Conditions at CoreCivic Leavenworth are dangerous. Company shouldn't be allowed to operate prison.
A CoreCivic Leavenworth detainee kicked, punched and struck Scott Wilson, another detainee, with a tray last month. Wilson died two days later.
Following this incident, officials placed the facility on lockdown, and it remains in that status, with residents confined to their cells 23-24 hours a day. Residents receive breakfast and two sack lunches provided to them in their cells. They cannot access the commissary, and officials are denying them ongoing medical care and hygienic supplies, a bewildering stance in the middle of a pandemic.
Thankfully, CoreCivic’s contract, which allows it to continue to hold those facing federal charges in Kansas, western Missouri, and beyond, is ending. A January executive order from President Biden should prevent that contract from being renewed. Frighteningly, though, CoreCivic is exploring ways to keep the prison open and stay in charge.
What happened to Mr. Wilson, and what is happening at CoreCivic is horrific. But it is also indicative of the broader pattern of mismanagement that has emerged at the facility in the past year. That’s why we, along with several other federal public defenders and ACLU legal directors across Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska, sent a letter to government officials imploring them to let CoreCivic’s contract expire, and with it, CoreCivic’s horrendous tenure of mismanagement.
Allowing CoreCivic to remain operational, whether by contracting directly with the Department of Justice or with Leavenworth County, places residents and staff at extreme risk.
We hear from people who lived through — or are still living through — the dangerous conditions at CoreCivic Leavenworth. We have also heard from current and former CoreCivic Leavenworth employees. Over the past year, complaints from both groups have spiked in frequency and severity.
Is some level of violence unique to CoreCivic facilities? No.
But the scope of violence and lack of accountability at this facility makes it particularly devastating.
In February, six detainees jumped another detainee, causing life-threatening injuries. The next day, a resident attacked two correctional officers, sending them to the hospital with severe injuries. In early May, one resident attacked another, stabbing him 17 times. Resident reported that staff weren't monitoring that area. Stabbings have become so routine that they were scarcely newsworthy.
There were two suicides at the facility this spring — deaths that would have been preventable with adequate staffing, oversight and training. In one, the resident and the resident’s family had notified CoreCivic the resident was suicidal and required a suicide watch, but nothing was done. When the resident’s cellmate found him hanging in the shower, CoreCivic Leavenworth guards refused to cut him down until an outside medical team arrived.
As terrible as these incidents were, management’s response has been worse. Staff and residents live in constant fear because cell doors don't lock. Facility residents report that entire shifts pass without them seeing a guard, and when residents call for guards, no one responds.
Reviews on CoreCivic Leavenworth’s employment recruitment page on GlassDoor also indicate the facility suffers from chronic understaffing, with correctional officers routinely working forced overtime.
CoreCivic Leavenworth leadership has abandoned any pretense of order inside the facility. If CoreCivic remains open, these constitutional violations likely will continue to occur, putting staff and residents in jeopardy.
It is worth noting that such conditions are endemic to private prisons, where profit motives and shareholder aspirations trump the well-being of residents and employees.
But this was precisely what the Biden executive order sought to address — ending the pernicious practice of putting a profit-driven price tag on lives inside correctional institutions.
The residents and employees are our collective responsibility. We can’t knowingly allow such conditions to continue or to worsen. In addition to looking for other local options to house federal pre-trial detainees, so they can be close to family and their attorneys, we should be seriously reconsidering the number of people subject to pretrial confinement. Let’s begin by decarcerating; then we’ll be able to accommodate those who truly require it in other nearby facilities.
What we cannot accommodate, however, is any sort of contract extension or renewal for CoreCivic Leavenworth.
Lives literally depend on it.
Sharon Brett is legal director at the ACLU of Kansas.