Politics & Government

4 years after deadly riot there, investigators still find problems at private prison

Smoke rises above the Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, Miss., on May 20, 2012, during an inmate disturbance at the prison.
Smoke rises above the Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, Miss., on May 20, 2012, during an inmate disturbance at the prison. AP

A privately run Mississippi prison housing immigrants remains plagued by the same health care and staffing deficiencies that existed at the time of a lethal 2012 riot, federal investigators say.

In a critical new report, Justice Department investigators warned they were “deeply concerned” about what they’d discovered at the Adams County Correctional Center, in Natchez, Mississippi. In some cases, investigators say, the private contractor appeared to have overstated the prison’s staffing levels.

“The staffing levels at the Adams County facility were frequently insufficient during the four years we tested, even though systemic staffing deficiencies were cited as a contributing factor to the riot,” the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General said.

As of April 2016, the Adams County facility was one of 13 privately run prisons holding criminal immigrants, a practice begun in Taft, California. The Obama administration planned to phase out their use, though the Trump administration could shift course.

Designed to serve up to 2,567 low-security, non-U.S.-citizen male inmates, the Adams County prison is operated by CoreCivic Inc., a firm formerly known as Corrections Corp. of America. The company challenges some of the audit’s findings, and notes the improvements underway.

“We are dedicated to our mission to advancing corrections through innovative solutions that benefit and protect all we serve,” the company stated in its official response.

The company was managing the facility at the time of the 2012 riot, during which one correctional officer died and about 20 staffers and inmates were injured. A Federal Bureau of Prisons after-action report found “deficiencies in staffing levels, staff experience, communication between staff and inmates, and CoreCivic’s intelligence systems,” the new report said.

“Four years after the riot, we were deeply concerned to find that the facility was plagued by the same significant deficiencies in correctional and health services and Spanish-speaking staffing,” the investigators wrote.

The investigators noted that in July 2015, the facility’s inmate population consisted of approximately 2,300 immigrants, predominately Mexican nationals, but only four of 367 staff members spoke fluent Spanish. The company offers “substantially lower pay and benefits” than comparable state or federal agencies, investigators noted further, adding that this contributed to “significantly higher turnover rates” and a corresponding lack of experienced staff.

The Office of Inspector General also calculated staffing levels in a different way than the private contractor, leading to different results than had been reported to the Bureau of Prisons.

“Staffing levels were lower than the levels represented by CoreCivic’s headcounts and were frequently lower than the BOP’s minimum staffing threshold,” investigators said. “We found similar issues regarding CoreCivic’s reporting of health services staffing.”

In its official response, the Bureau of Prisons agreed with the Office of Inspector General’s nine recommendations concerning the contracts and other observations.

CoreCivic challenged how the Office of Inspector General had calculated staffing but stressed that improvements are underway.

“Significant progress has been made regarding the recruitment and retention of facility staff and facilitation of communication at the facility, including actively recruiting more Spanish-speaking staff,” the company said in its Nov. 23 response.

The company added that “our health services team has aggressively recruited nurses and providers and, when vacancies persisted, launched a variety of other efforts to ensure timely and quality care to the inmates.”

Michael Doyle: 202-383-6153, @MichaelDoyle10