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There's a Riot Going On

Anger Erupts at Conditions in For-Profit Indiana Prison

by NICOLE COLSON

THE CONSEQUENCES of the for-profit prison industry became all too clear in Indiana last week when a riot broke out among prisoners at the medium-security New Castle Correctional Facility.

According to corrections officials, the outburst began when prisoners recently transferred from Arizona reportedly became "defiant" as they were being moved from a dining hall to their cells. Many of the Arizona inmates began removing their shirts as a symbol of protest, and a guard was allegedly knocked or pushed to the ground.

The protest then spread to include an estimated 500 of the prison’s 1,668 inmates, according to officials–with prisoners reportedly breaking windows and setting fire to supposedly flame-retardant mattresses in exercise yards.

The riot ended approximately two hours later when guards used concussion grenades and tear gas to re-impose control. In all, at least seven prisoners and two guards suffered minor injuries.

The state has since transferred more than 200 of the estimated 600 Arizona inmates housed at the facility and canceled plans to bring in hundreds more Arizona prisoners.

Although the New Castle Correctional Facility is owned by the state, Indiana contracts with the private prison company GEO Group of Florida to operate it. In 2005, GEO Group landed a $53 million contract with the state to run the prison for four years, with an option for three two-year extensions. In March 2006, the company received an additional $6.1 million contract to house 1,260 convicts from Arizona. In all, Arizona pays Indiana $64 per inmate per day to house the prisoners.

Because of severe overcrowding in its prisons, Arizona also sends some inmates to Oklahoma. And last year, the state sent more than 1,500 of its inmates to Texas, until that deal was canceled.

Prison advocates have been warning that a disturbance like the New Castle riot was in the making.

Groups of prisoners from different states are kept segregated–and frequently treated very differently. Ken Kopczynski of the watchdog Private Corrections Institute told the Indianapolis Star that private prison companies like GEO treat each group differently based on the contract they have with individual states. So prisoners from one state may be allowed more food, access to reading materials, or better medical care than prisoners from another state, even if they are living in the same facility.

According to columnist Stephanie Salter, just a week before the riot, Dora Schriro, Arizona’s prisons chief, delayed the transfer of more inmates to New Castle because, she said, the number of New Castle guards and their inexperience was troubling.

Katie Decker, a spokeswoman for Schriro, explained to the Associated Press: "They were pulling staff from other areas around the state to put them into these [security] positions, and we needed to be sure there was a permanent professional crew on site. It wasn’t just a quantity issue, it also was quality and the level of experience."

Additionally, said Kopczynski, the stress of being transferred hundreds–and in some cases–thousands of miles away from loved ones adds to the stress on prisoners. "How do you expect the family to stay in touch," he said, "when they’re in Arizona, and they have to fly all the way to Indiana?"

Donna Leone Hamm, director of Middle Ground Prison Reform, an Arizona-based nonprofit inmate advocacy group, told the Indianapolis Star that she had been contacted by inmates and their family members, who said prisoners were shipped off to Indiana involuntarily–sometimes in the middle of the night, and with no warning. Some were told they couldn’t bring along personal property, including televisions.

"I just want to see him," Maria Laurelez, whose husband Johnny is one of the Arizona prisoners at the New Castle facility, told the Muncie Star Press the day after the riot.

Maria was forced to spend more than $600 on a plane ticket, hotel and car rental just to visit her husband, who is serving time for armed robbery. The couple’s two daughters have been unable to see their father since he was moved to Indiana. "He’s too far away," she said.

* * *

GEO GROUP claims that its mission is to be a "world leader" in the privatized prison industry. GEO currently operates 58 prisons in the United States, Australia, South Africa and elsewhere, in addition to some mental-health facilities–a number that has boomed over the past several years, despite a dubious record..

According to a recent Corp Watch report by Deepa Fernandes, GEO Group, formerly named "Wackenhut," had a "record with inmate-on-inmate killings, which, contrary to public perception, are not very common in America’s prisons. In 1998­99 alone, Wackenhut’s New Mexico facilities had a death rate of one murder for every 400 prisoners. For the same period in all U.S. prisons, the rate was about one in 22,000."

It’s not hard to understand why GEO Group has been so successful at expanding its business. In the 2006 election cycle alone, GEO contributed more than $200,000 to both Republican and Democratic candidates and organizations, according to PoliticalMoneyLine, which tracks such contributions.

As Smartmoney.com commented in February, "Like license plates, shivs and pruno, there’s money to be made in prison. Just ask investors in GEO Group…who’ve seen their stakes in the private jailer more than triple in value in the past year."

Arizona, of course, is not the only state to grapple with what to do with its expanding prison population. California announced last week that it will solve its massive prison overcrowding problem by massively expanding prison construction.

An estimated 16,000 prisoners overflow onto cots in the hallways and gyms of California’s prisons. The system is officially in a "state of emergency" declared by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has also approved the involuntary transfer of prisoners out of state to ease overcrowding.

Last month, however, lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled state legislature narrowly approved the largest single prison construction program in U.S. history–designed to add 53,000 prison beds to California at a cost of some $8.3 billion. In addition, they agreed to transfer 8,000 convicts to other states to be housed.

Left out of the plans, however, was any discussion about how to lower the rate of offenders who return to prison–the highest in the country–or the woefully inadequate health care and other services that currently exist inside California’s jails.

As the New York Times commented, "The Democrats who ultimately voted for the plan despite its perceived shortcomings appeared to calculate that they would avoid looking soft on crime while leaving any legal fallout at the governor’s door."

NICOLE COLSON writes for the Socialist Worker.