James Neal is a short, muscular man with close-cropped hair who has spent the past twelve years behind bars for armed robbery. He is also one of the most valuable commodities to trade hands in Youngstown, Ohio, since the steel industry abandoned the city more than a decade ago. In 1997 Neal was among the first “loads” of inmates bused from the District of Columbia to a new prison run by Corrections Corporation of America, the world’s largest operator of for-profit lockups. CCA stood to make $182 million guarding the prisoners, and Youngstown-area residents lined up to apply for hundreds of jobs with the company. Those who toured the prison before it opened were assured they need not worry about the supply of out-of-state inmates. “If one of them dies,” a company tour guide said, “they’ll send another one.”
The day after Neal arrived, a few of his fellow prisoners argued with guards about their treatment. Although the warden later admitted that no one was in danger and no property was threatened, CCA responded to the inmate complaints by dropping canisters of tear gas designed for outdoor use into four cellblocks. As hundreds of blinded and choking prisoners gasped for air, a team of black-uniformed officers in full riot gear known as the “Goon Squad” handcuffed them, beat them and sprayed them in the face with Mace. “It was kind of like a war atmosphere,” says Neal, wearing a dark-green prison uniform. “You could hear the canisters whistling down and exploding–whump! No life or limb or property was at stake. CCA just overreacted. I thought, ‘Damn, they could have killed me.'”
The excessive use of force proved to be a prelude to stark mistreatment at Youngstown. The medium-security prison was actually taking many maximum-security inmates, and the inexperienced CCA guards were ill prepared to handle the volatile mix. More than twenty prisoners were stabbed in the first ten months, and two died from their wounds. At least seven inmates died from medical conditions, and the company’s own audit showed that the prison provided inadequate care to hundreds of prisoners. After Neal and other prisoners filed a class-action lawsuit over substandard treatment and excessive force, CCA once again ordered the riot squad into the cellblocks, forcing inmates to strip, parade naked in front of female staff and lie on the concrete floors for hours while their cells were searched. “I felt like I was on a slave ship,” Neal recalls. “I never felt anything so humiliating in my entire life.”
Public officials paid scant attention to the abuse of prisoners, however, until the danger began spilling over the razor-wire fence surrounding the prison. Last July six inmates escaped in broad daylight by cutting through the fence–a technique they had routinely practiced in front of guards, snipping the wire to trip the alarms and then running back into crowds of inmates playing softball on a nearby field. After the breakout Ohio Governor George Voinovich called for the prison to be closed and Attorney General Janet Reno ordered a federal investigation.
The abuses at Youngstown are scarcely isolated incidents. Since The Nation reported on CCA last year [see “Prisons for Profit,” January 5, 1998], the company has experienced more than its share of prisoner escapes and brutality by guards. Coming so close together, the repeated misconduct underscores the way private prisons cut corners at the expense of workers, prisoners and the public: