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Private Prison Group Quits Mississippi, Heads North

Isaac Dalke

Private prison operator GEO Group is backing out of all operations in the state of Mississippi by this July, the Guardian reports. The decision was driven in large part by a class action lawsuit brought against the firm by the Southern Poverty Law Center and ACLU over a youth detention facility run by the group, and a U.S. Department of Justice report condemning that same facility for 8th ammendment violations. Overall, the DOJ says that their investigation found “systematic, egregious, and dangerous practices exacerbated by a lack of accountability and controls.” Amongst other things, it cited excessive use of force as the first course of action to maintain order, sexual misconduct by the staff (who otherwise showed egregious indifference towards inmate safety) and totally inadequate health services. The settlement required that the group improve conditions and employee conduct, though by the beginning of this month, little progress had been made. The GEO Group is the second largest private prison operator in the world, running 65 prisons in the U.S., as well as facilities in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Australia. Last year, the group reported revenues exceeding $1 billion. They are traded publicly on the NYSE.
This is not the first time GEO Group has faced allegations of reckless indifference and inadequate care for inmates. Last July, they were found accountable for the death of Ronald Sites in 2005 and were forced to pay $6.5  million to his family. Sites was housed in one of the group’s Oklahoma prisons when his cellmate strangled him to death in 2005. The cellmate had previously spent time in solitary confinement for threatening to kill Sites, and had previously stabbed another inmate. In February, the Florida State Senate struck down a bill—in a 21-19 vote—that would have created the largest private prison system in the U.S., a bill strongly advocated for by Florida-based GEO. Amidst these and similar setbacks, GEO Group and fellow private prison operator Training and Management Corporation (TMC) are looking to take business to Canada, . The two companies have recently begun lobbying the national government in Ottawa in the wake of national elections in 2011, the Guardian also reports: Mike Murphy, marketing director for the Utah-based MTC, confirmed the company’s interest in Canada. When the conservative government came into play we saw some headlines that they may be looking at PPP’s [private-public partnerships] and talking about doing some stuff with the private sector through their [corrections] infrastructure renewal,” he said. Canada is already looking to reorganize its prison system, and a package of tough on crime” legislation that passed in April looks likely to increase the number of Canadian inmates, and lengthen their stay in Canadian prisons. Highly controversial, province leaders in Canada are unsure if they have the jail capacity or the funding to implement the bill, and some have questioned it’s ability to reduce crime. In the United States, private prisons hold about 8 percent of total inmates across the state and federal levels, totaling over 125,000 people, including half of all federal immigration detainees. The trend towards privatization has been growing since the 1980s, when private prisons first appeared to help manage the rapid increase in incarcerated adults due to federal laws designed to be hard on crime (like the Canadian legislation). As In These Times detailed in December, it can be notoriously difficult to oversee private prisons, and the savings they provide can be negligible.   
Isaac Dalke is a summer 2012 In These Times editorial intern.
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