The Palm Beach Post takes a long, hard look at private prisons

Maybe too long for some readers--but series advances the story on cost, violence concerns

MIAMI, FL — When The Palm Beach Post decided a year ago to investigate the private prison industry, no one at the paper expected the voluminous multi-part series that resulted, but part of the strength of the investigation—“Private Prisons: Politics, Profit, Pain”—is its overwhelming nature. That may also be a weakness.

“It got a lot bigger than we thought it was going to be,” reporter Pat Beall told me. (Disclosure: I worked at the Post during the 1990s, but did not overlap with Beall.)

Beall set out to investigate the two main claims of proponents of private prisons—that they save taxpayers millions of dollars, and that they are no more dangerous for inmates than public prisons. Opponents of prison privatization, including corrections officer unions, insist private facilities are routinely understaffed, making for dangerous, inhumane, and even unconstitutional conditions. But proponents claim the reports of abuse and neglect are anecdotal and all prisons have problems.

Beall knew there were problems at private prisons—others had already reported them.

“Geo Group had a fairly well-publicized horror story up in Mississippi,” Beall said. “Becky Boone with the AP started digging into problems in Idaho. And there was some really good statehouse coverage that had come out of the 2012 push to privatize more prisons” in Florida.

The series builds on that prior reporting—and unfortunately, parts of it, in particular a brief look at the role played by the American Legislative Exchange Council, feel like pretty well-trod territory. But the Post’s investigation goes much farther than the periodic horror stories that pop up and moves the ball forward on important angles.

The paper did a systematic comparison of private versus public systems, focusing on the three companies that run the seven private prisons in Florida: Geo Group, which is based in Palm Beach County; Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America; and Centerville, UT-based Management and Training Corp. The companies’ seven facilities house 10 percent of the state’s prisoners. With the help of veteran researcher Michelle Quiqley, Beall assembled a database of dozens of deaths, rapes, and riots in prisons run by three companies. (It’s searchable and covers prisons around the country. Also, unlike the articles in the series, it’s not behind a paywall—more on that below.)

And side-by-side comparisons show there is far more violence in the private facilities around the country than in Florida’s public prisons. From the first installment in the series:

Audits, security reports, lawsuits, government records and state and federal investigations in 21 states unveil a startling pattern of murder, riots and sexual assault at private prisons nationwide. Often, those failures stem from not enough guards.

Nine major riots erupted since 2000. At least 25 inmates died amid claims of mistreatment, inadequate medical care or in riots. Three prisons for teenagers were shuttered between 2000 and 2012 after discoveries of squalor and sex abuse. A women’s prison was emptied after widespread reports of rape by staff.

At Florida’s state-run prisons in the same 12-year period: No major damage or severe injuries from riots; no closures over squalor; no Justice Department investigations over human rights.

The Post also set stringent standards, clearly explained for readers, on how to count lawsuits, riots, and prisoner deaths or injuries. That kind of carefully thought-out analysis gives the story credibility.

Of course, another traditional journalistic marker for credibility is length—and the series is very long, with multiple sidebars, extremely long main stories, and even a three-part story-behind-the-story miniseries. The project’s length was something Beall and her editors debated.

“One of the stories on inmate conditions, as it was originally written, was 300 inches, and it had a lot of art, and it needed a lot of art,” she said. She pushed to run it long, arguing that if the Post just wrote about a few of the worst anecdotes, the paper wasn’t proving its point.

“There weren’t just a few incidents,” she said. “There were lots and lots of them, and we needed to show that.”

In order to cut the violence installment down, Beall carved out separate stories on the criminal records of private prison guards by focusing on two similar prisons, one private and one public.

Another part of the series looked into the political connections of the companies, including their lobbying efforts, campaign contributions, and other ways they might have influenced the legislative process. Beall found plenty of revolving-door politics and even a federal investigation into one $110 million contract quietly slipped into legislation in 2008.

At first, she planned to start the series with the stories on violence inside prisons, Beall told me. But instead the series began with what is probably the strongest and most original installment in the investigation, on costs.

Beall found taxpayers are not saving much if any money, while the private companies are raking in profits. That’s because the formula used by the state of Florida is skewed in ways that make it look like the private prisons are saving more money than they are—and make sure the private companies get paid a lot.

“Cost was one of the things I thought was going to be fairly simple, but the state had this byzantine formula,” Beall said. “We thought this was set in stone, that the private companies had to deliver seven percent savings.”

The series finishes up Sunday with a story on alternative approaches and sentencing reform. So far, though the Post’s reporting has generated a little bit of social media buzz, the coverage doesn’t seem to have generated much of an outcry in Florida.

“We put all of the series behind a paywall, so I wasn’t sure what sort of response it was going to get,” Beall said. “When things are free, they go viral much more quickly. I wonder if it’s going to be a more slow-motion process.”

She knows people at the state Department of Corrections want to read it; they called her and said they didn’t have any money in their budget for a Palm Beach Post subscription. She’s putting the entire thing on a CD for them. She’s also made paper copies for many of her sources.

Some readers simply won’t be interested, an obstacle Beall knew she’d have from the outset.

“There are a lot of people who just don’t care if conditions are terrible in prisons,” she acknowledged. “You have to understand that some of your readers are not going to have any connection to prisoners.”

Given the series’ scale, even some readers who have a subscription and care about the issue may find the sheer volume of information daunting. But as someone who’s encouraged journalists to dig more deeply into prison privatization efforts, I applaud Beall’s work. It deserves attention.

Follow @USProjectCJR for more posts from this author and the rest of the United States Project team.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida and Georgia. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith. Tags: , ,