Fire & Suicide in America’s Understaffed Private Prisons

The trial phase of the joint, class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on behalf of the prisoners at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility (EMCF) began on March 5.

The civil rights groups are fighting on behalf of prisoners whom they say have been consistently and repeatedly subjected to conditions “causing extreme and preventable suffering.”The private prison facility reportedly receives an exceptionally high rate of inmates suffering from some form of mental illness — as high as 80% of the prison’s population.

According to the lawsuit, inmates with mental and emotional instabilities are routinely neglected and do not receive the psychiatric care they need.

In an emotionally disturbing article, the ACLU documents the story of an inmate referred to as “T.H.,” who eventually succeeded in strangling himself in his cell after repeated incidents of self-harm failed to result in psychiatric care, oversight, or diagnosis.

“The lackadaisical and unconstitutional approach that EMCF staff takes toward prisoner healthcare cost T.H. his life and has caused well-documented suffering among countless other mentally ill prisoners.” — Carl Takei, Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU’s Trone Center for Justice and Equality

Takei also notes in his article that prison staff commonly act with excessive force and routinely permit prison gangs to control many aspects of daily life in the facility, including the distribution of food.

However, reports show that EMCF is not alone in its neglect, and that conditions like these are increasingly becoming the norm throughout “contract prisons” in the U.S.The Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Justice in 2016 released a report detailing the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) oversight of the private prison complex — or as they call them, “contract prisons.”

In its Introduction, the report notes that the “contract prisons” came about as a result of the overpopulation of the federal prison system, causing the BOP to contract three main corporations: Corrections Corporation of America; GEO Group, Inc.; and Management and Training Corporation.

The report’s Results in Brief section states that private prisons were found to have more safety and security issues per prisoner than similar prisons operated by the BOP.

“With the exception of fewer incidents of positive drug tests and sexual misconduct, the contract prisons had more incidents per capita than the BOP institutions in all of the other categories of data we examined.”

Those categories being: (1) contraband, (2) reports of incidents, (3) lockdowns, (4) inmate discipline, (5) telephone monitoring, (6) selected grievances, (7) urinalysis drug testing, and (8) sexual misconduct.

Lauren-Brooke Eisen, Senior Counsel in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, in a piece for Time Magazine wrote that the private prison industry “controls 126,000 Americans’ lives” and “encompasses the operation of 65% of the nation’s immigration detention beds.”

She also notes that the private prison industry has benefitted massively under the current administration as Attorney General Jeff Sessions has reversed the Obama Administration’s policy to reduce the use of private prisons for federal detention.

Most of Eisen’s concern is rooted in the lack of oversight these private prisons are subjected to — particularly those that handle immigration detention.

Because they aren’t subject to the same freedom of information laws, it is significantly more difficult to gain access to an unbiased view of real life within these facilities, which in turn increases both the possibility and the opportunity for cover-ups on the part of private prison directors and staff.

The prison industries, both federal and corporate, as well as our country’s police force, all have their origins in rooted in racist policies and serve as the vehicles for modern-day slavery.We have discussed the disproportionate rates at which black Americans are imprisoned and shot in the U.S. when compared with their white counterparts.

This shouldn’t be surprising considering our police departments were originally created as a slave-catching force.

And by allowing these private prisons to exist, and even more so, allowing them to exist unregulated, we create yet another opportunity for the oppression, targeting, and abuse of prisoners of color.

Combined with felon voter laws that also disproportionately affect communities of color, the systematic targeting, arrest, disenfranchisement, abuse, and killing of people of color in the U.S. has become an epidemic at its peak with tremendously damaging consequences.

Hopefully, the ACLU and the SPLC will be able to not only shed light on the conditions in these prisons, but also establish a legal precedent for the oversight of private prisons as well as the right to expedient medical care for prisoners — particularly those suffering from mental illness.

Iron Triangle Press will continue to follow this story as it develops.


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