Suffering in Private

Seth Freed Wessler’s article “A Plague of Private-Prison Deaths” [July 4/11] selectively presents information and lacks critical context that would have given readers a more balanced, informed understanding of the relationship between private contractors and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The writer first fails to account for the unique challenges of delivering health care to prison populations. As the Pew Charitable Trusts has highlighted, prison populations are aging and have greater prevalence of infection, chronic disease, mental illness, and substance abuse. Many inmates—often with little or no prior access to the health-care system—enter prison with these serious health issues, where they benefit significantly from regular health-care access. It’s important to understand those challenges, because they aren’t exclusive to private prisons.

In fact, recent mainstream-media coverage details some of the federal government’s own challenges with staffing for medical services, none of which the writer includes in his piece. The writer didn’t approach this story with journalistic integrity, objectivity, or balance. He stated his biased, uninformed premise on a crowd-funding page in February before even writing the story, and then tailored it to fit that premise.

No corrections system—public or private—is immune to the challenges of safely and securely housing inmate populations. However, it’s important to view those challenges in an appropriate, reasonable context, which the writer doesn’t provide. Corrections Corporation of America, GEO Group, and Management & Training Corporation have partnered with the bureau for decades. Federal, state, and local agencies find great value in our flexible, cost-effective partnerships, and our independently accredited facilities comply with all of the government’s contractual requirements and standards for safety, security, and health care. Without companies like ours, federal agencies would have to make extremely difficult decisions about how to manage populations and provide capacity.

Steve Owen, CCA
Pablo Paez, GEO Group
Mike Murphy, MTC

Advisers, The Public-Private Partnership Alliance

Seth Freed Wessler Replies

My investigation of privately operated federal prisons is based on a detailed review of 30,000 pages of internal federal records, obtained through FOIA requests, and interviews with current and former BOP officials and private-prison medical staff. The first story, “Separate, Unequal, and Deadly” [Feb. 15] began with thousands of pages of prison medical files pertaining to 103 inmates who died while held in privately managed facilities. Independent medical doctors reviewed each file. They documented systemic inadequacies and found evidence that at least two dozen men likely died prematurely as a result of seriously substandard care. The companies do not dispute these findings.

The second story, which elicited the above letter—sent only after the companies declined to fully answer detailed written questions in advance of publication—revealed that the federal government’s own monitors had for years flagged the same systemic lapses in privatized prisons. Twenty thousand pages of internal BOP reports document private operators violating state nursing laws, prisons operating without doctors, and prisons failing to promptly call 911 or provide proper infectious-disease care. They also document 34 inmate deaths in the wake of substandard care. Even when warned by the bureau, the companies failed to fix these issues.

The provision of health care in prisons does create “challenges.” But my reporting and the government’s own monitors reveal that the BOP’s private-prison operators often failed to meet baseline levels of care for the people they are paid to hold. The men that I wrote about did not, as the companies suggest, “benefit significantly from regular health-care access.” They died from the lack of it.

Seth Freed Wessler
new york city

An Ounce of Prevention

Re: Sonia Shah’s “Attack of the Superbugs” [July 4/11]: Please note that the White House’s Cancer Moonshot Initiative has always prioritized prevention; it is the first charge mentioned in President Obama’s memorandum on the task force. Our prevention focus is not in response to the letter from university public-health departments; they were pushing on an open door.
Greg Simon
Executive director, White House Cancer Moonshot Task Force

washington, d.c.

Sonia Shah Replies

Perhaps so—but even a casual reading of the memorandum outlining the Cancer Moonshot Initiative would suggest otherwise. The stated mission of the task force is to create “medical products and medical care related to cancer”; there is no mention of preventing cancer by regulating cancer-causing industries. Nor does the expertise assembled on the task force point it toward pursuing such preventive strategies. More than half of its members are leaders of the biomedical establishment—from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health to the Food and Drug Administration—whose job is to churn out biomedical breakthroughs and license new drugs and vaccines. They are not the experts we need to rein in the fast-food, tobacco, and liquor industries, whose products are implicated in two-thirds of cancers in the United States.

It’s true that the memorandum mentions the word “prevention” in passing twice. But even in terms of language, the bias toward industry-friendly cancer treatments rather than prevention is clear: The word “treatment” appears five times, “care” four times, and “cure” twice.

Sonia Shah

Pulsing With Love

The July 4/11 edition of The Nation is one of your best! Everything about it was informative and tender. My heart was especially touched by the cover—wow! I am keeping that list of the congressional recipients of NRA money. I will call all of them! I have written a basic script to recite to each one that incorporates your words “blood on your hands.” Thank you for another truth-to-power moment. To paraphrase Jimi Hendrix: When the power of love overcomes the love of power, then we will be at peace.
Diana Black
roanoke, va.


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