The Bureau of Prisons notified one of the country’s leading private prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America, on July 29 that a long-troubled federal prison the company had operated for 16 years will be closed down. The notice is exceptional in the bureau’s history of overseeing its privatized prisons – in the last decade, it has ended only three other private prison contracts before their contracts were set to expire – and it follows reporting by The Nation and The Investigative Fund that documented poor medical care at the prison, including at least three questionable deaths.

The minimum-security Cibola County Correctional Center, in Milan, New Mexico, holds 1,200 prisoners, all noncitizens convicted of federal crimes, who will be moved to other prisons before the facility is shuttered at the end of September.

There’s more to the story

Cibola is one of several facilities that have been the focus of a Nation and Investigative Fund series that has uncovered dozens of questionable deaths in 11 privatized federal prisons. Based on 30,000 pages of previously unreleased federal records obtained through an open records lawsuit, we documented dozens of premature deaths following shoddy medical care in these federal prisons, which are used to hold noncitizens. The documents, as well as interviews with former Bureau of Prisons officials and contractors’ medical staff, reveal the bureau’s own oversight monitors issuing increasingly stern warnings about medical neglect, understaffing of medical units and underperforming internal quality control systems. Yet federal administrators repeatedly extended contracts at the same prisons that the agency’s monitors declared to be in trouble.

The standard contract offers private companies a 10-year agreement to operate the prisons. Cibola marks only the fourth time in the last decade that the Bureau of Prisons has walked away from a contract prior to the end of that 10-year period. Each time it has done so, including with Corrections Corporation of America’s Cibola contract, it has ended the contracts as no-fault terminations. Not once has the Bureau of Prisons terminated a contract for default, which could negatively affect a company’s ability to acquire a new federal contract.

The last privatized federal prison to lose a contract before the end of the normal 10-year agreement was the Willacy County Correctional Center in south Texas. As I reported in The Nation last year, Willacy erupted in a major riot in February 2015, after guards responded to a protest over medical care with tear gas and rubber bullets. The prisoners so ransacked that facility that the Bureau of Prisons declared it uninhabitable and was forced to end the contract it had signed with Management & Training Corporation.

As The Nation detailed in June, Cibola has been among the Bureau of Prison’s most problem-prone private prisons, accumulating more demerits from bureau monitors than any other private facility for repeated and systemic violations in the medical unit. Prison medical staff repeatedly failed to evaluate and treat patients in accordance with policy, and for months on end the prison operated without a single medical doctor.

Corrections Corporation of America spokesperson Jonathan Burns told The Nation in an email that the company is “disappointed with the decision” to end the Cibola contract, which was not set to expire until 2020. He did not reply to a question about any attempts by the company to address medical deficiencies.

The Bureau of Prisons did not respond substantively to questions about whether the decision to close Cibola was related to documented health services problems. A bureau spokesperson wrote, “The Bureau decided it was not in our best interests” to extend the contract.

In April 2014, Bureau of Prisons monitors found Cibola’s medical unit was operating far out of compliance with federal standards, and the agency warned Corrections Corporation of America to correct course. When monitors returned, however, they discovered that the organization had failed to comply. For the fifth time in a row, monitors found that the prison hadn’t appropriately treated inmates with TB. For the third consecutive time, HIV care was also not up to standard. For the fourth time, inmates were not properly assessed for medical issues. And the oversight monitors discovered a prisoner had died after a long delay in care following a heart attack.

“The contractor failed to implement corrective action for the past 5 years,” a Bureau of Prisons official wrote to Corrections Corporation of America in a 2015 letter I obtained last week through my open records lawsuit.

The bureau continued to warn Corrections Corporation of America about the facility, and it even appeared to show some improvement, according to bureau records. But in March 2015 another prisoner died: a 39-year-old Mexican man named Jelacio Martinez-Lopez, who federal officials had previously flagged as suicidal, hanged himself after he was left alone and untreated in a cell.

Renee Wilkins, a psychologist, served as Cibola’s mental health director for a decade, until her retirement shortly after Martinez-Lopez’s suicide. She said last week that the prison’s health and mental health departments were consistently understaffed and that she lacked necessary resources to treat seriously mentally ill patients.

Despite what Wilkins called “constant problems with staffing of our medical department,” an issue the Bureau of Prisons has noted across the federal prison system, bureau administrators have renewed or extended the agreement with Corrections Corporation of America nine times since the Cibola contact was first inked in 2000.

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“The Bureau of Prisons’ decision to cancel the Cibola private prison contract is welcome but long overdue,” said Carl Takei of the ACLU, “given the Corrections Corporation of America’s well-documented, sometimes deadly history of failing to meet contractually mandated medical standards. But it’s important to remember that the bureau still contracts with 10 other private prisons that hold noncitizen prisoners with little transparency, limited oversight and similarly grisly records.”

The Department of Justice’s Inspector General last week released an investigation of the bureau’s system of contract prisons and federal oversight of them. The report found that on a set of safety measures, the private prisons, which at the time of the study held 22,000 men, performed more poorly than bureau-run facilities. In the area of medical care, the bureau’s efforts to monitor the prisons were hobbled by poor communication between various parts of the oversight infrastructure and weak evaluation tools. When prisoners died in the contract facilities, the investigators discovered, the bureau had not set up adequate procedures “to require corrective action from the contractor.” Echoing our own investigation, the report said that problems went “uncorrected for extended periods,” because the Bureau of Prisons had no systems in place to “proactively take action before a problem becomes acute or systemic.”

In the next nine months, 10 more contracts will be up for renewal or extension. “The bureau should be moving more quickly to shut down this entire network of shadow prisons,” Takei added.

Seth Freed Wessler

Seth Freed Wessler is an independent journalist and senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. He is the recipient of a 2014-15 Soros Justice Media Fellowship.