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But while the Biden administration is ending contracts with private companies like the one operating the detention center, the Kansas facility and others like it are trying to get around the President’s directive and still collect federal money.
Activists say the moves amount to a broken campaign promise from the President.
“The Biden administration is literally allowing private prison companies to fill beds that were emptied out under the executive order with immigrant detainees,” said Eunice Cho, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU National Prison Project. “These companies are basically playing an end run around the executive order.”
Elsewhere, local or county governments are simply stepping in as middlemen, accepting federal funds to hold federal inmates and negotiating new contracts with the same private prison companies to get around the executive order.
The tactics have led to an uncertain future for prisons like the Leavenworth Detention Center, which was the first maximum-security federal private prison in the country when it opened three decades ago (and is separate from the more well-known government-run federal penitentiary nearby). The detention center’s contract, with the prison company CoreCivic, is set to expire at the end of next month.
Eight current and former correctional officers at Leavenworth told CNN the private jail was putting inmates and staff alike in danger — allegations that CoreCivic denied. Many of the officers argued the jail shouldn’t be allowed to stay open in any form.
“That facility really needs to be completely shut down,” said Shari Rich, who quit in July after almost 13 years working at the detention center. “Our families are very glad we’re out of there.”
Despite campaign promise, Biden order excluded ICE
Closing private prisons has been a long-standing goal for liberal activists — and Biden’s election put it within reach at the federal level.
The companies objected to Biden’s executive order, saying the reasoning behind it was flawed. “Our efforts are fully aligned with the administration’s goal to prioritize rehabilitation and redemption for individuals in our criminal justice system,” CoreCivic spokesperson Ryan Gustin said in an email. “The fact that we’ve worked with both Democrat and Republican administrations for the past four decades is a testament to the quality of the services we provide and the genuine need the government has for them.”
The prison companies are also adapting and expanding beyond the detention industry to continue raking in federal contracts. In a stark sign that Biden’s order hasn’t blunted their business, the two corporate private giants have been awarded more federal money per day during the Biden administration than during the Trump administration, according to a CNN analysis of federal contracting data.
Since Biden took office, the federal government has approved more than $888 million in direct payments to CoreCivic, the GEO Group and their subsidiaries — or about $3 million per day of Biden’s administration. That’s more than the $2.9 million per day of the Trump administration or $2.2 million per day of the Obama administration. Most of the Biden spending came from ICE.
In many cases, the Biden administration is fulfilling contracts originally signed by previous officials, not awarding new deals. But the spending shows how the private prison industry has adapted to the changing political climate: ICE has awarded more than $255 million in payments to a GEO Group subsidiary for ankle monitors and other monitoring services for immigrants in 2021, significantly more than the Trump administration paid for the same program. The monitoring program accounts for the largest private prison company payments of the Biden era.
“The idea of alternatives to detention is being more popularized and receiving support on a bipartisan basis,” Zoley said on the earnings call. “It’s cheaper and it’s effective, and the technology is being continuously improved.”
How prison companies are getting around executive order
Across the country, prison companies are trying to get around Biden’s executive order in two ways. In some cases, they are working to reopen private prisons as immigrant detention centers. Elsewhere, they are recruiting local governments to act as intermediaries, taking over prison contracts but then passing federal funds on to the private companies.
“It’s a very rare occasion when an entity closes and jobs are lost that you’re able to restore them within such a short time,” Sobel said.
Moshannon likely won’t be the only facility to see such a conversion — prison companies are exploring the possibility of reopening other closed prisons to hold immigrants, local officials around the US told CNN.
Jeff Huffman, the county executive, said that CoreCivic wanted “to use the county as a passthrough” for ICE, although the details are still being negotiated. He said he thought locals would support an immigrant detention center due to the economic impact of the facility remaining shuttered.
“I don’t know what you do with a closed prison that’s growing up in johnsongrass and weeds,” he said.
And in Big Spring, a small West Texas city that’s home to the GEO Group’s Big Spring Correctional Center, Mayor Shannon Thomason said his city has reached out to both ICE and the US Department of Health and Human Services about the possibility of converting the private prison into an immigrant detention center or a facility for unaccompanied immigrant minors after its contract expires at the end of this month.
“ICE has expressed an interest,” Thomason said. “If we do go as an immigrant detention facility, my intent is for it to be a model detention facility.”
With the prison closed, the town lost about 230 jobs, as well as $1.5 million a year in utilities and fees, according to local officials. Because of the lost revenue, the Hinton government cut one of its six police officer positions as well as its only code enforcer, said Shanon Pack, the town administrator.
But Jason Garner, the head of the local economic development agency that contracts with GEO to run the prison, said that the company’s proposal to revive the facility for ICE was a nonstarter.
GEO “wanted to use it as a processing facility for illegal immigrants,” Garner said. “They worked on a contract for that, but we didn’t like the idea because they were going to process the detainees and release some of them into the community.”
Activists blasted these maneuvers as a blatant strategy to get around Biden’s directive. “It goes against the spirit of the executive order and against the promises Biden made,” said Setareh Ghandehari, the advocacy director of the Detention Watch Network, an advocacy group.
The GEO Group did not respond to specific questions about its contracts but said in a statement that it was focused on providing “innovative, flexible, high-quality solutions that help our government agency partners address current and future support services and infrastructure needs.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment, and Department of Justice and Marshals Service spokespeople did not answer questions about why the contract extensions had been allowed.
“The Department of Justice is carefully examining its existing contracts with these facilities, while also taking care to avoid unnecessarily disrupting meaningful access to counsel, timely court appearances and case resolutions, and access to family visitation and support,” a spokesperson wrote in an email.
An ICE spokesperson said all facilities holding its detainees are “required to follow ICE’s stringent detention standards, which help ensure that all detainees are treated humanely.”
Failures at Leavenworth: ‘An absolute hellhole’
Just beyond the barbed wire fence that surrounds the Leavenworth Detention Center, a string of “NOW HIRING” yard signs and banners advertise a starting wage of $22.75 per hour.
But according to guards who work at the jail, which holds up to about 1,000 inmates for the Marshals Service, the recruitment effort is a sign of critical understaffing. In interviews with CNN, eight current and former correctional officers painted a picture of a violent, dangerous prison that spiraled out of control during the coronavirus pandemic.
The problems start with the jail’s most basic function: Many of the doors to individual cells simply didn’t lock, after being broken by inmates, all of the guards interviewed by CNN said. Ron Miller, the US marshal for Kansas, confirmed in an interview that broken cell door locks had been a problem in the facility earlier this year but said the issue had been fixed in recent months.
The prison has also faced near-constant understaffing, the employees say: Single officers would be assigned to staff areas that in past years would be covered by four or more guards, and several key security posts — known as pod control posts — regularly went unmanned.
Guards said weapons such as improvised shanks and drugs are rampant behind bars, with cell blocks often filled with the acrid smell of K2, a type of synthetic marijuana.
“Just walking down the hallway, it feels like you get a contact high,” said Justin Chmidling, who started as a guard in February 2019. He said he quit in September after the stress of working there made him physically ill.
The deadly cocktail of understaffing, drug use and weapons has led to an eruption of violence in recent years. Data provided by CoreCivic to a federal public defender, and included in an inmate’s motion for a sentence reduction, show that the number of assaults and uses of force has jumped from 2019 to 2020 and 2021. And Leavenworth Police Department data shows a similar increase in calls for service to the facility for reports of battery, assault and rape.
Former correctional officer William Rogers said he was assaulted seven times in the detention center over his four and a half years working there, including three times that sent him to the hospital. Documents he provided to CNN show that he and colleagues repeatedly warned CoreCivic higher-ups about violence and security oversights.
“Right now we seem to have lost control of the jail,” he wrote in one letter to his warden. ”Leaving these posts empty is putting staff at great risk,” he wrote in another report.
But he said that almost none of his missives received a response. “It’s about the profit for them. They don’t care to make it better,” he said in an interview. Rogers was fired last year for violating a use of force policy by pushing an inmate.
Wilson was being held at the CoreCivic facility for failing to show up to a halfway house after a previous prison stay. Wendi Anaya-Wilson, his widow, said he had described the prison as “total chaos,” telling her in phone calls that inmates “had to watch themselves and there was no guards and doors didn’t lock.”
“He was only looking at eight to 14 months, but what he got was the death penalty,” Anaya-Wilson said in an interview. She pulled up photos on her phone from the hospital showing her husband’s bruised and bloodied head — just above his tattoo of the couple’s names and faces.
In a statement, CoreCivic denied “specious and sensationalized allegations” that Leavenworth is violent or dangerous, arguing that criticism from former employees and activists is “designed to exert political pressure rather than to serve as an objective assessment” of the jail.
Federal officials overseeing the facility have made clear they’re aware of the problems.
“The only way I could describe it, frankly, what’s going on at CoreCivic right now is it’s an absolute hellhole,” Julie Robinson, the chief judge of the US district court for Kansas, declared during a September sentencing hearing, according to a transcript reviewed by CNN. A staffer for Robinson declined an interview request for her.
What’s next for Leavenworth?
With the Leavenworth contract set to expire at the end of December, the Marshals Service is starting to pull detainees out of the jail — but what comes next is still uncertain.
Miller, the US marshal for Kansas, said that most inmates are being relocated to a separate government-run federal prison in Leavenworth. Conditions have improved in the CoreCivic jail as the inmate population has decreased, he said.
Still, he said he would have recommended the contract not be renewed even if it weren’t for Biden’s order. “CoreCivic was not able to address it,” Miller said of the violence in the facility.
In Leavenworth, rumors are swirling about who that partner could be. Paul Kramer, the Leavenworth city manager, said he had heard that CoreCivic was exploring the possibility of reopening the jail as an ICE detention center. Several guards said that executives at the prison were still assuring employees in recent weeks that the jail would stay open. An ICE spokesperson declined to comment on whether the facility was being considered.
Any facility that’s transformed from a prison to an immigrant detention center would require major renovations. But in at least one past example, a troubled prison converted to hold immigrants continued to have problems after reopening in its new form.
“It’s a thousand-bed facility that will be sitting empty in a region that would be ripe for ICE to target,” Brett said. “As long as the government is going to continue to rely on detention, there is an opportunity for corporations to profit.”