Audit knocks Leavenworth private prison for understaffing, security problems, deception

An audit of the Leavenworth Detention Center shows problems with understaffing, security and attempts to hide “triple-bunking” practices from inspectors, according to a Department of Justice report released Tuesday.

The audit, conducted by the Office of the Inspector General for the Justice Department, detailed those problems and others, including a lack of oversight by federal authorities and a lack of documentation that the contract for the privately run federal prison was awarded competitively.

The detention center holds hundreds of prisoners for the U.S. Marshals Service and is operated by CoreCivic, Inc., one of the nation’s two largest private prison companies, under a $697 million contract. The report comes amid a legal battle over the prison’s improper recordings of phone calls and meetings between prisoners and their attorneys, and as the Trump administration reverses an Obama-era plan to phase out the federal government’s use of private prisons.

The problems noted in the Leavenworth report are “significant” and may be more widespread, according to Robert Storch, the deputy inspector general for the Justice Department.

“Understaffing at Leavenworth potentially placed the security of staff and detainees at risk,” Storch said in a video statement released with the report. “We are concerned that the lack of effective monitoring at Leavenworth may also be a problem at other facilities that hold Marshals Service detainees.”

According to the report, staffing levels at the prison fell short in recent years, with 23 percent of its correctional officer posts empty at one point. The lack of officers at times meant closing security posts that CoreCivic had identified as “mandatory” for safety and security.

Rather than take steps to solve the understaffing, CoreCivic made decisions that exacerbated the problem, according to the report, including sending employees from Leavenworth to other CoreCivic facilities.

As staffing levels fell, CoreCivic chose to bring in more inmates. The Marshals Service allowed CoreCivic to contract with a local government to house nonfederal prisoners at Leavenworth — at a lower rate than what the Marshals Service paid.

Understaffing is a chronic problem in the private prison industry, said Judith Greene, director of the nonprofit research group Justice Strategies. Companies like CoreCivic — previously called Corrections Corporation of America — have a motive to maximize profits, and personnel is one of their biggest costs.

“It’s embedded in the business strategy,” Greene said. “It’s a somewhat perverse incentive if what you’re looking for is a prison that is adequately staffed.”

Without the Marshals Service’s knowledge, Leavenworth officials hid from inspectors the prison’s practice of “triple-bunking” inmates in cells meant for two people, according to the report. In 2011, prison officials removed beds from cells ahead of inspections by the American Correctional Association, and the company’s own investigation suggested that had happened in other inspections.

“These and other issues went undetected — often for a long period of time — because the Marshals Service failed to provide sufficient oversight of the contractor,” said Storch, the deputy inspector general.

The Marshals Service employee tasked with monitoring CoreCivic’s performance on a day-to-day basis was stationed off-site, visited the prison infrequently and lacked adequate training for the job, the report said.

The contract for the Leavenworth prison provided the Marshals Service with tools to hold CoreCivic accountable, including the ability to withhold money. But from 2006 to January 2017, the Marshals Service never did that at Leavenworth, or any of its other 14 contract facilities.

By contrast, the federal Bureau of Prisons, which holds similar contracts at 13 facilities, imposed more than $23 million in penalties from 2011 to 2015 for similar shortcomings.

In response to questions about the audit, the Marshals Service provided a written statement:

“The U.S. Marshals Service has been working aggressively with the Office of Inspector General for more than a year on the assessments included in the report,” the statement read in part. “We have implemented, or are in the process of implementing, all of the recommendations that pertain to us.”

The audit also took issue with an apparent lack of competition in the bidding of the Leavenworth contract to CoreCivic. The bidding process potentially limited the pool of possible contractors, but the federal office awarding the contract could not show why. The Marshals Service couldn’t show the government was getting the best value for its dollars, the report said.

Also noted in the report: CoreCivic withheld, for months or years, regular payments that employees should have been receiving through a fringe benefit. The Office of the Inspector General said the Marshals Service should work with the Department of Labor to resolve that issue.

The Marshals Service also improperly paid more than $103,000 in salaries and benefits for commissary positions that were not included in the contract.

Meanwhile, the prison remains at the center of an investigation into how and why federal prosecutors obtained from the prison recordings of phone calls between inmates and attorneys, and video of their meetings, that are protected by attorney-client privilege. Federal public defenders have protested the recordings, saying their clients’ rights have been violated.

A special master appointed by a federal judge to investigate the case reported that 188 inmate phone calls to attorneys had been recorded and later downloaded so that a law enforcement officer or government attorney could listen to it, or in response to a subpoena.

Those included 54 calls marked “private” that should not have been available, according to the policies of the prison and its telephone contractor, Securus Technologies.

The special master, David Cohen, a Cleveland lawyer, wrote that it was unclear why those calls were recorded. He suggested further investigation of that question and other topics, including the after-hours entry of a federal prosecutor into the judge’s chambers.

The special master reported he did not think law enforcement authorities had viewed video recordings of inmates’ meetings with attorneys that had been collected during an investigation into contraband at the prison.

Federal public defenders have pushed for a wider investigation into the recordings and the prosecutors’ actions. A federal judge has yet to rule on that request.