Colorado's For-Profit Prisons a Bad Bet, Says Ex-Employee Turned Author
After it was taken over by a private-prison operator in 1996, the Bent County Correctional Facility soon doubled its capacity — and then doubled it again, to more than 1,400 inmates.
Sue Binder's quarrel with the private-prison giant Corrections Corporation of America began shortly after she started to work at one of CCA's cut-rate hoosegows in southeastern Colorado. It continued for thirteen years, right up until Binder resigned in 2015 from her job as a mental-health coordinator at the Bent County Correctional Facility — and got shorted on her last paycheck in a dispute over medical leave.
Started by a group of Kentucky Fried Chicken investors in the early 1980s, CCA quickly grew into the largest private prison operator in the world. But it's also been dogged by bad press about poorly trained staff, inadequate medical care, outbursts of violence and riots, and studies that indicate turning to the private sector to manage inmate populations doesn't really save money. The company recently changed its name to CoreCivic as part of a rebranding effort.
But whatever it calls itself now, it's safe to say that working for CCA made an indelible impression on Binder, who became convinced that management at the Bent County lockup was more interested in keeping the place as full —and profitable — as possible than in helping inmates prepare for release or treating staff fairly. She decided to write a book that would encompass not just her experiences, but how the private corrections industry works. The result is Bodies in Beds: Why Business Should Stay Out of Prisons (Algora).
"The longer I was there, especially the last four or five years, the more I became disillusioned," says Binder, who now works at a community mental-health center in Lamar. "I can't say I was burned out, but I was becoming more aware of what was happening behind the scenes at the company I worked for. At first I thought I would just do my personal story, but then I began researching more and more. It kind of ballooned on me."
Part memoir, part overview, Bodies in Beds offers unsettling glimpses into what it's like to work at a private prison — not just as a turnkey, but as someone who's supposed to offer actual services to inmates. For a while, Binder managed to rationalize her position to herself, figuring that maybe she could make a difference to some of the mentally ill prisoners she saw. But as CCA's cost-containment strategies kept multiplying the duties and thinning the staff, Binder found herself not only having to screen every new inmate, but divide with just one other mental-health specialist a caseload of more than 400 inmates diagnosed with some degree of mental illness. At the same time, she was asked to meticulously document every action she took — a request that was supposed to help her get more staff, but was actually used to justify the status quo. On a good day, she was lucky to spend a few minutes each with maybe ten or twelve inmates between mounds of paperwork.
"I felt like I'm not helping these guys very much," she says. "We were pushing these inmates through like cattle. What could have been thirty or forty minutes with them, trying to help them, I saw that not happening. Some of them have opportunities and should be out of prison — but we need to give them help."
After a 2004 riot at CCA's badly understaffed Crowley County Correctional Facility, the Colorado Department of Corrections stepped up its monitoring of private-prison operators. But whistleblowers like Binder are not all that numerous; most staffers at the company's facilities live in remote areas, with few economic opportunities, and need to hold on to their jobs. Once Binder realized that her job was more about providing the appearance of mental-health services rather than the services themselves, she began to prepare an exit strategy.
In her current position as a behavioral-health specialist at the High Plains Community Health Center, Binder occasionally runs across former Bent County inmates. "About half my caseload are people on probation, so I continue to work in the system," she says. "Now and then you see somebody where you think, maybe you made a little difference. That makes it worthwhile."
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