by Joseph Neff and Alysia Santo
This article was originally published by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system, in partnership with The Clarion-Ledger, Mississippi Today and The Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting. Follow @MarshallProj on Twitter, find them on Facebook and sign up for The Marshall Project’s newsletter online.
When Darrell Adams showed up for an overnight shift at the Marshall County Correctional Facility in rural Mississippi, he was one of six officers guarding about 1,000 prisoners.
Adams said he thought that was normal; only half-a-dozen guards had been turning up each night during the three months he’d worked at the prison, which is run by Management & Training Corporation. He didn’t know the state’s contract with MTC required at least 19 officers.
On April 3, 2019, Adams escorted a nurse to deliver medicine in a unit where the most dangerous prisoners were held in solitary confinement. The contract required a sergeant and an officer to be there at all times. But that night, Adams and the nurse said, he was the sole guard working the unit, and was also covering for six absent officers in three other buildings.
As Adams was leaving the unit, a prisoner slipped out of his cell, sneaked up behind Adams and smashed his head into the steel door frame. As the nurse watched in horror, the prisoner dragged Adams inside the cell block, shut the door and beat him unconscious.
Prisons across the country, both public and private, are struggling with staff shortages. But the circumstances that led to the attack on Adams illustrate a perverse financial incentive unique to private prisons: While fewer workers means more danger for staff and incarcerated people, it can create more profit for companies like MTC.
This problem is acute in Mississippi, where state officials failed to enforce contractual penalties that punish short staffing. Instead, they continued to pay MTC the salaries of absent employees, aka ghost workers.
By contract, MTC must have a set number of guards on every shift at its three Mississippi prisons. When a mandatory position isn’t filled, the company is supposed to repay the state the wages plus a 25 percent penalty. At the prison where Adams was attacked, the company paid some refunds to the state for several years. But MTC invoices show those repayments dropped from more than $700,000 in 2017 to only $23,000 in 2018, even as the staff vacancy rate rose.
In the company’s two other Mississippi prisons, MTC didn’t repay a penny from 2013 to 2019, despite understaffing, allowing the company to pocket millions of taxpayers’ dollars for ghost workers’ pay, according to records analyzed by The Marshall Project.
Other states have forced MTC and other private prison companies to pay back millions of dollars for vacant positions and other contractual violations. Some came to light after riots, escapes, murders and sexual assaults drew attention to the company’s staffing shortfalls.
Neither MTC nor state officials would discuss how much the company owes for unfilled shifts. To estimate that amount, The Marshall Project obtained the company’s monthly invoices through public records requests, as well as data on vacant positions MTC submitted to the state from 2013 to 2019. Our analysis showed that MTC should have repaid about $6 million at Wilkinson County Correctional Facility, $950,000 at East Mississippi Correctional Facility, and $800,000 at Marshall.
MTC spokesman Issa Arnita declined to address our analysis. He attributed staff shortages to low pay resulting from a state law that requires that private prisons cost 10 percent less to operate than public facilities, as well as the small labor pools near the rural prisons.
“Attempting to make a connection between staff shortages and profit is reckless and wrong,” Arnita said. “Our goal is always to have all vacancies filled.”
After eight years of contracting with MTC, the Mississippi Department of Corrections said that in recent months it began withholding payments from the company for failing to meet staffing requirements. Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain declined an interview request.
In a statement, he said his department has withheld $208,000 from MTC for unfilled positions since he took office in June.
Although MTC is the nation’s third-largest private prison company, it lacks the high public profile and notoriety of its larger publicly traded rivals, CoreCivic and GEO Group.
Based in Centerville, Utah, MTC is privately owned and run by a prominent Utah family, the Marquardts. Through the company spokesman, members of the family declined to comment.
Created to seek contracts to operate federal job training centers, MTC expanded into private prisons in 1987. The company now runs 20 prisons in the United States and two overseas, as well as five immigrant detention facilities. Dun & Bradstreet reports the company had annual revenues of $667 million.
MTC has a long history of failing to meet contractual obligations in its prisons, in some cases with violent consequences.
In 2006, the company built what was then the nation’s largest immigration detention facility north of Brownsville, Texas. It was understaffed, according to human rights groups, and there were complaints of poor medical care and nutrition, as well as allegations of physical and sexual abuse of detainees. MTC’s spokesman said those claims were “not true and were never substantiated.” The federal government closed the facility in 2015 after prisoners seized control for two days and set it on fire, leading the government to declare it “uninhabitable.”
A similar situation unfolded at the Kingman prison in Arizona, which MTC was hired to run in 2004. Two years later, prison officials said MTC’s understaffing violated its contract. But the dysfunction at Kingman wasn’t fully revealed until 2010, when a group of prisoners escaped and carjacked and murdered a retired couple. State investigators blamed a broken alarm system, unsecured doors, and untrained staff.
Arizona prison officials levied nearly $2 million in fines between 2006 and 2013 for understaffing. Still, the deficiencies remained. In 2015, a three-day riot broke out; 16 people were injured and the facility was badly damaged. State officials described “a culture of disorganization, disengagement, and disregard,” and soon after, the governor cancelled MTC’s contract. The company disputes the state’s findings.
In Mississippi, MTC understaffing was an issue at a 2018 trial after civil rights groups sued over bad prison conditions. The corrections commissioner at the time, Pelicia Hall, took the witness stand and was asked whether MTC had repaid the state for ghost workers.
“I am not aware of that,” Hall testified. She did not respond to messages from The Marshall Project.
Even after that court appearance, Hall and other prison officials failed to impose financial penalties on MTC as low staffing made its prisons increasingly dangerous.
Wilkinson, a high-security prison for 950 men, was so violent and understaffed that its then-warden admitted in a 2018 internal audit that he had ceded control to prison gangs. Yet MTC invoices show the company refunded nothing to the state for vacant positions at Wilkinson between 2013 and 2019. The state paid MTC $87 million to run the prison over this period.
In the internal audit, MTC noted that Wilkinson routinely failed to fill two or three mandatory positions every shift. The overnight shift was the worst: A dozen officers have told The Marshall Project that it was common for five or six guards to run the prison when the contract called for a minimum of 30 overnight.
Markus Chatman, 31, had been working at Wilkinson for two months when he was stabbed in May of 2019 in the prison’s most dangerous unit.
He and his coworkers were escorting men to and from the showers one afternoon when a prisoner pulled out a shank and demanded his keys. Chatman says the other two officers fled as he struggled with the prisoner, who stabbed him in the back and collarbone and sliced his arm. He estimated only a dozen guards had shown up to work the day he was attacked; the contract requires 43 officers on the day shift.
Chatman returned to work but quit a few weeks later. The prison is “very understaffed,” he said. People fail to show up for shifts so often, he said, “you wouldn’t believe they still had a job there.”
MTC did not respond to questions about Chatman’s assertions.
It’s difficult to put an exact dollar amount on how much MTC owes the state for ghost workers. The Marshall Project’s estimate is conservative and based on MTC invoices and monthly vacancy reports. A former manager said Wilkinson undoubtedly owed the state more than The Marshall Project’s estimate of $6 million.
More precise numbers could have been found in shift rosters filed with the state, but Mississippi officials denied The Marshall Project’s public records request for those documents. Payroll data would be even more exact, but those records are not public because they are maintained by MTC. Employee pay is the single biggest cost of running a prison.
MTC went to court to try to redact staffing patterns from contracts that have been posted for years on the website transparency, mississippi.gov. The Marshall Project is suing to obtain weekly reports from state officials responsible for monitoring the prisons; the corrections department had agreed to provide these records until MTC intervened, citing security concerns.
“Private prison companies are always trying to minimize their operating costs, because that is how they increase their margins and revenue,” said Shahrzad Habibi, research and policy director of In the Public Interest, which opposes privatization of public services. Habibi has analyzed dozens of private prison contracts nationwide, and says understaffing and paying subpar wages are common ways to increase profits.
“That’s taxpayer money that could actually be reinvested in the system to make it better,” she said.
At the Marshall prison, short staffing eroded medical care, according to Dr. Amy Woods, who according to court records fought with prison officials when they refused to take injured prisoners to the hospital for appropriate medical care.
Woods worked for Centurion, a private health care provider hired by the corrections department. She declined to speak with The Marshall Project, but her story is detailed in the federal employment lawsuit she filed against MTC, Centurion, and the warden after she was pushed out last year. MTC declined to discuss the case.
Woods’ suit said that in April 2019, the warden delayed her order to take a prisoner who said he was raped to a hospital for evaluation, even though DNA evidence must be collected as soon as possible.
Two months later, a nurse told Woods that a prisoner bit off a big chunk of another man’s ear, according to Woods’ lawsuit. Fearing the victim could bleed to death, Woods ordered he be taken to the local hospital. The emergency doctor said the injury was too severe to be treated there, and urged Woods to transfer the man to a medical center in Jackson, the state capital.
Woods agreed, the lawsuit says. But a prison captain told Woods that there were not enough guards available and ordered the man returned to prison. Woods recalled her reply: “If his ear rots off and he sues someone, it’s going to be you and not me.” Prison officials eventually relented and sent the man to Jackson late that afternoon.
Two days after that incident, the warden accused Woods of disclosing the short staffing problems to a local legislator who chaired the House Corrections Committee, her lawsuit says. Woods denied it.
That legislator was state Rep. Bill Kinkade, who testified in a deposition in Woods’ case that a different prison employee had complained that the extreme short staffing made Marshall dangerous for staff and prisoners. Kinkade said he took his concerns to top state corrections officials, but the short staffing continued.
The warden revoked Woods’ security clearance, effectively firing her, even though she worked for Centurion. Kinkade, the warden, and MTC declined to comment on Woods’ case, which is scheduled for trial in January. Centurion did not respond to requests for comment.
For those who work at MTC prisons, the consequences of the short staffing can be permanent. Adams, the corrections officer beaten at Marshall last year, said he doesn’t remember being attacked. He slipped in and out of consciousness as he was put on a helicopter and flown to a trauma center in Memphis, where doctors diagnosed traumatic brain injury, he said. Surgeons used six slim metal strips to wire together his shattered eye socket, cheek and jaw.
Adams never returned to Marshall. He drives a tow truck now. He says that throbbing pain in his cheek reminds him daily of his three months as a correctional officer.
“I really want somebody to crack down on this prison, because this prison really dropped the ball,” he said. “I should have never been there by myself.”