From a glance at his background, one might assume that James F. Slattery would have a difficult time convincing any state in America to entrust him with the supervision of its lawbreaking youth.
Over the past quarter century, Slattery’s for-profit prison enterprises have run afoul of the Justice Department and authorities in New York, Florida, Maryland, Nevada and Texas for alleged offenses ranging from condoning abuse of inmates to plying politicians with undisclosed gifts while seeking to secure state contracts.
In 2001, an 18-year-old committed to a Texas boot camp operated by one of Slattery’s previous companies, Correctional Services Corp., came down with pneumonia and pleaded to see a doctor as he struggled to breathe. Guards accused the teen of faking it and forced him to do pushups in his own vomit, according to Texas law enforcement reports. After nine days of medical neglect, he died.
That same year, auditors in Maryland found that staff at one of Slattery’s juvenile facilities coaxed inmates to fight on Saturday mornings as a way to settle disputes from earlier in the week. In recent years, the company has failed to report riots, assaults and claims of sexual abuse at its juvenile prisons in Florida, according to a review of state records and accounts from former employees and inmates.
Despite that history, Slattery’s current company, Youth Services International, has retained and even expanded its contracts to operate juvenile prisons in several states. The company has capitalized on budgetary strains across the country as governments embrace privatization in pursuit of cost savings. Nearly 40 percent of the nation’s juvenile delinquents are today committed to private facilities, according to the most recent federal data from 2011, up from about 33 percent twelve years earlier.
Over the past two decades, more than 40,000 boys and girls in 16 states have gone through one of Slattery’s prisons, boot camps or detention centers, according to a Huffington Post analysis of juvenile facility data.
The private prison industry has long fueled its growth on the proposition that it is a boon to taxpayers, delivering better outcomes at lower costs than state facilities. But significant evidence undermines that argument: the tendency of young people to return to crime once they get out, for example, and long-term contracts that can leave states obligated to fill prison beds. The harsh conditions confronting youth inside YSI’s facilities, moreover, show the serious problems that can arise when government hands over social services to private contractors and essentially walks away.
Those held at YSI facilities across the country have frequently faced beatings, neglect, sexual abuse and unsanitary food over the past two decades, according to a HuffPost investigation that included interviews with 14 former employees and a review of thousands of pages of state audits, lawsuits, local police reports and probes by state and federal agencies. Out of more than 300 institutions surveyed, a YSI detention center in Georgia had the highest rate of youth alleging sexual assaults in the country, according to a recent report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
In Florida, where private contractors have in recent years taken control of all of the state’s 3,300 youth prison beds, YSI now manages more than $100 million in contracts, about 10 percent of the system. Its facilities have generated conspicuously large numbers of claims that guards have assaulted youth, according to a HuffPost compilation of state reports. A YSI facility in Palm Beach County had the highest rate of reported sexual assaults out of 36 facilities reviewed in Florida, the Bureau of Justice Statistics report found.
The state’s sweeping privatization of its juvenile incarceration system has produced some of the worst re-offending rates in the nation. More than 40 percent of youth offenders sent to one of Florida’s juvenile prisons wind up arrested and convicted of another crime within a year of their release, according to state data. In New York state, where historically no youth offenders have been held in private institutions, 25 percent are convicted again within that timeframe.
Slattery and other Youth Services International executives declined interview requests over several months. In an emailed response to written questions, a senior vice president, Jesse Williams, asserted that the company carefully looks after its charges and delivers value to taxpayers.
“We are the best operators in the state of Florida, and that is why we continue to have contracts awarded to us,” Williams said. “While there have been occasional issues, we are inspected regularly and overwhelmingly receive positive reports.”
He added that the company has introduced “independent, third-party reviews” of the programs listed in the Bureau of Justice Statistics report and has engaged national experts on prison sexual abuse in an effort to improve conditions.
More than a decade has passed since a Florida judge tongue-lashed Correctional Services Corp., Slattery’s former company, during a hearing convened to probe widespread complaints of violence at one of its facilities two hours north of Miami. Juvenile Judge Ron Alvarez was so horrified by the descriptions of that particular institution — a fetid, graffiti-covered jail called the Pahokee Youth Development Center — that he compared it to a “Third World country that is controlled by ... some type of evil power.”
In a recent interview, the same judge expressed amazement that Slattery has continued to run facilities in Florida right up to the present day. “I don’t know how the hell they still have business with the state,” Alvarez said.
This is how.
A one-time New York City hotelier who began renting out rooms to prisoners in 1989, Slattery has established a dominant perch in the juvenile corrections business through an astute cultivation of political connections and a crafty gaming of the private contracting system.
Even as reports of negligence and poor treatment of inmates have piled up, his companies have kept their records clean by habitually pulling out of contracts before the government takes official action, HuffPost found.
In Florida, his companies have exploited lax state oversight while leaning on powerful allies inside the government to keep the contracts flowing. Slattery, his wife, Diane, and other executives have been prodigious political rainmakers in Florida, donating more than $400,000 to state candidates and committees over the last 15 years, according to HuffPost’s review. The recipient of the largest share of those dollars was the Florida Republican Party, which took in more than $276,000 in that time. Former Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos, an avid supporter of prison privatization, received more than $15,000 from company executives during state and federal races.
The company has given more in Florida over the past 15 years than the combined donations of Office Depot and Darden Restaurants, Inc., two of the state's largest Fortune 500 corporations.
Among the company’s lobbyists in Tallahassee is Jonathan Costello, who served as legislative affairs director for Republican Florida Gov. Rick Scott in 2011 and 2012. Gary Rutledge, another YSI lobbyist, served on Scott’s inaugural committee after his 2010 victory.
“We regularly hire companies that have abysmal track records of performance, but great track records of political campaign contributions,” said Dan Gelber, a former Florida senator and state representative who has been critical of the state’s juvenile justice policies.
Williams, the YSI spokesman, said the company is “committed to supporting people who we believe will be effective in a political position, regardless of whether they would have an impact in our industry.” Lobbyists, he added, “can be extremely helpful” in “clarifying to legislators the realities of the operations of juvenile facilities.”
A former executive who worked with Slattery for five years in Florida said the company’s success in the state reflected two areas of expertise — relentless cost-cutting and political gamesmanship.
“There was always the sense that I was working for a businessman who didn’t understand the system of juvenile justice,” said the former executive, who spoke on condition he not be named. “My mandate was to cut positions, cut programs, look for efficiencies — all the while making sure that the state we were contracting with remained happy. I always felt like there was more priority at the highest level given to managing political relationships than running the core of the business.”
Over the years, YSI has brought in seasoned former government bureaucrats who are savvy about the often arcane federal and state processes through which private companies secure contracts to run public facilities.
The company’s executive vice president, Woodrow Harper, is a former deputy secretary of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice – now the company’s primary source of revenue.
“It’s everything that’s wrong with politics rolled up in a package,” said Evan Jenne, a former Florida state representative who toured one of YSI’s youth facilities after local public defenders raised concerns. “You’re talking about society failing children. It’s politically motivated, and it’s money-motivated.”
Political Contributions from Private Prison Firms
Officials at the state Department of Juvenile Justice did not respond to questions about YSI.
A department spokeswoman, Meghan Speakes Collins, pointed to overall improvements the state has made in its contract monitoring process, such as conducting more interviews with randomly selected youth to get a better understanding of conditions and analyzing problematic trends such as high staff turnover.
“Our primary concern is the health and safety of the youth in our care and we take any allegation of misconduct very seriously,” she wrote in an emailed statement. “We have a comprehensive reporting system in which any incident is thoroughly investigated and corrective action is taken as necessary.”
Experts say the continued growth of for-profit prison operators like Youth Services International amounts to a cautionary tale about the perils of privatization: In a drive to cut costs, Florida has effectively abdicated its responsibility for some of its most troubled children, leaving them in the hands of companies focused solely on the bottom line.
“One of the problems with private corrections is that you are trying to squeeze profit margins out of an economic picture that doesn’t allow for very much,” said Bart Lubow, a leading juvenile justice expert who heads the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. “So you either hire people for minimum wage who are afraid of the environment in which they work, or you don’t feed people properly. There are not a lot of margins.”
Rats in a Maze
Florida logs reports of serious incidents that occur inside its juvenile prisons, but the state does not maintain a database that allows for the analysis of trends across the system. HuffPost obtained the documents through Florida’s public records law and compiled incident reports logged between 2008 and 2012. According to the data, YSI’s facilities generated a disproportionate share of reports of prison staff allegedly injuring youth offenders by using excessive force.
Although YSI oversaw only about 9 percent of the state’s juvenile jail beds during the past five years, the company was responsible for nearly 15 percent of all reported cases of excessive force and injured youths.
In 2012, 23 incidents of excessive force were reported at YSI facilities. By comparison, G4S Youth Services — the state’s largest private provider of youth prison beds — generated 21 such reports, despite overseeing nearly three times as many beds.
Among the other key findings from HuffPost’s investigation:
- Staff underreport serious incidents such as major fights and staff assaults in an effort to keep the state in the dark and avoid additional scrutiny – a violation of the company’s contracts as well as Department of Juvenile Justice rules requiring that contracted staff report such incidents to state authorities.
- Though state guidelines prohibit “unnecessarily harsh or indecent treatment,” YSI guards have frequently resorted to violence in confrontations with youth, slapping and choking inmates and sometimes fracturing bones, according to police reports. Former employees told HuffPost that YSI often fails to document such incidents.
- Staff turnover at YSI’s prisons is rampant, leaving inexperienced guards to manage a tough population.
- At YSI facilities, food is often in short supply and frequently undercooked. Youth interviewed by HuffPost recounted being served bloody, raw chicken and sometimes finding flies inside pre-cooked dishes. In order to get enough food, youth are allowed to gamble through card games and sports bets while trading “picks” — the right to take someone else’s food at the next meal.
Former employees recall going without basic supplies such as toilet paper, deodorant and tampons — also violations of department policy. They say they lacked the funds to provide activities for the youth held in YSI’s prisons.
“We were kept like rats in a trap, in a maze,” said Angela Phillips, a former shift supervisor at Broward Girls Academy in Pembroke Pines, northwest of Miami. “There was no outlet and no stimulation, so they would just turn on each other, and turn on staff. That’s how it was day in, day out.”
The company spokesman, Jesse Williams, dismissed claims that YSI fails to report incidents, saying the company always complies with state guidelines. “Our reporting process is the best in the industry,” he said.
He argued that YSI’s employee turnover rate and salaries are in line with the industry average. “The job is a difficult one,” he said. “Despite our best efforts to assess a candidate’s fitness for the position, which include employment and background screening and proper training, we don’t know of their true suitability until they are well into the job.”
Local public defenders and groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center have for years forwarded concerns about YSI facilities to the state, but Florida has done little to investigate allegations of verbal and physical abuse.
In the summer of 2012, after the Broward County Public Defender’s Office sent a letter to the Department of Juvenile Justice outlining issues with food and fighting at a different facility, the state inspector handed out a pro-forma questionnaire to about 20 boys there.
Last year, the state declined to renew YSI’s contract for that program, a 154-bed facility called Thompson Academy where state officials over the years had documented frequent violence and failures to report serious incidents. But that decision was not due to poor performance, according to a letter the state sent to the company in August 2012. Indeed, this year, the state awarded YSI another contract to manage a facility less than a mile away.
“I always think it’s ironic that you can’t get a job as a janitor for the Department of Juvenile Justice — understandably so — if you have any kind of conviction on your record,” said Marie Osborne, the chief juvenile public defender in Miami-Dade County, who has followed YSI for more than a decade. “They’re scrupulous with individual employees, but a corporation can have this corporate rap sheet, and it’s no problem. They can get contracts.”
Timeline: The rise of James Slattery's private prison empire
Before James Slattery came to embody the for-profit corrections business, he built a career in another industry that thrives on high occupancy rates: hotels.
A graduate of St. John’s University in Queens, N.Y., Slattery worked for the Sheraton Hotel corporation beginning in the 1970s. While working at a hotel in Queens, Slattery became close to his boss’s son, Morris Horn. The two joined forces with other investors to start a property management company, buying up older hotels across New York City.
But as New York’s real estate market dried up in the 1980s amid fears of crime, Slattery and his business partners began searching for more rewarding pursuits. They discovered the growing — and lucrative — world of doing business with the government.
With President Ronald Reagan in office, the 1980s marked one of the first major movements toward the privatization of government services. Outsourcing government functions to private companies was widely embraced as a means of seeking taxpayer relief. His administration and some in Congress floated the idea of privatizing U.S. Customs inspections, electrical power utilities and, eventually, the management of federal prison systems.
In New York City, property owners learned that if they opened up their buildings to growing numbers of homeless people and families on welfare, they could capture local and federal anti-poverty dollars — a steady stream of revenue. So-called welfare hotels proliferated, becoming de facto warehouses for people grappling with mental illness, drug addiction and extreme poverty.
The hotels were among the most squalid buildings in the city, racking up hundreds of code violations. Slattery’s company managed a particularly notorious example, the Brooklyn Arms, a once-lavish hotel across from the Brooklyn Academy of Music that had deteriorated into a ramshackle blight on the neighborhood. The property was infested with rodents and cockroaches, and some rooms lacked running water.
In 1986, two young men scuffling in a hallway in the Brooklyn Arms fell down a broken elevator shaft and plunged 15 stories to their deaths. A few weeks later, four children who had been left alone at the hotel for hours died in a fire.
By 1989, Mayor Ed Koch’s administration had succeeded in closing many of the city’s crime-ridden welfare hotels, including the Brooklyn Arms. Slattery’s management group soon set its sights on a new pot of government money: prison halfway houses.
Slattery and Horn proposed leasing out floors of their hotels as re-entry housing for newly released federal inmates, taking advantage of a surge in prison populations nationwide. In 1989, one of their hotels, a midtown Manhattan property called LeMarquis, opened some of its rooms to federal inmates.
Slattery and Horn called the new company Esmor, Inc. They laid out ambitious expansion goals that included running a variety of facilities that would house federal prisoners, undocumented immigrants and juvenile delinquents. “We saw a significant demand,” Slattery told Forbes magazine in 1995, “and limited supply.”
As federal prison officials awarded Esmor an emergency contract to operate a halfway house in Brooklyn, local community leaders challenged the decision, questioning why the same people who had managed problem-plagued welfare hotels should be given fresh responsibility.
“We do not want that group doing anything up here because they are not trustworthy and do not deserve our support,” Democratic New York state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery said at a community meeting in 1989, according to Newsday.
Less than three years after Esmor opened LeMarquis to former inmates, federal inspectors from the Bureau of Prisons found that parts of the building were turning to ruin. Inspectors documented “low-paid, untrained employees, poor building conditions, from vermin and leaky plumbing to exposed electrical wires and other fire hazards, and inadequate, barely edible food.” Federal prison officials were close to canceling the contract in 1992, according to media accounts at the time, but they said conditions at the facility started to improve after frequent inspections.
In a federal lawsuit, one LeMarquis employee, Richard Moore, alleged that he had been severely beaten by another employee – at the direction of management – after he reported poor conditions to federal inspectors. In another federal lawsuit, four female inmates asserted that they had been raped and assaulted by Esmor’s “resident advocate” – the employee who was supposed to protect inmates by handling their grievances. The female inmates’ cases were settled; Moore’s case was administratively closed, after he became ill.
By the mid-1990s, Esmor had expanded far beyond its New York City origins, winning contracts to manage a boot camp for young boys and adults outside of Forth Worth, Texas, and immigration detention centers in New Jersey and Washington state.
As the company grew and sought more contracts, executives hired knowledgeable government insiders. In New York, Esmor added political associates linked to U.S. Rep. Edolphus Towns, a Democrat who represented the Brooklyn district where the company ran one of its first federal halfway houses.
Fueling a push into the immigration detention business, Esmor brought on Richard P. Staley, a former acting director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s central office in Washington, D.C., and added to its board Stuart M. Gerson, a former U.S. attorney general. At the time, the Justice Department oversaw both the INS and the Bureau of Prisons — two of Esmor’s biggest customers. The company also hired James C. Poland, who had worked in the Texas prison system, where Esmor was angling for new contracts.
All of these recruits positioned the company for winnings. In 1994, Slattery and his partners cashed in with an initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange valued at $5.2 million.
Just a year after going public, a riot broke out at Esmor’s immigration detention center near Newark International Airport in New Jersey, a holding tank for immigrants caught trying to enter the country illegally. As an organized group of inmates began to assault guards, staff abandoned their posts and fled the jail. An INS official on site ordered the guards to go back in to quell the riot, but they refused.
The detainees eventually took over the facility, using pieces of tables and chairs to break through security glass and destroy much of its interior. It took nearly five hours for outside authorities to regain control.
In a statement after the riot, Slattery said Esmor was “deeply disturbed and appalled by the apparent conduct” of some employees at the facility. But the company characterized the incident as a “local problem not reflected in any of its operations elsewhere around the country.”
A subsequent INS investigation found that staff training by Esmor had been abysmal. Guards taunted and humiliated inmates, and Esmor frequently failed to alert the INS about staff turnover issues. According to an INS interview with a facility administrator, Esmor’s corporate policy was to “keep INS in the dark as much as possible about any problems or incidents which occurred.”
Joyce Antila Phipps, an immigration attorney who had several clients at the Newark facility, recalled many complaints about male guards peering into female group showers. The report found that many detainees also refused to board their deportation flights, because Esmor guards hadn’t returned their money and valuables.
“There was a total lack of training of the staff,” Phipps said. “And on top of that, the staff knew they could get away with murder, so they robbed people blind.” The INS concluded in its investigation that Esmor’s management was marked by “a continuing cycle of contract violations” and a “general failure to follow sound management practices.”
But the INS did not fine Esmor or cancel its contract to manage the facility. Instead, the agency allowed Esmor to turn that contract into $6 million in cash, selling it to a rival prison giant, the Corrections Corporation of America.
Sunshine State Dysfunction
Even before his operations in the northeast were tarnished by the detention center uprising, Slattery was looking to move Esmor’s headquarters south, to the Gulf Coast of Florida. In 1996, he changed the company’s name to Correctional Services Corp.
Slattery had already won several contracts to operate youth facilities in the Sunshine State before the immigrant riot, and Florida looked to be a ripe base for expansion. Beginning in the late 1980s, the state had started handing its juvenile inmates to private companies in an effort to cut costs.
By the following decade, this business opportunity was growing swiftly. Beset by a run of murders by teenagers that had spooked the public, Florida began intensifying the penalties facing juvenile offenders.
The state asked for bids from private companies, anticipating a major buildout of juvenile prisons. In 1995, Slattery won two contracts to operate facilities in Florida. The two new prisons were originally intended to house boys between 14 and 19 who had been criminally convicted as adults. But the state realized it had enough beds for that population already, so the Department of Juvenile Justice began placing some of its delinquent boys in the facilities – youth who were meant to be housed in far less punitive settings.
In a news release announcing the groundbreaking for the prisons, Slattery called the new facilities “the future of American corrections.”
Among the new Correctional Services Corp. prisons was the Pahokee Youth Development Center, which sat in the middle of sugarcane fields in a rural, swampy part of the state northwest of Miami.
Local leaders welcomed the economic development opportunities that came with prison construction. Pahokee Mayor Ramon Horta Jr. even joined the company as a project manager.
Recruiting qualified local staff was a challenge, however, particularly at the rates the company was offering — $15,995 per year.
The Pahokee facility opened to youth in early 1997. Within months, local judges were hearing complaints about abusive staff, prison-like conditions and food full of maggots, according to recent interviews and state audits and court transcripts from the time.
Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge Tom Petersen drove an hour and a half to Pahokee in 1997 and started snapping pictures. As a juvenile judge, he thought he was sending boys to a moderate-risk program with outdoor wilderness activities. What he found was a hardcore prison.
“I came back with all those pictures and I raised hell about it,” Petersen recalled in an interview. He saw small 12-year-olds confined alongside much stronger 17-year-olds. Boys were served food he called “inedible.”
That same year, local public defenders asked another judge to move children from Pahokee into a less punitive program. Follow-up reviews by state-contracted auditors confirmed the operation was dysfunctional.
One youth with unpaid prison gambling debts had been so severely beaten by three others that he required surgery to have his spleen removed. In a separate incident, four staff members, including two managers, allowed two boys who had a disagreement to fight for nearly 10 minutes as they stood by and watched. No one reported the incident, and no one took the boys to see a nurse.
Sugarcane farmers in that part of Florida burn their crops to make them easier to harvest during the summer and fall, sending rats and mice scurrying from the fields. The reviews said the facility wasn’t paying enough for pest control to manage the influx. A special state monitoring report from October 1998 found medical records showing “instances of youth being bitten by spiders and rodents.”
Monitors from the state also found that Correctional Services Corp. officials were holding youth past their scheduled release dates in an effort to generate more revenue — a serious violation of the company’s contract and state law.
Judges throughout the state began demanding that Pahokee be closed. During a July 1999 hearing, Palm Beach County Juvenile Judge Ron Alvarez warned that keeping the facility open without improvements courted disaster.
“Treatment of these children comes dangerously close to being inhumane,” the judge said. “We’re dealing with human beings. We’re not dealing with an automobile that can wait to be repaired.”
The state stopped admitting new youth to Pahokee in August 1999, after the facility failed an annual audit. But once again, the state government did not cancel Slattery’s contract. The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice instead allowed the company to withdraw from the contract eight months early.
In a brief news release at the time, the company said it was closing Pahokee and three other facilities across the country that were “unprofitable” in the most recent quarter. There was no mention of the state’s findings. Slattery said the company would continue to review facilities for profitability to ensure the “highest quality services for our contracting agencies and a fair return for our shareholders.”
In the midst of the abuse allegations at Pahokee, Correctional Services Corp. was enjoying robust earnings. By 1999, annual revenues reached more than $223 million, up from $99 million three years before. That year, the company acquired a rival, Maryland-based Youth Services International, started by W. James Hindman, the founder and former chairman of Jiffy Lube International, Inc. In addition to five new facilities in Florida, the deal gave the company access to new markets in the mid-Atlantic and the Midwest.
With more facilities to run, the problems only intensified.
In June 1999, a 16-year-old inmate sexually assaulted a female staff member who was left alone in an unlocked building at the Charles H. Hickey, Jr. School outside of Baltimore, according to state court documents.
Problems at Hickey became so dire that the Justice Department initiated an investigation. Its subsequent report, released in 2004, concluded that Hickey staff repeatedly tried to conceal evidence of physical assaults, disclosing only about two-thirds of all incidents. The facility was so inadequately staffed that boys were entering other boys’ rooms and assaulting them.
The Justice Department found that the conditions violated “the constitutional and federal statutory rights of the youth residents.” The report landed less than two weeks after the company’s contract ended and the state took over the facility. The company incurred no penalties and the state agreed to implement reforms, but ultimately closed the facility the following year.
“These kids were just warehoused,” said Stacey Gurian-Sherman, a juvenile justice advocate and former state juvenile justice staffer in Maryland who helped expose some of the problems at Correctional Services Corp. facilities. “The staff is untrained, and they end up working double and triple eight-hour shifts. So the kids get abused at worst, neglected at least, and they come out with many more problems than when they walked in.”
At a Florida Correctional Services Corp. facility called Cypress Creek, north of Tampa, six juveniles escaped between 2000 and 2001.
In 2001, at a youth prison run by the company in Nevada, juvenile inmates rioted and took over the facility. After the disturbance, police in Las Vegas charged two former female guards with having sexual relations with inmates. Both women pleaded guilty.
That same year, 18-year-old Bryan Alexander died of pneumonia while confined at a Correctional Services Corp. boot camp outside of Fort Worth, Texas. A report from the Texas Rangers, the state’s premier law enforcement unit, laid out a chilling portrait of neglect.
Other inmates at the facility had told investigators that they knew something was wrong with Alexander in early January. He had stopped eating, his lips turned purple, and he shivered even while taking hot showers. He begged a nurse and drill instructors to take him to the hospital, but they told him he was faking it, according to the Texas Rangers’ report.
As Alexander pleaded for help, one drill instructor told him to “go ahead and die already,” according to the investigative report. The nurse, Knyvett Reyes, told him to stop lying about his illness. Other inmates at the facility saw Alexander coughing up blood into trash cans and frequently struggling to breathe, according to the report.
A week after he began complaining, staff finally took Alexander to the hospital. He died there two days later. A doctor told the Texas Rangers that Alexander could have survived had staff taken him to get a chest X-ray when he first reported feeling sick.
In 2002, a judge found Reyes guilty of negligent homicide. Correctional Services Corp. lost a separate wrongful death lawsuit, and had to pay $38 million to Alexander’s family.
By that time, the company’s lobbying activities were also coming under scrutiny. In New York, state auditors and prosecutors began probing a Democratic state assemblywoman, Gloria Davis of the Bronx, for allegedly accepting gifts from Correctional Services Corp. as an inducement to help the company win contracts.
As Davis ultimately pleaded, the company had for four years supplied its vans to transport her to and from the state capitol in Albany free of charge. In exchange, she helped the company secure contracts to operate halfway houses in New York City. Davis pleaded guilty to accepting bribes in connection with Correctional Services Corp. and a scheme involving a separate non-profit group. She was sentenced to three months in jail and nearly five years’ probation, and agreed to never again seek public office.
At the time of her 2003 pleading, Correctional Services Corp. no longer had contracts in New York. But an investigation by New York’s Temporary State Commission on Lobbying found widespread evidence of earlier undisclosed gifts to state lawmakers, including free rides and dinners. Correctional Services Corp. agreed to a settlement in which the company admitted no wrongdoing but paid a $300,000 fine for failing to document the gifts.
It was then the highest fine ever assessed by the commission, besting a $250,000 fine doled out to Donald Trump and his business associates for failing to disclose money spent lobbying against new casinos in upstate New York.
A Clean Record
Even as the evidence mounted that Correctional Services Corp. had a tendency to land in trouble, Florida did not hesitate to give the company new contracts.
Indeed, as the company pursued a fresh round of contracts in 2003, none of its scrapes with authorities in other states emerged as an issue in Florida’s oversight process, according to a review of hundreds of pages of state contracting documents.
The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice looks at past performance when choosing contractors, but evaluators rely on companies to self-report their contracting history. In some of the most egregious instances of negligence and failure to report serious incidents, however, Slattery’s companies pulled out of their contracts early, rather than wait for the government to take action. In other cases, the contract’s end date worked in the company’s favor. Executives could then technically say they had never had a contract canceled.
Moreover, state officials don’t examine a potential contractor’s record in other states if the company already has contracts in Florida.
Jesse Williams, the spokesman for Slattery’s current company, asserted that the state is well aware of past problems. “This is a close-knit industry with a very high volume of reporting and connectivity,” he said.
Over the last decade, Slattery’s company has secured 13 contracts in Florida collectively worth more than $175 million.
In 2005, Slattery sold Correctional Services Corp. to a rival private prison company, the GEO Group Inc. The deal netted him more than $6.7 million in severance and stock proceeds, according to securities filings.
In a complex arrangement, Slattery gave up a portfolio of 14 immigration detention facilities and adult prisons across the country as part of a $62 million sale, while buying back one division for $3.75 million: Youth Services International.
As this new Slattery venture continued to grow in Florida, the old problems surfaced again. At one of its largest facilities, a program for boys near Fort Lauderdale called Thompson Academy, staff members were quitting in droves, or being fired after violent incidents. Three years into the contract, in 2006, a state review found that 96 percent of the staff had left during the previous year. Eight cases of child abuse by staff were ultimately substantiated that year, according to contract documents.
According to HuffPost’s review of police reports, internal Department of Juvenile Justice investigations and youth grievance forms obtained through public records requests, Florida facilities run by Youth Services International continue to be plagued by violence, high turnover and unprofessional staff.
Youth counselors for YSI — those who work directly with juvenile inmates — earn about $10.50 an hour, or just under $22,000 per year, according to contract proposals from 2010. Because of frequent turnover and absences among staff, double shifts are common, adding additional stress to the job, former employees said.
One night in July 2012, a juvenile inmate at Thompson Academy was lining up with other boys after taking a shower when he realized that the boxer shorts he had been issued were too big.
According to a police report and an interview with the inmate’s mother, the boy asked a female staff member if he could have another pair. She said no. So he asked another male counselor. According to the police report, the second counselor turned to the boy, grabbed his shirt and started to choke him. Another male staffer pulled the counselor off, but he continued to go after the boy.
Staff removed the boy and took him to his room while leading the staffer who choked him to another part of the hallway. But after a few minutes, the same counselor charged into the boy’s room and tried to choke him again, said the mother, who spoke with staff and her son after the incident. Several other youth had to hold the counselor back.
“Why did he still have access to my son 15 minutes later?” asked the boy’s mother, who requested that her name not be used in order to protect her son’s identity. “Why wasn’t he removed immediately?”
Her son was unavailable for an interview because he has since been arrested and incarcerated at another YSI facility.
During a similar incident in February 2012, a Thompson Academy staff member got into an argument with a 13-year-old boy who wanted to get a folder with schoolwork from another room. The staffer told him no, but the boy disobeyed.
According to a therapist and other witnesses mentioned in a police report of the incident, the staff member started choking the boy and picked him up. The therapist said the staff member’s actions “were preventing [the boy] from breathing and she feared from [sic] his life.” After she screamed at the staff member to let the boy go, he dropped him to the floor, leaving the boy with a bloody nose.
When the Pembroke Pines Police Department called the staffer to follow up, he replied: “This ain’t no big deal,” while refusing to answer questions, according to the report.
At YSI’s Broward Girls Academy, a 30-bed program less than a mile away from Thompson, 18-year-old Destinee Bowers didn’t want to go to an evening church service last year. Normally she was permitted to stay in a dayroom, she said, but staff members declined to watch her, instead ordering her to go to church.
According to Bowers, when she refused, a staff member tried to pull her out of her bed. She resisted, she said, prompting the staffer to choke her.
“I was trying to tell her, ‘I can’t resist, you’ve got my arms, you’ve got my throat,’” Bowers recalled.
She said once the staff member released her, she started throwing up. She asked to call the 24-hour abuse hotline that is supposed to be available to youth at all times, according to state law. The staffer told her she had to wait until the facility administrator showed up in the morning. The next day, the administrator told Bowers she was not allowed to call because she had resisted.
“We simply don’t believe this is true,” said Williams, the YSI spokesman. “There are multiple ways for detainees to report abuse.”
Former staff and youth at the facility recalled fights erupting almost every day.
“They’d never try to do anything, they’d never try to help us, to keep our minds occupied,” said Bowers, who was in the program from December 2011 to August 2012. “We were always bored, which caused a lot of drama.”
The weekends were a “free-for-all,” said Angela Phillips, a former shift supervisor at Broward Girls. One weekend in the summer of 2012, at a time when staffing was particularly lean, a riot broke out, Phillips said. Girls began yelling and hitting one another. The three staff members on duty intervened, but the violence escalated until staff from another facility arrived. The morning after, there was blood on the floors and ceilings, said one youth who witnessed the fight.
Another large fight broke out in the showers last fall, said another former Broward Girls inmate who asked that her name not be used because she is under 18. A lone staff member tried to break up a fight involving nine girls, she said, while another staff member walked away.
Williams said there have been incidents between inmates that required staff intervention, but he denied that anything termed a “riot” ever occurred at Broward Girls Academy.
In another example of negligence at the facility, staff mistakenly barred the same girl from visiting her mother because administrators confused her with another inmate whose mother had brought cash into the facility during visiting hours — a major violation of contraband policy.
Starting last December, a new group of girls was transferred into the facility, after a program in the northern part of the state shut down. Violent fights erupted over turf, the former inmate said. “They were just psychotic,” she said. “I was like, ‘I’ve had enough of this, I’ve been here for 10 months.’”
Earlier this year, the juvenile public defender in Palm Beach County, Barbara White, managed to get the inmate transferred out of Broward Girls, citing the chronic violence there, she said in an interview.
Yet despite the girl’s account, and those of four staff and youth who witnessed the summer 2012 riot in the facility, there are no police reports or Florida Department of Juvenile Justice incident reports describing these events.
Bowers and Chelsea Fernandez, 19, who was also at Broward Girls last year, said they remembered YSI staff from nearby Thompson Academy coming over to quell the riot. But they didn’t recall any police or state investigation.
Phillips, the former shift supervisor, said it was rare for YSI to call in outside authorities lest it trigger greater scrutiny from the state. “They don’t want the attention,” Phillips said. “In order to keep your contract, you have to make it seem like you were under control.”
She said the Broward Girls facility was so frequently short of basic items like toilet paper, laundry detergent, tampons and deodorant that management instructed staff to ration: on some days, fewer than five squares of toilet paper per girl.
“We didn’t uplift them in any way,” Phillips said of the inmates. “They never felt good about themselves. It just added to the stress level that was in there.”
Thompson Academy, the facility for boys, was one of YSI’s most troubled institutions until it closed last year as part of what the state called its “Long Range Program Plan” to phase out larger juvenile facilities. It was also one of the most profitable. With 154 beds, the contract was worth $13 million.
From the beginning, escapes, fights and abuse by staff were frequent. In its first two years, Thompson failed numerous state reviews. Yet it remained open for nine years.
A 2010 lawsuit from the Southern Poverty Law Center referred to youth who described Thompson Academy as a “frightening and violent place” where juveniles were denied medical care when abused. “Children are choked and slammed head first into concrete walls, their arms and fingers are bent back and twisted to inflict pain for infractions as minor as failing to follow an order to stand up,” the lawsuit said. The company settled the lawsuit in 2011; the terms remain confidential.
Under the state’s contract guidelines, allegations of sexual abuse require immediate reporting to the Department of Juvenile Justice’s Central Communications Center. But local police and state authorities did not learn of alleged sexual abuse at the same facility until a boy made his third complaint, according to an internal state investigation and local police reports.
A boy who said he was forced to give oral sex to a male guard on three different occasions first reported the abuse in March 2010. In a police report from October of that year, a Pembroke Pines officer noted: “This is the third time this victim has alleged sexual abuse.”
“Absolutely no paperwork exists with the Thompson Academy as to internal investigations on this incident or on allegations that occurred there,” the report said.
A former employee at Thompson Academy, who asked not to be identified because he still works in the field, said staff were often told not to report physical incidents that were considered minor.
“They said we’ve got to get our contracts,” the employee said. “We don’t want these points against us.”