Thirty years of private prisons: New report details trouble behind bars

Launched in 1983 by a group of Kentucky Fried Chicken investors, the Corrections Corporation of America is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year with plenty of celebrations and speeches. But there's one gift the world's largest private-prison operator isn't eager to open -- a new report by the incarceration reformers at Grassroots Leadership, listing thirty of the company's worst instances of mismanagement, folly, riot and scandal as its profits have swelled with the prison boom over the past three decades.

Operating 65 prison and immigration detention facilities in 19 states, CCA reported revenues in excess of $1.7 billion in 2012. The company spends lavishly lobbying state and federal officials, persuading them that subcontracting chunks of their prison population to CCA at a certain daily fee per head will save them money in the long run. But critics of the company say the for-profit model cuts too many corners, resulting in ill-trained and poorly paid staff, inadequate medical care, and bare-bones hoosegows that may be hundreds or thousands of miles from the prisoner's family and support network, hindering prospects for successful re-entry.

In Colorado, despite the recent drop in the prison population, CCA continues to operate lockups in Burlington, Las Animas and Olney Springs. (A fourth, the Huerfano County Correctional Facility, is currently vacant.) How CCA has managed to get the state to guarantee bodies to fill beds in those three prisons, while Colorado has been closing state prisons elsewhere, is one of the thirty intrigues discussed in the Grassroots Leadership report.

The report also delves into the history of drug trafficking and sex scandals at Burlington's Kit Carson Correctional Facility, first reported in my 1999 feature "McPrison"; and the 2004 riot at the Crowley prison, which led to a recent settlement for $600,000 with former inmates who were brutalized by guards in the aftermath.

But that's hardly the extent of CCA's star turns in our state. For more on the state of CCA medical care, I'd suggest reading about the fate of a minor offender named Terrell Griswold. From our archives: "Joe Arridy was the happiest man on death row."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast