Judicial nominees, prison exploitation and discriminatory country clubs

Belle Mead Country Club

These are the kind of people that President Bush is nominating to the bench — for lifetime appointments.

Gus Puryear is a well-connected Republican attorney who, after working for Bill Frist, went on to serve as general counsel for Corrections Corporation of America, a huge corporation that feeds off of the American prison system. CCA made $1.5 billion in 2004, and is the fifth largest prison system in the U.S. — behind the federal government and three states. CCA also runs the notorious Hutto detention center in Texas, which detains immigrants and their children in prison conditions.

But it isn’t Gusyear’s CCA employment that’s drawing criticism; it’s his membership in a discriminatory country club.

Yes, it is true that the club does not allow women to vote. In fact, women have their own class of membership—they’re called “lady members”—and lady members can’t vote or hold office, even Martha Ingram, who is listed on the club’s membership rolls. The only people who can vote are the club’s resident members and, lo and behold, all of them are men. The club’s “constitution,” which Puryear, as a judicial candidate essentially completing a take-home test, must have reviewed before answering Kennedy’s questions, notes the following about resident members: “They alone, to the exclusion of all other classes of membership, shall have the right to control, manage, vote and hold office in the club.” So that means that non-resident members, associate resident members (younger members like Puryear) and, of course, lady members can’t have any say in the governance of the club.

The club technically allows people of all races to join, but they only have one black member. And he lives in another state.

While I think it’s fairly clear that Puryear’s club membership should disqualify him, it’s his work on behalf of CCA that I find more damning. According to Wikipedia:

CCA is the largest private prison “provider” in the United States, with meteoric stock growth, more than doubling in the first eight months of 2006. Among other facilities, CCA runs T Don Hutto, a former medium-security prison in Taylor, TX which, since 2006, has held non-criminal, immigrant “detainees,” against their will, under a pass-through contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement division of Homeland Security. The basic contract pays CCA approximately $2.8 million monthly, for a maximum incarceration of 512 individuals. (Minimum = $5,000+ per prisoner.) Approximately half the prisoners are children, many of them born in this country. No prisoner held is charged with a crime, nor are they deemed to be a danger to national security; it is simply their immigration/amnesty request status that has marked them for imprisonment. This is the first (and only other) time since the interment of Japanese during WWII that children have been imprisoned by the United States. A recent lawsuit asserted that the children were being held in inhumane conditions. The resulting settlement (September 2007) gained on-site pediatric service for the children being incarcerated, as well as a requirement that the toilets in their open cells be made private with the addition of a shower curtain. Additional visitation hours, schooling, and recreational opportunities were also agreed upon. The facility continues to be the site of vigils and protests by various human rights groups.

Prisoners at CCA facilities do much of the work for the facility, including cooking and cleaning, and are paid $1 per day for their efforts. The Nation has a great piece on CCA’s profiteering on prisons and prisoners.

CCA’S T. Don Hutto prison, which is discussed in the above quote, is also the subject of this must-read New Yorker article. None of the incarcerated people in Hutto are criminals. Many of them are children. They’re mostly immigrants who came to the United States seeking amnesty.

The governing idea of Hutto was that detainees would constantly supervise their children—as a result, it wasn’t deemed a child-care facility, and required no relevant licensing. But this also meant that children had to be in the same room even when, say, their parents recounted stories of torture, rape, or domestic abuse. Barbara Hines, a law professor who runs an immigration clinic at the University of Texas, in Austin, and who was one of the first legal representatives to see detainees at Hutto, began bringing crayons and markers with her, hoping to distract the kids.

Children were regularly woken up at night by guards shining lights into their cells. They were roused each morning at five-thirty. Kids were not allowed to have stuffed animals, crayons, pencils, or pens in their cells. And they were not allowed to take the pictures they had made back to their cells and hang them up. When Hutto opened as an immigration-detention center, children attended school there only one hour a day. Detainees, including children, wore green or blue prison-issue scrubs. In November, 2006, Krista Gregory, who lives in Austin and works with church groups there, got a call from a couple of Hutto employees who, she says, were unhappy about the lack of supplies for child detainees. Gregory arranged for local churches to donate toys, baby blankets, and Bibles.

Staff members, who wore police-type uniforms, were mostly people who had backgrounds in corrections rather than in child welfare. Detainees said that when parents or children broke rules guards threatened them with separation from their children. Kevin Yourdkhani, at the prompting of one of Hines’s law students, wrote a brief description of one such occasion. “I was in my bed and my dad came to fix my bed,” he wrote. “When the police came and saw my dad in the room, he said, ‘If He comes and see my dad again in my room His going to put my mom in a siprate jail and my dad in a sipate jail and me a foster kid.’ I cried and cried so much that I lost my energy. I went to sleep. I felt If I will be siprated I can never see my parents again, and I will get stepparents and they will hurt me or maybe they will kill me.”

Do read the whole article.

And it’s not just Hutto that’s a problem. Private prisons run by CCA don’t have the same reporting requirements that federal and state prisons do, and CCA has purposely made it difficult for anyone to get information about its practices:

Getting information about Hutto—especially from the people who run it—is hard. Private prison companies are not subject to the same legal requirements as public prisons to provide incident reports on assaults, escapes, deaths, or rapes. It’s true that a company’s contract stipulates that it must report such incidents to the government agency for which it is a vender, and people seeking information about what goes on inside a private prison can submit a Freedom of Information Act request to the government agency. But this can be an exercise in frustration, as Judith Greene, a researcher who is a critic of private prisons, found out. Several years ago, she and a colleague, Joshua Miller, were doing research on a new prison in California City, California, that was to be operated by C.C.A. for the federal Bureau of Prisons. According to Greene, before awarding the contract the bureau had signalled that the government would not delegate to a private company the legal authority to use force against inmates. Greene and Miller wondered how this would work in practice. In a Freedom of Information Act request, Greene asked for documents that might shed light on this question. Eventually, she recalls, she heard from the Bureau of Prisons that it was prepared to give her the information but had to get permission from C.C.A.; a second letter informed her that C.C.A. had said no, claiming that the information she sought about the use of force was a business secret. Greene told me, “Prisons in general are to a great extent secretive, isolated places, but if you’re dealing with private prisons you’ve got an additional layer to penetrate in order to find out essential facts and figures. And government agencies seem to give a lot of the decision-making to the private companies when it comes to what to reveal.” A bill now pending in Congress would, for the first time, make private prisons as accountable about their daily operations as public ones.

It’s easier to gain access to the death-row section of most publicly run prisons than it is to get into Hutto, unless you are a detainee or an employee of C.C.A. Even Jorge Bustamante, a sociologist and a former Nobel Peace Prize nominee, who is the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights of Migrants, was denied access to Hutto. From Geneva, he had applied to visit, as part of a tour that he was making of immigration-detention facilities in the U.S, and permission was granted. But when he arrived in America, last May, Bustamante was told that permission had been revoked. Bustamante remains angry about the incident, and says he will mention it in a report that he plans to submit to the General Assembly this month. For my part, I got no response to repeated requests to tour the facility, which were sent by phone and fax to Evelyn Hernandez, the administrator of Hutto. (She also refused multiple requests to speak on the phone, as did top officials at C.C.A.) Two weeks after I submitted questions in writing to C.C.A. officials, I did receive some answers. Steven Owen, a spokesman for the corporation, wrote that “C.C.A. always strives to provide humane, safe and secure housing to the populations entrusted to our care in accordance with applicable laws and the expectations of our customers. We are proud of the company’s 25-year track record.” No reporters have been admitted on any occasion since a single-day group media tour, in February, 2007. Currently, the only way to see the inside of Hutto is to watch an intermittently blurry video available on YouTube, evidently filmed by immigration officials and later posted by a blogger. It shows kids and adults in blue and green scrubs walking down fluorescent-lit halls and eating food from plastic trays. There are brief shots of a prison cell outfitted with a crib and of a man lying on a couch, his wrist encircled by a bright-blue I.D. bracelet. Another sequence shows kids outside their cells, learning the alphabet song. The footage has no sound.

And the children in Hutto understand that they are in prison — and they’re depressed and scared.

Kevin, it must be said, was lucky. The plaintiffs’ lawyers soon figured out that the crayons and markers they had brought in to occupy the kids while they talked to their parents could also be politically useful. They were particularly so in the hands of articulate, indignant Kevin. One day, Kevin drew an American flag and wrote “Pleace help us” inside one of the stripes. He drew a picture of his common area, with sofas, tables, “police,” and “camra.” And he wrote a letter to Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister, in a rainbow of colors: “Dear Mr. Priminster Harper, I don’t like to stay in this jail. I’m only nine years old. I want to go to my school in Canada. I’m sleeping beside the wall. Please Mr. Priminster haper give visa for my family. This Place is not good for me. I want to get out of the cell.”

CCA receives tens of millions of dollars every year to run Hutto. And they know who lines their pockets:

Early investors in C.C.A. included Honey Alexander, the wife of Lamar Alexander, then the governor of Tennessee. Over the years, C.C.A. has continued to strengthen its political ties. The company’s PAC gave more than three hundred thousand dollars during the 2006 election cycle, overwhelmingly to Republican congressional candidates, and has given more than a hundred thousand so far for the 2008 elections. The company’s chairman, William Andrews, and its C.E.O., John Ferguson, have been generous donors to Republican senatorial and Presidential candidates. Philip Perry, who is the son-in-law of Dick Cheney, and who served as general counsel for the Department of Homeland Security between 2005 and 2007, lobbied for C.C.A. while he was at the law firm Latham & Watkins, to which he has returned. And C.C.A. spends a lot on lobbying. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in 2005, the year that Homeland Security awarded C.C.A. the Hutto contract, the company paid close to $3.4 million dollars to five different firms to lobby the federal government.

And, like the private military contractors that the Bush administration pays to do our dirty work in Iraq, private prison employees were long not subject to the same laws that federal and state prison employees are:

Last May, a guard at Hutto was caught engaging in sexual activity with a female detainee in the cell that she shared with her young child. The guard was videotaped crawling out of the detainee’s cell—trying, unsuccessfully, to avoid the camera—on two occasions, once at 11:36 P.M., seven minutes after entering, and once at 11:47 P.M., following a ten-minute visit. Employees watching the security camera alerted their supervisors. The man on the videotape was seen “adjusting his pants around the belt area” as he left, according to a report on the incident by federal investigators. (The report—or eighty of its four hundred pages, at least—was obtained by the Taylor Daily Press.) It is unclear if the activity was consensual, but any sexual contact between correctional officers and inmates in a federal prison is a crime. At the time of the incident, however, the law applied only to prisons under the authority of the Department of Justice, and not to immigrant-detention centers, which are under the authority of the Department of Homeland Security. The guard was not prosecuted. (This past July, Senator Dianne Feinstein, of California, introduced legislation that closed the loophole.)

So this is all Bad. And Puryear, the judicial nominee, is one of the legal architects of all of this Bad Stuff.

But, not surprisingly, it’s not his involvement with CCA that has him up for scrutiny — it’s his membership in a notoriously discriminatory country club that doesn’t allow women to vote and that only has one black member (who conveniently lives in another state).

I’m all for calling politicians and judges out on discriminatory memberships. His affiliation with the country club is certainly more than enough of a reason to question his ethics. But what the hell is wrong with us when prison profiteers who make millions imprisoning non-criminal immigrants and children (some of whom are citizens) are considered upstanding people who are qualified to serve on the bench? What’s going on when discriminatory country club memberships are an issue, but a career of exploiting immigrants and people of color is just dandy?

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15 comments for “Judicial nominees, prison exploitation and discriminatory country clubs

  1. signthelist
    March 9, 2008 at 8:01 pm

    Oh my god. I didn’t know places like that existed in America.

  2. March 9, 2008 at 8:25 pm

    I knew. It makes me angry every day. Stuff like this needs to be called out for what it is –gross abuses of human rights.

    I want to see Obama and Clinton decry this. Forget McCain and the Republicans, they’re lost causes.

  3. Lisa G.
    March 9, 2008 at 8:43 pm

    I’m devastated by this. My family is based not 30 minutes away from this place. And I’d never heard about it until now.


    I cannot believe that most Americans, if they knew about this, would be okay with it.

  4. Betsy
    March 9, 2008 at 8:43 pm

    Prisoners’ rights (not to mention detainees’ rights) are one of the quixotic causes I can think of. (I say that as someone for whom they are one of my top political priorities.) People in prison are probably the single most powerless constituency out there, less powerful than women, LGBT, virtually any other group I can think of. They can’t vote, and many of them won’t ever be able to vote. They are poor, they are considered morally tainted, and they have no standing with anyone and damned few advocates. It breaks my heart and angers me that we as a nation REFUSE to live up to our professed ideals of justice, equality, humanity, and compassion. You can see it everywhere – people joke about prison rape in popular culture all the time, as if because you were caught for possession of cocaine (for example) you deserve such a horrific violation of your human rights. It’s sickening, and I want to scream it from the rooftops every single day.

  5. March 10, 2008 at 12:30 am

    I knew prisons in America were bad and getting worse, but this is heart-breaking. We have no right to call ourselves the land of the free if this is how we treat children whose only crime is having the “wrong” set of parents.

  6. March 10, 2008 at 12:45 am

    Actually, there are many other reasons to oppose Puryear besides his country club membership, and some of them are getting press, too. For full details visit: http://www.againstpuryear.org.

  7. Bubkis
    March 10, 2008 at 12:14 pm

    CCA has powerful lobbyists who have been successful in canceling almost every skills training program in the federal prison system. Further, they have stymied all efforts toward new programs. They want prisoners to leave incarceration with no viable employment skill so that they will quickly reoffend and return to prison. This mentality is a result of looking at prisoners not as people, but as economic units that go to the bottom line.

    I don’t believe there is a hell beyond life here on earth, but the truly evil people who run and profit from CCA and its competitors have done their best to create one here. They maximize the profit from their hell holes by providing substandard food, medical care and environment for the human beings who are unfortunate enough to be put there by the BOP. Anyone who complains is brutally silenced. Shakespear’s quote from Cymbeline is appropriate to describe those who speak and work for CCA, “Thy tongue outvenoms all the worms of the Nile”.

  8. March 10, 2008 at 7:13 pm

    this just breaks my heart. i will never understand this sort of thing. who the fuck imprisons children?
    land of the free my ass…
    are there organizations out there trying to fix this?

  9. Caravelle
    March 11, 2008 at 8:32 am

    “People in prison are probably the single most powerless constituency out there, less powerful than women, LGBT, virtually any other group I can think of.”

    Actually there is one – *illegal immigrants* in prison. People who got there through the judicial system actually have a few rights; illegal immigrants don’t. I heard recently of a Mexican woman who came to visit her daughter in France but who had neglected to get all of the necessary paperwork (which had recently become more restrictive). She got carted to some containment camp with no right to contact her family or anything. So it’s not only the US.

  10. Observer
    March 20, 2008 at 2:12 am

    Since this article was written, an entirely different and much more important issue has surfaced. Has Gus Puryear constructed a system to launder, whitewash, soften and sanitize internal reports so that only the blandest documentation of corporate difficulties reaches those agencies with whom CCA contracts. There appears to be a growing body of hard evidence that this is indeed the case. Some serious incidents seem to be completely buried, neither available to the public nor the relevant authorities.

    Does any of this sound familiar? Does it remind one of Winston Smith’s job at the Ministry of Truth?

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