$100m US jail has everything - except prisoners

IT RISES like a mirage in California's barren Mojave desert, a white stone vision of an ideal city - but for the intimidating rolls of razor wire piled up along the perimeter fence. This is America's newest and, at $100m (pounds 62m), most expensive prison - a 2,300-bed medium-to- high-security facility by the country's largest private prison operator.

There is one problem with this glittering cage, however. It has no prisoners.

The California City Correctional Facility opened two months ago. With the US's prison population soaring, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) built the prison in the confident belief that the justice system would take all the prison beds it could find.

But the state of California, egged on by its powerful prison guards' union, has decided it doesn't like private prisons. So the computerised video surveillance cameras are trained on emptiness, the cell doors gape open, and Daniel Vasquez, the warden, is kicking his heels.

"I hope policymakers will see this as a viable alternative," he says "The state prisons are overcrowded. More than half the 58 counties of California have jails that are overcrowded too. As time goes on we're going to be difficult to ignore."

There is little doubt that the public system is teetering. The US has 1.8 million people, 445 per 100,000, locked up - a proportion unprecedented in modern world history and one that is increasing. California alone houses more than 170,000 offenders, making it the guardian of the biggest single prison system in the world.

The dramatic growth in the prison population is almost entirely due to government policy rather than the crime rate, which has decreased in recent years. Individual states have become tougher, passing longer sentences and imposing stricter parole conditions, while cutting back programmes for mental illness, drug rehabilitation and other social services. Petty delinquents and addicts are thus criminalised, because there is nowhere else to send them.

By now, the criminal justice system has developed what the Atlantic Monthly magazine described as a "prison-industrial complex", with guards' unions and construction companies lobbying lawmakers to build and fill new prisons. The state can barely keep up, however, resulting in deteriorating conditions and scandals involving brutality or neglect by prison guards and, frequently, violent death among inmates.

Private prisons have come into vogue along with the increase in incarceration. There is money to be made not only from the host state's prison population, but also from federal prisoners and from other states too poor to house their own prisoners, which prefer to "export" them instead.

Private prisons indubitably provide superior infrastructure, more up- to-date security and the possibility of better living conditions. But they have raised concerns, particularly because of their habit, at least in the US, of taking whatever prisoners they can get, regardless of the gravity of their crimes and the suitability of throwing them all in together.

At a prison operated by CCA in Youngstown, Ohio, several inmates have died at the hands of maximum-security prisoners who were not supposed to be there. Last year six particularly tough offenders staged a jailbreak just days after CCA had agreed to move its maximum-security prisoners out.

There are doubts, too, about cost-effectiveness. Most private-sector savings come through the use of non-unionised labour in remote locations such as California City; a consequence of this is a high turnover in staff and the risk of inadequate training.

For these reasons, California has resisted the national trend to privatisation. "If you're going to privatise, you want the system to be better, or cheaper, or both. We don't believe either point has been demonstrated," said Bob Presley, secretary of California's Youth and Adult Correctional Agency.

CCA and other companies accuse the state of bad faith, pointing to the vast campaign contributions made by the main prison guards' union ($4.1m last year, against $280,000 distributed to politicians by CCA) as the only relevant factor. In the company's view, however, no amount of public- sector protectionism is going to hold California's resolve for long, simply because the burden of administering the system is growing too heavy.

CCA is building three unsolicited prisons in California in all. They may be fighting for inmates now - receiving largely from county or federal jurisdictions, if at all - but the company is betting that the lure of that mirage in the desert will soon be irresistible.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Dawkins: 'There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable'
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Sport
Malky Mackay salutes the Cardiff fans after the 3-1 defeat at Liverpool on Sunday
footballFormer Cardiff boss accused of sending homophobic, racist and messages
Sport
Rodgers showered praise on Balotelli last week, which led to speculation he could sign the AC Milan front man
transfers
Life and Style
life – it's not, says Rachel McKinnon
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing & PR Assistant - NW London

£15 - £17 per hour: Ashdown Group: Marketing & PR Assistant - Kentish Town are...

Senior Network Integration/Test Engineer

£250 - £300 per day: Orgtel: Senior Network Integration/Test Engineer Berkshir...

Software Developer - Newcastle - £30,000 - £37,000 + benefits

£30000 - £37000 per annum + attractive benefits: Ashdown Group: .NET Developer...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home