Depending on who you ask, the Central Arizona Detention Center might be the model of a modern, for-profit lock-up-or it might be some sort of hell on Earth.
Last October, Montana's Department of Corrections signed up to send 125 prisoners south, paying $49.50 per inmate per day, just slightly more than it costs to lock someone up for a day in the men's state prison in Deer Lodge. Officials from Montana and elsewhere say the prison in Florence, Arizona is efficient, clean and secure.
But if you ask some of the prisoners serving time at one of the largest links in a 79-jail corporate chain that's been called "the Proctor and Gamble of prisons," CADC is as bad a setting as they've seen.
At least one Montanan held in Florence claims the prison-run by the Corrections Corporation of America, the same Nashville-based company Montana has hired to build a new private prison near Shelby-is a place where the food is rotten, the discipline excessive, medical care hard to come by, legal resources scarce, mail slow, and where rehabilitation and education are given the short shrift.
In a letter to the Independent dated September 10, convicted sex offender Truman Plummer charges CADC with neglecting its contractual duties for the sake of profit.
Now, those complaints are headed for a courtroom. On Monday, September 21, Plummer and eight other prisoners filed suit in federal district court in Helena, charging the CADC with violating their civil rights. The suit names Mike Mahoney, warden of Montana State Prison, as defendant, as Montana's corrections department remains legally responsible for the treatment of the 125 inmates in Arizona.
Both CADC Warden Michael Samberg and Montana corrections officials said early this week that they had no knowledge of the lawsuit. The Independent was unable to obtain a copy of the complaint from Helena by press time.
Plummer's 20-page letter to the Independent outlines a long list of concerns. Slow medical care, allegedly substandard prescription pharmaceuticals, dental "terror," visitation rules he calls confusing and inconsistent, and poor access to the education and therapy groups prisoners need to be paroled dominate his letter.
Writing as a group, Montana inmates rattled of a nearly identical list of gripes in an April missive to the U.S. Department of Justice's civil rights division. Officials in Washington refuse to comment on the matter.
Similar complaints led to the severing of Montana's relationship with a privately run facility in Spur, Texas-where most of the Montanans in Arizona were held through last fall.
While they haven't been served with the inmates' suit yet, Montana officials nonetheless insist that the sort of complaints it likely contains are without merit. They say they keep a close eye on the situation in Florence, regularly inspecting the facility, making sure it meets the requirements of the contract and Constitution.
"We have the ability to check into any situation down there," says Mike Cronin, spokesman for Montana corrections in Helena. "We have the ability to do spot audits, and our ability to enforce the terms of this contract is our ability to withhold payment if necessary. We take all complaints from down there seriously."
Montana officials do acknowledge that sex-offender treatment groups, needed by almost all the Big Sky inmates held in Florence, have been hindered by changes in personnel. Since Montana prisoners arrived, three different counselors have been charged with overseeing the program. Plummer claims delays hurt the parole prospects of a number of inmates.
"It got off to a rocky start," Cronin says. "We did check to see if any inmates had been damaged by the situation, and it appears none have had parole problems because of it."
Ken Neubauer, the Montana official responsible for directly overseeing the contract, reiterates that he's found no other significant problems-with medical care, legal and educational access, food or anything else-in repeated visits to Florence. Neubauer reports he was last in Arizona at the end of July.
With 626 inmates from far-off Alaska, the jail in the small desert town has become the largest serving the 49th state. Arizona recently put 200 Mexican nationals there until a new public jail is finished. The federal government also entrusts hundreds of prisoners to Warden Samberg and his guards.
Prison officials from these penally-challenged states, and from New Mexico and Oregon, which used to send prisoners to CADC, say the Corrections Corporation is doing a fine job in Florence. They describe CADC, which opened in 1994, as new, clean and professionally run. Aside from some minor unpleasantness, such as the August 30 tear gassing of 33 Alaskans who refused to leave an exercise yard, they say CADC is safe.
Neubauer and Cronin both stress the state's view that CADC is fulfilling its end of the contract, which runs through October of next year, with prospects for renewal. The state, they say, is holding up its constitutional obligations to prisoners.
Montana's contract with CCA also calls for the Florence prison to be accredited by the American Corrections Association, an independent sanctioning body. While CADC hasn't completed the accreditation process in its four years of existence (an ACA spokesman says it normally takes three years), Neubauer says the prison is far enough along to satisfy the contract.
Officials in Alaska, Oregon, New Mexico and Arizona all agree that the Florence prison is satisfactory, and that CCA officials are cooperative when routine problems arise.
Warden Samberg, who asked to respond to the Independent's questions in writing, dismissed Plummer's letter and the April complaint to the Justice Department. He insists that, in dealing with Montana inmates, he and other CCA employees follow guidelines laid down by the state.
Plummer, meanwhile, writes that the official line-whether it comes from Helena, Deer Lodge, the warden's office in Florence or corporate headquarters in Nashville-amounts to a whitewash.
As Plummer's lawsuit awaits a response, CCA faces on-going criticism based on a recent spate of violence, political controversy and escapes at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center, a 2,000-bed facility housing Washington D.C. inmates in Youngstown, Ohio.
While a company spokesperson says the situation in Ohio is under control, some Youngstown city officials are still trying to shut the prison down.