October 8, 2019
One of the themes we write about in the Daily Dispatch quite a bit is the relationship between poor conditions in prisons and detention facilities, and the process of privatization which has turned incarceration into a profitable enterprise in this country. It is not difficult to see that the market forces that ensure adequate delivery of service and price controls in society more generally do not operate in prisons. The people who are on the receiving end of prison services – prisoners and detainees – have no say at all in the companies that are supposed to provide the meals, health services, mental health support, and other services that provide the context in which they are living this portion of their lives. The people paying for the services, state department of corrections, Federal Bureau of Prisons, Immigration and Customs Enforcement are only doing what is legislatively required, and they want it done as cheaply as possible. The companies that receive the contracts are simply doing what the contract requires – again spending as little as possible on delivery of service. The revolving door between private companies and state agencies overseeing them is a big door – and the predictable impact is that there is little meaningful oversight over these companies. Only lawsuits and investigative reports lead to changing practices.
One of the consequences of the privatization of mental health services in state and federal prisons is a serious decline in the quality of care – even as state agencies are paying private companies more than it would cost the state to provide the same service. One measure of this decline in care is an increase in suicides in states that have turned their prison mental health care services over to private companies.
Reporter Lisa Armstrong, working with Type Investigations, CBSN and with support from a variety of funders, has put together a short documentary on the perils of privatizing mental health services which you can watch below. The documentary begins with the story of Miriam Abdullah, a young woman from Iraq who was incarcerated at age 15. She had well documented mental health concerns and yet received inadequate care, being forced in and out of isolation. She killed herself a few weeks before her 18th birthday. The company with the contract to provide care in Perryville Prison in Arizona where she was being held is Corizon – just one of three companies that dominate this “market.”
In recent weeks we have also profiled similar patterns of denial of service, inadequate care when provided, and an overuse of solitary confinement in detention facilities. For example, the Quixote Center joined with dozens of other human rights organizations in demanding the state delegation from Georgia investigate conditions at Stewart Detention facility. A call that took on added urgency following the release of details of a suicide in the facility last year. From the letter:
The misuse of solitary confinement is alarming because of the detrimental impact that solitary confinement has already had on existing mental health concerns of immigrants at Stewart. Two immigrants with a history of mental health concerns have died of suicide after being placed in solitary confinement for over 15 days—a time period that the United Nations would consider torture. Jeancarlo Jiménez-Joseph, a 27-year-old immigrant with schizophrenia detained at Stewart died of suicide on May 15, 2017 by hanging himself after 19 days in solitary confinement. Almost a year later in July 2018, Efrain Romero De la Rosa, a 40-year-old immigrant with bipolar disorder detained at Stewart, died of suicide after 21 days in solitary confinement. These tragedies point to the pattern of neglect of the mental health of immigrants at Stewart and the expedient use of solitary confinement as a means for Stewart to disregard the humanity of detained immigrants and their need for mental health care.
Stewart is run by one of the big two private prison companies – CoreCivic.
In writing about Romero’s case for the intercept, Jose Olivares wove the personal story of Efrain Romero de la Rosa together with systemic issues that shape conditions at Stewart and elsewhere in the landscape of the U.S.’s ever evolving incarceration nightmare. We wrote about Olivares’ research in the Daily Dispatch in September here. From the article:
Romero’s case stands as a tragic exemplar of an immigration detention system gone off the rails. Solitary confinement is frequently used by corrections staff as a means to punish detainees; a Bangladeshi man told The Intercept in 2018 that guards at the CoreCivic-run Stewart Detention Center — the same facility where Romero was held — sent him to solitary confinement because of a dispute over $8 for prison labor.
The use of solitary confinement in immigration detention is growing and has, in tandem, become a political issue. An investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and The Intercept, which included testimony from a whistleblower, found that the use of solitary was a go-to practice to discipline detainees and deal with troubled cases, rather than the last resort prescribed by detention standards. After the release of the investigation, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., condemned the use of solitary and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., called for congressional hearings on the practice.
Many of the problems we see in immigration incarceration result from the fact that the methods employed are transferred from our mass incarceration industry. It is not as though health care provision and mental health services were great under state management in prisons. But all incentive to do it well has been gutted by privatization. And underlying all of this is that we treat people in prison as throw away people. Even though 95% of the people in prison will come out at some point, as a society we have decided they are not worth caring for. Our prison system incentivizes poor living conditions – and the trauma inflicted as a result will hurt us all in the long run.