had hanged himself, the officer on duty first went looking for a camera to record the scene, rather than cut him down.

"The response of the jail was to protect themselves by taking pictures rather than to save his life," Mr. Haas said.

© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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