CCA Horror Stories from Idaho

MSOP security counselor Zach Mulder worked in Idaho when the state had to take over a private CCA prison known as the Gladiator School. He’s been offering Minnesota lawmakers a rare look into how dangerous that transition can be.
MSOP security counselor Zach Mulder worked in Idaho when the state had to take over a private CCA prison known as the Gladiator School. He’s been offering Minnesota lawmakers a rare look into how dangerous that transition can be.

The state of Minnesota is once again considering doing business with a for-profit prison company with a terrible reputation.

Our AFSCME correctional officers worked hard to beat the bad idea back last year, but now Rep. Miller’s bill to reopen the privately owned prison is up before the House Public Safety Committee again on Tuesday at 10:15 a.m.

Before lawmakers give CoreCivic (AKA Corrections Corporation of America) a toehold here by leasing the company’s private prison in Appleton, they’d do well to look at what happened in Idaho.

A CCA prison near Boise was the subject of so many lawsuits and investigations, it became known as the Gladiator School for its history of brutality and mismanagement. Conditions at the Idaho Correctional Center got so bad, the state had to take over management. (CCA has faced so much scrutiny, it recently renamed itself CoreCivic.)

When that handover occurred, CCA followed a scorched-earth path that was potentially dangerous for inmates, clinicians and correctional officers alike. Zach Mulder and his mom, Gina, who both worked at the neighboring state-run South Idaho Correctional Institution, offer a rare glimpse inside that transfer of power.

 “When the state finally took it over, CCA didn’t allow us in until 12:01 that night,” says Zach Mulder, who’s now a security counselor at the Minnesota Sex Offender Program and AFSCME Local 1092 member. “They wiped the computers clean.”

Workers were left with mentally ill prisoners, with little idea of what their illnesses were or what medications they were taking, says his mom Gina Mulder, who was part of the team of clinicians who entered the prison after the handover.

“We had to start from scratch. We had to go in and do mental health assessments on virtually everybody because CCA didn’t do it,” says Gina, who now works at MSOP as a senior clinician. “We sat down at tables and had them line up. We went from unit to unit. That’s what we did all day long.”

She says CCA only offered two clinicians for more than 2,000 inmates, compared to 11 clinicians for about 1,700 people at her publicly run facility.

“There was no mental health care to speak of,” Gina says.  “It was crisis mode. There’s nothing close to rehabilitation in that situation. Inmates were basically on their own. It makes it an unsafe environment for staff and other inmates.”

The gangs were firmly in control. The facility experienced more assaults than all of the other Idaho state prisons combined, according to an Associated Press report.

“They ran the facility,” says Zach, who worked with inmates transferring between the two prisons, and had friends who were guards there. “They called it warrior-ing up – you go over there to learn to fight. When we had those guys come over to our facility because they had a tentative parole time set, they were always the worst ones getting in trouble, getting in fights, pushing drugs. It just gave us more pain than we needed.”

When inmates learned they were going to be transferred from SICI to CCA, they’d act out and come after staff. Some even threatened suicide, Gina says. When they arrived in her behavioral health unit, she says she’d ask if they were up for transfer. The answer was often, Yes.

“They were just afraid for their security and their safety,” Gina says. “It was a mess. They didn’t call it the ‘Gladiator School’ for nothing.”

Those gangs filled the vacuum left by inadequate staffing. CCA acknowledged it had understaffed its prison by thousands of hours, which violated its state contract. The company listed guards as working up to 48 hours straight to meet minimum staffing requirements, according to an Associated Press investigation.

“They were understaffed, they were underpaid, they were undertrained,” Zach Mulder says. “It’s scary because it’s not like they’re choosing to be understaffed, to make a lower wage than what I was making doing the same thing. It’s putting their lives in danger, it’s putting inmates’ lives in danger.”

It took professional correctional officers employed by the state time and hard work to get the prison back under control and teach the gangs who was in charge, Gina Mulder says.

CoreCivic has a long and well-documented history across the U.S. of cutting corners: “They’re not looking out for the best interests of their inmates or their employees,” Zach says. “They’re looking to make a dollar.”

“You come out as a ghost,” one inmate told him. There was minimal recreation time outdoors, and CCA didn’t offer the same level of vocational programming as state facilities like the Mulders’, which offered jobs including road work, forest firefighting and food preparation.

“We would give them the tools so when it’s time to go back out, you have a foothold and can stabilize yourself,” Zach says. “You have something to fall back on with work.”

“Corrections is a public service,” he adds. “We’re there to protect the public and rehabilitate these individuals to get them out to go live with their families. In a perfect world, we’d literally work ourselves out of a job.

“CCA doesn’t have that mentality of helping people. It’s warehousing. It’s Costco for humans.”

AFSCME Council 5 supports a ban on doing business with private prisons. The state’s currently housing about 500 inmates in county jails because of prison overcrowding, and some lawmakers say leasing the 1,600-bed Appleton prison would solve the problem. But that leaves 1,100 beds vacant, with the looming question of what happens to those empty beds and who pays for them.

Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy says the state doesn’t want or need the Appleton prison.

Instead, Roy, many lawmakers and AFSCME believe overcrowding is already being solved in a more humane and much cheaper way than leasing a prison from CCA.

A committee of lawmakers, defense attorneys and law enforcement proposed lessening the penalties for low-level, non-violent drug offenses, a measure that passed. Sen. Ron Latz, DFL, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, says this sentencing reform “treats addicts like addicts instead of hardened criminals,while those who should be in prison will still be there. The plan is expected to free up more than 600 beds.

Zach and Gina Mulder rooted for both sentencing reform and the ban on doing business with private prisons.

“I hope we will be able to eliminate the thought of having privatized prisons in the state of Minnesota,” Zach says. “I don’t believe any one person should benefit from, should make a profit from, taking another individual’s freedom. It’s morally wrong to me.”

“It cost the state of Idaho so much more than they ever saved, having to take it back over,” Gina says.

WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP: Attend the House Public Safety Committee Tuesday from 10:15 a.m. to noon at 10 State Office Building, Saint Paul.