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A Dubious Distinction

BY Silja J.A. Talvi

“Accreditation is awarded to the ‘best of the best’ in the corrections field,’” as the ACA explains on its Web site (http://www.aca.org). “Accredited agencies have a stronger defense against litigation through … the demonstration of a ‘good faith’ effort to improve conditions of confinement.”

Yet the fact remains that the ACA is still a private, non-governmental organization with no authority to change prison conditions or to enforce standards. The ACA’s accreditation process is kept secret from the public; all that outsiders know for sure is which facilities have been accredited. Today, only 10 percent of government-managed facilities are ACA-accredited, compared with 44 percent of privately managed prisons. Texas leads the pack in prison privatization, followed closely by Florida, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Colorado.

The 22-year-old Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is both the most successful and the most ACA-accredited prison corporation, managing more than 50 percent of all private prison beds at 63 facilities around the country. Representing the sixth largest prison system in the United States—and racked by controversy, serious prison riots and complaints about poorly trained, low-paid corrections workers—CCA boasts that 75 percent of its facilities have the ACA stamp of approval.

How meaningful is ACA accreditation?

In July 2004, a severe prison riot broke out at the ACA-accredited Crowley County Correctional Facility, a CCA prison near Pueblo, Colo. For nearly six hours, several hundred Colorado and out-of-state prisoners wreaked havoc on the prison, destroying cells, furniture, plumbing and equipment. Prison administrators had continually ignored complaints about food quality, conditions of confinement and the physical abuse of prisoners. At the time of the riot, only 33 guards were watching over 1,122 prisoners. Several of those guards fled the facility in panic. An extensively detailed 174-page “After Action” report, prepared by the Colorado Department of Corrections, noted CCA’s deficiencies and serious errors in running the prison. But CCA retained both its contract to run the prison and its accreditation.

In September 2004, prisoners rioted at Kentucky’s Lee Adjustment Center, another CCA-run, ACA-accredited prison. Correctional officers working there make less than $8.00 an hour, and sometimes work 12-hour shifts.

The government-run Mississippi State Penitentiary, which was taken to court in July 2002 over its filthy, vermin- and mosquito-infested death row cells, is also accredited by the ACA (see “Cruel as Usual,” January 19, 2004). So is the Santa Fe County Detention Center, run by the Management and Training Corporation, which faces a federal lawsuit for violations of civil and constitutional rights, including its former practice of mandatory strip searches of every inmate.

Silja J.A. Talvi, a senior editor at In These Times, is an investigative journalist and essayist with credits in many dozens of newspapers and magazines nationwide, including The Nation, Salon, Santa Fe Reporter, Utne, and the Christian Science Monitor.

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