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

photo courtesy of: http://www.wired.com/rawfile/2012/04/photog-hopes-to-effect-policy-with-survey-of-juvenile-lock-ups/#slideid-45151

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.

Bryan ISD Investigated for School-Based Ticketing Due To Disparate Impact on African-American Students

From NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund:

In a letter sent to LDF, the U.S. Department of Education has confirmed it will investigate a complaint  that we and Texas Appleseed filed which challenges the “disparate impact” that Bryan school district’s practice of issuing criminal citations for minor misbehavior has on African-American students, who are ticketed at four times the rate of their peers.

“This investigation sends a strong message to school districts around the country that the government takes seriously allegations that police are criminalizing children in school instead of keeping them safe,” said Rachel Kleinman, Assistant Counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

“We are pleased that OCR is pursuing this important issue and look forward to working with the Department of Education and the Bryan school district to find more positive approaches to improving student behavior and keeping more children in class and out of the court system,” said Texas Appleseed Deputy Director Deborah Fowler.

Ann Boney, President of the Brazos County NAACP, said, “We are pleased that we will move forward with this issue and begin developing a positive approach that will benefit all concerned parties.”

African-American students comprised only 21% of the Bryan district’s student population in 2011-12, but received 53% of all tickets issued last year for Disruption of Class and 51% for Disorderly Conduct-Language (profanity). While the Texas lawmakers passed legislation this spring ending school-based ticketing in most cases, school districts can still file formal complaints and send students to court for the same types of minor misbehavior.

“In a very real sense, districts like Bryan are using law enforcement as a disciplinary tool, leading students into the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Senior Attorney Michael Harris, with the National Center for Youth Law. “But research shows these matters are far better handled by educators and parents.”

We are asking OCR to require Bryan ISD to provide additional training for school police officers in adolescent behavior, conflict resolution and de-escalation techniques. We are strongly encouraging implementation of nationally-tested programs shown to reduce disciplinary problems and boost academics—such as School-Wide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports. Our complaint also proposes:

  • Revisions to the Bryan Student Code of Conduct to establish graduated consequences for misbehavior that minimize missed class time and reserve suspension, expulsion, and police responses to student misbehavior to only those incidents that pose a safety risk;
  • Required campus-based quarterly reporting of data on ticketing and school-related arrests, by type of incident disaggregated by race; and
  • Intervention services for students who receive multiple Class C citations and/or disciplinary referrals and who are at risk of educational failure.

It is a common practice in Texas for school districts to bring in the criminal system to handle issues with students that many people should be dealt with internally. The school-to-prison pipeline in Texas is used way too often and it is about time the Department of Education notices. Hopefully this investigation will lead to the elimination of this disparate impact practice.

Playing Doctor, 10-Year-Old Girl Charged with Aggravated Sexual Assault

As reported by New York Daily News, a 10-year-old Houston girl faces charges of aggravated sexual assault after playing doctor with a young boy in her apartment complex.

The girl — identified as “Ashley” — was playing with other children in her apartment complex’s courtyard in April when a witness reported that she inappropriately touched a 4-year-old boy “in his private area,” according to Fox affiliate KRIV.

The family contends Ashley, who was 9 at the time of the incident, is innocent.

It wasn’t until two months later in June when the Houston Police Department began investigating the case.

The then 9-year-old spent four nights in the Harris County Juvenile Detention Center, after the sex crimes unit denied Ashley’s mother the opportunity to attend the 45-minute interview between the girl and authorities.

The charging and detention of ten-year-old Ashley presents a number of procedural questions that have plagued the juvenile justice system since its creation. Title 3 of the Texas Family Code, the Juvenile Justice Code, provides that children, under the age of 10, cannot be charged with or punished for criminal acts. Nine years old when the incident occurred, Ashley falls outside the jurisdiction of the juvenile court, which calls for the accused to be ten-years-old at the time of the alleged offense.

Along with questions of jurisdiction, Ashley was detained for four nights in the Harris County Juvenile Detention Center. The juvenile court typically reserves detention as a last resort for particularly problematic or violent offenders. Ashley, playing doctor, allegedly touched another child inappropriately. But the Houston Police Department (“HPD”) waited two months before investigating charges against Ashley, indicating that HPD didn’t view Ashley as a dangerous or imminent threat to society.

Finally, HPD did not allow Ashley’s mother to accompany her during a 45-minute interview between the girl and authorities. While the Texas Family Code provides that the child must explicitly request counsel, it does not account for the presence of a parent. Ashley, a ten-year-old, couldn’t be expected to request or even ascertain the need for counsel.

The issues of jurisdiction and detention make this case ripe for investigation. Hopefully, this young girl will get the justice she deserves, while also being appropriately punished for the alleged offense.