Reporter Shines Light on Pretrial-Detention Contracts

MANHATTAN (CN) – Upbraiding the Justice Department for the failures of its pretrial detention system, an investigative journalist has brought a lawsuit to access information on deaths and other disturbances at the nonfederal facilities under contract with Uncle Sam.

Seth Freed Wessler filed his complaint Friday with a federal judge in Manhattan, just weeks after The Nation published his feature, “This Man Will Almost Certainly Die,” which investigated more than 100 deaths at private, immigrant-only prisons since 1998.

Though the new complaint makes no mention of undocumented immigrants, his suit does overlap with this issue in that he seeks information about a Feb. 20, 2015, riot at the Willacy County Regional Detention Center in Willacy County, Texas.

As reported by local news outlets, the riot at Willacy was started by a group of undocumented immigrants who were subjected to overcrowded conditions in a “tent city” while awaiting deportation. The South Texas prison was deemed “uninhabitable” after the riot and forced to shut down, eliminating 400 local jobs, according to a complaint the county filed this past December.

Wessler’s complaint says there tens of thousands of men and women are awaiting federal trials from the cells of state, local and private prison facilities under contract with the U.S. Marshals Service, or USMS.

Though the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General gave these facilities poor marks in a 2013 audit, according to the complaint, the Marshals Service still kept the bulk of its 52,000 detainees in such facilities in 2015.

Wessler says the audit chided USMS for “inconsistent and often ‘cursory’” oversight that allows any problems once identified to go uncorrected.

When it comes to pretrial detainees in the marshals’ custody, according to the complaint, the public has little information, “including the medical care they receive and the terms of the contracts or agreements that govern their incarceration in state, local or private prison facilities.”

Wessler says he is still waiting on a request he filed under the Freedom of Information Act in April 2016, seeking the Justice Department’s last six years of “records on deaths, suicides, violence, disturbances and other major incidents in facilities holding USMS detainees.”

The request also seeks all information on the Willacy riot.

Wessler’s complaint describes a disparity in the quality of oversight by the Office of the Federal Detention Trustee (OFDT), which uses a five-person team of experts to conduct prison inspections over three days, and by the Marshals Service, whose two-hour inspections are considered “collateral” duty for entry-level marshals.

Regarding the disturbance records, Wessler wants to know the name of anyone who died and how much time they spent in the marshals’ custody. Wessler is also interested in cause of death and what action the USMS took as a result. As to the facilities, Wessler wants to know the name of the operator, the type of operating agreement, what per diem the USMS paid, whether the facility has agreements with other federal agencies and what level of security it has. Wessler additionally asked for an “age and gender breakdown of detainees, arresting/detaining agency, daily population (as an average for each month), total number of people held in each facility each year, length of detention and medical reimbursement payment information,” according to the complaint.

Wessler spoke about his investigation earlier this month in a podcast with Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman. “The Bureau of Prisons has made a decision that they aren’t going to apply the same rules and standards to privatized prisons used to hold immigrants that it applies to the rest of its prison system,” he said, according to a transcript of the segment. “That means that these private companies are free to determine how they’re going to provide care. One of the ways that that happens is by employing lesser-trained, less expensive workers.”

Wessler’s complaint comes six months after the Department of Justice announced that it will try to phase out private prison contracts, on the heels of an audit that found they have more safety and security problems than government-run prisons.

The Department of Justice has not returned a request for comment.

Wessler is represented by Lawrence Lustberg at Gibbons P.C. in Newark, New Jersey.

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