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A Different World Inside Privately-Run Prison

by Dannie M. Martin

The Prison Years

(PNS) MASON, Tennessee -- He said he burned down the post office because his disability check was late. He poured the gas through his own post office box and put a match to it. It's his second offense for the same crime and he faces another lengthy term in a federal prison.

Not all federal crimes are bizarre as his, but even he admits it's a pretty strange prison that is housing him as he awaits trial.

He's talking to me, an old convict who has returned to prison on his fourth federal parole violation. We're standing in a cavernous dormitory in the Western Tennessee Detention Facility in Mason, Tennessee.

A prison owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a private corporation listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

CCA now runs the sixth-largest prison system in the nation, behind only the federal government and four states. It's the founder of the private corrections industry. They have 66,000 beds in 65 facilities, and they hold inmates under contract to 20 states and the federal government.

As we talk, a man who needed a stent in his heart joins us. He was told he'd die if he didn't have the operation.

"I went to the Veterans Administration hospital and posed as a veteran and got the operation," the man says. "The judge gave me a year for fraud. I got no problem with that. The operation will probably add 10 more years to my life."

As we talk, another con joins us who says he is charged with murder, and another who says he is facing a federal death penalty.

I'm an old convict who has done time in many prisons. I'm astounded to see men with crimes that run the gamut from misdemeanor to death penalty cases, along with aggravated rape cases and men heavily sedated on psychotropic medication, all sleeping in the same 60-bed dormitory.

There are also people in the same room who are testifying against one another. In United States prisons run by the government, inmates are classified and housed according to their crimes. Co-defendants who inform on one another are never kept in the same prison, much less the same room.

"Classification procedures require extra personnel and that costs money. CCA cuts cost every possible way they can," one of the convicts declares, and I slowly become aware of what I hadn't been able to understand about the weird way this private prison is operated.

It's the inherent will of a corporation to cut expenses at all costs. The constant trimming measures kill any chance of running the prison in an efficient or humane manner. There have already been several riots at this prison, and conditions are still deteriorating. Regular guards here make $13 an hour, and they are not trained to handle convicts. The food is horrible, and consists mainly of powdered eggs and dehydrated potatoes. Recreation is an hour and a half daily in a large gymnasium. On weekdays, a yard with a walking track next to the gym is open for cons to get some sunshine, but it turns out that the yard is closed many days because there is no guard for the outdoor gun tower.

"They don't want to pay a guard to watch us," a disgusted convict says.

A man who has had two brain hemorrhages is at the hospital complaining of severe headaches.

"We don't give pain medication here," the head nurse tells him. The best he can get is an ibuprofen pill, which according to policy is the strongest medication prescribed at this facility. People who come here with severe pain are in severe trouble.

A man with an expensive lawyer tells me he owns a lot of stock in this company. He also says that many judges and lawyers own stock in CCA.

I don't know much about the stock market, but I know something about prisons and the way they run. This company is a big wreck waiting to happen. I wouldn't buy stock in it with counterfeit money.

Dannie M. Martin is the co-author of "Committing Journalism: The Prison Writings of Red Hog," and of two published novels. He was recently sent to the West Tennessee Detention Facility to await a hearing for a possible parole violation

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Albion Monitor August 17, 2004 (

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