$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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
sportWWE latest including Sting vs Triple H, Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns and The Undertaker vs Bray Wyatt
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor