Willamette Week, Wednesday, October 22, 1997

Crime & Justice column
Private Affairs

  • Allegations of sexual abuse of female inmates raise questions about private prisons.

    By Maureen O'Hagan

    Twenty-two years old and serving a prison term that won't end until 2007, Barrilee Bannister is an unlikely spokeswoman for much of anything. But the young Portland mother has the state Department of Corrections listening to her complaints about private prisons.

    Last October, Bannister was one of 78 Oregon women shipped to a for-profit prison in Florence, Ariz., run by the Corrections Corporation of America. In August, she was the first of those inmates to come forward with information on a sex scandal involving officers there.

    Bannister is not exactly an innocent victim (she's in prison for two robberies and a theft), but her story suggests that the state's practice of contracting with out-of-state private prisons has a downside that few policy makers envisioned.

    Bannister and the other women were shipped out-of-state as part of a contract with the Corrections Corporation of America necessitated by prison overcrowding. Oregon still has 69 women and 227 men in the Arizona prison, for which the state pays the company a flat fee per inmate per day.

    According to Bannister, early this year several Arizona guards began having sexual contact with about a half-dozen female prisoners from Oregon housed in a special segregation unit, away from the majority of other inmates. "In the beginning, we were performing strip dances for them and they would slip joints or cigarettes underneath the door. It was funny, " Bannister told WW. "Then they started coming in our cells. Then it was scary."

    Bannister said that some inmates eventually had intercourse with the guards and she performed oral sex. While Bannister doesn't claim that the sex was forcible, she says she felt coerced by the men.

    "They said if you're not going to do this, we're going to shake down your room," she explained. "This was after they had already given us the joints." Bannister says she also feared for her personal safety. She says the guards often entered the cell with their hands on their cans of mace.

    Eventually, she'd had enough. Bannister says she told CCA officials about the activity in May, and, getting no response, told Oregon officials about it later that summer.

    Brian Bemus, the Oregon DOC employee in charge of transfers, says the department has taken the allegations very seriously because it is concerned about any abuse of the power officers have over inmates.

    "By definition, they really can't consent," Bemus explains. "I guess the analogy would be that you can't have sex with a 13-year-old girl because they aren't capable of consenting." In August, Bannister and another inmate were transferred back to Oregon Women's Correctional Center after the DOC determined that their charges were credible. She says other inmates were involved in the sexual activity but haven't yet been brought home.

    Bannister also says the sexual activity isn't limited to Oregon inmates. She says that a female corrections officer became pregnant by a male inmate, and that another female officer is currently involved with a female inmate. Bannister believes such inappropriate behavior should be a red flag about the Corrections Corporation of America. "When it's more than one officer," she says, "obviously it's a problem."

    The Corrections Corporation of America initially did not respond to WW's inquiries. When finally reached, spokeswoman Susan Hart would not confirm any of the details of the incident Bannister described or even say how many officers were involved. She did say, however, that at least one corrections officer was fired for his role in the sexual activities.

    State officials say the private prison took appropriate action against the offending officers. As a result, the state has no plans to end its contract with the company. "Had they not taken it so seriously, we might have responded differently," Bemus explains. "It wasn't a systematic problem. It was just in a particular location."

    This isn't the first trouble the DOC has had with the Corrections Corporation of America. In August 1996, two Oregon inmates jumped the fence of a CCA prison in Houston. They were captured, but in Texas, inmates can't be prosecuted for escaping from a private prison. Last week, a male inmate at the prison where Bannister was housed also escaped, although he was quickly captured.

    Given the expected crunch of prisoners coming into the Oregon system under a 1994 mandatory minimum sentencing law (Measure 11) and the expense of building new state-run prisons, the use of private prisons is attractive to policy makers.

    The Cascade Policy Institute, a libertarian think tank, came out in favor of private prisons in 1994 largely because of projected cost savings. State Rep. Steve Harper, a Klamath Falls Republican, introduced a bill last session to allow private prisons to be built in Oregon. His bill was tabled with the promise that it would probably come up for a vote next session.

    The idea that private prisons save money, however, is suspect. According to Bemus, it costs the state $69.86 per day to keep women in the Arizona CCA prison--one dollar more than at the state-run women's prison in Salem. A 1996 study by the federal General Accounting Office found little cost difference between public and private prisons.

    There's also the issue of control. DOC officials concede that it is difficult to regulate private prisons, particularly those in other states. "We have no jurisdiction over them," says Guy de Luca, a state investigator who looked into the incident for the DOC. Because the CCA is a private company, the department can't fire anyone, can't give orders and can't specify who can or can't be hired.

    Corrections officers at Oregon-run facilities, for example, must not have felony records and must be trained and certified by the state Department on Public Safety Standards and Training; private prison guards need no such accreditation. In fact, private prisons make their profit by saving on labor costs. That means hiring people with less training than public-prison workers.

    Taking away a person's freedom is one of government's most serious jobs, says Dave Fidanque, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Oregon. And, he says, it should be kept in the hands of public employees, who can be held accountable. "We think that criminal punishment is a government function and not something that can or should be delegated," he says.

    Barrilee BannisterBarrilee Bannister (right) described the private prison in Arizona as a "sexually hostile environment." According to The New York Times, private prison industry revenues will exceed $1 billion this year, up from about $650 million in 1996. Last year there were about 85,000 inmates in private prisons, up from 3,000 in 1987, according to The Times.

    Because of overcrowding, the DOC probably will have to rent out-of-state beds for women until about 2001, when a new women's prison is expected to open.

    Inmates in the Arizona Corrections Corporation of America prison say they're frequently asked to try to impress tour groups of potential customers.

    Corrections Corporation of America is the largest for-profit prison company in the country. Wackenhut is second.

    At one point last year there were 1,100 Oregon inmates in other prisons around the country, both private and state-run.

    "We think that criminal punishment is a government function and not something that can or should be delegated." - Dave Fidanque of the Oregon ACLU



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