Courts & the Law

Department of Justice: Rivers Correctional Institution in Hertford County is a lawless place


(Photo: Geo Group)

Rivers Correctional Institution is located on 257 bucolic acres on Parker’s Fishery Road, in unincorporated Hertford County. With a capacity of 1,450, the federal prison could fit about two Wintons — the closest town, population 760 or so — inside its walls.

Even though Rivers is a low-security facility — not a supermax prison — it is a desperate, violent place, where fights and sexual assaults between inmates, and fights with staff are routine. More than half of the inmates are from Washington, D.C., and many of them have been addicted to drugs.

For now, Rivers is operated by private prison company, GEO, one of three major for-profit correctional corporations that have contracts with the federal government. But those contracts will not be renewed by the U.S. Department of Justice. Today the DOJ announced that private prisons are more dangerous and inefficient than its counterparts run by the Bureau of Prisons. No existing contracts will be renewed; no new ones will be signed.

(Butner, also a federal detention unit in Granville County, is run by the Bureau of Prisons.)

As part of the investigation, DOJ officials visited Rivers and three other private federal prisons, then issued its findings in a report released by the agency’s inspector general as part of today’s announcement.

From the report:

“Rivers had the highest rates of contraband finds (excluding cell phones), inmate assaults on staff, uses of force, guilty findings on inmate discipline cases, inmate grievances, positive drug tests, inmate-on-inmate sexual misconduct and the lowest phone monitoring rate.”

The number of weapons violations was 56 percent higher in private prisons than in government facilities. The number of assaults was a third higher. Lockdowns were also used more frequently and for reasons that weren’t always justified.

Confronted with overcrowding, in 1997, the federal government began outsourcing some of its prison operations to private companies. About 12 percent — roughly 22,500 — of federal inmates are in private facilities.

According to the DOJ report, the cost of operating these private prisons has increased from approximately $562 million in fiscal year 2011 to $639 million in FY 2014.

However, this increase reflects fixed-price contracts. The payment amount does not change, even if costs are lower. An accounting of costs for specific departments or operations is not provided to the BOP, the report said.  The contractors are responsible only for submitting an invoice to the BOP at the end of each month.

This creates a further incentive for the private prisons to cut costs and thus, boost their profits. Medical treatment is an easy place to trim expenses, but one with potentially dire — and unconstitutional — ramifications for the inmates.

From the report:

We found examples at both the Eden Detention Center and the Rivers Correctional Institution where the reviewing CFM physician had cited deficiencies, such as delayed or incomplete treatment, in the contractors’ medical management or protocols surrounding an inmate death.

In one instance, when an inmate had trouble breathing, the contract prison medical staff told him to place a sick call, which would put him on a list of inmates waiting to be seen by medical personnel instead of being treated immediately. However, after he died, the mortality reviews showing this deficiency gave the onsite monitors no guidance on what steps to take to require corrective action. As a result, contractor deficiencies went uncorrected and corrective actions were delayed at both facilities.

The closure of the prisons could take several years. According to the Washington Post, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said it was “hard to know precisely” when all the privately run facilities would no longer have federal inmates, but that the justice department is “well on our way to ultimately eliminating the use of private prisons entirely.”

As a result of the report, GEO Group’s stock price fell 40 percent today.

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