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California Turns to Private Prison to Address Overcrowding and Medical Care

California has contracted with a private prison corporation to open a 260-bed women’s prison. But will a new prison address the overcrowding and medical neglect facing the state’s female prison population?

Rally at Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, California, January 26, 2013. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is converting Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW) into a men's prison in response to a US Supreme Court order to reduce overcrowding. Instead of releasing people and closing VSPW, they are squeezing over 1,000 women and transgender people into the two remaining women's prisons. (Photo: Daniel Arauz / Flickr)

To address overcrowding and inadequate medical care, California is once again turning to private prisons. This time, however, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) is planning to send women to a privately run prison.

In April, California contracted with GEO Group to open a 260-bed women’s prison in Bakersfield. The prison is scheduled to open in fall 2014, with the contract effective through June 30, 2018. The contract includes an opportunity for GEO Group to expand its prison by another 260 beds, which would increase the overall four-year revenue for the prison from $38,132,640 to $66,394,276. Unlike contracts for other privately-run prisons, this agreement does not include a lock-up quota. Instead, CDCR will pay for actual occupancy – $94.50 per person per day for each of the first 260 women sent to GEO Group’s McFarland Female Community Reentry facility. If the prison takes in more than 260 women, CDCR will pay $86.95 per day for each woman, i.e. the contract does provide CDRC with incentive to turn more women over to the prison.

“We find that the Central California Women’s Facility is not providing adequate medical care, and that there are systemic issues resulting in preventable morbidity and mortality and that present an ongoing serious risk of harm to patients.”

Women who are classified as minimum or medium custody and have 60 months or less of their sentence to serve will be eligible for transfer to the new prison once it opens. Those who have active or potential ICE holds, have convictions for violent felonies or who have served SHU (solitary confinement) terms within the last six months are ineligible.

Inside California’s Women’s Prisons

In 2011, the US Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its prison overcrowding. In response, the state has contracted with the for-profit Corrections Corporation of America to send male prisoners to out-of-state prisons in Arizona, Oklahoma and Mississippi. It began a program known as realignment, in which people convicted of lower-level non-serious, non-sexual offenses serve their sentences in county jails rather than state prisons. It also converted Valley State Prison for Women, one of three state prisons for women, into a men’s prison. Women were sent to the neighboring Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), the California Institution for Women (CIW) in Corona and a newly-opened 400-bed prison in Folsom. As of May 14, 2014, CCWF, originally built for 2004, is at 185 percent capacity with 3,700 women. CIW, built for 1,398, is at 150 percent capacity, with 2,101 women. The prison at Folsom holds 356 women.

The overcrowding has caused a strain on medical services in both CCWF and CIW. In December 2013, court medical experts released an evaluation of CCWF’s health care. “We find that the Central California Women’s Facility is not providing adequate medical care, and that there are systemic issues resulting in preventable morbidity and mortality and that present an on-going serious risk of harm to patients,” the evaluation stated. “We believe that the majority of problems are attributable to overcrowding, insufficient health-care staffing, and inadequate bed space.” In 2012, six deaths occurred at CCWF – five from terminal cancer and one from complications of end-stage liver disease. Seven deaths occurred at CCWF in 2013, including one from complications of sepsis (a potentially life-threatening complication of an infection). The medical experts noted several problems with the care of that particular patient, including medical staff’s failure to remove a catheter that had become unnecessary nine months earlier.

The report also noted serious problems with continuity of care for people transferred from Valley State to CCWF, problems with quality care for chronic diseases, a fragmented medical intake process resulting in a lack of identification and treatment of serious medical conditions, and an insufficient number of beds and providers in the prison’s Skilled Nursing Facility.

Overcrowding at CIW has also led to deteriorated medical conditions and an unusually high number of deaths. In 2013, five deaths occurred (compared to one death in 2012). According to the office of the federal receiver, which oversees medical care in California’s prisons, from January to April 2014, CIW has had five more deaths.

Alicia Thompson, also known as Gypsy to her friends, was one of those 10 women. On February 24,, 2014, her mother Margie received a phone call from the prison stating that her daughter had hung herself and that she had less than two weeks to claim her body. Margie, who had spoken to her daughter three days earlier, doesn’t believe her daughter committed suicide. “She called every week. She seemed happy,” she told Truthout. “But lots of things were happening in that prison. She told me that one girl passed away [a month earlier], but no one was talking about it.”

The GEO Group has a history that includes sexual abuse and poor medical care in its jails and prisons.

Jayda Rasberry worked in the kitchen with Thompson when they were both incarcerated at Valley State Prison. She also doesn’t believe that Thompson committed suicide. “She was a very fun person. She never talked about hurting herself,” she told Truthout. “We all had our feelings about being inside, but she wasn’t a depressed person.” Rasberry was also close friends with 32-year-old Shadae Schmidt, who died the following month of a heart attack. On February 3, 2014, while in CIW’s solitary confinement unit, Schmidt suffered a stroke. She was taken to the hospital and, within two weeks, returned to solitary confinement. “She had had strokes before, but she had been getting help for that,” Rasberry recalled. “But once she was moved from VSPW, she was given the wrong medication.”

After her return to CIW following her stroke, Schmidt was given medications that made her sick. She died of a heart attack on March 13, 2014.

Family members have reported that their loved ones have complained about staff harassment and brutality. One relative shared a letter from a loved one at CIW:

I was returning to my cell when a staff member appeared out of nowhere. She grabbed my wrist and started dragging me behind her down the hall. She was yelling “You do not belong out here.” It was not necessary to use force on me. I would have went to her or stopped walking had she asked me to. I have put in a complaint but I fear now they will start messing with me or allow another inmate to beat me.

A woman recently released from CIW told Truthout that staff members have been targeting masculine-appearing women in particular. “They don’t have to do anything,” she said. “Even a woman just asking for more tampons will get them pepper sprayed.”

In addition, the overcrowding has led to more frequent lockdowns. In a letter to her family member, another woman at CIW reported, “Everyone is locked down every day for 22 hours a day. We have no visitation or time outside, just another way to have us in lock down 23 hours a day. I am becoming so depressed, I just don’t know how much more I can stand.”

Will Contracting with GEO Group Prevent More Deaths?

CDCR spokeswoman Krissi Khokhobashvili told The Los Angeles Times that overcrowding in the women’s prisons will drop to 140 percent of capacity when McFarland takes in 520 women. But, while conditions at CIW and CCWF may bolster CDCR’s argument that a new prison will relieve prison overcrowding and its accompanying problems, GEO Group has a history that includes sexual abuse and poor medical care in its jails and prisons.

She was labeled a snitch and forced into a man’s cell, where she was raped.

According to Caroline Isaacs, the Arizona program director of the American Friends Service Committee, private prisons frequently cherrypick the people they will house, eschewing those who need chronic medical care. Given that women’s health care is costlier to address, private prison corporations often avoid opening women’s prisons. The agreement between California and GEO Group specifies that the women sent to the McFarland facility must be classified as low medical risks. To qualify for transfer, women must: not require daily nursing care; have no mental health history within the past six months; have no unresolved dental conditions; and have an anticipated need for fewer than four basic consultations per year. But even with these criteria, people inside GEO facilities face medical neglect and death.

In 2004, at the GEO-run Val Verde County Jail in Texas, a woman named LeTisha Tapia also hung herself. The guards at the jail, which housed both men and women, allowed them to have sex with each other. Tapia reported this to the warden, who did nothing. Word spread about Tapia’s action. She was labeled a snitch and forced into a man’s cell, where she was raped.

She was then further abused by prison staff. According to a 2006 press release from the Texas Civil Rights Project, which filed a suit on behalf of Tapia’s family after her death, “The night before she died, Mrs. Tapia was abused by a guard. Lieutenant Duggar interrogated Mrs. Tapia about a rules violation by forcing her to her knees and kicking her. He threatened her with rape, telling her ‘If you were my cellmate, I’d make you my bitch.’ He called her a ‘low-life prostitute ho’ and told her she would spend the next 15 years in jail. He ordered three female officers to strip-search Mrs. Tapia and watched as they made her expose herself to him. Although she told Lt. Duggar she would kill herself if placed in administrative segregation, Duggar threw Mrs. Tapia into a segregation cell and left her there, naked, without blankets for the entire night. Jail policy requires that every inmate see a psychiatrist before being placed in administrative segregation, but Mrs. Tapia never saw a doctor. The jail guards failed to inspect her cell every 15 minutes (as required by policy), and Mrs. Tapia was found hanging in her cell that night.”

In 2007, Val Verde County and GEO Group agreed to pay $200,000 to settle the lawsuit filed by Tapia’s family. The settlement agreement also required the local government to hire an independent monitor for the jail.

In 2009, prisoners at GEO-operated Reeves County Detention Center in Texas rioted over conditions, including poor medical care and multiple deaths, including that of 32-year-old Jesus Manuel Galindo, who died after suffering a seizure while in solitary confinement. Prison staff had placed Galindo in solitary for complaining about the prison’s failure to provide him with medication needed to control his epileptic seizures. In 2010, the ACLU filed suit on behalf of Galindo’s family.

In 2012, while at the GEO-run Adelanto Detention Facility East, 58-year-old Fernando Dominguez-Valivia died of complications from pneumonia. An inspection report by the US Department of Homeland Security noted that his death, while the first for that facility, had been preventable. “The investigation disclosed several egregious errors committed by medical staff, including failure to perform proper physical examinations in response to symptoms and complaints, failure to pursue any records critical to continuity of care, and failure to facilitate timely and appropriate access to off-site treatment,” stated the report.

More recently, people incarcerated at GEO-run ICE detention centers in Tacoma, Washington, and in Conroe, Texas, have staged mass hunger strikes to demand an end to mass deportations as well as to protest conditions inside, including poor medical care, overcrowding and unjust treatment.

Alternatives to Overcrowding or New Prisons?

In 2011, California enacted its Alternative Custody Program (ACP) allowing women convicted of non-violent offenses with less than two years of their sentence remaining to complete their sentences at home on an ankle monitor. Three years later, advocacy group California Coalition for Women Prisoners wrote an open letter to the state’s Select Committee on Justice Reinvestment about the failure of the program to significantly reduce the women’s prison population, noting that less than 400 women have actually been released.

“That’s 260 people that could access the Alternative Custody Program and be allowed to go home instead.”

“Without significant retooling, even should the state proceed with expansion of the program without revising some of the current policies such as the timeline of application process and expanding the eligibility requirements for participants, the state cannot fully realize the implied cost savings and population reduction,” wrote Misty Rojo, the Coalition’s program coordinator. Under the current guidelines, applicants who have a “current psychiatric or medical condition that requires ongoing care” may be denied access to ACP. However, in a phone interview with Truthout, Rojo noted that the application process includes applying for MediCal so that a woman has health insurance once she is released. “If they’re going to have access to MediCal, then they shouldn’t be denied based on the need for ongoing care,” she stated. She also pointed out that if ACP were expanded to include men, the state’s in-prison population would decrease substantially.

CDCR’s Female Offender Programs and Services office, which oversees the ACP, has not yet responded to queries.

“The new for-profit GEO prison contract and ACP are both ways that CDCR are using to claim they can relieve overcrowding despite historical evidence that creating more bed space means creating more prisons that will soon be overcrowded,” Rojo told Truthout. “CDCR refuses to work with advocates to create an ACP that actually allows the access and population reductions it was intended. GEO is a prison where there is no oversight and little information except these are for profit, not rehabilitation, and people in women’s prisons will find themselves suffering the same destructions of family and community in a different prison setting.”

She also noted that GEO’s new prison will initially open with 260 beds and that the criteria for placement in ACP and GEO Group’s prison are essentially the same. “That’s 260 people that could access the Alternative Custody Program and be allowed to go home instead,” she stated. That sentiment is echoed by others who have spent time in California’s prison system.

Krystal (Krys) Shelley, who spent 12 and a half years in California’s prison system, was friends with both Shadae Schmidt and Alicia Thompson. Although she was released from Valley State Prison before its conversion to a men’s prison, she remains in contact with those who were moved to CIW. “Building another prison is not going to stop the deaths,” she told Truthout. “Building another prison is not the solution to all the problems as to why we’re in prison. They think that our lives aren’t valid.”

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