The latest private prison for D.C. inmates has just broken ground—and already run into trouble.

In April, a 15-year-old girl at a juvenile jail in Santa Fe, N.M., accused one of the jail’s male employees of raping her, according to Albuquerque Journal accounts. Earlier that month, the paper reported that police had arrested a former guard at the county’s adult jail on charges that he forced a male inmate to perform oral sex on him. And two other Santa Fe guards were arrested in December—one for allegedly having consensual sex with a female inmate, the other for acting as a lookout.

New Mexico, of course, is a long way from Washington. And there are no doubt countless stories of prison mayhem in the three time zones from there to here. Still, it’s at least a little strange that news of the Santa Fe scandals has so completely escaped District notice. As it turns out, both of the Santa Fe facilities are run by Cornell Cos.—the private firm that’s currently building a new prison for D.C. inmates in Philipsburg, Pa.

Although District prisoners and advocates have been busy protesting and monitoring—not to mention suing—private-prison companies that already house D.C. inmates, no one has asked many questions about Cornell. “We don’t know much about them,” says Mary Jane DeFrank, director of the ACLU of the National Capital Area.

The same goes for Eric Lotke, director of the D.C. Prisoners’ Legal Services Project. “This is all part of the federalization of the corrections system,” he says. “It’s not local anymore.”

Ready or not, Cornell is scheduled to house 1,050 District prisoners next year 200 miles away in the rolling countryside of the Moshannon Valley in central Pennsylvania. And Cornell—the nation’s third-largest private jailer—is currently awaiting a decision from the federal Bureau of Prisons on its bid to add 1,200 more District inmates to the prison.

As with most private prisons, the momentum of winning and filling construction orders has outpaced pretty much everyone’s ability to know just what’s going on at Cornell’s site. People don’t even know if the facility is legal. And they’re uncertain just how to regulate it if it is.

New Mexico activists say that Cornell’s relatively small size means the company doesn’t always get the kind of scrutiny it deserves. “Cornell has the same abysmal record that other private-prison corporations have,” says Mara Taub at the Coalition for Prisoners’ Rights in Santa Fe. The firm is dwarfed by industry leader Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which controls 50 percent of the private-prison market. In June, CCA—a frequent whipping boy for D.C. prisoner advocates—suffered a high-profile defeat in its attempt to zone land for a future prison in Ward 8. And it has received a run of embarrassing publicity following reports of mismanagement of District inmates at its Youngstown, Ohio, facility (“Two Dead in Ohio,” April 17, 1998).

Yet with a full year to go before inmates arrive in Philipsburg, there are already signs of trouble for Cornell, too. Company executives have admitted that they hired three known felons at the troubled Santa Fe juvenile facility without alerting county officials—a particularly disturbing screw-up for a company dealing with a city like D.C., which has often suffered from lax oversight of contractors. “That was a very egregious error on our part…and we accept full responsibility,” says Thomas Jenkins, Cornell’s chief operating officer.

In Pennsylvania, at least, people have paid attention to Cornell. Because no state law exists to govern private prisons, officials are asking just where the firm gets the right to incarcerate people. And a local group has filed suit, alleging that the Bureau of Prisons did not conduct an adequate environmental impact study before Cornell broke ground in May. In June, a Pennsylvania judge issued a stop-work order, forcing the company to delay construction until the assessment is completed and reviewed. Plaintiffs also claim that Cornell has not been upfront in its dealings with the community.

That’s Pennsylvania’s problem, of course. Until next year. Then, Cornell’s track record with inmates and neighbors will suddenly become very important to 1,050 Washingtonians and their friends and families back home.

A year ago, the Bureau of Prisons conducted a well-publicized search for private companies to build prisons for D.C. inmates. According to the D.C. Revitalization Plan passed by Congress in 1997, the city has to close Lorton Prison before the end of 2001 and transfer 2,200 of its inmates to prisons within 300 miles of the District.

The search for new sites didn’t get off to a smooth start. CCA’s proposal to build one of the prisons in Ward 8 ran straight into the teeth of neighbors livid that still another unwanted facility was being dumped in the city’s poorest community. That contract has still not been awarded.

But earlier this year, Cornell drew up an attractive proposal for another prison. The company suggested a sparsely populated former mining town in rural Pennsylvania, far from the divisive debate raging in D.C. The publicly traded, Houston-based firm proposed building three facilities—one to house minimum-security men, another for women of varying security levels, and one for young men also of different security levels. Each site would house 350 inmates, all from D.C.

Best of all, unlike CCA, Cornell wasn’t carrying any obvious baggage. Aside from Cornell Abraxas, a community-based juvenile-justice-services center in Southeast, Cornell has little history working with D.C. agencies or residents. And Cornell is a darling of Wall Street, having leapt from fifth or sixth place in the private-prison industry to third in just a couple of years.

On April 2, Cornell won the contract. In May, the company broke ground. Assuming all goes as planned, Cornell will reap nearly $343 million from the prison over the next 10 years, according to a Bureau of Prisons press release.

Two weeks ago, the federal government finally issued its environmental impact report. Although the prison was due to open at the end of the year, the start date has been pushed back indefinitely. Construction will remain frozen for at least the next month to allow the public time to comment on the report. After that, anything could happen, says Todd Craig, chief spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons. “If we [decide] during that process that there’s reason to modify or terminate the contract or proceed, we’ll take the appropriate action,” he says. “It’s too early to speculate.”

The feds are to blame for not getting the assessment done before Cornell started work, says Christopher Bungo, chair of the Osceola Mills, Pa., Citizens Advisory Committee on Private Prisons, which filed the suit. But Cornell has been equally unimpressive in its efforts to win over the community. “Cornell has been terrible, absolutely terrible,” Bungo says. The company has held just two town meetings—in two different towns—to discuss the prison with the public, he says, and both occurred after the deal was already signed.

As in most private-prison deals, Cornell executives have tried to charm the locals by choosing a relatively poor area and promising to bring construction and corrections jobs. The company plans great things for D.C. inmates, too: a full range of job programs, life-skill programming, anger-management therapy, recreational programs, and a law library.

At a July 21 hearing before a panel of Pennsylvania senators, Cornell representatives boasted that the company already houses 13,000 inmates in 14 states. The federal government has awarded it a series of contracts and lots of credibility in the last couple of years. And its upper management is culled from the highest ranks of federal and state prison operations.

“They were very professional,” remembers state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, who has long supported the privatization of Pennsylvania prisons. Greenleaf chairs the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee, and that day, his hearing room was packed full of opponents and supporters eager to hear Cornell’s spiel.

“When they started talking about their plans, it seemed that everything was going to be wonderful, utopian,” says Joan Porter, a Bucks County silversmith and a representative of the Pennsylvania Prisons Society, which opposes private prisons in general.

Then the Cornell suits started taking questions from Greenleaf and his colleagues. They wanted to know what legal authority Cornell had to incarcerate inmates in Pennsylvania—and who would be responsible for capturing escapee inmates. Six months before the facility was due to open, Cornell could not definitively answer the questions. Greenleaf concedes that the jurisdiction issues remain “unsettled.”

“[To] any important questions, their response was: ‘We left it in a briefcase in Houston,’” adds Bungo.

The U.S. Marshals would be called in case of an escape, Cornell’s witnesses said, and perhaps the state police, too. We can only hope they won’t be relying on the local police: Of the four townships that could have jurisdiction over some portion of the prison, Morris Township has just one full-time police officer, as does Decatur Township, whose one cop has to go to town meetings to get permission to buy bullets. The other two townships have no local police officers at all.

“Suddenly one got the impression that their real concern was for their business, not for the community and the inmates,” says Porter.

Jenkins, Cornell’s chief operating officer, still sounds vague when discussing the community’s concerns in an interview three weeks after the hearing. He says the company and local officials are in the process of forming “protocols” for dealing with escapes. At the hearing, he claimed that the federal government grants his company the authority to incarcerate inmates, according to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story. But now, Jenkins vows that Cornell will cooperate with Pennsylvania to implement regulations providing for some degree of state oversight.

“We concur and are working with Pennsylvania state government officials,” Jenkins says. He admits that he knew the state had no existing law to deal with the prison when Cornell submitted its proposal to the Bureau of Prisons, but he doesn’t think he should have brought the matter up with the feds back then.

In its proposal, Cornell was required to state whether the prison would violate existing state law. Since the law didn’t exist, there would be no violation. But now it turns out that the state will have to pass legislation for the prison to open. “The private company must derive its authority to operate a private prison from state law,” Craig says. Greenleaf currently has legislation pending in the state Senate to do as much. Craig refuses to discuss whether Cornell should have broached the issue of state authority sooner.

This is hardly the first time private prisons have outrun the government’s efforts to hold them accountable, says Judy Greene, a senior Soros Justice fellow studying the private-prison industry from New York City. “Time and again, from state to state, you have prisons being built and occupied without the proper legal authority, without any real requirements that these prisons operate under the same standards as public prison facilities,”

she says.

As for the string of messy incidents at Santa Fe, Craig says he is aware of the problems. But he says the feds will watch over the Pennsylvania contract very carefully. “I’ve seen some news clips on [Santa Fe] personally, but the bottom line is, we are going to have 10 on-site federal law enforcement officers ensuring that they carry out the contract as stated.”

They’d better. Since the District is no longer required to concern itself with what happens to inmates under the federal system, D.C. prisoners in Cornell’s facility will have to rely on federal oversight alone. “Once they go under the purview of the federal government, we really don’t have any input,” says D.C. Department of Corrections spokesperson Darryl J. Madden. “It’s not a part of our operational or oversight responsibility.”

In any case, Jenkins vows that Cornell will not be hiring any felons at the new prison for D.C. inmates, because the Bureau of Prisons will not allow guards to have serious criminal convictions. And he points out that all prisons—private and public—have their problems. “You look in your fire departments, and you’re going to find arsonists. You look at these programs, and you’re going to find people that do harm to other people. You do the best you can in screening for them,” he says.

But the seeds of doubt have been planted in Pennsylvania. “There is discomfort, great discomfort with what is going on,” says one state Senate staffer. “There is some concern about whether or not Cornell…was completely candid in applying for this contract with the federal government.”

So far, Pennsylvania officials and advocates have been much more concerned about Cornell’s prison than their D.C. counterparts. And that limited supervision is precisely what makes a private prison so much more efficient than one run by the government. “These companies tout their ability to move quickly because they are not subject to all the public oversight—’red tape,’ they like to call it,” says Greene. “But the downside of that selling point is that you lose the normal procedures…through which the public can ask these questions.” CP