For-profit prison described as ‘hell hole’

Photo by ALLISON KITE/Kansas Reflector

CoreCivic’s Leavenworth Detention Center is a hotbed for drugs and violence.

Dangerous understaffing, pervasive drugs and a stockpile of weapons have transformed a private detention center in Kansas into a “hell hole” where violence is routine and inmates are still on lockdown after one was beaten to death this summer.

The Leavenworth Detention Center, a pretrial lockup run by the nation’s largest private prison operator, CoreCivic, has been the site of two suicides and at least 10 severe beatings and stabbings this year, according to attorneys representing inmates there. Guards have quit rather than face the dangers.

Federal public defenders and ACLU chapters in the region implored Leavenworth County officials and the White House in a letter last month to shut down the facility when CoreCivic’s contract ends in December, citing the dire conditions. And former correctional officers, the U.S. marshal for Kansas, the widow of a deceased inmate, and a federal judge have all sounded the alarm about the Leavenworth Detention Center.

“The only way I could describe it frankly, what’s going on at CoreCivic right now is it’s an absolute hell hole,” said U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson during a sentencing hearing in September.

“The court is aware of it,” she said. “The defense bar is aware of it. The prosecutors are aware of it. The United States Marshals are aware of it.”

For years, CoreCivic’s Leavenworth facility, which houses an average of 900 inmates at a time, has been dangerously understaffed. An audit in 2017 found that its officer vacancy rate, at one point, reached nearly 25 percent.

Guards employed there as recently as July and September said the facility didn’t have enough officers to consistently staff “bubble” posts, where guards monitor pods from secure rooms so they can quickly call for help if an officer is attacked. Single guards have been assigned to monitor multiple pods at once, meaning that to check on one group of inmates, they have to leave another unattended.

Contraband and weapons are commonplace, and guards said they don’t know what to expect when they enter a pod.

In February, two employees were stabbed and beaten, with injuries so severe they required multiple surgeries. Two inmates have died by suicide this year. A third was beaten to death by fellow inmates.

“I have clients that have been in the hardest federal prisons and know how to do hard time, and they’re terrified,” said Melody Brannon, federal public defender for the District of Kansas.

Following that inmate’s death, the facility was placed on lockdown, forcing inmates to spend nearly 24 hours a day in their cells. Brannon said as of Monday the jail had not resumed normal operations, “although some of the pods had earned some privileges back.”

According to a memo Brannon said was supplied to inmates, the facility began a “progressive release program” in mid August. In “phase one,” inmates would have an hour and a half of time in their day rooms each day and two hot meals and a sack dinner. Commissary was limited to hygiene products and writing materials.

During the lockdown in early August, inmates only had access to medical visits if it was an emergency, according to another memo.

In an email, CoreCivic spokesman Ryan Gustin said leaders at the jail have a plan to return all pods to normal operations based on inmates’ behavior, which is being evaluated daily. While he said no pods were on “full lockdown status,” he described the same restrictions on day room time and said every housing pod has access to electronic tables, legal and sick calls and commissary.

Years ago, the Leavenworth Detention Center was a well-run facility, said Laine Cardarella, the public defender for the U.S. District Court in western Missouri.

“At this point,” she said, “it feels out of control.”

CoreCivic, based in Nashville, Tennessee, and previously known as Corrections Corporation of America, has operated the Leavenworth Detention Center through a contract with the U.S. Marshals Service since 1992. It primarily houses individuals who have been charged and are awaiting trial in federal courts in Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and western Missouri. Its contract expires at the end of the year and is not expected to be renewed because of an executive order President Joe Biden issued in January, prohibiting the Department of Justice from renewing leases with private prisons. 

The company declined to make available any corporate representatives or the Leavenworth facility’s new warden. It requested a list of questions via email, but instead of answering them, the company referred Kansas Reflector to a statement it made last month when it called accusations by the region’s public defenders and ACLU chapters that its facility was understaffed and poorly managed “false and defamatory.”

“We deny the specious and sensationalized allegations contained in this letter related to CoreCivic and our Leavenworth Detention Center,” Gustin said.

The company failed to address questions about violence and contraband and blamed the COVID-19 pandemic for staffing challenges that have plagued the facility for much longer.

“These allegations are designed to exert political pressure rather than to serve as an objective assessment of the work our dedicated … staff has done to serve the needs of the United States Marshals Service,” Gustin said.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Kansas declined to comment.

Violence and drugs

With such minimal staffing, Brannon said inmates have no faith guards will come if there’s a problem. She said inmates are in danger unless they arm themselves.

“Everybody is left to fend for themselves and to defend themselves,” Brannon said. “Weapons are everywhere. Drugs are everywhere. People have to take care of themselves in whatever way they can.”

Guards said it didn’t matter how many times they “shook down” — or searched — the jail’s pods. They always found more weapons. This year alone, according to the letter public defenders and the ACLU wrote, more than half a dozen inmates have been stabbed.

Early this year, one female staff member was attacked entering a pod. A trainee came to her aid, and both were stabbed repeatedly and rushed to the hospital and needed multiple surgeries.

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