The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) took aim at a Florida state-funded, for-profit juvenile prison after allegations of horrific conditions surfaced. According to a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of children held at Thompson Academy in Broward County, Florida, the staff at Thompson Academy routinely brutalized, chocked and slammed the children into walls. At least one was sexually assaulted and after the abuse was reported administrations continued to allow the staff member to have contact with the child, resulting in a second sexual assault.
When the allegations of abuse first surfaced members of the SPLC went to interview children but Youth Services International, Inc., the company which operates the facility, prevented the children from having access to the attorneys. The children were also not allowed to have confidential phone calls with their attorneys and were later questioned about any meetings that did take place by the Academy’s director and other staff. Many were coerced into signing statements ending or declining representation by the SPLC.
The allegations in the lawsuit go far beyond even these horror stories. Children live in hot and moldy living units that lack air conditioning. Some children were even forced to sleep on dirty floors of other units after becoming ill.
This is a nightmare scenario funded by Florida taxpayers.
The prison industry is big business in a state like Florida. 80% of Florida’s juvenile beds are privately operated but publicly subsidized. And when your state incarcerates children at nearly twice the rate of other states, contracts with the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice are lucrative. Youth Services International took $4.3 million during 2008-09 just to operate one of its eight juvenile facilities. All in all the Department of Juvenile Justice has about $74 million in contracts with the company.
All this money goes to a facility with a history of problems in nearly every state it does business. One state investigation of a YSI facility in Iowa found “appalling” conditions and resulted in a counselor pleading guilty to charges of sexual exploitation. One facility in South Dakota currently faces a federal lawsuit alleging sexual assault against a teenager by corrections officer while yet another suit in Maryland involves the failure of staff to protect a child from his assigned roommate who later raped him.
The private prison complex runs in the shadow of taxpayer oversight but with the benefit of literally tens of millions of taxpayer dollars. It is accountable to nearly no one and the results are always the same. Whether it is in Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas or Arizona for-profit corrections facilities never serve the public good, they simply serve the bottom line. And despite the fact that they are sold to the public as an affordable solution to an overly-taxed criminal justice system, their services are of lower quality and for more money then traditional (and accountable) prisons and jails.
Yes, correctional facilities are in desperate need of an overhaul. But reform does not mean privatization, and as this latest lawsuit shows, nor should it ever in some industries.
photo courtesy of MorrowLess via Flickr