“Crimes and Their Punishments: 21st Century Slave Traders: The Horrors in the Holds of the Ships”

“Crimes and Their Punishments: 21st Century Slave Traders: The Horrors in the Holds of the Ships”

“We must remember that any oppression, any injustice, any hatred, is a wedge designed to attack our civilization.”     Franklin D. Roosevelt

“For the leaders of the people have misled them. They have led them down the path of destruction.”     Isaiah 9:16 NLT

            In 1619, 20 African slaves were sold to colonists at Jamestown, Virginia. After a Dutch frigate pulled into port, laying the foundation for an industry of chained flesh that would soon deliver hundreds of thousands of slaves to the colonies who all survived the brutal trip from Africa in the holds of the slave ships.

            Men, women, and children – kept in holds that were often no more than four feet high – suffered the long transatlantic voyage lying down, chained in pairs, hands to feet, riding out the journey with the indignity, sickness, and death that accompanied each cargo of human misery.

            Many of the guards and overseers were exceptionally brutal and sadistic men who often displayed a liking for the opportunities to beat, abuse or sexually assault those they were charged with delivering to market.

            As long as the holds were full and demand was high, the sacrifice of a few was of no concern to the evil men hired to sail those ships and deliver the “goods” to port. There were no complaints because those who might complain couldn’t speak the language of those they would complain to, and – after all – who listens to the cries of those in chains?

            In the 21st century, Americans do listen to cries of “let’s get tough on crime” and accept the well-lobbied solution to the problem which is more prison sentences, for longer durations, without considering the effectiveness, cost, or the motivation of those behind the rallying cry.

            Ostensibly, those who are elected to lead this country are educated individuals, but it doesn’t take a college degree to know that you can’t lock up the deficiencies of a society. You can lock up that society’s citizens, though, but while the prisons fill up, creating a constant need for new ones, the root causes that created the criminal in the first place remain on the outside of the prison walls, creating still more need for still more prison beds.

            Ultimately, the only benefit derived from this approach is by those who profit financially from the unnecessary misery of hundreds of thousands of this country’s citizens.

            As CCA, GEO, other private companies, and their myriad lobbyists, lawyers, and legislators sail forward on their self-serving quest for higher revenues and larger dividends for their shareholders, they leave behind them a disturbing wake of undelivered promises, suffering, pain, misery, and even death that simply cannot be ignored.

            While this writer claims no degree in business, it would seem to be a safe bet that it simply is not possible to provide better rehabilitative programs, better health care services, better drug treatment programs, better vocational programs, higher trained personnel and greater security – all while providing a healthy bottom line and dividends for shareholders – all while doing it less expensively than a state or federal government run institution.

            The promise of “…the best of the business world with the strong oversight and consistent standards of our governments.” (from CCA’s website) have not been fulfilled by any stretch of the imagination.

            GEO’s website, thegeogroupinc.com, boasts that “our unique approach allows GEO to provide high quality and cost-effective service with state-of-the-art designs, innovative programs and ground breaking treatment approaches.”

            If you consider counseling sessions in a GEO Juvenile Facility in Coke County, TX being run by guards and a guard who raped a 14 year old girl nightly, promising “to kill your sister and your mom if you tell anybody” ground breaking, then I guess GEO has lived up to its claim.

            “LOCKED INSIDE A NIGHTMARE” is a story by CBS News from February 11, 2009 and is our first example of “The Horrors in the Holds of the Ships” operated by the slave traders of the 21st Century.

            Sara Lowe had trouble adjusting after her family moved to Texas from Nebraska where she grew up.

            Sara was 14 when she was arrested for attacking her mother after an argument escalated and she went out of control. Ultimately, she was sentenced to 6 months in Wackenhut Corrections Corporation’s (this was before the change to GEO Group) new Coke County Juvenile Justice Center. It was believed that Sara would receive intensive counseling by well-qualified staff. Sara’s mother, Gayle Lowe, said she was told “they would all have Bachelor’s Degrees in either Criminal Justice or Psychology… Child Psychology. It just sounded wonderful!”

            It was expensive too. The State of Texas paid $118.00 per day for each girl sent there and in addition to the “well-qualified” counselors, they were to receive educational instruction of the same quality.

            It seems the facility never lived up to its billing as Sara was promoted through three grades of high school in just six months, and even though it was an all-girl’s prison, it was staffed mostly by men.

            Sara eventually told her sister, Jenny, about the nightly visits, the rapes, and the death threats, by one of the guards.

            In 1998, the Lowe’s filed suit claiming “widespread systematic sexual assault” of the girls in the prison. Eleven more girls joined the suit and two Wackenhut employees eventually pled guilty to criminal charges of sexual assault. For the company’s part, the lawsuit was settled with the condition that Sara or her parents were to never discuss what happened in the prison.

            Sara Lowe shot and killed herself the day of the settlement.

            Her sister, Jenny, said Sara was upset because neither the company or its founder, George Wackenhut, would admit any responsibility. Wackenhut CEO, George Zoley, told CBS, “we have signed a confidentiality agreement regarding that lawsuit, and I’m really not allowed to speak about it any further.”

            When asked if he thought the company owed an apology to Sara, or any other inmate, Zoley responded, “Not that I’m aware of. I don’t know what you mean by that.”

            Also in 1998, Wackenhut opened the Jena Juvenile Justice Center for boys in Louisiana. In 1999, 17 year old Dale Ortega was sentenced to Jena for 6 months, where, the judge who sentenced him, Marie Doherty said, “…they were to have a first rate substance abuse treatment program with trained substance abuse counselors.”

            Instead, Ortega found that several employees were pushing drugs and sex in the cell blocks. He saw guards smoking marijuana with inmates and some guards had sex with inmates.

            In one year, the facility went through five wardens and turned over the entire staff three times. The U.S. Department of Justice investigated Jena and found that youths were subjected to “cruel and humiliating punishments.” The report also said that guards “routinely used excessive force” and that “the Jena Center is a dangerous place to be.”

            The Justice Department also found that Jena medical records showed 100 serious traumatic injuries in one 2 month period, an “unacceptably high number of traumatic injuries.”

            Investigators found that Jena, Louisiana, and Coke County, Texas, had the same problem – most guards had no experience.

            Dave Ortega also stated that, while he was working as a trustee in the Jena office, he was assigned to shred complaints that inmates had written about the guards.

            When the Louisiana Department of Corrections seized control of Jena, a state corrections investigator reported that a guard was caught erasing a videotape that allegedly showed inmate abuse.

            The judge who had sentenced Dave Ortega to Jena was shocked by the allegations in the report. The CBS report stated that he had released 7 inmates from Jena, placing them on probation instead. He decided Wackenhut was putting their lives at risk.

            “No matter what reason landed these young people at the facility, they are human beings,” Judge Doherty said.

            Admittedly, these first examples of “The Horrors in the Holds of the Ships” are over ten years old. Surely lessons were learned OR were they?

            In 2007, the Coke County Facility that failed Sara Lowe, and the other young women so miserably, closed. It had been changed to an all-boys center after the females were removed, but apparently problems remained. Inspectors had reported that feces and urine littered the common area, while the boys’ “education program” consisted of a daily crossword puzzle slipped into their cells. According to the report, the boys would sometimes go 72 hours without taking a shower, days without brushing their teeth, and were sometimes forced to defecate in something other than a toilet.

            During an inspection, Texas Youth Commission (TYC) Ombudsman Will Harrell observed an “over-reliance” on pepper spray, an insect infestation, gross understaffing, and bedding that hadn’t been washed in a month.

            “There is a greater sense of fear and intimidation in this facility than perhaps any other I have been to”, he wrote.

            Another inspection by Harris County’s TYC liaison noted that “one of the dorms lacked a bathroom so the kids had to relieve themselves on the floor or in a plastic bag (if they have one).”

            Curiously enough, this facility had twice been named “contract facility of the year” after rave reviews by TYC’s own inspectors.

            Remember the phrase I used in the previous article, “cross-pollination”? Two of those inspectors who gave the rave reviews were former GEO employees.

            After the ombudsman’s report became public, TYC had no choice but to send in new inspectors. After walking through the facility – the Dallas Morning News reported – they had to scrape human excrement off their shoes.

            It was at that point that all 197 young men were removed and placed elsewhere.

            All of this in spite of GEO’s website claim that “our team of over 17,000 professionals is dedicated to the safety and care of the individuals assigned to our custody.” Their website states further that “our knowledgeable are experts in… basic education… counseling, substance abuse treatment… and facilities maintenance to ensure that the high level of service our clients demand is adequately provided in each of our business units.”

            It was also related in the CBS story that in 1998 a riot at a then Wackenhut, New Mexico prison left 2 people dead. The story also stated that the company was stripped of a $12 million dollar contract in Texas where 12 guards were indicted for having sex with female inmates.

            CBS reported that CEO Zoley had this to say: “A correctional organization is subject to numerous allegations of this nature. That’s part of the business. People in prison are not Sunday school children.”

            Well, Mr. Zoley, while the last part of that statement may be true, just because they are not Sunday school children does not give those charged with their custody the right to abuse them or treat them like animals.

            Perhaps part of the problem is that it takes too long to find out about the abuses suffered by the human beings in their charge because private prisons are shielded from public scrutiny given that they are a private business and therefore are not subject to the same open records requirements as is a government-run institution.

            As an example, according to Lauren Reinlie of “Texans for Public Justice”, the Texas Depart of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) acknowledged that it does not collect basic statistics about private facilities, even those routinely gathered from state-run facilities. Among the records not kept were: staffing ratios, number of guards at each facility, and guard disciplinary data to name a few.

            Without information, how does TDCJ provide oversight to a group that receives over $200 million dollars a year in public funds and is responsible for the care and safety – indeed, the very lives – of over 16,000 human beings?

            To ensure that state government – as well as the public – received the same information from private institutions that it did from state-run institutions, Texas State Representative Solomin Ortiz, Jr. introduced a bill that would have – among other things – subjected private prisons to the same open records laws as public facilities; mandated public hearings before privatization of county jails; and made it illegal for a public servant, such as a sheriff, to be paid by a private prison corporation while drawing public salaries.

            The bill was successfully removed from consideration amidst intense lobbying by the well-connected individuals named in the first part of this series, although no one will publicly state that it was removed from consideration because of that lobbying.

            One of those lobbyists, GEO’s Michelle Wittenburg, who spoke with at least one of the lawmakers who pulled the bill, took the position that the bill singled out private prison companies to comply with open records laws when “other” private companies have no such mandate.

            Correct me if I am wrong, but “other” private companies – I would assume such as Coca Cola, Wal-mart, and General Motors – do not have human beings in chains and behind bars as their primary “product.” The position that a company operating prisons should be no more transparent than one that manufactures cars, soda pop, or sells garden hoses is a preposterous one to take and would be laughable were it not for one important fact – that position was accepted and the bill was killed.

            For a group of individuals elected to work in the best interests of the state they were elected in to agree with this position is as reprehensible and irresponsible as the behavior of some of the individuals locked up in the places whose secrecy these public officials have agreed to protect through their actions.

            Other attempts in Texas and elsewhere, to force openness in an “industry” that should have never been allowed to grow without openness and accountability, have failed as well.

            In spite of the success at limiting access to records and practices behind these private walls, reports of mismanagement, abuse, criminal activity, sexual assault and other atrocities still manage to be exposed causing a logical thinking person to ask, “If this is what we are hearing about, what are we not hearing about?”

            Some of the more notable examples include:

An ACLU lawsuit filed last year against a CCA facility in Idaho, asks for class action status and seeks $155 million dollars in damages. The ACLU charges that the prison is so violent it is known as a “gladiator school” among inmates. According to the ACLU, guards deliberately exposed inmates to beatings from other prisoners as a “management tool”. The lawsuit went on to charge that guards denied medical care as a way to save money and hide the extent of the injuries. A video surfaced last November that showed prison guards watching one inmate beat up another. The inmate was beaten unconscious with no action taken by the guards. The FBI stepped in to investigate at the beginning of December. CCA, rather than taking responsibility for the actions of its employees, condemned the release of the video as “an unnecessary security risk to our staff, the inmates entrusted to our care, and – ultimately – to the public.”

During hearings in Maine to discuss the idea of private prisons, Shenna Bellows – Executive Director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union – criticized the track record of the private prison companies, cautioning that, “private prison companies in other states have been found guilty of illegal corruption schemes, paying kickbacks to judges and elected officials to secure contracts for the transport of more prisoners to their facilities.” Addressing the issue of violence at privately run prisons, Bellows cited a 2004 report by the “Federal Probation Journal” stating that private prisons had an almost 50 percent higher record of inmate-on-staff assaults compared to similar public prisons. She also discussed the previously mentioned incidents in Idaho as well as suits against a GEO Group for violations at a Mississippi Juvenile Facility which GEO took over just last August. At that facility, which is the nation’s largest juvenile facility, a class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of 13 inmates. According to National Public Radio (NPR), the lawsuit alleges contraband brought in by guards; sex between guards and inmates; inadequate medical care; and prison violence that led to brain damage in one instance.

In Texas, in 2009, the 13th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the largest civil judgment in the private prison industry’s history. A $42 million dollar wrongful death judgment was awarded against GEO for the 2001 killing of prisoner Gregorio de la Rosa, Jr. in its Willacy County facility. The court summarizes the incident thusly: “This case involves the horrific and gruesome death of Gregorio de la Rosa, Jr. Gregorio, an honorably discharged former National Guardsman, was serving a 6 month sentence at a prison operated by Wackenhut Corrections Corp (now GEO Group) for possession of less than 1/4 gram of cocaine. A few days before his expected release, Gregorio was beaten to death by two other prisoners, using a lock tied to a sock, while Wackenhut’s officers stood by and watched and Wackenhut’s warden smirked and laughed.” The court also “scolded” Wackenhut for withholding or destroying evidence, including a surveillance camera recording of the beating. The court opined, “We find that Wackenhut’s conduct was clearly reprehensible and, frankly, constitutes a disgusting display of disrespect for the welfare of  others and for the state’s civil justice system.”

In Arizona, the mother of Linda Haas has filed suit for $40 million dollars against the State of Arizona; Dominion – an Edmunds, Oklahoma company that spec-built a prison in Kingman, Arizona described as being “grossly unsecure”; and Management Training Corporation (MTC), another private prison company. Linda Haas and her husband were murdered by fugitives who escaped from the facility. The inmates – convicted murderers – were also involved in a Colorado shootout, hijackings, kidnapping, and robberies in Arizona and New Mexico, and a robbery in Arkansas.

            Privatization takes many forms within the corrections industry. Often, there is just one aspect of a facility that is privatized, as in the case of PA-based “Wexford Health Services”, which bills itself as “the nation’s leading innovative correctional health care company.” Wexford provided health care service for the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility (CNMCF).

            After his December 2005 arrest and incarceration, Michael Crespin complained of abdominal pains. He was taken to the University of New Mexico Hospital (UNMH) where he was diagnosed with cancer and underwent surgery. Upon his arrival at CNMCF in March of 2006, Wexford personnel were advised of his condition and alerted to the fact that he had a colostomy bag and had prescriptions for medications as well as chemotherapy, which was to be provided through UNMH. Despite Crespin’s requests, and those of his treating physician at UNMH, Wexford employees lost track of his cancer treatment.

            According to his subsequent federal lawsuit, Crespin “missed approximately 14 to 16, or more, medical appointments at UNMH.” The treating physician and staff repeatedly called Wexford staff and CNMCF’s warden to inform them “of the critical nature of these appointments to (Crespin’s) health and that continuing his regular treatments was literally a life or death matter.” The lawsuit further stated that a nurse practitioner from UNMH, Holly C. Rice, spoke to Wexford physician Harvey I. Featherstone in early August 2006 to advise him that “stopping (Crespin’s) treatments would result in his untimely death.”

            It was only after investigative reporters started looking into Crespin’s case and “multiple other and serious instances of Wexford’s deliberate indifference in providing medical services” that the treatment plan recommended by UNMH was followed.

            Sadly, it was too late. Crespin, 50, died on July 2, 2008. The lawsuit he had started was continued by his family and settled under confidential terms in November 2010.

            Not to be outdone by CCA, GEO/Wackenhut, MTC, or Wexford, enter Cornell companies which, prior to being purchased by GEO Group for $730 million dollars in August 2010, was based in Houston, Texas. Prior to that purchase, Cornell had its own set of problems at operations in Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and Texas. In 2001, Cornell struck a deal with the Arkansas Division of Youth Service to manage a facility in Alexander, Arkansas for $42 million dollars. That contract was timely for Cornell shareholders as Cornell was in the process of closing a Pennsylvania Youth Camp after it was discovered that at least 11 kids had been sexually assaulted by guards.

            A year after taking over the Alexander facility, investigations were conducted by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Education. Some of the items for concern that the investigators cited were: under qualified staff; poor monitoring of kids in suicide watch; a lack of textbooks.

            Three years later, 17 year old La Keisha Brown dropped dead from blood clots in her lung. State investigators found that her pleas for treatment were ignored by medical staff.

            During the investigation into her death, other troublesome discoveries were made: falsification of records and the inappropriate use of forced injections of Thorazine and Benadryl as chemical restraints.

            The State of Arkansas resumed control of the Alexandria Facility in 2006.

“Fear the Lord and judge with integrity, for the Lord our God does not tolerate perverted justice, partiality, or the taking of bribes.”     2 Chronicles 19:7

            Perhaps the most telling of these tales of “The Horrors in the Holds of the Ships” belonging to our modern day slave traders occurred in Pennsylvania where, in 2010, two former Pennsylvania Juvenile Court Judges were convicted in what became known as the “Cash for Kids” scandal after accepting over $2.6 million dollars in kickbacks from the owners of a privately run juvenile detention center in exchange for harsh sentences that kept the center’s beds filled. Their actions resulted in the dismissal of over 4,000 juvenile cases they had participated in.

“As David said, “Let their bountiful table become a snare, a trap that makes them think all is well. Let their blessings cause them to stumble, and let them get what they deserve.”
Romans 11:9 NLT

            That these same types of horrors can be – and are – found in government-run facilities is without question, but studies have shown that, in addition to inmate-on-staff violence being 50 percent more likely, inmate-on-inmate violence is 65 percent more likely to occur in private facilities.

            The need for profits requires more than running an efficient operation. It requires cutting costs and – in the process – cutting staff, cutting services, and cutting quality of care.

            This is not rocket science, this is the business of slave trading in the 21st century.

            To reiterate what Israeli Supreme Court President, Dorit Beinisch, put so succinctly:

“Thus, when the power to incarcerate is transferred to a private corporation whose purpose is making money, the act of depriving a person of his liberty loses much of its legitimacy.

Because of this loss of legitimacy, the violation of the prisoner’s right to liberty goes beyond the violation entailed in the incarceration itself.”

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