Getting Rich Off Ruining Lives, How Private For-Profit Prisons Use Juveniles as a Tool to Line Their Pockets

Cutting costs and saving money has become a top priority in many industries across the country, pushing effectiveness, performance, and successful outcomes lower and lower down the totem pole.  With budgetary strains affecting states across the country, governments are putting more faith in privatization as a way to save money.  One industry that has experienced enormous controversy over privatization efforts is the juvenile justice system.  Despite an extensive record full of allegations regarding physical and sexual abuse, poor facility conditions, and inadequate programming that has come to characterize the for-profit private juvenile prison industry, nearly 40% of juvenile delinquents in the United States today are housed in private institutions.

The name James Slattery has become associated with private prisons, but for all the wrong reasons.  A one-time New York City hotelier, Slattery is not a newcomer to the prison scene.  From establishing “welfare hotels” in the 1980s to halfway houses for federal prisoners in the 1990s, Slattery’s profit making ventures have consistently been controversial, both in nature and performance.  Notwithstanding the repugnant track record his previous enterprises hold, Slattery, now head of Youth Services International (YSI), has contracts with 16 states and has been entrusted with the responsibility of supervising over 40,000 juveniles over the past 20 years.  Perhaps one of the most notorious news pieces associated with Slattery’s name occurred at a boot camp in Texas operated by one of his previous companies, Correctional Services Corporation.  In 2001, a juvenile came down with pneumonia and begged guards to see a doctor because he couldn’t breathe.  Instead of complying with his request, staff accused the juvenile of faking it and forced him to do pushups in his own vomit.  Nine days later, the juvenile died due to medical neglect.

YSI’s private for-profit juvenile prisons embody a horrific example of what happens when the government punts social services to private entities with little subsequent oversight.  Driven by their bottom line focus, Slattery’s facilities pay dismal wages to employees resulting in high staff turnover rates and leaving inexperienced and poorly trained guards left to supervise juvenile populations.  The resulting conditions are dangerous and unsatisfactory; juveniles are subject to extensive physical and sexual abuse, neglect, and deprivation, many times being forced to live in abysmal conditions with substandard basic necessities.  “When oversight is not as strong as it can be, companies are only going to be incentivized to do what the government that’s paying them makes them do.  And so in these cases if the oversight is lacking, if there is not constant monitoring, I think there is an incentive to cut costs and services.”

Even though the juvenile justice system was created with rehabilitative efforts in mind in an attempt to help youth become productive, law-abiding adults, “[p]rivate for-profit prisons squarely undermine good juvenile justice practices because these companies’ business models predicate high incarceration and recidivism rates for kids so that they can continue to fill beds in their facilities.  This might be the saddest profit motive ever.” Once states agree to these long-term contracts, they are obligated to fill the prison beds within these private facilities or else face penalties and pay for all unused, empty beds.  As a for-profit institution, YSI prisons benefit from keeping more people locked up.  In the words of Juvenile Judge Ron Alvarez, these institutions are like a third world country that is controlled by some type of evil power.  YSI’s juvenile facilities have violated and continue to violate numerous federal and state guidelines by frequently and unnecessarily using abusive treatments, the unavailability and inadequacy of programs and basic necessities such as food, and extremely violent confrontations between guards and youth, with reports showing that guards slap and choke juveniles even to the point of fracturing youth’s bones at times.

“Over the past quarter century, Slattery’s for-profit prison enterprises have run afoul of the Justice Department and authorities in New York, Florida, Maryland, Nevada and Texas for alleged offenses ranging from condoning abuse of inmates to plying politicians with undisclosed gifts while seeking to secure state contracts.” Despite the allegations against YSI’s facilities, they are able to continue acquiring contracts through practices such as poor and sometimes even falsified documentation, neglecting to document serious events and scaring youth into not reporting incidents.  “The paperwork looked great, because someone was going around and spending overtime just to make sure that paperwork was correct.  If there was something missing, they would just forge it”, according to former supervisor for a YSI juvenile detention center, Angela Phillips.  Slattery is also able to avoid repercussion by pulling out of contracts before the government has a chance to take action.  Furthermore, a complete lack of governmental interest allows Slattery’s abusive institutions to remain viable placement for juvenile offenders.  Perhaps one of the most illustrative examples of this unsettling truth can be seen in youth facilities in Florida, where 100% of the state’s juveniles are housed in private prisons.  A Florida YSI facility with a history of numerous abuse allegations, had eight confirmed cases of child abuse in one year, which were all well documented.  In the same year, 96% of the staff left this facility.  Remarkably, the Department of Justice not only reinstated YSI’s contract, but also fired the monitor who reported the cases of abuse.  According to a former DOJ executive staffer, “They [FL] don’t want the providers to look bad, because they don’t have anyone else to provide this service. . . Bottom line, the state of Florida doesn’t want responsibility for these kids.”  Furthermore, Slattery has a tendency of acquiring powerful confederates within the government by making contributions to state candidates and committees.  Over the past 15 years, Slattery, his wife, and other YSI executives have donated in excess of $400,000 to Florida politicians, representing more than the combined donations of both Office Depot and Darden Restaurants, two of Florida’s largest Fortune 500 companies.

Marketing their institutions as able to provide benefits to taxpayers and produce better outcomes at lower costs than state run facilities, YSI’s claims have been severely undermined by an overabundance of evidence.  Generating some of the worst reoffending rates in the nation, more than 40% of juveniles housed in a YSI facility in Florida were rearrested and convicted of another crime within a year of their release in comparison to only 25% in New York, a state that has never utilized private prison facilities, within the same timeframe.  In an effort to cut costs, states that have turned to private for-profit prisons to house some of their most troubled youth are washing their hands of the responsibility to care for juvenile populations that could substantially benefit from rehabilitative efforts, yet they are essentially being left in the care of a man tainted with a horrific history who is focused solely on the bottom line.  “Quality assurance is looking at contract adherence, whether they’re meeting the general terms of the contract, not the goals of the rehabilitation of the youth.”

Although the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice recently announced they wouldn’t be renewing their contract with YSI for the facility that holds the title of having the highest rate of youth alleging sexual assaults in the country, with upwards of 30% alleging inappropriate sexual contact with staff, a spokesman for the Department claimed the decision was driven by the need to cut costs rather than due to the allegations of rampant sexual misconduct.  With little governmental interest or oversight in these private facilities, even after allegations of abuse and claims of inadequate programming and subpar conditions surface, Slattery, YSI, and other private juvenile institutions will have free reign to do as they please to our juvenile populations.  The overarching motives supporting the creation of a separate juvenile justice system are based on a juvenile’s unique salvageability, as their traits and characteristics are more malleable and transitory in nature and therefore are more susceptible to rehabilitative efforts than their adult counterparts.  With few rehabilitative programs in place in these private prisons and little to look forward to in terms of available opportunities upon release (especially without support and guidance), state’s current reliance on private prisons to “rehabilitate” our country’s juvenile populations is essentially ensuring that a large part of those released will return to some sort of detention down the road, whether it be juvenile or adult prison.  If the government can’t even show interest in providing programs, services, and adequate basic necessities to a population that has been shown to possess the unique ability to learn and grow from their past behaviors and mistakes, the possibility of a bright future for anyone, juveniles and society as a whole included, is bleak and dismal.  Studies have shown that youth incarceration doesn’t reduce recidivism rates, doesn’t benefit public safety, and exposes youth in confinement to further abuse and violence.  Exhibiting almost an addictive approach towards incarceration, it seems as if the United States has moved from an attitude based on problem solving towards a more repressive philosophy that essentially serves to destroy a promising and hopeful juvenile population.  If there’s any hope for a brighter future for anyone involved, there needs to be a collective understanding that oppressive incarceration, especially in abusive for-profit private prisons, is not the answer.

Alexandra Wolf

About Alexandra Wolf

Alex Wolf is a third year law student at the University of Houston Law Center. In 2010, she received a Bachelor of Arts in sociology from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Prior to attending law school, Alex worked as a paralegal at the Lanier Law Firm’s Los Angeles office. During college, Alex interned for Covenant House Texas, a shelter for at-risk youth as well as for Conscious Alliance, a non-profit organization dedicated to eradicating hunger for children and adults alike. Alex also served as an undergraduate research assistant analyzing deviant and suicidal tendencies and behaviors. This summer, Alex worked as a law clerk for Berg & Androphy, a firm specializing in white-collar defense and qui tam actions. Alex is on the Houston Journal of International Law and serves as secretary for the Immigration and Human Rights Law Society.

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