photo courtesy Ivan Dorta
Below is the Mission Statement of the Berks County Jail System:
The Berks County Jail System is intended to establish a secure institutional environment that serves to provide protection and safety for the citizens, staff and the legally incarcerated of Berks County, while meeting the standards established for this purpose by the American Correctional Association and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
This will be accomplished through the use of a cost-effective organization and procedures that provide for security, social restoration and (re)habilitation in the jail environment.
Aerial view of the Berks County Prison in Leesport
photo source: www.FlyinPhilsPhotos.com
It seems County Commissioner Mark Scott has zoomed-in on only one particular word of that statement, i.e. cost-effective. Faced with an 84-year-old structure and state budget shortfalls, the Berks County Commissioners (Kevin Barnhardt, Christian Leinbach, Mark Scott) have taken it upon themselves to explore solutions to revamping the prison and its operations. Scott has given estimates of $100 million to construct a new facility. Proposals from the architectural firm, L.R. Kimball, have placed the figure upwards of $152 million to rebuild or remodel.
Unfortunately, the commissioners’ exploration has led them to the George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Delaware County, which is managed by the private firm GEO Group. What is the GEO Group? GEO Group is a Florida-based company which specializes in privatized correctional facilities in the U.S. and across the globe. Its facilities include prisons, immigration detention centers, and mental health and residential treatment centers. In 2015, 45% of GEO Group’s revenue was derived from U.S. Government contracts. The company has been the subject of multiple law suits involving poor treatment of prisoners. In 2016 Deputy A.G. Sally Yates announced the U.S. Department of Justice intended to phase out private prison contracts, but since the new administration has taken over officials have stated the policy is now under review. By the way, GEO Group donated generously to the Trump Campaign.
With the glaring conflicts of interest inherent in placing private, for-profit companies in charge of human services, it’s surprising that only a handful of individuals have come forward to express their reservations. But what they have had to say is compelling and deserves attention.
Correctional officer, Patrick Murray, has asked the commissioners to take privatization off the table to protect the safety and welfare of the community. "Our officers, our staff, our supervisors do a real good job - even if most people never see it," he said. "We're kind of the bottom of the shoe when it comes to law enforcement, but we really care about what we do." Another officer, Rob Haeusler, argues, "Private corporations outside the state do not care about recidivism rates, specialty courts, alternative sentencing or how we treat inmates," he said. "They do not answer to the community, they answer to investors who demand a financial return. Inmate population decreases are actually a negative growth aspect for their bottom line."
The concerns don’t only encompass prisoner well-being. Shannon Kozik, a vocal opponent of privatizing the jail, expressed her fears for prison employees. "The county has already walked down the road of privatization," she said, citing the county's decision to close the Berks County Youth Center in 2012 and the subsequent contract with Abraxas Academy, which is part of the GEO Group. Kozik listed several "controversial incidents" Abraxas has had, including two riots in 2010, residents assaulting employees, and several charges of aggravated assault. "While any correctional facility will have challenges, the high rates of assaults gives me pause and leads me to question the staffing and training practices that the GEO Group supports," she said. Abraxas Academy, Kozik noted, is just one of many GEO Group facilities with a history of staffing concerns, poor treatment for those incarcerated, law suits, and allegations of corruption. Kozik also expressed concern about CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America), "the other major private entity," which, she said, has "a comparable list of concerns. It is my hope that these issues – not just the bottom line – will be taken into consideration when decisions about privatization are made.”
Also read Merissa Sechler's "Letter to the Editor" in the Reading Eagle.
The topic came up at the most recent commissioners' meeting on Thursday August 17th. County Commissioner and prison board chairman Kevin Barnhard said, "I want to again state personally on the record: I have never advocated for privatizing the operation of the jail. This is the single most important cost driver for this county. We're going to take our time and do our due diligence to make sure whatever happens is in keeping with trying to contain costs as well as for the safety of the inmates and the staff."
Commissioner Christian Leinbach added, "All options are on the table, with the exception of doing nothing. It is crystal clear that we cannot let the jail go as it is. No business that I'm aware of is 'pushing' privatization of the county of Berks. We are looking at that – at least I am – as an option. And I’ve made it very clear at the end of the day that it is not just about money."
Commissioner Scott was not in attendance at the meeting. Perhaps Commissioner Scott needs to revisit the prison's mission statement and explore it in its entirety next time.
To contact the Berks County Commissioners click here.
Listed below are some talking points compiled by Ivan Dorta, a jail employee and activist in the fight against prison privatization.
posted by Amy Levengood