Gilded Cage: Wackenhut's
Free Market in Human Misery
By Gregory Palast

New Mexico's privately operated prisons are filled with America's impoverished, violent outcasts — and those are the guards. That's the warning I took away from confidential documents and from guards themselves who nervously spoke on condition that their names never see the light of day. The prisons' owner operator, Wackenhut Corporation, has not had a very sunny summer. Three weeks ago, Texas terminated their contract to run a prison pending the expected criminal indictment of several staff for sexually abusing inmates. The company has been yanked from operating a prison in their home state of Florida. Mass escapes in June, July and August threaten their Australian contracts.

And in New Mexico, Wackenhut's two prisons, barely open a year, have experienced riots, 9 stabbings and 5 murders, including, two weeks ago, the killing of a guard. Wackenhut's share price plummeted.

But there is a ray of hope for the firm. Last month, between the fourth and fifth murder in New Mexico, Jack Straw's office [the UK Home Office] announced it would award new contracts to the company including one to build and operate a prison at Marchington.

Ralph Garcia, a rancher driven to financial ruin by drought in New Mexico, signed on at Wackenhut's Santa Rosa prison. For $7.95 an hour (£4.80) he guarded "medium security" inmates of Wackenhut's Santa Rosa prison including multiple murderers, members of a homicidal neo-Nazi cult and the Mexican Mafia gang. Although he had yet to complete his short training course, Garcia was left alone in a cell-block with 60 unlocked prisoners. They took the opportunity to run amuck, and stab an inmate, then Garcia, several times. Why was Garcia left alone among the convicts? It wasn't a mistake, but rather Wackenhut's cut-rate Jails-R-Us policy; one guard in a "pod" and two prisoners packed in each cell. This reverses the ratio in government prisons - two guards per block, one prisoner per cell. Of course, the state's own prisons are not as "efficient" (i.e. cheap) as the private firm's. But then, the state hasn't lost a guard in 17 years — where Wackenhut hasn't yet operated 17 months.

Sources have told INSIDE CORPORATE AMERICA that just two weeks prior to Garcia's stabbing, a senior employee warned Wackenhut corporate honchos that the one-guard system is a death-sentence lottery. The executive's response, "We'd rather lose one officer than two."

How does Wackenhut get away with it? It cannot hurt the company that it put Manny Aragon, the state legislature's Democratic leader, on its payroll as a lobbyist, and used an Aragon company to supply concrete for the prison's construction. Isn't that illegal? I asked State Senator Cisco McSorley. The Democratic Senator, a lawyer and Vice-Chairman of the legislature's Judiciary Committee, said, "Of course it is," adding a verbal shrug, Welcome to New Mexico.

Wackenhut agreed to house, feed, guard, and educate inmates for $43 a day (£26). But it can't. Even a government as politically corroded as the Enchanted State's realized Wackenhut had taken them for a ride. New Mexico found it had to maintain a costly force of experienced cops at the ready to enter and lock-down prisons every time Wackenhut's "green boots" lost control. A riot in April required 100 state police to smother 200 prisoners with tear gas — and arrest one Wackenhut guard turned violent. The putative savings of privatization went up in smoke, literally.

The state then threatened to bill Wackenhut for costs if the state had to save the company's prison again. In market terms, that was a deadly disincentive. On August 31, state police heard the sounds of chaos during a phone check to the prison. Wackenhut assured the state that all was well. By time the company sent out the May-Day two hours later, officer Garcia had bled to death.

Why so many deaths, so many riots at the Wackenhut prisons? The company spokesman told me, "New Mexico has a rough prison population." No kidding. We have obtained copies of internal corporate memos, heartbreaking under the circumstances, from line officers pleading life-saving equipment such as radios with panic buttons and especially for more personnel — written just weeks before Garcia's death. Politicos and inspectors are paraded through what looks like a fully staffed prison because, claim guards, they are ordered to pull 16- and 20-hour shifts for the official displays.

With low pay for dangerous work, one court official told me, Wackenhut fills the hiring gap with ex-cons who get through lax background checks; and there are the teenage guards, some too young to qualify for a driver's license. Some kiddy guards and insecure newcomers make up for inexperience by getting macho with the prisoners, slamming them into walls. "Just sickening," said a witness. Right after the prison opened, a pack of guards repeatedly kicked a shackled inmate in the head. You might conclude these guards needed closer supervision, but that they had. The Deputy Warden stood by, arms folded. The company fired those guards and removed the warden — to another Wackenhut prison.

Conscientious guards are fed up. Four staged a protest in front of the prison, demanding radios — and union representation. Good luck. The AFL-CIO tags Wackenhut one of the nation's top union-busting firms. The guards face dismissal.

Senator McSorley has soured on prison privatization. New Mexico, he says, has not yet measured the hole in its Treasury left by a mere few months of Wackenhut operations. The company's latest move is to dump 109 of their problem prisoners on the government which must spend millions to ship them to other states' penitentiaries.

Still, let's-get-tough pols praise Wackenhut's "hard time" philosophy: no electricity outlets for radios, tiny metal cells, lots of lock-down time (which saves on staffing). And, unlike government prisons, there's little or no schooling, job training, library books, although the state pays Wackenhut for these rehab services. The company boasted it could arrange for in-prison computer work, but for now, the few prisoners working sew uniforms for 30 cents (18p) per hour. But most are left to their metal cages. Brutality is cheap, humanity expensive — in the short run. The chief of the state prison guard's union warns that Wackenhut's treating prisoners like dogs insures they lash out like wolves.

Wackenhut Corporation does not want to be judged by its corrections affiliate only. Fair enough. In March, this column described their other services. We reported that a British Petroleum unit had wiretapped and bugged the home of Chuck Hamel, a whistle blower working with the US Congress. This black bag job was contracted to, designed by and carried out by a Wackenhut team. With state after state handing Wackenhut walking papers, what could have motivated HM Prison Service to invite them to operate a UK prison? The Home Office at first denied they offered new work to the company, noting huffily that the UK too canceled a Wackenhut contract, ending their operations at Coldingley Prison on February 1 by "mutual agreement." (In fact, it was not so "mutual." A confidential audit leaked into hands of a prison expert and passed to the Observer accuses Wackenhut of dubious accounting and "total disregard for fundamental tenets of Prison Services financial policy.") I suggested the Home Office look under the corporate alias, "Premier." Breathless call the next morning: Yes, we have several contracts with Premier, including operation of the Doncaster Prison (AKA "Doncatraz") and the planned Marchington prison. Wackenhut, said the flak is, "a part of the Premier consortium." That's one way of putting it. Wackenhut owns 50% of Premier and controls Premier's UK prison operations.

Did the Prison Service contact US authorities? No. Did they even inquire of Wackenhut an explanation of the deaths, riots, criminal indictments and contract terminations in the States? "Uh, we have no reason to contact Wackenhut." This eyes-wide-shut indifference supports the Home Secretary's born-again faith in prison privatization.

A civil action in Texas charges that at its juvenile detention center, "offensive sexual contact, deviant sexual intercourse and rape were rampant and where residents were physically injured, hospitalised with broken bones." And this week, Wackenhut will open a new Child Prison in County Durham for the Home Office.

It wasn't a convict but an employee who told me, "My 15 months in the prison were Hell on Earth. I'll never go back to Wackenhut." Those sentiments need not worry the company so long as they are not shared by a Home Secretary mesmerized by the free market in human misery.


Gregory Palast writes a fortnightly column, Inside Corporate America, for the Observer, London (Manchester Guardian Media Group), where this report first appeared (26 September 1999).

Comments or requests for reprints to: Gregory.palast@guardian.co.uk


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