Taking a Closer Look at Private Prisons

When Frank Shaw, the warden of the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, took the witness stand, he was unable to guarantee that the prison he oversees was capable of performing its most basic function. When asked if the prison guards were supposed to keep inmates in their cells, Shaw said “They do their best.”

Evidence and testimony at a federal civil rights trial revealed that there were worse things happening at the prison. From a mentally ill man on suicide watch who hanged himself, to gang members being allowed to beat other prisoners, many prisoners at the Mississippi Correctional Facility recounted stories of extraordinary violence and neglect.

While the case hasn’t received much attention from the media, it provides a rare look into the world of privately operated prisons. The East Mississippi facility is run by Management & Training Corporation, which operates two federal prisons and more than 20 facilities across the country.

The use of private prisons has been a contentious issue for a long time. According to a 2016 Justice Department Report, private prisons are more violent than government-run institutions for both inmates and guards. Although the Obama administration attempted to phase out their use on the federal level, attorney general Jeff Sessions reversed the ban.

In recent years, Michigan and Utah stopped the use of private prisons due to security problems. However, more than two dozen other states still have contracts with privately managed prison companies. The number of people incarcerated in privately operated prisons across the nation has increased by 45%, while the number of prisoners in these facilities has risen by only 10%.

The federal civil rights lawsuit stemming from the conditions at East Mississippi Correctional Facility came after years of complaints from inmates. Their testimony described dangerous conditions, confused lines of oversight, and grossly under-qualified staff.

Security staff at East Mississippi make less than the $12-an-hour starting wage that their public service counterparts make. Private prison guards also receive only three weeks of training, which is less than half the training time required for state prison guards.

Under the states contract with Management & Training Corporation, Mississippi pays the company just $26 a day for each minimum-security inmate. Eldon Vail, the former state prisons chief in Washington State, said that the issues at East Mississippi were the result of increased cost cutting. “There are not a sufficient number of correctional officers, and most of their problems stem from that issue,” he said.

However, lawyers representing the state and Management & Training claim that prisons are supposed to be tough environments, and that East Mississippi is no worse than most other prison facilities. Issa Arnita, a spokesman for the company, said “We can say — unequivocally — that the facility is safe, secure, clean, and well run. From the warden on down, our staff are trained to treat the men in our care with dignity and respect. Our mission is to help these men make choices in prison and after they’re released that will lead to a new and successful life in society.”

It is important to note that Warden Shaw receives incentives from Management & Training for staying within budget and he is not penalized if inmates die under questionable circumstances or when fires damage the prison. In the last year, four prisoners have died at his facility.

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