KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The violence and neglect suffered by inmates at a pre-trial detention facility in Leavenworth has become so severe the facility should be shut down, a group of civil rights leaders and public defenders wrote in a letter to officials in Kansas and Washington, D.C.
The letter, dated Thursday, said leaders at CoreCivic Leavenworth have shown “deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights of the incarcerated.”
“CoreCivic Leavenworth is dangerously understaffed, poorly managed and incapable of safely housing its detainee population,” the letter says. “Stabbings, suicides and even homicide have occurred with alarming frequency in the last year with weapons, drugs and other contraband now a common occurrence.”
The group — which includes ACLU chapters and public defender offices in Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa — also wrote that inmates’ “basic human needs are not being met.” Food, medical care and showers are limited, and contact with legal counsel and family members has been denied.
CoreCivic Leavenworth is a pre-trial detention facility for those facing charges in federal courts in the region. CoreCivic, based in Nashville, owns and manages private prisons and detention centers. In Leavenworth, it operates under a contract with the U.S. Marshals Service.
In the letter, civil rights advocates and public defenders ask Leavenworth County and the White House to ensure the facility is shut down by the end of this year, when CoreCivic’s contract ends.
President Joe Biden earlier this year issued an executive order barring the federal government from renewing contracts with privately operated jails and prisons, arguing mass incarceration doesn’t make people safer.
But Sharon Brett, legal director of the ACLU of Kansas, said the company was attempting to negotiate around that executive order. The letter points to an earnings call CoreCivic had with investors in August, during which representatives indicated they were exploring ways to keep the facility open.
“We do not know if the Marshals will ultimately relocate the federal detainee populations we care for at these facilities, but we continue to explore various options that would enable the Marshals to continue to fulfill its important mission while maintaining access to our facilities,” Damon Hininger, president and CEO of CoreCivic said, according to a transcript published online.
CoreCivic denied the “specious and sensationalized allegations” in the letter, Ryan Gustin, director of public affairs for the company, said in a statement. Claims that the facility is understaffed and poorly managed, he said, are “false and defamatory.”
“These allegations are designed to exert political pressure rather than to serve as an objective assessment of the work our dedicated … staff has done to serve the needs of the United States Marshals Service,” Gustin said.
The letter from civil rights activists and public defenders, Brett said, is meant to sound the alarm.
“There’s been a number of violent incidents that have occurred in the last six months to a year….that really demonstrate how there is a total lack of control at the facility,” she said.
Danger and violence
This spring, two detainees died by suicide, according to the letter. Another was beaten and suffered a broken rib and punctured lung last month. He was transported to the hospital and died days later.
The letter reported numerous stabbings of both detainees and staff members. In May, a staff member sodomized a detainee during a search, according to the letter. CoreCivic said in its statement that the allegation was investigated and found unsubstantiated.
The facility is constantly understaffed, the group wrote. Employees have failed to protect detainees and both groups are “irreversibly traumatized” by what they have seen.
“They live in constant fear,” the letter says. “Because cell doors do not lock and weapons are rampant, the threat of physical violence is pervasive and ever-present. CoreCivic Leavenworth leadership has abandoned any pretense of order and protection inside the facility.”
CoreCivic said in its statements it had repaired any issues with doors. It acknowledged the COVID-19 pandemic has created “extraordinary challenges” for public and private corrections facilities when it comes to staffing. The company said staffing is a challenge in the corrections industry, even outside a pandemic.
Brett noted the EighthAmendment to the U.S. Constitution, protecting people from cruel and unusual punishment, gives responsibility to prison officials to ensure inmates’ safety.
“By continuing to chronically understaff this facility and essentially not come up with a plan to mitigate the violence, what they’re doing is being deliberately indifferent to the risk of harm that creates for people who are incarcerated there, and that’s to say nothing of the people who work there as well,” Brett said.
The contract’s expiration gives officials an “opportunity to step up and put meaning” behind Biden’s executive order, the letter says.
“We can think of few places worthier of immediate action than this facility, which has proven itself to be increasingly dangerous and incapable of upholding the constitutional rights of those confined therein.”