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American Correctional Association in Texas: Abuse and Profiteering Put Accreditation Under Scrutiny
By Ernesto Aguilar
for the Houston Independent Media Center
With the American Correctional Association's conference in Texas fast approaching, a common question comes up among people concerned about the rapid rates of incarceration, criminalization and the growing body of evidence suggesting disparities in the justice system: "what is the ACA, and why should it matter to Texas, or me?"
Indubitably, there are many ways to address this issue, but it can't be removed from the context we see today. Texas houses over 130,000 inmates of the nearly two million people who live behind bars in America. African-Americans constitute 41.6 percent of the prison population (compared to the overall African-American state population at 11.5 percent) and Latinos constitute 24.6 percent of Texas prisoners (compared to the overall Latino state population at 32 percent). The number of African-American women incarcerated in Texas is a staggering 47.6 percent. ("Texas Department of Criminal Justice Statistical Summary," published March 2001)
Nationally, over half a million people -- most of them young adults -- are imprisoned every year in the United States. And the criminal justice system eats up over $100 billion yearly. In Texas, the state budget from 1984-85 to 1998-99 noted a 174 percent increase in prison funding compared to 53 percent for public schools and 19 percent overall for higher education (adjusted for inflation; "Higher Education and the Future of Texas" presentation by the Texas Higher Education Coalition). Pundits often refer to a slowing economy, but that's seldom applied to the corrections business, which is booming on the bodies of "criminals" -- disproportionately, people of color, the economically disadvantaged and women.
The American Correctional Association was founded in 1870. Its original vision was to serve as a reform-minded organization. Today, the ACA has over 20,000 members, from prison officials through to judges, in over seventy chapters, and a budget of over ten million dollars. The love affair between private industry and the ACA, which purports to hold its partner to standards, has continued to raise concerns nationally. The result of this coupling is a track record of unenforced standards, human rights violations, and relationships with corporations whose abuses against American citizens are well documented. Clearly, the ACA's presence in San Antonio is not just something for the "activist" to be concerned about. If you have loved ones, are concerned about justice, or are a person of color, very clearly, what the ACA does will affect you in some way now or in the future.
It should be noted that the ACA has taken many progressive stands on various policies over the years. Writer Sasha Abramsky notes the association's leadership has supported an end to mandatory minimum drug sentences, and opposed trends toward trying juvenile offenders as adults. The ACA has also rejected sentencing codes that have punished crack offenders -- mainly Black and Latino men -- far more severely than the mainly white users and dealers of powder cocaine. However, these forward-thinking stances haven't stopped the ACA from attempting to cash in on the incarceration craze.
In "The ACA: Bought and Paid for," Daniel Flaumenhaft of the Philadelphia Independent Media Center exposes the ACA's spending record (of over $11 million) in its 1999-2000 reporting year.
* The ACA received some $2 million directly from prisons, corrections departments, and prison service contractors. $1,167,154 was for advertising and $673,632 more was taxable revenue from conferences -- almost certainly the fees the same organizations paid to exhibit at the trade shows. Contrast this with the mere $684,008 came from member dues. * $2,859,429 in revenue came from accreditation fees that the ACA charged to prisons. Since the accreditation program cost $2,278,856 to run, the association made over half a million dollars on it. Writes Flaumenhaft, "Is it any wonder that so few prisons fail to be accredited?
* $88,739 was spent on lobbying "legislators, governors, the president, prosecutors, judges, council members and other decision makers." * The federal government paid the ACA $1,074,029 to administer various correctional programs (at cost). * The ACA received $408,890 in tax-deductible donations. Pharamceutical firm SmithKline Beecham (now merged with Glaxo Wellcome to create GlaxoSmithKline) was one of the larger contributors, with $30,600 to the ACA. Seventy-six percent of contributors gave over $5,000.
Figures are taken from the ACA's IRS Form 900 (http://www.guidestar.org/pdf/2000/131/977/2000-131977456-1-9.pdf), which all tax-exempt
organizations are required to file.
The ACA's conference in San Antonio, featuring an exhibit floor at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, is expected to be a sizeable -- and profitable -- event. Leveraging its membership as bait, the association is quick to remind exhibitors of both registrants' compassion and cash as it hawks booth space this January. Attendees, the ACA says, "realize that it takes many people with various skills to be successful in rehabilitating offenders. And many types of products, services and technologies are needed to help them."
However, it's unclear if the rehabilitative products include items such as stun belts and weapons of many stripes, which fill the aisles of ACA exhibit floors. It's doubtful that the rehabilitative services included those of regular exhibitors Wackenhut Corrections Corporation and the Corrections Corporation of America. Those, along with Southern Corrections Systems, Inc. and the Management and Training Corporation, run over 20 facilities in the Texas system.
CCA and Wackenhut, in particular, have particularly ugly human rights records in Texas, but still receive the red carpet from the ACA.
Among abuses within so-called "private prisons" in Texas is the case of 14-year-old Sara Lowe, who was repeatedly raped by a prison guard in a Wackenhut prison in Texas (Coke County Juvenile Justice Center), according to "60 Minutes II" (May 9, 2001). Sara Lowe and her family sued Wackenhut, and 11 more women from the Wackenhut prison joined them. Two Wackenhut employees pled guilty to criminal charges of sexual assault. The company decided to settle Sara's civil suit, as long as her parents would agree to never discuss what happened inside the prison. The day of the settlement, Sara Lowe committed suicide.
Asked if Wackenhut owed an apology to Sara or any other inmate, Wackenhut CEO George Zoley told the same reporter, "Not that I'm aware of. I don't know what you mean by that."
Also of note:
* In the Wackenhut-run Travis County Jail, 11 former guards and one case manager were indicted for sexual assault and harassment, and 20 more were under investigation for the sexual assaults of 16 female inmates. One of the eleven, Tyrone Means, was found guilty of improper sexual activity with an inmate, and he served nine months in jail. (APBnews.com, 12/17/99 and 09/00)
* British Prison Officers Association delegates visiting the CCA-run immigration center in Houston found inmates confined to warehouse like dormitories for twenty-three hours a day. The private facility, inspectors concluded, demonstrated "possibly the worst conditions we have ever witnessed in terms of inmate care and supervision."
* In Austin, Texas, prisoner James David Prater said in a lawsuit that, after his jaw was broken by gang members, Wackenhut and the state ignored doctor's orders for his care, denied him medication, left his jaw wired shut too long and refused to provide liquefied food for a few days ("Jail suits allege neglect, cover-up," Austin American-Statesman, 9/9/99)
* In Houston, Demetrius Redmond, a former guard at the Travis County facility, said a supervisor ordered a videotape erased that showed a Wackenhut-employed guard restraining a handcuffed prisoner who was lying on the floor. The guard put his knee on the back of the inmate's neck, causing him to lose consciousness. (ibid)
In another regional incident, six boys were removed from a Wackenhut central Louisiana facility last year after they had been brutalized by guards, placed in solitary confinement for months and deprived of blankets, shoes, education and medical services, according to a story in the New York Times. In another Wackenhut facility in Louisiana (Jena Juvenile Justice Center for Boys), former clerk Dale Ortego alleged that, during his stay in 1999, guards were pushing drugs and having sex with prisoners. "The guards were just...like inmates," Ortego told "60 Minutes II." "It's just they got control over us." In one year, Wackenhut went through five wardens and turned over the entire staff three times at Jena. The U.S. Department of Justice investigated that facility and found that youths were subjected to "cruel and humiliating punishments," and guards "routinely used excessive force." The report concluded that the center was "a dangerous place to be." And in New Mexico, Ralph Garcia, a rancher driven to financial ruin by drought, signed on at Wackenhut's Santa Rosa prison as a guard for $7.95 an hour; although he had yet to complete his short training course, Garcia was left alone in a cell-block with 60 unlocked prisoners. They took the opportunity to stab an inmate, then Garcia, several times.
How do these prisons get away with hideous abuses against inmates, poor training of guards and substandard treatment? Many prisons might claim legitimacy by showing their ACA accreditation. Accreditation is a third-party certification process that many prisons go through to prove they meet a national standard. For the ACA, the nation's leading inspector of correctional facilities both public and private, all its standards and the accreditation process are created, controlled and implemented on its own.
Accreditation is designed to show a facility meets nationally accepted standards for quality of operation, management, and maintenance. The courts frequently use ACA accreditation as proof of improvements towards ending of previous injunctions. Louisiana's state prisons, for instance, were under court order for overcrowding and poor conditions for decades. A big step to getting the order lifted was achieving ACA accreditation for each facility. For years, little effort was expended to meet that goal and none of the facilities, including new ones, succeeded. But in 1990, when writing its first contract with a private firm to operate a prison, the state required the firm to achieve accreditation. It did. Encouraged, the new head of state corrections ordered the rest of the state system to seek accreditation. By 1996, every Louisiana prison
except the one maximum-security facility (Angola) had achieved the goal, and the court order was lifted. Other states, including Texas (1980's Ruiz v. Estelle case), have seen similar court orders reexamined.
More importantly, the value of accreditation, which costs the state about $9,000 per unit to achieve, lies in diminishing the potential for lawsuits by inmates, Director of Public Information for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Glen Castlebury told the Abilene Reporter-News (12/1798). ACA's long list of standards covers issues such as dispensation of medication that inmates frequently sue over, Castlebury told the newspaper, so the ACA's seal of approval carries considerable weight in court when a suit comes to trial. Castlebury spoke to the media following the kidnap and rape of a female guard by two inmates at the Robertson Unit, which met all 41 mandatory and 94.1 percent of the nonmandatory ACA accreditation standards. Robertson received its accreditation less than two months later.
The record of dubious conduct is all the harder to swallow when one considers the accreditation ratio between private (and event-sponsoring) business-run prisons and public institutions. There are currently over 5,000 government and privately managed detention facilities located around the U.S., with only slightly over 500 accredited by the ACA. Of the 50 private correctional facilities that have been operating long enough to achieve accreditation, policy analyst Adrian Moore points out in "Private Prisons: Quality Corrections at a Lower Cost," 29 prisons have done so. Thus, no more than 10 percent of government correction facilities have been accredited, whereas 44 percent of private facilities have been accredited.
Over the years the standards have shriveled to disconcerting levels. For example, one Philadelphia newspaper points out, the minimum cell size required for each prisoner has been nearly cut in half over the last 15 years. In 1994, Amnesty International published a report that challenged the ACA's accreditation standards for the death row unit of Oklahoma State Penitentiary. Among the conditions covered at OSP in the AI report "USA: Conditions for death row prisoners in H-Unit, Oklahoma State Penitentiary," included 23 hour a day lockdown, no access to natural light in the cells, two small, cold meals a day and no way of contacting guards in case of emergency. One prisoner reported watching his cellmate die of a heart attack, while he was unable to contact the guards for help. OSP is considered to be in full compliance with accreditation standards by the ACA. Many complaints, investigations and lawsuits have been filed in the last few years regarding prisons and facilities accredited by the ACA.
So where does Texas stack up?
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice's American Correctional Association Accreditation Office
(http://www.tdcj.state.tx.us/id/id-accreditation.htm) lists 15 prisons (Boyd, Plane, Cole, Ellis, Henley, Moore, Murray, Robertson, Connally, Hughes, Eastham, Darrington, Middleton, Ferguson and Stevenson) in over 100 system units with ACA accreditation.
The Ellis Unit received the first ACA Dual-Accreditation Certification in the country. Interestingly enough, the Ellis Unit is also the same prison featured in a 2000 photograph on an Amnesty International web page titled "Torture and abuse of prisoners" under the larger headline, "Rights for All." It showed what appeared to be undressed prisoners from above and behind, walking in a line while guards stand on the side, as they go by. The caption read "Prison guards monitor inmates during a 'shakedown' (a mass search for contraband items) in Ellis Unit in Huntsville, Texas."
While prison officials called it "dehumanizing to the inmates," the photograph, they said, wasn't inaccurate as it related to the operation. "The scene certainly could have occurred while they were exiting the inmates from the cell block," Larry Todd, a public information officer for the department, said in a telephone interview with one publication. "You have to empty a cell block quickly if you are going to search for contraband."
The Center for the Advocacy of Human Rights notes that its research indicated regular patterns of misconduct by administrators at ACA-accredited prisons. ("The Center for the Advocacy of Human Rights' Ongoing Investigation of the ACA and ACA-accredited Prisons: An Update," Prison News Service, September-October 1995.)
"Our investigation revealed that prisoners in just about every accredited prison are subjected to brutality and inhumane treatment, including sensory deprivation; denial of essential medical care, which, in many cases, has resulted in death; entirely ineffective grievance procedures; beatings; interference with privileged legal mail; withholding of publications which expose misconduct; etc.
"The standard practices of the ACA and ACA-accredited prisons are producing what we believe to be detrimental effects on both prisoners and the social-economic conditions of the United States. [Practices such as violence and mistreatment] cause prisoners to lose all respect for the government and the people that the prisons and the ACA officials allegedly represent. When such respect is nonexistent, disregard for the government and the people (and their laws) logically follow, thus creating the kind of social disorder and violence that we see every day in the news and in our environments -- disregard and violence that is understandably perceived by groups such as prisoners as not only justifiable, but imperative."
Other incidents related to Texas prisons accredited by the ACA:
* In summer 2001, Texas prisoners launched a statewide hungerstrike, initiated by prisoner Sid Hawk Byrd (ACA-accredited Eastham Unit), against administrative segregation ("ad seg") conditions. "Prisoners in solitary confinement throughout Texas are kept for years; even for decades with no concern for their mental or physical well being," Hawk wrote to prison officials. "These conditions are undeniably counterproductive to any intent to correct or rehabilitate. I'm going hungry because I do not wish to live like we are being forced to live. Starvation and death is an acceptable outcome versus the continuous mental madness and total isolation we face daily. Our conditions are no better than being held in a tomb." Activists around the state have reported similar, if not significantly worse, conditions on Texas' death row. * At the ACA-accredited, Ferguson Unit, Robert A. Komer, DO, whose medical licenses were revoked in six of seven states after he pleaded no contest to 59 counts of sexually abusing patients and other offenses from about 1982 through 1988, found part-time employment. In June 1990, Michigan's Board of Osteopathic Medicine and Surgery found Komer guilty of sexually abusing six psychiatric patients, four of whom he first drugged with amytal sodium. "After Michigan revoked Komer's license, Arkansas, California, Florida, Iowa, Missouri, and Ohio did the same.
Texas, however, did not. In January 1991, the Texas Board of Medical Examiners placed Komer on probation for 3 years, during which he had to undergo psychiatric treatment and to notify the board in the event he left employment with the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, where he was assigned to the Department of Corrections." ("Critics Denounce Staffing Jails and Prisons With Physicians Convicted of Misconduct," JAMA Medical News & Perspectives - October 28, 1998)
* At the ACA-accredited Connally Unit, media reports indicated dissatisfaction among corrections officers related to understaffing, lack of training and other grievances. In 2000, Connally was the site of the infamous "Texas Seven" escape in which a police officer was later killed -- a breakout some state officials blamed on guards, but which the officers themselves said was the result of cost-cutting measures by the state-run
prison. The escapees themselves listed a litany of grievances with the Texas criminal justice system upon their capture.
* Viktoria Robertson, a former prisoner at the unaccredited Gatesville Prison described to Court TV on 10/21/99, of how women were forced to do hard labor for as many as eight hours a day in intense heat. If they could not keep up with the pace of work, the women would be crammed in a portable steel cage and made to stand up and denied bathroom facilities, causing them sometimes to defecate or urinate while in the cage. They were hosed off and ''watered'' every 90 minutes. The prisoners were told to be caged meant that 45 days were taken off their time off for good behavior. A hidden court camera substantiated use of the cages.
Despite these and many other abuses, accredited prisons are held up as examples of model facilities, largely as a result of their ACA accreditations. ACA supporters often cite the fact that ACA standards are higher than many state and federal mandates. Lost in this discussion is the fact that all standards as they're currently applied are rife with flaws and questionable application, which in turn give jailers a green light to mistreat prisoners, and fuel a criminal justice system in need of significant changes now