Editor’s Note: In a memo released August 18, the Justice Department instructed Bureau of Prisons officials to end or “substantially reduce” all of its contracts with private prison operators, according to the Washington Post. While state-level private prisons have received significant media scrutiny, Seth Freed Wessler’s investigation into the federal facilities—which are used exclusively for noncitizen inmates—offers a rare examination into the willful neglect that Yates’ memo acknowledges and seeks to finally end. Read the full series here.
From the roof of the mess hall, two prison guards at the Adams County Correctional Center watched in astonishment as dozens of protesting prisoners kicked and pulled at the gates below. Deborah Temple was working her regular shift at the sprawling Mississippi prison, but Catlin Carithers, 24, a member of the emergency-response team, had been called in when the protests began. Now, as the shouting below grew louder, Carithers handed Temple a gas canister and showed her how to use it.
Suddenly, dozens of inmates burst through the fence. Others commandeered a ladder and climbed to another roof in the compound. An order crackled over the radio: Deploy the gas. Carithers heaved a canister into the yard. “That is when all hell broke loose,” Temple says.
The prisoners who’d occupied the roof took two guards hostage. Men in the yard below wrapped shirts around their faces and lobbed a gas canister back up at Carithers. One inmate called a local television station, saying, “We’re trying to get better food, medical, programs, clothes, and we’re trying to get some respect.”
They were screaming in Spanish, which neither Carithers nor Temple could understand. Several were hoisting themselves onto the roof where the officers stood. The last thing Temple remembers before receiving a blow to her head was an inmate she knew from the mess hall saying, “Sergeant Temple, if you tell them to give us what we want, nothing will happen.” When she came to, the tear gas was thick. She could hear helicopters. She turned her head and saw Carithers lying prone a few yards away.
Temple was transported to a nearby hospital; she was one of 20 people injured that day in May 2012. At the hospital, a friend delivered the news: Carithers was dead. Temple sobbed. He was young enough to have been her son.
Three years later, Carithers’s parents, Brenda and Hugh, visited their son’s grave, in a cemetery behind the family’s church on a dirt road in Jefferson County. Brenda swept away dried leaves as Hugh rested his hand on the gravestone. “The prison,” Hugh said. “They knew something was going on there.”
The Adams County Correctional Center is a 2,500-bed federal prison, but the Federal Bureau of Prisons doesn’t run it. Adams is owned and operated by the Corrections Corporation of America, the country’s largest private-prison company, and it’s one of 12 private-prison facilities the BOP uses almost exclusively to hold noncitizens convicted of federal crimes. A third of these prisons are run by CCA.