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Dead bodies and billions in tax dollars: The secret, profitable world of private prisons

America's $5 billion private prison industry - with deep Philadelphia roots - faced possible ruin last year. It now thrives under the Trump administration.

Something was wrong with Thomas Bryant.

He couldn't eat or sleep. His body was drenched in a cold sweat, and he trembled and shook like a radiator on its last legs. The simple life he once knew in Chichester — one where he worked at a steel mill and provided for his two kids — was a faded memory, a snapshot from a stranger's photo album.

After breaking his back in a work accident, he became addicted to opioids and began a downward spiral that led him here, to a cell inside the 1,883-bed George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Thornton, Delaware County. He'd been arrested on a bench warrant over unpaid child support, but all he could think about was the unrelenting pain from withdrawal. Bryant, 38, asked prison guards for medical attention for three days, scrawling his pleas on scraps of paper. He was ignored.

"We have copies of letters he wrote, begging for Advil or Motrin because he was in so much pain," said Sue Taylor, his sister. "They did absolutely nothing to help him."

When the agony became too much, Bryant hanged himself with prison-issued linens on Nov. 16, 2007. He was one of 12 inmates who died at the facility between 2002 and 2008, according to a lawsuit Bryant's family filed in 2009 against the GEO Group, an international conglomerate that manages George W. Hill and 21 other facilities across Pennsylvania, including two halfway houses and a day reporting center in Philadelphia.

The company's problems didn't end there, though. GEO and other leading for-profit prison corporations have been plagued by health and safety issues for years, with prisoner and staff complaints and wrongful-death lawsuits piling up like mounds of unopened jail mail.

But the companies have enjoyed a lucrative relationship with the federal government. Since 1997, they have been paid billions by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to annually house more than 34,000 federal inmates. It was a convenient arrangement for a nation with the world's highest prison population, underpinned by a belief that private corporations could do the job cheaper and better.

The government's stance toward companies like GEO underwent a dramatic shift last summer. In early August, the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General released a troubling report that showed contract prisons had far higher rates of violence and lockdowns, and poorer access to medical care, than comparable federally run facilities.

GEO officials contend the report painted a grossly distorted portrait of its prisons. Its facilities are "equally safe, secure and humane as government-run facilities," Pablo Paez, a GEO spokesman, wrote in an email to the Inquirer and Daily News.

But a few weeks later, then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates issued a memo that directed the Bureau of Prisons to phase out its use of private-run prisons altogether. This was a potentially fatal blow to the industry; the stock price of publicly traded GEO plummeted 40 percent that day.

Then history intervened. Since the election of President Trump, GEO — which donated $170,000 to a Trump political action committee last year, and $250,000 to his inaugural bash — has seen its stock price nearly quadruple. One of Attorney General Jeff Sessions' first moves after taking office in February was to rescind Yates' memo.

So instead of being cut off, GEO is raking in the money. The company has signed $774 million worth of federal contracts so far this year, including a $110 million deal to build an immigration detention center in Texas.

Critics argue that all of the problems that made privately run prisons a poor investment are still present: The facilities are sometimes understaffed and unsafe — three inmates have died at a GEO-run detention center in California since March — and the companies are about as transparent as a cinder block, aided by the knowledge that few Americans will shed any tears if a bunch of prisoners claim they're being mistreated.

A giant from Upper Darby

You won't find the late George Wackenhut on any Philadelphia-area murals that celebrate famous local sons. But if the $5 billion private-prison industry had its own Mount Rushmore, Wackenhut's thin-lipped face would have been carved into it long ago.

Wackenhut grew up in Upper Darby and had an unforgettable brush with history after graduating from West Chester University. As a member of the Army Corps of Engineers, he witnessed hundreds of Japanese fighter planes launch a surprise attack on American battleships in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

He briefly joined the FBI at the height of its J. Edgar Hoover heyday in the early 1950s and went on to create a private security firm, the Wackenhut Corp., in 1954, according to a detailed account of his rise from the collaborative online news outlet MuckRock.

A separate arm called Wackenhut Corrections was formed in 1984 to tap into the growing world of private-prison services; it landed its first federal contract three years later to manage a processing center for federal immigration detainees. In the decade that followed, the company became publicly traded as demand for housing and transporting inmates soared. (It was renamed the GEO Group in 2003, a year before Wackenhut died at 85.)

Thanks in part to a nationwide embrace of tough-on-crime policies as part of the war on drugs, the overall number of federal inmates in the United States mushroomed from 25,000 in 1980 to a peak of 219,000 in 2012, according to the Inspector General's Office. GEO, CoreCivic (formerly known as CCA), and companies like them were supposed to help the overwhelmed Bureau of Prisons safely manage a percentage of this ever-growing prison population — and for less money than it would have cost to simply enlarge the bureau.

GEO, based in Boca Raton, Fla., now has 64 prisons across the U.S. that can house 74,000 inmates, and seven other prisons overseas that can hold an additional 7,800. The company also has 60 day reporting centers scattered around the country that serve about 166,000 former inmates. Its revenue swelled to an all-time high of $2.1 billion in 2016.  U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is its biggest client; deportation efforts rose sharply under the Obama administration and have surged even more with Trump in the White House.

In her memo last August, Yates wrote that private prisons "do not save substantially on costs." The IG's Office found that $639 million was spent on private prisons in 2014 — a hefty sum, yet less than 10 percent of the Bureau of Prisons' $6.9 billion budget that year. Exactly how those prisons spent those federal dollars was unclear; the IG's Office noted that private companies don't break down their expenses in monthly invoices that are submitted to the Bureau of Prisons.

"The private-prison industry is a little bit of a black box," said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, a former prosecutor who now works as a senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Criminal Justice at New York University School of Law. "There's little transparency."

OpenTheGovernment, a coalition for government transparency that includes the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Society of News Editors, recently began encouraging Senate leaders to support legislation to apply the Freedom of Information Act to federally funded private prisons.

The companies are well-skilled at the art of evading scrutiny. In May, the Inquirer and Daily News requested copies of internal safety audits for CI-Moshannon Valley, a GEO-run prison in Philipsburg, Centre County, that houses undocumented immigrants who have been convicted of other crimes. The company is required to submit such audits to the Bureau of Prisons every year, but a GEO spokesman insisted the audits couldn't be shared because they might contain information their competitors could exploit.

The newspapers also asked to tour Moshannon Valley, which has been the subject of multiple federal civil rights lawsuits in Pennsylvania. After some hemming and hawing, prison officials agreed to arrange a one-hour tour for a reporter in August — and then denied the request at the last minute without offering an explanation.

All the secrecy makes it hard to answer a simple question: Why are privately run prisons more dangerous?

A ‘bed of snakes’

Guards and inmates occupy opposite ends of the criminal justice spectrum, but they share similar concerns about the perils that exist in privately run prisons.

Consider the George W. Hill Correctional Facility. Litigation over inmate deaths cut into GEO's profits and drove the company to abandon its contract to run the sprawling prison in 2009. New Jersey-based Community Education Centers then took over, but its run ended in April, when GEO purchased the company for $360 million. "As far as I've been aware, the transition has been very smooth," said Robert DiOrio, the solicitor for the Delaware County Board of Prison Inspectors.

But according to a veteran corrections officer who has worked at George W. Hill for nearly a decade, the changeover has left him and his peers unnerved, worried that the bad old days are here again. "CEC was OK. They didn't want to pay overtime, so they flooded us with hires," said the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "With GEO, we're constantly understaffed. There are times when I can't find a working radio or a pair of handcuffs."

The corrections officer said the prison relies on forcing guards to frequently work 16-hour shifts to make up for the lack of manpower. On some occasions, he said, only one unarmed guard will be tasked with monitoring two cell blocks, which total more than 100 inmates. A palpable sense of fear sinks in during those moments. What's to keep prisoners from attacking once they realize the guards are exhausted, outnumbered, and don't have functional radios?

"It's coming. The inmates are smart, and they can see we're understaffed," the corrections officer said. The prison employs about 245 guards, well below the 350 it should have on staff,  he said. In a statement, the company said it was committed to high standards but didn't refute the guard's claim about the staffing levels.

The veteran guard said GEO's improvements to George W. Hill had been limited to hanging a collection of photos of the company's top executives on a wall, with CEO George Zoley, who was paid close to $5 million in 2016, situated at the top.

Staffers hope the company invests more resources on inmate care to avoid deaths like Thomas Bryant's, or that of Cassandra Morgan, a 38-year-old Aston woman who died after she was held for six weeks at George Hill on a shoplifting charge in 2006. Morgan suffered from schizophrenia and hypothyroidism. "She needed medication to live, but they didn't try to find that out or get her medical records," said attorney James Mundy, who worked on a federal lawsuit Morgan's family filed against GEO. (The company reached settlement agreements with Bryant's and Morgan's families.)

But problems persist. Another inmate hanged himself in his cell this Father's Day weekend, the guard said. GEO did not respond to a question about the suicide.

"The GEO Group is a bed of snakes," said Berl Goff, who worked as a shift supervisor at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Mississippi, which GEO inherited after it purchased Cornell Corrections in 2010 for $685 million. "The lack of appropriate medical care and the indifference of the medical staff is a huge problem."

Goff, 51, said the company "came in and promised the world: an unlimited budget, new uniforms, and a $1.50-an-hour raise for all the officers. But as soon as they got in there, they started cutting corners. We got to the point where they were intentionally running us at 15 percent beneath the minimum staffing levels to maximize the profit margins."

The Southern Poverty Law Center described the Mississippi facility as a "cesspool" and filed a lawsuit in 2010 over conditions at the prison; it was closed last fall.

Between 2011 and 2014, the IG's Office found that 14 privately run prisons experienced 71 full lockdowns, compared with just 11 at 14 comparable Bureau of Prisons-run prisons. During that same period, the rate of assaults — inmates attacking one another, or inmates attacking guards — was more than twice as high than at prisons run by the BOP. The number of cellphones and weapons confiscated was eight times higher at privately run prisons than at federally run facilities.

BOP-run prisons, meanwhile, had a higher monthly per-capita average of inmate deaths, higher monthly grievances filed by inmates, and a higher rate of inmates accusing prison employees of sexual assault.

GEO has argued that the comparisons aren't apples to apples, because its prisons often house large numbers of undocumented immigrants who belong to violent gangs, and BOP facilities house mainly U.S. citizens. "The data from [the IG's] report has been misrepresented and misinterpreted," GEO's Pablo Paez wrote in an email.

"We have been a service provider to the federal government for more than three decades, partnering with federal authorities under both Democratic and Republican administrations, to help meet a broad spectrum of needs and policy objectives."

In light of the IG's report, a BOP spokesman said a team of experts was trying to determine why private prisons have more safety and security problems, and more oversight is being paid to medical services the prisons offer. Staffing levels are also being reviewed more closely.

But troubling episodes keep piling up. Just last month, hundreds of inmates — some of whom were armed with bats and pipes — rioted at a GEO-run prison in Oklahoma and briefly took two corrections officers hostage.

Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, a Texas advocacy group that has opposed the private-prison industry for the last 20 years, offered a blunt assessment: "These are very troubled facilities that have a history of people dying of entirely preventable medical conditions or violence."

Yet in the upper reaches of government, the industry is still viewed favorably. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, in a July interview, said privately run prisons provide the Bureau of Prisons with flexibility should the federal prison population rise. "My impression is that private prisons meet a very high standard," he said. "Keep in mind, I'm from Maryland. Folks who were in the Baltimore City jail would've been very happy to be in a private federal prison instead."

Safety vs. saving costs

Supporters and critics agree that one tool in particular has helped GEO and companies like them survive so many crises: money.

John M. Perzel, a former Republican speaker of the Pennsylvania House, talked up the company's ability to perform on a tight budget during a recent interview. "The truth of the matter is, what GEO brings to the table is an efficiency that you just can't get from government," he said.

Perzel served on GEO's board from 2005 to 2009. He also spent nearly two years in a state prison after being convicted in 2011 of conspiracy and theft charges. "Are there bad things to say? Sure," he said. "But there's nothing that happens [at a GEO prison] that doesn't happen at other prisons."

In Pennsylvania, a state audit found that nearly 4,200 assaults and fights had been reported at 26 state prisons between January 2015 and March 2016, including an average of 65 assaults on staff per month. And a recent Newsworks report generated outcry over the fact that Philadelphia officials didn't publicly disclose that an inmate had been beaten to death in a city jail this year.

Still, experts see shortcomings that are unique to private prisons. Internal emails from Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence organization, that were released by WikiLeaks show company officials expressed particular concern over a lack of oversight at GEO prisons in Texas. "Apart from the obvious problems of food and medical service to detainees, they do not have very good gang experts or even staff trained in situational awareness," reads one email from a former employee. "A whole bunch of stuff gets done through jails like that because the people [who] work there are morons."

But private prison companies have found there's an easy way to ensure the relentless criticism doesn't lead to any serious crackdowns on the industry: They open their wallets. The Associated Press reported in 2012 that GEO, MTC, and CoreCivic had spent $45 million on lobbying efforts during the preceding decade.

Picking the right kind of influencers is crucial, too. Last August, GEO hired David Stewart and Ryan Robichaux as lobbyists; both men worked as legislative aides to Sessions when he was a U.S. senator from Alabama. The company has paid the two men $180,000 since then. Its ranks are also filled with prominent former federal officials, like Daniel Ragsdale, who recently served as second-in-command at the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Norman Carlson, a former director of the Bureau of Prisons, who serves as director emeritus of GEO's board.

But as of a year ago, it looked as if the robust spending wasn't enough to guarantee the company's good health. Yates' memo was just another notable development in broader nationwide shifts away from the lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key crime-fighting policies that were dominant in the 1980s and '90s. In cities such as Philadelphia, marijuana-decriminalization efforts and an emphasis on diversionary programs and bail reform have taken center stage.

Perception of the industry has grown so toxic that New York City's pension fund recently opted to liquidate $48 million worth of stock it had invested in GEO and CoreCivic. (Philadelphia's pension fund has $1.2 million worth of holdings in GEO, CoreCivic, and another prison company, G4S.)

"Last year was the first time where I thought there was a very real possibility that one of the [private prison] companies could be in real jeopardy," Libal said.

But now it looks as if better days are ahead.

During a conference call with Wall Street analysts in late February, CEO Zoley struck a cheerful note as he described GEO's rosy outlook, and its ability to weather some occasional turbulence. "We remain optimistic about our future projects and the demand for our services," he said.