For nearly two decades, the Bureau of Prisons has contracted with a handful of private companies to incarcerate thousands of non-U.S. citizens serving time for low-level federal offenses. Held in a dozen so-called “criminal alien requirement” prisons largely concentrated in remote, rural areas, the inmates in private custody are, for the most part, locked up for immigration offenses or drug violations.

CAR facilities have been the target of sustained criticism from advocacy organizations, which argue that their existence reflects a two-tiered federal prison system that outsources a select population of inmates to contractors with a track record of abuse and neglect. In August, it seemed that years of pressure had finally paid off, when the Justice Department announced it would begin phasing out private prisons.

Under the DOJ directive, the facilities — which “do not maintain the same level of safety and security” as their BOP-run counterparts, according to Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates — would see their contracts reduced or allowed to expire without renewal and the inmates in their custody transferred.

Within hours of the announcement, the stocks of industry heavyweights Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group plummeted more than 35 percent. The Department of Homeland Security pledged to undertake a review of its own reliance on for-profit detention centers, and CCA and GEO shareholders filed class-action lawsuits accusing the companies of false or misleading statements about the safety of their facilities. In October, CCA embarked on a re-branding campaign, changing its name to CoreCivic.

While advocates applauded the DOJ memo as a long-overdue step in the right direction, the momentum was short-lived.

On November 9, as it became clear that Donald Trump had defeated Hillary Clinton in the race for the presidency, Fortune declared private prisons “the biggest (stock market) winner in Trump’s victory,” noting a 49 percent surge in CCA stock. In the weeks that followed, Trump would tap Jeff Sessions as his choice for attorney general. Not only could Sessions, a famously hardline figure on issues of immigration and criminal justice, undo the DOJ’s directive, but the plans promoted by Trump and his advisers threaten to drastically increase the number of people held by companies that have repeatedly demonstrated the conflict of profit motive when it comes to depriving people of physical liberty.

“I do think we can do a lot of privatizations and private prisons,” Trump said on the campaign trail earlier this year. “It seems to work a lot better.”

As the policies of the president-elect come into focus, it’s worth revisiting one of the incidents that prompted the DOJ’s resolve to cut ties with the industry in the first place — a deadly clash at a low-security, CCA-run facility on the outskirts of Natchez, Mississippi, that reflects how private prisons not only endanger inmates, but can also force low-wage workers from economically depressed communities into perilous circumstances.

In May 2012, inmates at Adams County Correctional Center staged a protest over a litany of grievances, including claims that men had died in custody as a result of medical negligence. Though CCA officials were forewarned that dire conditions had bred a sense of desperation in the prison, they failed to prevent the escalation that followed.

Mississippi Prison Riot

Officers stand on the roof and outside the gates of Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, Mississippi, during a disturbance on May 20, 2012.

Photo: Lauren Wood/AP Photos/The Natchez Democrat

May 20, 2012, was supposed to be Deborah Temple’s last day at work before a long-awaited vacation. A resolute 48-year-old with a blond Jane Fonda haircut, Temple had worked in what she calls “men’s jobs” all her life. When the plywood mill that employed her for more than 15 years closed down, she heard rumors about a prison being built next to the highway leading out of Natchez.

By 2009, construction of the multimillion-dollar complex was complete, and CCA secured a federal contract to house inmates at the facility. “A signature on the dotted line hundreds of miles away Wednesday makes today a new day for Adams County,” cheered a local newspaper, the Natchez Democrat, noting the deal would “bring more than $1.2 million in property taxes, $1.8 million in utilities, and 400 jobs to the Natchez area.”

CCA, now CoreCivic, runs three of the country’s CAR prisons; seven are run by the GEO Group and another two by Management and Training Corp. Like many of the isolated areas where CAR prisons operate, Adams County had a poverty rate about twice the national average. When CCA hosted its job fair in Natchez, more than 3,000 people lined up for 409 jobs.

“We thought it was a federal prison … and we were under the impression that they would pay like $20 an hour,” Temple said when we met last year, in the closed bar of a casino by the Mississippi River. She was hired as a correctional officer in 2010, starting at $12.60 an hour. “Pretty good for here,” she told me. Later, she was promoted to sergeant.

Natchez, Mississippi

The intersection of North Union and Franklin streets in Natchez, Mississippi, in January 2015. Several buildings in this downtown shopping area are boarded up.

Photo: Janosch Delcker

By 2011, the Adams prison held more than 2,500 inmates, the majority of them from Mexico. About a third of the men were serving time for immigration offenses, such as unlawful re-entry, and 99 percent would be deported when they completed their sentence.

Until relatively recently, migrants detained at the U.S. border could often voluntarily return to their home countries without penalty. In the mid-2000s, however, federal programs like Operation Streamline ramped up criminal prosecution of unlawful border crossing, saddling people with jail or prison time prior to deportation. Between 2005 and 2013, prosecution of border offenses tripled; last year, improper entry and re-entry made up 49 percent of all federal prosecutions.

According to federal investigations into the Adams riot, a group of Mexican inmates known as the Paisas, or “countrymen,” exercised considerable influence inside the facility, where only a fraction of the employees spoke Spanish. If inmates had complaints, they would consult with their Paisa representatives, who conveyed their concerns to prison management. In the weeks leading up to May 20, tensions had apparently risen within the group. “The Paisas felt their leadership was ineffective at communicating their grievances to prison officials since their complaints had gone unaddressed for so long,” stated an FBI affidavit later filed in cases related to the incident.

The Intercept reached out to former Adams inmates who are now serving time on charges of rioting in a federal correctional facility. Responding in letters in Spanish, several described the unrest as primarily the result of conditions they felt had become increasingly dangerous and intolerable, including medical neglect, excessive use of segregation, spoiled food, a lack of interpreters, and mistreatment by staff. The Intercept is not naming the inmates who responded because of concerns about possible retaliation in their present facilities.

“The inmates tried, though no one paid attention, to discuss the poor nutrition, with food that had already expired and medical care that was scarce and so bad prisoners were getting worse and worse,” one of the men wrote. He described COs wielding time in the prison’s “special housing unit” as a threat against inmates who spoke out or as punishment for minor disciplinary infractions: “Whenever anyone complained, officers beat him and put him into segregation, the SHU, and submitted a report it had happened because of disobedience or lack of respect for an officer.”

Another former Adams inmate complained of officers using slurs like “wetback” and said inmates had died in custody because of medical malpractice. “I understand that we are paying for our mistakes, but this doesn’t mean that we cease to be human beings,” he wrote. “Here they want to treat us as animals simply for being foreigners.”

“I don’t understand why they separate us from the rest of the prisoners who are citizens of this country,” a third inmate wrote in a letter. “If we commit the same crimes and are judged under the same laws, I believe it would be just if they did not make the distinction of putting us in different prisons.”

“At our BOP-contracted facilities, every person is subject to the same rules and disciplinary procedures, which conform to BOP policy,” CCA spokesperson Jonathan Burns wrote in an email to The Intercept. Responding to the allegations, he noted that CCA “employs a robust grievance process, including an available toll-free number, through which inmates can share any concerns or complaints. We work to address these claims quickly and appropriately.”

Burns added that the company “is dedicated to providing consistent, high-quality healthcare to the individuals entrusted in our care” and “meals in CCA facilities meet or exceed required nutritional standards.”

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Adams County Correctional Center.

Source: Google Earth

Angélica Moreno’s brother was imprisoned at Adams, and in her view, the facility’s failure to address his deteriorating health contributed to his death. Though her brother, Juan Villanueva, was born in Mexico, he grew up in Los Angeles, where the family had moved when he was 4 years old.

In 2008, Villanueva was deported back to Mexico, a country with which he had limited familiarity. It wasn’t long before he set out to return to Los Angeles. “He was lonely,” Moreno explained. “The rest of our family is all [U.S.] citizens.”

Villanueva was arrested by a Border Patrol officer near San Diego and pleaded guilty to being a “deported alien found in the United States.” He was sentenced to 41 months in federal prison, and though he requested placement in California, the BOP sent him to the privately operated facility in Mississippi.

During his time there, Villanueva called his mother and told her he was suffering from shortness of breath. He was denied access to a physician, according to Moreno, who says a prison nurse advised her brother he had the flu.

“My mom said, ‘You should go to the doctor,’” Moreno told The Intercept. “And he said, ‘Mom, I have been going, but they just give me pain medication for the cold. But this is not just a cold, this is something else, I don’t feel good.’ So my mom was telling him, ‘Juan, please go tell them again.’”

“I’ve been going, and they don’t care,” Moreno remembers her brother insisting. “They say I am not the only one sick in there.” Only after Villanueva started coughing up blood, Moreno said, was he finally taken to see a doctor in Natchez.

Moreno’s account of the lapses in her brother’s care is supported by BOP monitoring records obtained by Nation journalist Seth Freed Wessler. Over a four-month period, Villanueva went to the prison’s clinic on six different occasions, The Nation reported, but was never granted access to a doctor. His weight dropped 25 pounds during his imprisonment. Even after nurses recorded Villanueva “vomiting up copious amounts of blood,” an order was put in for anti-nausea medication and days passed before he was finally taken to the hospital.

Villanueva had been suffering from lung cancer, which eventually spread to his brain.

A few days before the May 2012 uprising, he was transferred out of Adams to a BOP medical facility in North Carolina. His family members flew out to care for him, Moreno said, but they were prohibited from staying with him overnight in the facility. When her brother died, early on the morning of July 11, 2012, she was notified when the medical prison called their hotel room. “The cause of death was determined to be non-small cell lung cancer with brain metastasis,” the warden confirmed in a court filing.

“It just went on and on and on,” Moreno said of the delays in her brother’s care, “until he was really sick.”

Burns, the CCA spokesperson, declined to comment on Villanueva’s case. “Medical privacy laws and other conditions prohibit us from addressing specific inmates’ medical conditions,” he wrote in an email, adding:

The Adams County Correctional Center employs a wide range of medical professionals including doctors, nurses, laboratory staff, dentists and mental health professionals who see around 350 patients on an average day. As was the case in 2012, the medical department is fully equipped for routine visits and medical emergencies. The facility’s sick call system continues to be open to all inmates who are not feeling well and is conducted on a daily basis, similar to a walk-in clinic.

Burns would not provide information on how many doctors the prison employed. “CCA does not disclose specific staffing patterns due to competitive and secure operational concerns,” he told The Intercept.

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Adams County Correctional Center on the outskirts of Natchez, Mississippi.

Photo: Janosch Delcker

 On May 19, the day before the riot, the Adams assistant chief of security, John Vanek, appears to have received information from an inmate informant about plans being orchestrated to bring the prisoners’ complaints before the warden.

“Its more serious than you think,” the informant wrote in a text message reviewed by The Intercept. “Tomorrow will be 2 meetings at 1200 pm all heads of states with his group, to [listen] to demands. At 6pm all states will meet at big [rec yard] who don’t go will be punish we talk about 1600 inmates.”

The informant later forwarded the exchange to Alex Friedmann, the managing editor of Prison Legal News and associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center, who provided the messages to The Intercept. Friedmann began work as an advocate for prisoners’ rights after serving time in a CCA facility in the 1990s. The messages are also referenced in two federal investigations into the riot, one conducted by the BOP and the other by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

 

“They will present to the warden all the changes to be make and if not [comply] will burn the place down,” the informant’s text message continued. “I was in 3 meetings tonight and trust me is The real deal. I saw the paper with all demands and goes from medical, kitchen food, programs recreations and laundry. The new rep [said] warden dont accept the demands he will order all workers to stop. Will be a pacific demonstration but if the staff [interfere] will get ugly. Get ready is serious.”

Warden Vance Laughlin.

Source: CCA

The BOP and OSHA reports indicate that details of the plan were passed along the same night to CCA officials. According to the OSHA investigation, on the night of May 19, the assistant chief of security texted the prison’s warden, Vance Laughlin, warning of a mandatory meeting the inmates had planned for the following day. The BOP after-action report notes that “the administration learned approximately 1,700 Mexican national inmates planned to conduct a group meeting the morning of May 20.”

The informant’s messages also suggested that inmates had compiled a “black list” of staff they no longer wanted to work at the Adams facility, including Catlin Carithers, a 24-year-old correctional officer. FBI affidavits related to the incident mention the existence of the alleged list, though they do not include Carithers by name. In legal filings, CCA acknowledged only that “an inmate told a facility employee that it was serious” and that “3 unnamed COs were on a black list and any officer that disrespected an inmate would be punished.”

When Warden Laughlin arrived on the morning of May 20, he spoke to several inmate reps but did not find indicators that “a prison disturbance was brewing,” according to the OSHA investigation. Around lunchtime, Carithers was asked to report to the facility, though he had not been scheduled to work that day.

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Excerpt from a report by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration into the riot at Adams County Correctional Center.

Photo: Janosch Delcker

For lunch that Sunday, typically called “chow,” the kitchen served chicken. “Chicken is usually a crazy day, everyone wants chicken,” Temple recalled. However, “chow went pretty smooth.” Afterward, she went out to the parking lot to smoke a cigarette. Inside, a procedure called “open move” began, when inmates could move freely between their housing units, the recreation yards, and the gym. Upon entering the yards, the men broke into groups and began holding meetings.

Out in the parking lot, Temple heard the voice of a colleague, Peggy Stevens, on her radio. “We had just gotten through chow,” Stevens told The Intercept, when she noticed a group of inmates escorting one of the old Paisa reps, apparently against his will. “I asked him what he was doing, and he said, ‘They’re making me go to SHU,’” Stevens said. According to the BOP after-action report, Paisa members believed the reps had alerted the administration of their plans and were trying to remove them from the yard. Stevens called Central Control and asked the security systems operators to close the internal gates along the facility’s central corridor, known as Main Street. When Temple returned from the parking lot, she found Main Street crowded with men, many wearing sunglasses or head wraps in an attempt to disguise their identity.

Sometime later, a large group of inmates made their way to a gate below the building that housed Central Control, where they demanded to speak to Warden Laughlin. They did not comply with orders to disperse echoing over the intercom system.

Though Temple had not been trained to respond to high-risk situations, she said, she joined a member of CCA’s “special operations response team,” or SORT, on the roof of the Central Control building. Up there, she had a view of the prison grounds. It was around 2:30 p.m., according to OSHA, when Carithers arrived at the facility. He joined Temple on the roof, while their colleague ducked inside to change into his tactical gear. “Don’t let Cat go crazy, play gung ho,” Temple recalled the SORT member saying before leaving.

As the temperature climbed to 88 degrees, Carithers, who had also received SORT training, opened a bag and showed Temple different types of tear gas grenades. They put on gas masks.

Though accounts differ on what prompted the order to deploy tear gas, once the officers on the rooftops began using gas against the crowd below, the tenor of the protest changed. “After the deployment of tear gas is when the disturbance became violent,” the OSHA investigation stated. Temple had the same recollection. “That’s when it started going crazy.”

In letters to The Intercept, inmates convicted of participating in the riot accused administrators of escalating the situation by giving the order to deploy tear gas. “It was the officials who initiated the dispute, attacking prisoners on orders from the captain. That’s when the population rebelled,” wrote one man. “The real culprits were the administration who did not give importance to the complaints and suggestions of prisoners, creating a critical situation for both inmates and officers.”

On the roof, Temple realized the tear gas wasn’t doing much good. Men on the ground were throwing the canisters back toward them, along with stones, soda cans, and kitchen trays. “Cat looks like the guy from the Matrix,” she thought as she watched Carithers dodge projectiles. Then, she remembers, she saw a head come into view off the edge of the building. The FBI later concluded that inmates had piled up lunch carts from the dining hall and used them to reach the roof.

“The next thing I knew was there were two inmates standing in front of us,” Temple said. One man, holding a boat paddle the kitchen staff used to stir food, told her to tell management “to give us what we want” and nobody would get hurt, Temple recalled. Before she could reply, the second man started to hit her with an industrial buffet pan. She said she tried to defend herself, but the younger man outmuscled her. Temple blacked out, collapsing onto a grating on the roof.

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Excerpt from a report by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration depicting the aftermath of the riot at Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, Mississippi.

Photo: Janosch Delcker

Rebecca Scott and her husband, Robert Scott, both correctional officers, watched the fight unfolding above them. They were hunkered down with a third officer in a “safe zone” off Main Street, a cage into which employees can retreat when they feel unsafe. According to the FBI, one of the inmates on the roof had thrown down a set of keys and other equipment. “We got to get out of here,” Rebecca remembers thinking.

They unlocked the cage and had to use a hole under the fence to try to get to one of the housing units along Main Street. “Central, please let us in, please let us in,” Rebecca remembers screaming. But the gate remained shut. “On the radio, they said, ‘We can’t open the gate,’” she told me.

The next thing she remembers was her husband lying on the ground, his head bleeding. Later, the FBI showed the Scotts a video recorded by a nearby security camera. According to Robert, a group of inmates who gained access to the area with a key hit him with a broom handle, a mop handle, and a commercial cookie sheet. While Rebecca tried to defend her husband, the attackers broke three of Robert’s ribs and fractured his skull. “It seemed like forever,” he told me.

Peggy Stevens, who had been stationed with another CO on the roof of a housing unit when the chaos broke out, was among several officers held hostage during the disturbance. She was taken to a recreation yard, where Stevens said that inmates instructed her to relay messages over her radio to prison management. She emphasized numerous times during our interview that there were inmates who protected her during this time. Indeed, according to OSHA, “several of the officers told stories of being protected from harm from other inmates by inmates during the disturbance.”

“They said the warden wouldn’t listen to them. Their complaints were mainly about medical and the food,” Stevens recalled. “They said the warden had promised to meet with them over and over and he wouldn’t meet with them. That’s what they said: Maybe the warden would listen now.”

Smoke rises above the Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, Miss., Sunday, May 20, 2012, during an inmate disturbance at the prison. A guard at the southwest Mississippi prison died Sunday and several other employees were injured during what the facility's private operator is calling "an inmate disturbance" that continued into the evening.  (AP Photos/The Natchez Democrat, Lauren Wood)

Smoke rises above Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, Mississippi, during a disturbance on May 20, 2012.

Photo: Lauren Wood/AP/The Natchez Democrat

When Temple regained consciousness, her gas mask had been pulled off and she was lying on the roof of the prison. Her nose was broken, the skin around her eyes swollen. Tear gas filled the air around her. She pulled up the shirt of her uniform and used the fabric to cover her nose and mouth.

To her right, Temple could see Carithers, lying with his head facedown.

“Catlin,” she remembers calling out. “Just lift your hand up if you can hear me!”

No response.

“Just tell me something!”

Carithers didn’t move.

Catlin-Carithers-web

Catlin Carithers.

Photo: Adams County Correctional Center

Temple’s keys and radio were gone. The inmates must have taken them, she thought, but they had overlooked the phone in her pocket. She called Central Control and told them Carithers wasn’t responding — someone had to get them off the roof. In the late afternoon Mississippi heat, she started praying.

Around 5 p.m., a reporter for a Jackson TV station received a call from a man who said he was an inmate at the Adams facility. He sent her cellphone photos from inside the prison gates. “They always beat us. We just pay them back,” the TV station reported him saying. “We’re trying to get better food, medical (care), programs, clothes, and we’re trying to get some respect from the officers and lieutenants.”

Around the same time, Temple and Carithers were extracted from the roof of the Central Control building, according to the BOP report. Temple recalled the sound of helicopters in the distance, then a large shadow that blocked the light. She recognized the voice of a co-worker. “Cat is hurt real bad,” she said he told her. “We have to get you down.” After Temple was transferred to an ambulance, she overheard someone say that Carithers wasn’t going to make it.

A few miles farther north, Josey Carithers, Catlin’s younger brother, got a call on his cellphone. It was Catlin’s fiancée, who was frantic. She’d heard from an acquaintance there had been a riot at the prison and Catlin was hurt. Josey called the two hospitals he knew in Natchez. His brother wasn’t at the first; when he reached the receptionist at the second, she told him it’d be best if the whole family came in. Catlin had died of blunt force trauma.

“All through these years, me and my friends at the bus stop … we would talk about somebody losing a child and you just don’t know how they can deal with it,” Brenda Carithers, the brothers’ mother, told me. “I have always said, I would probably either kill myself or go to the nuthouse. … But by the grace of God we’ve gotten through it.”

In a wrongful death lawsuit later filed against CCA, the Carithers family argued that the company “maintained a less than adequate staff,” “was underequipped,” “did not properly train its officers,” and “created a dangerous atmosphere for the correction officers by depriving the inmates of basic needs and treating them inhumanely.” A district court judge dismissed the claim under Mississippi’s Workers’ Compensation Act, which immunizes employers against allegations of recklessness and negligence.

Temple believes Carithers died saving her life. “That’s the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with,” she told me. She went to the hearings of some of the men involved in the riot, which ultimately left some 20 employees and prisoners injured. “I don’t have any pity,” she said. “I think they should get the harshest sentence they can get. But I am not the judge. God is the judge of all evil, so I’ll let him handle it.”

Two men eventually pleaded guilty to second-degree murder charges, and a third pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. Many others were convicted on charges of rioting in a federal correctional facility.

Early last year, I sat with Robert and Rebecca Scott at the kitchen table in their trailer, under two crucifixes and a framed drawing of Jesus. The right half of Robert’s face was paralyzed; he said his skull fracture went undiagnosed for more than a year.

“They complained about chow all the time,” he said of the inmates at the Adams facility. “But we had no control over that. We had no control over medical.” The Scotts believe the prison could have prevented what happened. “If they actually cared anything about us and our safety and all they would have locked it down,” Rebecca said.

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Josey Carithers with photographs of his brother, Catlin Carithers.

Photo: Janosch Delcker

Early on the morning of May 21, after the Mississippi Highway Patrol’s special operations group joined CCA’s SORT to storm the facility, Adams was placed on lockdown, which wouldn’t be lifted for another three months.

Four days later, John Vanek, the assistant chief of security, received a message from his informant inside the prison. “Why you don’t hear me on friday night when I tell you that situation are no good?” the man asked. “Saturday night I send you a very serious and disturbe email, and I [expect] by that that you have the swat ready and all in place.”

“I [said] to you, all they want is talk to the warden to [listen] to they request to help people that are very sick and can’t get treatment,” he continued. “All it takes is to [listen] to them and have a calm and pacific talk, but no you closed the yard and send exactly who I [said] are on the hit list to start the mess.”

In the BOP’s after-action report, officials offered similar admonishment of CCA’s apparent disregard for warning signs inside the facility. “The specific disturbance can be directly attributed to actions taken by the administration leading up to the event,” the report’s authors concluded.

“ACC [Adams County Correctional Center] administration did not grasp the severity and degree of the Mexican national inmates’ intent to orchestrate a meeting with approximately 1,700 Mexican national inmates and to escalate the situation to include violence toward staff if their demands were not met,” the report continued. “Had the ACC administration understood the inmates’ intentions, a preventative lock down could have been initiated.”

When asked about attempts by prisoners to raise their concerns with the warden, CCA spokesperson Jonathan Burns responded:

Responsibility for the 2012 disturbance at Adams County Correctional Center lies solely with the inmates who instigated and participated in this disturbance. CCA professionals along with state and local law enforcement responded bravely and maintained public safety, which was never threatened during the disturbance.

Judith Greene, the director of Justice Strategies, a nonprofit research organization focused on criminal justice and immigration policy, offered a different perspective. “When prisoners are not getting proper medical care, and when they die, what would you expect to happen next?” she said. “Prisoners have only one way of drawing attention to these kinds of severe problems, which is uprisings.”

Villanueva was not the only prisoner to receive inadequate medical care at the Adams facility. In 2011, the year before the riot, two other Adams inmates died in the wake of substandard care, according to The Nation. Between 2007 and 2015, the magazine reported, BOP monitors recorded the deaths of 34 inmates who had received deficient medical treatment at CAR prisons — 14 occurred at facilities operated by CCA.

Like Adams, other CAR prisons have erupted in protest over poor medical services. In 2008 and 2009, men imprisoned at Reeves County Detention Center in Texas set fire to the facility after an epileptic inmate suffered a fatal seizure in an isolation cell. In 2011, inmates at Big Spring Correctional Center attacked employees, reportedly distressed over their response to a medical emergency that resulted in an inmate’s death. And in 2015, prisoners staged a two-day riot at Texas’s Willacy County Correctional Center to protest medical neglect, resulting in the prison’s closure.

According to Greene, medical services and staffing are the two primary areas where private prison companies tend to cut corners, because that is “where they can squeeze money for themselves and their shareholders out of the contract.”

“These prisons are chronically understaffed,” she noted, describing high turnover and subsequent failure on the part of companies to fill open positions. “Both of those problems lead to more violence in the prisons, more contraband in the prisons, more escapes. All kinds of operational problems that go into the staffing scheme.”

Staffing was a common grievance among the former Adams correctional officers I interviewed. “We were working so short-handed,” Peggy Stevens said. “It was pretty bad. Because people were quitting left and right, you know — just not satisfied and getting screwed around.”

Robert Scott described CCA’s efforts to present a picture of professionalism when the time came for BOP inspections. “Audits: That’s when you could do all the overtime you wanted. They wanted to wax the floor, paint everything on the outside and on the inside,” he said. “That was the only time that this prison ran with any security personnel in place.”

While several Adams COs assigned to work the day of the riot had called out on unscheduled leave, according to OSHA, CCA met its minimum staffing requirements, with 43 security staff on shift duty and 2,537 inmates.

This past November, following the Justice Department’s announcement that it would wind down private prisons, the Department of Homeland Security advisory council subcommittee convened to assess the agency’s reliance on privately run detention centers released its findings. Sixty-five percent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees are held in for-profit facilities, largely operated by the same cast of corporations responsible for CAR prisons.

In the lead-up to the report, rights groups submitted dozens of declarations from immigrants held in for-profit facilities across the country. While ICE detainees are not held for punitive reasons — they are awaiting the outcome of civil immigration proceedings and include asylum seekers and families with children — the declarations reflected similar patterns of neglect and lack of accountability described by inmates and staff at Adams.

While the DHS advisory council subcommittee recognized the concerns raised, its report was premised on the assumption that “fiscal considerations, combined with the need for realistic capacity to handle sudden increases in detention, indicate that DHS’s use of private for-profit detention will continue.” The broader DHS advisory council actually rejected this conclusion, voting to move away from private detention, but as is the case for federal private prisons, efforts toward more publicly operated models have an uncertain future. Immediately deporting 2 to 3 million undocumented immigrants, as Trump has promised to do upon taking office, would require a massive expansion of what is currently a strained and inhumane detention apparatus. Already, in the months since the Justice Department’s memo, news has emerged of two CCA/CoreCivic facilities closed by the BOP that have sought new contracts with ICE to hold immigrant detainees.

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Tombstone of Catlin Carithers in Natchez, Mississippi.

Photo: Janosch Delcker

The one-lane road that leads to the house where Catlin Carithers grew up meanders through hills overgrown with pine trees. It is lined with trailers, many of them deserted, and small Baptist churches.

When I pulled up the driveway, a low winter sun cast shadows across a pond next to the house. Six cars, some decades old, were scattered across the yard. Josey Carithers was living in a trailer on the property; inside, I sat around a table with him and his parents.

His father, Hugh Carithers, told family stories: how Catlin “never met a stranger,” how he accidentally set his lawnmower on fire; how he adopted a dog Hugh found in the woods (“must be half-coyote”).

Unlike his brother, Josey is reserved. Born 10 months apart, the two were close growing up; they attended school in a neighboring county and had only each other for company. After Catlin’s death, Josey handled the funeral arrangements and tried to take care of his parents.

A short drive from the house, we visited the graveyard where Catlin was buried. The door to the white chapel was bolted; the church had closed down weekly service because there weren’t enough donations to keep it running. At the far end of the cemetery, I could see a tall marble headstone.

“They paid for his funeral expenses, which took a lot of the burden off of us,” Hugh said of CCA. The company also held a memorial inside the prison. A band made up of employees played and Damon Hininger, CCA’s president and CEO, flew in from Tennessee.

About a month after Catlin’s death, a Facebook user posted to the company’s page, “What is CCA doing for Correction Officer Catlin Carithers Family?” CCA responded quickly, posting a statement within a few hours. “We have been in constant contact with his family. We are assisting them in every way that we can.”

“They said they would call and be in touch,” Josey said, “but after we buried him, there was no contact.”