There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Each day of the week that Bryson Chisley’s body lay in the Austin & Royster funeral home, his wife India journeyed to the Columbia Heights chapel, rested in a black-spined chair, and re-examined his face under the unchanging lamplight. For three months, she had labored to secure her husband’s safety in the Youngstown, Ohio prison owned by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). His death had stilled her mission, but her watchfulness continued: “I told him I love him. I told him I’m not mad at him for leaving me. I told him good night.”
Chisley died March 11 from six wounds in the chest, with his hands cuffed, his ankles in irons. He was 23 years old and left behind a 4-year-old son. His killer had caught him in the cellblock of a high-security unit designated to isolate violent inmates from potential victims at Youngstown. The alleged assailant boasted an impressive resume: two murders outside prison, three assaults on the inside. Alphonso White will likely be incarcerated for the rest of his life. Chisley, serving 4 to 12 years on drug and weapons possession convictions, would have been up for parole in 1999. “Alphonso had nothing to lose,” India noted. “Bryson had everything to lose.”
India had believed that her husband’s life was in danger since December 21, when he and White quarreled and allegedly stabbed each other with homemade knives. White suffered the graver injury and had to be hospitalized for three weeks, according to Jonathan Smith of D.C. Prisoners Legal Services. Until that time, both had roamed relatively freely among the main jail population despite White’s two previous prison assaults. After the stabbing, CCA officials classified the two men as predators, issued separation orders to keep them apart, and then assigned them to the same 32-unit cellblock. “It’s just not common sense,” India observed. “Why would you house people together that have had a stabbing altercation?”
Bryson Chisley’s was the second stabbing death in as many weeks at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center (NOCC), a spanking new $47 million facility CCA built in January 1997 to take advantage of an unending oversupply of U.S. prisoners. At the time, Margaret Moore, director of the District’s Department of Corrections, had declared an emergency in Occoquan, a medium-security prison in Lorton, Va., where lax discipline and mismanagement had spawned a decade of brutality.
During the 18-month period from December 1995 to May 12, 1997, Grace Lopes, the special court officer who monitors conditions at Occoquan, reported 123 major inmate-on-inmate assaults that resulted in injury to 132 people. “The staff and inmates have been subjected to an escalating and grossly unreasonable risk of harm,” Lopes noted. “They are forced to work and live in an environment utterly dominated by the fear of uncontrolled violence and crime.”
The Youngstown prison offered an apparent fix: By moving 1,700 prisoners to NOCC, Moore could reduce the population at Occoquan and elsewhere and assign excess guards to cover shortfalls in staff around the prison. In April 1997, Moore signed a $182 million five-year operating agreement with CCA. “This contract will allow us to reduce overcrowding and violence, and thereby create a much safer environment…for inmates to do their time,” Moore told D.C. council members in February 1997. “This contract saves money and lives.”
Bryson Chisley was incarcerated for just more than a year at Occoquan. Because he had survived its perils without complaint, his wife was terrified when he finally confessed his dread after his transfer to Ohio. “He wasn’t the type to say he was scared,” she related. “I told [prison officials] he doesn’t show it when he’s scared.”
After the encounter with White, India worried that Chisley wouldn’t live to see his freedom. She mailed multiple letters to the Ohio prison authorities, imploring them to move her husband into protective custody. She telephoned the prison’s top administrators so often they eventually recognized her intonations and transferred her to voice mail. When she got no response from Ohio she would call CCA headquarters in Nashville. She learned that if Nashville officials relayed her call to the Youngstown offices she might succeed in conversing with a supervisor. But even when India did reach the prison bosses, they dismissed her concerns. “Assistant Warden Mark Shutte swore on his job that Bryson was safe,” she recalled. “I said ‘You mean there’s nothing to worry about?’ ‘There’s nothing to worry about,’ he said.”
Bryson Chisley knew better—he heard deadly footsteps. “Put the request in to everyone in here to go to P.C. [protective custody],” he wrote India shortly before the stabbing. “When you call, ask again for Chief of Security Adams. He said he’ll check into it. So see what he says. They act like they ain’t trying to respond to my request. Keep on top of M.B., E.H., E.R. Keep on writing Captain Goodridge.”
India arrived at Austin & Royster early on the day of her husband’s funeral. She had donned a sleek black dress and blazer, and shaped her brown hair into neat rows of stiff curls. She straightened Bryson’s baseball cap and stationed herself on one end of the coffin. She refused to budge until a relative escorted her to a seat in the front row. Terry Austin, the owner of the funeral home and a friend of the family, had planned to give Chisley part-time work when he finally put prison behind him. She buried him instead.
Bryson Chisley’s death triggered a grim sense of deja vu for the lawyers who advocate for the prisoners who have been shipped to Ohio. Al Gerhardstein in Ohio and Jonathan Smith in D.C. had warned CCA about a particularly violent inmate before he allegedly committed the first fatal stabbing; they had warned about White before Chisley died. Seven months earlier, in August, they had jointly filed a class-action lawsuit for the inmates imploring a federal judge to force CCA and the District’s Department of Corrections to provide safe, decent conditions for the Youngstown inmates and to protect their civil rights under law.
The prison had been operating for just three months, but events already had negated Moore’s promise of a secure new era for the District’s inmates. Upon their arrival in Youngstown in May, a group of 128 D.C. prisoners were restless and confused. They wanted to claim their personal possessions and refused to go to their bunks until they could do so. An assistant warden promptly decided to gas the inmates. The guards continued gassing the prisoners even after they returned to their bunks. Twenty canisters of noxious fumes were released in the cellblock, and the staff cut off the air circulation to increase the effects. “Three more for good measure,” the assistant warden announced as he discharged the canisters, according to a video of the gassing described by plaintiff’s counsel.
It was an ugly turn so early in a relationship designed to end some of the chaos in D.C. corrections. Under its contract, CCA is required to meet standards developed by the American Correctional Association (ACA). The ACA’s discipline guidelines say that only the “least drastic means necessary to secure order or control should be used.” No physicians were assigned in the cellblock to examine whether each inmate could be safely subjected to gas, as recommended by the ACA. The men weren’t allowed to shower off the noxious chemicals until the next day. “This conduct exposes a callous indifference to the safety and health of the inmates,” the lawyers claim in the class-action lawsuit. CCA spokesperson Susan Hart defends the gassing: “Sometimes showing or using force is necessary in order to regain control.”
The lawsuit also documents dangerous flaws in the prison’s classification procedures that allowed the most experienced and malevolent inmates to range freely among the weakest transferees, in violation of widely accepted prison protocols. CCA was required to accept only “medium to high-medium” security prisoners, classifications that didn’t exist in D.C.’s institutions.
Instead, the District transferred an explosive mix of medium-security inmates and some of the worst predators in the Lorton system. At least 200 of the more “violent, assaultive, and disruptive” Ohio immigrants had already been moved once to Virginia jails to isolate them from the prisoners in Lorton. They were shipped out to Youngstown, the lawyers allege, because Virginia’s corrections authorities had refused to continue housing them.
To oversee these mismatched inmates, CCA hired a staff of 350, only a third of whom had ever worked in a prison. Many of the inmates, in contrast, had dwelt for decades in institutions. Moreover, Mark Shutte, the assistant warden in charge of all custody and security, had no prisoner supervisory experience, the lawsuit says. “His previous employment was as a labor relations officer and case manager in the Ohio [penal] system. He has never held a security post higher than correctional officer,” the court documents say.
The inexperienced corrections officers displayed a dangerous nonchalance about equipment and objects that inmates can adapt to make blades and bludgeons, the lawsuit alleges. “Employees leave contraband such as forks and knifes in the employees’ lounge, which inmates have access to,” the plaintiffs charge. “In July, mops, dust pans, trash cans, straw brooms were broken and used as shanks [handmade knives]. Needles were missing from medical [areas] and never recovered. Hidden scissors were found in buckets, and rocks in the yard had not been removed.”
During his training prior to the inmates’ arrival, Corrections Officer Don Lane discovered easily detachable metal bars in the gym and warned then-Warden Willis Gibson that if he did not remove them, the prisoners surely would. “I said, ‘Warden, come here for a minute,’” recalls Lane, a former municipal police executive who resigned from CCA in October, citing unsafe conditions. “I said, ‘Look at this thing. You’re supplying these inmates with nice shanks.’ He said ‘Yeah, we have to do something about that, don’t we?’ I don’t think there was one removed from any house until the inmates got there [in May]. They were gone in two days.”
Professional naivete, combined with an institutional apathy about basic safety, heightened the atmosphere of treachery and fear, the plaintiffs assert. “CCA could have prevented the whole thing by following their contract, which required a pre-transfer application from every inmate,” complains Gerhardstein. “Regardless of the truth that [the prisoners] have lived in a violent environment and they are difficult inmates, those who have used violence for their own reasons should have been screened out, and CCA just chose not to do that.”
But CCA’s spokeswoman Hart likens the problems in Youngstown to those of any new business startup. “In 1997, we opened around 15,000 new prison beds somewhere in the country—that’s more prison beds that a lot of states have in their entire correction systems,” Hart notes. “We understand the kind of challenges you face when you open a new institution. When you have a particular inmate population like that from the District, you are going to face some unique challenges.”
By this past December, lawyers Gerhardstein and Smith had documented 26 attacks on both inmates and guards, including six stabbings and one assault with a bag of metal locks. The lawyers urged U.S. District Judge Sam Bell to halt the influx of D.C. inmates to Youngstown, demanded a reclassification of prisoners, and pointed out a few who posed particular risks:
R.J….was incarcerated for murder and he did have at least one disciplinary report involving the use of a [homemade knife] while incarcerated at NOCC. On July 8, 1997 this inmate stabbed and seriously injured another inmate at NOCC. [An inmate classfication expert hired by CCA also pointed out that R.J. should have been segregated from the main population, but the company did nothing.]
A.W….is serving a sentence for his second murder since 1990. He was incarcerated in the Maximum Security Facility at Lorton before his transfer, where his institutional adjustment was viewed as ‘unsatisfactory.’ The record included an assault on an inmate in August, 1996…and [another] in October 1996.
Judge Bell called prisoner advocates and CCA lawyers to an early February hearing in the U.S. District Courthouse in Akron, a city 344 miles from D.C. and a full 50 minutes from the Youngstown prison. Despite the stockpile of plaintiffs’ evidence, the judge refused their request to stop the prisoner inflow and separate the predators from the rest of the population.
A few days later, Richard Johnson—R.J.—and two other suspects allegedly slipped into a cell, allowed the door to slam behind them, and stabbed inmate Derrick Davis multiple times. Davis died in the ambulance. The 25-year-old had been transferred to Ohio in September, only about four months before his death. He was serving an 18-month sentence for violating probation on a drug charge and was due to complete it in June, according to his attorney Michael Morganstern. The inmate and his fiancee—whom he had dated for six years—planned to get married upon his release. With assistance from his brother-in-law, Davis was going to start a business hauling construction debris.
After Davis’ death, CCA finally moved Johnson to the segregation unit to protect other prisoners from him. Judge Bell held an emergency hearing, vacated his previous order, and insisted that 11 prisoners already identified as maximum security risks be moved out. But CCA’s Ohio lawyer Timothy Bojanowski assured the judge that he could leave the disposition of the remaining prisoners in the company’s hands: “We were visited yesterday by the chief of police for the city of Youngstown and the prosecuting attorney from the County of Mahoning who…initially were very skeptical,” Bojanowski informed Bell. “[They] left giving us their vote of confidence as to the way the facility was run. We think it’s indicative of the fact that we are running a good facility, on the whole. And based upon efforts that we have made in the past, that we continue to make, we’re addressing [the plaintiffs’] concerns.”
Two weeks later, Bryson Chisley died.
The circumstances of Chisley’s stabbing represented grave violations of CCA’s rules. Only one guard was on duty in the open cellblock while Chisley and four other inmates were out of their bunks in the segregation unit. Allegedly, Richard Johnson held Chisley down while Alphonso White stabbed him eight times. According to CCA regulations, “cell doors will not [be] open[ed] unless two officers are present,” and “only one inmate/resident will be allowed out of his/her cell at one time.” Suspect White allegedly had cached both a blade and a handcuff key on his body in preparation for the attack. CCA rules say: “All inmates/residents entering or exiting segregation [cells] will be strip-searched.”
Bryson “Chilly” Chisley was the youngest of Mildred Dunn’s four children. His family still boasts about Chisley’s pencil drawings and his writing. But he dropped out of Lincoln Junior High School in the eighth grade and flitted in and out of Oak Hill Youth Center, a D.C. detention facility in Laurel, Md. He held no full-time work. A self-appointed foster mother, Veronica Glover often trekked to Oak Hill to take the boy to her home; her own son Ralph “Ghengis” Glover led the group of boys that Chisley liked to hang with along 14th and Perry streets NW. They formed a go-go group called Backyard Band, which played clubs all over the city, although lately police have been shutting down the clubs that used to book the band.
By the time Chisley’s body finally arrived in D.C., hundreds of people gathered to bury him. At the memorial service, the Rev. Stephen Young used the death to prod the youths gathered at the funeral home to reject drugs and violence and accept God. Some wore newly silk-screened T-shirts imprinted with a photo and a salutation: “Will miss you.”
Young acknowledged Chisley’s fascination for fine clothes, flash cars, and fresh dates which had moved him to hustle on the street. Still, the pastor said, Chisley’s wealth went beyond what he owned or coveted. “If Chilly got paid for all the smiles he had, he’d be rich. No one disliked him. He was a people person.”
The pastor chronicled Chisley’s 1996 arrest and recited the events that led to the stabbing—the transfer from Lorton, two fights in the cellblock. No assistance from the guard. “It all goes to show you, you can’t trust the police,” Young intoned. “You can’t trust the prison system. You can’t trust the parole board. You’ve got to trust God.”
A pair of rose-tinted lamps flanked a coffin bedecked in white and red carnations. Inside the gleaming box, Chisley looked dapper in a black T-shirt and black-brimmed baseball cap. So many mourners held his hands that one slid stiffly from its position, folded against the other on the torso. His mother and her longtime companion William Wright wanted their neighbors to know that Chisley had never been a “throwaway child.” “He had a home and he was loved,” Wright added. “His family gave him everything he wanted.”
Chisley’s half-brother, Thomas “T.C.” Dunn, was released from Lorton just days after the funeral. More than anything, their mother says: “I really don’t want to see anyone else’s child get killed or hurt in prison.”
Bryson Chisley’s death finally got the attention of the curmudgeonly Judge Sam Bell. He scheduled two more hearings in Akron in mid-March and demanded that CCA and the District take emergency action to cull the predators from the general prison population. Bell gave the defendants 90 days. “We are going to get those people out of that place,” Bell thundered at D.C. attorney Paul Klein, an assistant corporate counsel. “They shouldn’t be there in the first place. You know it, and I know it. It’s dangerous.”
The judge turned to CCA attorneys Bojanski and Dan Struck: “How do you propose to protect the medium-security prisoners from those that should be in maximum?”
Struck paraded a cadre of high-ranking CCA officials to answer Bell’s queries. Each obligingly waited in the court’s gallery for a turn to testify. At the other end of the room, the balding Bell glowered down at them from a high-rise bench as they whispered, catching up with the latest family news and gossip. Their repartee transformed the rosewood-paneled courtroom into a company conference center. Two public relations consultants CCA had hired to spruce up its Ohio image watched approvingly while the lawyers planned their strategy.
Guards escorted three inmates to the defense table; they looked out of place in their orange prison uniforms among the managers and lawyers in suits. They stood for the entire class of prisoner plaintiffs. The CCA witnesses didn’t meet their gazes.
Jimmy Turner testified first for CCA. He had replaced Warden Gibson, a former federal Bureau of Prisons administrator. D.C.’s prison monitors said that Gibson had stonewalled them and refused to make improvements vital to the safety of the inmates. The African-American Gibson was bumped up into an administrative position with little authority over day-to-day operations. But the politically savvy CCA did not fire him.
With 18 years in corrections, a decade of them at CCA, Turner was considered one of the most experienced prison administrators in the company. He spoke with the obdurate friendliness of a man who wins arguments without busting egos. The prisoners’ attorneys questioned whether the company had taken overly drastic security measures just to save face and prove that CCA had maintained control. “The facility is in lockdown because of the assaultive actions,” Turner assured Bell. “The inmates are strip-searched and restrained so that officers can enter the cell safely.”
Prison officials commonly lock down inmates when they can’t keep order, but the prisoner advocates questioned whether the lengthy lockup in Youngstown served as a security blanket or a ploy to impress the judge and the public. Two weeks into the clampdown, Bell questioned why the prisoners had to remain in their cells for so long.
Frank Woods, a former commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, cautioned against immobilizing men for long periods of time: “After a certain point you sacrifice whatever gains you’ve made.”
Turner told the judge about CCA’s 70-member roving “Special Operations Response Teams” [SORT]. They wore electronic shields, an ACA-approved deterent that delivers a jolt much like stun guns’. The teams strip-searched the men and placed lasers near (or fingers in) their rectums to inspect for weapons. During the searches, Turner explained, every inmate, whether violent or catatonic, had to be locked in a cell, with only one to two hours of mobility each day. The orange-uniformed inmates in the courtroom shook their heads when Turner told Gerhardstein that only inmates who misbehaved got stunned with the shields. Still, the security measures satisfied Bell. Turner didn’t answer when Bell questioned how long lockdown would last. (It lasted three weeks.)
Nancy Cook, CCA’s corporate vice president for training, had designed the prison’s four-week course of instruction for corrections officers, which included 120 hours in class and 40 hours on the job. The guards are taught codes of conduct, how to work well in teams, how to identify and prevent possible suicides, how to handle keys to secure the institution, and how and when to use physical force without violating inmates’ rights or the law, she told Bell. CCA’s courses basically follow the minimum requirements of Ohio law, and the recruits are required to take a final test, she explained.
Cook, an unpretentious brunette in her 50s with more than 20 years of experience in corrections, testified in the cordial lingua franca of a corporate spokesperson to plaintiff’s lawyer Gerhardstein’s cross-examination. But Cook gave no answer when the lawyer inquired whether the guards who had allowed White to get a handcuff key needed to be retrained. She also couldn’t say whether, after Chisley’s death, prison officials had scrutinized the training procedures for the segregation unit where violent prisoners are secured. Though officials had not found the knife that killed Chisley, Cook was at a loss as well when queried about whether the guards had adequate training in ensuring that inmates carry no contraband. “I don’t have any information,” she told Gerhardstein.
The death of Bryson Chisley only addded to the worries of inmate Lawrence Freeman’s family—his mother, Lucille Reams, brother, John Freeman, and close relatives, Ann Jones and Karen Sessoms. Chisley’s stabbing had followed a near-fatal attack on Lawrence Freeman by only a few days.
Just after dawn on Sunday, March 8, an Ohio inmate telephoned Reams to say her son had been attacked. She immediately called her other son, an Indiana pathologist, at 6:30 in the morning. “She had heard that my brother Lawrence had been stabbed 15 to 18 times,” recalled John Freeman. “She didn’t know whether he was alive or dead.”
The physician called hospitals near Youngstown and finally reached a night nurse who had seen a television broadcast about the stabbing. That’s how Freeman learned his brother had survived. Reams called again that afternoon. Warden Gibson assured her that Lawrence Freeman’s wounds weren’t life-threatening. But Reams begged John to drive to Ohio and check it out for himself. “It had started snowing, and I told her I would go down in the morning,” John Freeman said. His mother insisted he drive there immediately.
The warden agreed to let John Freeman see his brother regardless of his arrival time. But inside NOCC, the physician and his companion observed lapses in security that frightened them. At the entrance, the companion tripped off the alarm on the metal detector, but no one bothered to search under his winter coat and sweaters for a possible weapon. An inmate apparently stole a stocking cap that was never recovered. An absent-minded guard left a set of master keys alone in a room with an inmate.
If lax procedures concerned Freeman, his brother’s condition appalled him: He had approximately 17 puncture wounds and lacerations, a slit near his left eye, a cut on the eye itself, foot-long gashes on his forearms, and slashes under his ribs and across his torso. Blood dripped from his nose and mouth. Yet no one had performed X-rays. “I told the staff an X-ray was necessary because it was impossible to determine how deep the punctures were and whether the tip of the weapon had done internal damage,” Freeman stated in an affidavit. Nurses promised the pathologist that Lawrence would see a physician in the morning. When Freeman arrived at about 10 a.m., however, his brother had seen no doctor. When the staff finally transported Lawrence Freeman to the hospital, a damaged lower lung cavity had filled with air. The condition, called pneumothorax, stops the lungs from expanding. “A pneumothorax is painful and can be fatal if untreated,” Freeman explained in his affidavit.
Freeman was not the only physician to raise concerns about medical care at the facility. Dr. John Fowlkes, a physician hired by the prisoners’ attorneys to evaluate NOCC’s health care delivery, also reported serious lapses in the expected standards of prison medical care. The physician noted that nurses evaluated patients’ sick calls in the barber shop area, which has neither an exam table nor soap for cleansing hands between patients. Licensed practical nurses, without proper training, triaged patients. (Only registered nurses are trained in this protocol.) In October, an LPN failed to refer a patient to a doctor even though he reported hernia pain and blood in his feces. Five days later, the patient had to have emergency surgery for a strangulated hernia.
The District has its own ragged history of neglecting the medical needs of its inmates, but Fowlkes’ assessment documented countless gaps in Youngstown’s health care system. The clinic, he found, was not set up for emergencies, and the staff had to search for essential lifesaving equipment. The nurses had no mechanism to ensure that exam rooms were regularly cleaned or to track infectious diseases, Fowlkes said, and records of patients with chronic medical conditions like diabetes, hypertension, or heart diseases showed that the clinic failed to perform proper follow-up on them. Fowlkes also found major gaps in treatment of HIV. Smith and Gerhardstein, the prisoners’ lawyers, are still trying to investigate two medically related deaths in the prison. One patient died in December of apparent complications from strep throat, and the lawyers have not yet received any reports about the second death.
In response, CCA spokesperson Susan Hart said that inmates have access to health care 24 hours a day. “There’s a state-of-the-art system for filling medical requests,” Hart boasted. “Certainly there’s a need for emergency treatment. If they ask, they will be provided immediately. In many respects, the medical system is better than for people who are not incarcerated.”
Lawrence Freeman’s D.C. family remained skeptical. He recovered from his wounds, but Chisley’s death made them anxious. Prison officials offered to move him to the 32-bed segregation unit for his own protection. “We don’t want him in the segregated unit,” Sessoms insisted. “That’s where [Chisley] died.”
Chisley’s death also preoccupied members of the D.C. chapter of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants [CURE], a support group for families of inmates. On a recent Saturday, a group of about 30, mostly women, gathered in the dark anteroom at St. Aloysius Church, where David Bogard, the consultant hired to monitor the District’s contract with CCA, had agreed to give a status report on prison conditions. Bogard had been on one of the teams that evaluated conditions in D.C.’s prisons in Lorton for the federal courts—whose findings of unconscionable shortcomings at that prison were part of the reason Moore had signed a contract with CCA.
Many CURE members journey to Ohio each week to visit their relatives. They recently returned infuriated by the lockdown. Men in the segregation unit have been forced to sit on their knees naked in the cellblocks for periods of several hours and have been escorted naked to other locations, their relatives complained. Guards have searched their body cavities with their fingers without medical staff present to make sure the procedure remains clinical, not punitive, the prisoners’ lawyers assert.
Bogard knew to expect serious questions when he took a position at one end of a long conference table, looking anxiously toward the door. A lawyer and former prison warden, he eventually managed to mitigate the tensions among CURE members by holding each person’s gaze for a few seconds and speaking with painstaking deliberation. “There are 1,700 incarcerated in Ohio, and 20, 30 people here at this meeting,” he told them, his disappointment evident. “It’s not that I relish speaking in front of a thousand people. But if it was my brother or son, I’d be here.”
“Oh yes,” an audience member returned.
In a voice so soft it was almost apologetic, Bo-gard began his prison chronicle by describing the “team” he’s assembled to assess the prison’s management: a physician, an expert on food service, an educator, and an inmate liaison. CCA’s contract with the District requires the monitor to write monthly reports on conditions. But Bogard’s crew wasn’t hired until this past November, five months after the prison opened. By the time the cadre of evaluators took their first prison tour that month, six inmates had been stabbed. The two murders occurred just months after the monitoring began. Bogard could not explain the District’s delay in assembling the team; nor could he soft-pedal the situation since then. “There have been many serious incidents,” Bogard acknowledged. “We deeply regret them. We’re very concerned.”
Then his tone brightened as he attempted to encourage the group. “I’m very, very pleased at the recent leadership change,” he told them, alluding to CCA’s decision to boost Willis Gibson into an administrator’s role and to bring in Jimmy Turner. “Before, there was a degree of resistance to our issues. A lot of excuses, a lot of explanations. In our discussions with the new warden, we brought up 30 issues. On 29 issues he agreed completely. There were some issues where we requested an approach, and he said: ‘That’s not going far enough.’”
The audience remained unconvinced. “Right now, it’s just words,” Bogard acknowledged. “Words don’t solve anything. Time will tell. But if attitude is an indication we are on the right track.”
Bogard described the reclassification system instituted by Judge Bell and assured the audience that the federal jurist wouldn’t accept any excuses from CCA. “Every inmate that scores out at maximum security will be removed,” vowed Bogard, “to protect the 98 percent who just want to do their time. If there’s inconvenience for the 2 percent, I hope we all agree that it’s a balance we can live with.”
Finally, Bogard wrapped up his optimistic message: “There are some people who wish Ohio would be closed down and people sent to [the federal] Bureau of Prisons. But BOP can send them anywhere in the federal system. As inconvenient as Ohio is, it’s a lot more convenient than California or Arizona. You need to ask for—you need to demand—improvements to this prison. It’s in all of our interest to make sure Ohio is a better place. I think that’s our best hope. Our team members are committed to making that happen.”
A lawyer in the audience had become agitated. His head bobbed angrily, and he wiped sweat off his temple. Finally, held back no longer: “I’ve handled a lot of cases at Lorton,” he bellowed. “All these guys want to be lawyers and doctors. If we get the program [of education and training] together there would be no time [for violence]. But no one cares about a guy getting stabbed. It’s a matter of economics. If the institution was filled with white guys, this wouldn’t happen.”
The assembled added a litany of misdemeanors to the charges that the men D.C. sent to Ohio aren’t safe. Martha Wright said she spends $500 a month on telephone calls to her godson. CCA exacts $3 per call in addition to the long-distance carrier fee. Bogard promised he would try to get the rates adjusted. (“My long-distance carrier charges 80 cents for the first minute, no matter what,” Bogard groused after the meeting.) A University of the District of Columbia law student complained that CCA wouldn’t release her client’s medical records even though he has a serious affliction. Bogard promised to help. A woman protested that her son never received the canned food or toothpaste she mailed him so he wouldn’t have to buy commodities from the “expensive” canteen. Bogard listened.
During a lull, Ann Jones appealed to Bogard in a painfully polite voice that commanded attention amid the griping and grievances. She wanted to know if the prison employed a physician. Bogard gave the standard line: “Yes, there are physicians at the facility. There is an accredited health care system in place. Yes. Is it perfect? No. Does it need improvements? Yes.”
Jones, a manager at Amtrak, became confused as if wrangling with two opposing considerations. Finally, she sputtered: “I can’t understand how someone can be stabbed 15 times and not be seen by a physician.”
PaineWebber analyst Gary Boston considered Bryson Chisley’s death one of several factors—some technical, others financial—that momentarily checked the breakneck growth in the value of CCA’s stocks. Chisley’s death and the stabbing of other inmates did not alter the glowing prognosis of the correction company’s future performance, however. “We see nothing in any of this information to alter our bullish view on CCA’s growth prospects,” PaineWebber analysts concluded two days after the stabbing. “The news does, however, highlight how sensitive the stock is to rumors and negative publicity as a result of the controversial nature of the sector.”
Wall Street’s romance with CCA blossomed quickly after the company’s founding in Tennessee in 1983. The succeeding year, the company posted $2.5 million in revenues, which more than doubled, to $6 million, in 1985 as the value of its shares bounded. A decade and a half later, CCA’s earnings have grown more than 100 times, to $326 million in 1997, according to the company’s most recent financial report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
By keeping the industry’s main expense—labor—to a minimum, CCA has richly rewarded its investors. Net income per share doubled from 19 cents in 1995 to 38 cents at the end of 1996. That year the company had found a way to reduce personnel costs—they rose only 36 percent while revenues increased by 41 percent over the previous year. In 1997, net income per share climbed to 44 cents. “On the operation side they’ve found a way to operate with the fewest number of people that they possibly can have, so there’s reduced labor costs,” noted Boston. “They are proud of the training their officers go through so they are prepared to deal with the prisoners. They’ve got it down to a fairly well-oiled machine.”
In July 1997, CCA’s principals created a real estate investment trust (REIT) called Prison Realty Trust. REITs, designed to help low-income communities purchase properties, have also become tax-savings mechanisms for different corporations that manage real estate. They are not taxed by the federal government as long as all the profits are distributed to the shareholders. Prison Realty Trust purchases prisons from CCA and leases them back at cost plus 5 percent, giving the corporation a two-way tax break—first on the REIT, second on the lease CCA pays to the REIT. It was CCA founder Doc Crantz’s son, Doctor Crantz III, who persuaded the father and his company to sign on to this unique deal, according to the Wall Street Journal.
CCA’s ingenuity delights financial analysts like Boston. But to Washington Law School Professor Ira Robbins, who has written extensively on private prisons, the transaction equals a government handout. “In effect what they are doing is funneling taxpayers’ money from the government into the pockets of their shareholders,” Robbins observes. “The government becomes a nonentity. We are talking about taxpayers paying shareholders.”
CCA is an industry leader because of its uncanny ability to maximize earnings from every component of the business. Under its contract, CCA even bills D.C. to move dead inmates back to the city. But when India Chisley asked prison officials to send her husband’s body home, they demanded she first pay $696 for transportation. She had to delay funeral plans for a week before she finally found an associate to lend her the money. (The company later reimbursed her.)
CCA also has aggressively played the political market. CCA’s Nashville founders are leaders in that state’s Republican party, and they spend lavishly on lobbying and in political campaigns. The corporation also managed its Ohio politics effectively by employing a company owned by Gov. George Voinovich’s brother to oversee the construction of the prison. Because it is a private organization, CCA does not have to seek multiple bids or make efforts to avoid conflicts of interest. Shortly after the Youngstown city council voted to lease the company 100 acres of land for a dollar, CCA hired Youngstown Councilman Lock Beacham to run its drug treatment programs, the Youngstown Vindicator reported. Beacham later resigned and filed a discrimination complaint against the company, according to the Vindicator.
The corporation’s sally into the dense forest of D.C. politics also demonstrates an aptitude for establishing powerful relationships. One of the company’s key lobbyists is John Ray, a partner in Manatt Phelps & Phillips and a councilman during the company’s negotiations with D.C.(He recused himself from the voting on his client’s contract.) Its D.C. front man Joseph F. Johnson Jr. once headed the Rainbow Coalition and managed former Virginia governor Douglas Wilder’s unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1992. Johnson also is CEO of the National Corrections & Rehabilitation Corp., whose board of directors at the time was stacked with Barry cronies, including Dr. Vincent Roux, the mayor’s personal physician during his drug use days; Chalfranx “Chuck” Perry, former legal counsel to Barry; and Arthur Graves, a former corrections department official who resigned after a scathing Washington Post report about the division he supervised.
As reported by Washington City Paper in May 1997, Johnson helped guide the District’s privatization crusade that led to CCA’s purchase of the District’s $52 million Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF), a 900-bed jail that provides health care and drug and alcohol treatment to inmates. CCA has promised to spend $3.8 million to remodel the District’s existing structure, which the government will lease back for $2.8 million a year. At the end of 20 years, the District will own the building.
While negotiating the CTF deal, CCA also proposed renting prisoners from the District to fill the NOCC even though, during an October 1996 committee meeting, CEO Crantz denied discussing such projects. But the company’s own internal documents indicate otherwise: “We have also committed 1,500 beds at our Youngstown Correctional Facility in Youngstown, Ohio, exclusively for the use of the District of Columbia,” reports the company’s 1996 CTF financial proposal. “Those beds will be available in the second quarter of 1997.”
Six months after CCA cinched the CTF deal, Corrections Director Margaret Moore announced the Lorton emergency. Michael Rogers, then the city administrator, obligingly produced a proposed $173 million contract to move 1,000 inmates to NOCC. But because the city’s negotiations with CCA had started with an unsolicited offer, a direct violation of the city’s procurement rules, a skeptical D.C. council handed Rogers’ preliminary contract to the financial control board. A board staff member noted an “appearance of impropriety” in a deal coming so quickly after the CTF contract and questioned a $143 million cancellation fee.
Still, in April, the city executed a five-year, $183 million agreement with CCA, sans cancellation fee. So far the District has paid out $20.1 million, according to Stephanie Mitchell, chief financial officer for the Department of Corrections. The contract allows CCA to effectively lease prisoners for a rate that will increase from a daily $53.50 per person in fiscal year 98 to $62.51 in fiscal year 2003. The final fee falls just $2 under the cost of housing the inmates in Lorton.
After the funeral, Chisley’s former girlfriends and close relatives scrambled to a white limousine to flee the rain. Red leather seats offered no comfort on the hourlong journey to the Maryland National Cemetery in Laurel. Three times the passengers related the events of the death and questioned how the authorities had allowed it to happen.
Finally, when the limousine headed through the cemetery gate, the small group in the car turned from Chisley to his half brother. The 26-year-old had abandoned the fast-paced street living that Chisley once thrived on, fleeing the city to reside with a cousin in a Maryland suburb. He had his cousin bank the paychecks from his dishwashing job, and in this way, had managed to save $1,000 in three months. For the first time, the half-brother had developed solid plans for his future: he wanted to study computer engineering. Behind the limousine, a line of cars passed through the gates and parked at a parcel of ground dotted with new graves. “I got a letter from Bryson about two months ago,” Dunn recalled. “He said that when he got out of there, he was going to change his life. He had heard about the success of what I was doing.”
Chisley had made similar promises to his family during stints at Oak Hill and even at Lorton. This time, his wife India had pledged to help keep him on track.
Every week, India Chisley still journeys to the graveyard to look after her husband’s plot. She tries to monitor the events in Youngstown and in Akron where her husband’s killers are now facing murder charges. She tries to make sense of CCA’s first year in Ohio: Two families have lost young sons and siblings. Many inmates have been treated for stab wounds. Three hundred D.C. prisoners have finally been reclassified and in the next few weeks will be shipped to CCA prisons in New Mexico and California.
India wants to know why her husband had to die before conditions at the prison were improved. She wants to know why the violence in Ohio hasn’t ended. Two weeks ago, after guards released the inmates from lockdown, four pounced on a corrections officer and kicked and beat him. He lost two front teeth. CP