Last Tuesday, 13 men and three women met in a room at the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DCR, for its initials in Spanish.) They were waiting for the Auction Board’s orientation regarding its Request for Proposals for the relocation of 3,200 Puerto Rico prisoners to U.S. private jails. An experiment that was done before and failed.
Seated on the first row was Brian Ferrell, VP of Proposals Development for CoreCivic, one of the leading administrators of private prisons in the United States. Next to him was Attorney Lizzie Portela-Fernández, of McConnell Valdés, a legal firm that lobbies in favor of CoreCivic in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives.
Also, in the first row, but on the opposite side, were Dan Joslin and Mike Murphy, executives of Management Training Corporation. Next to them, their local counsel, Sixto Marrero.
These two American companies are the only ones competing for the DCR contract to relocate 30% of the island’s prison population, as an action to allegedly save money. The proposal says that they want to reduce the daily cost per prisoner from $95 to $81 by the end of 2022, that is a daily savings of $14. The prisoner relocation program, a recycled idea from past administrations, entails the signing of a “major” contract, said Erik Rolón, secretary of the DCR, in an interview with the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI by its Spanish initials.)
Three months before the inmate transfer bidding process was opened, CPI asked Gov. Ricardo Rosselló: Do you know which specific prisons they will go to and how they were selected?
“I think the first steps have been taken with Oklahoma,” he answered.
It was in an Oklahoma jail where 438 island prisoners were relocated in 2011 and 2012, under the Luis Fortuño administration. That private prison, Cimarron Correctional Facility, is managed by CoreCivic. That firm, that was known as Corrections Corporation of America, changed its name to CoreCivic in 2016, after a report by the Inspector General’s Office of the U.S. Department of Justice revealed high levels of violence and deficient services in 14 prisons administered by it and other corporations, among them, Management Training Corporation.
Among the principal shareholders of CoreCivic are hedge funds that have held Puerto Rico government bonds, such as The Vanguard Group — corporation’s principal shareholder —, Blackrock Capital, Prudential Financial, D.E. Shaw and the Bank of New York Mellon, trustees of the PR’s Urgent Interest Fund Corporation (COFINA.)
Luis Cruz, chairman of the DCR’s Auction Board, assured CPI that as part of the proposal evaluations, they would investigate the companies’ backgrounds.
“An evaluating committee is already in place and will investigating all the aspects of the companies… background checks will be done,” said Cruz. The aspects that will be evaluated, besides their financial capacity, include the way they “have handled situations and if they have had any previous difficulties of any kind,” added Ulrich Jiménez-López, DCR’s deputy secretary of Management and Administration.
CoreCivic has had contracts to manage prisons on the Island from the 1990s to 2003.
Miguel Pereira, a Popular (Democratic Party) senator and a former DCR Secretary, thinks the proposal to transfer inmates to the U.S. is “nonsense.”
“What you are doing with the transfers is increasing the costs for Correction (DCR by its Spanish initials) because now you will have to pay Oklahoma, you have to pay all the systems you are using and, you still have your employees. So, the cost per inmate increases,” said the former DCR Secretary.
“You also have the problem that the prisons are full of people with an education level that affects their capacity to communicate in English. They can’t communicate. They will not be able to communicate with their socio-penal officers, or their social workers in the United States, or their correctional officers, or with well-meaning people that will go to visit them, or to minister to them, or even non-religious visitors, which they generally have. But they won’t be able to enjoy that because they can’t speak English, they don’t understand it, they don’t master it, they are not immersed in it, they don’t have the cultural background that will let them even understand a joke. If you saw your son once a month, well, now you will never see him,” Pereira anticipated.
“They are taking as a reference an inmate transfer [program] that was done five years ago, which everybody knows, the result was disastrous. They are taking into consideration a program that was a disaster… The experience of those that were transferred was regretful. Nothing that was promised was honored,” said Dallie Cruz, criminologist and spokesperson for the Pro-Rehabilitation of Inmates organization.
According to the contract signed on 2011 with CoreCivic (then called Corrections Corporation of America), the government would pay $4,232,161 during fiscal year 2011 to 2012 and it is estimated that by the end of two years, $23 million would have been paid. However, the DCR’s Transition Report for 2009 to 2012 states that the relocation program was cancelled less than a year after it started, on December 2013, without specifying the reason. Originally it would have lasted until December 2013.
The person responsible for the 2011 initiative was Jesús González, former DCR secretary under the Luis Fortuño administration. At that time, González promised that the participating inmates could be certified as plumbers, builders or drivers, could take English classes and obtain their High School diploma. He also said they could remain in communication with their families through “video visitation.” The CPI tried to contact González, but he did not respond.
“The inmates’ physical and emotional health was significantly affected. They could only see their relatives through a monitor they themselves provided. At the end, they were returned to Puerto Rico. With nothing left to offer, except living with the trauma of the bad treatment they received. During all the time those inmates were over there, there were very few, a very low percent, that were able to have their families visit them, because they are people with very little money,” said Cruz.
On March 2013, there was a report at the unit in Cimarron Correctional Facility which held the Puerto Rican inmates where, according to the Oklahoma media, they broke windows and security doors, they made makeshift weapons with the materials from the debris and finally, they were sprayed with mace. The incident was headed by Puerto Rican inmates that were in that prison, under the contract with the government of Puerto Rico.
“When my son was in prison under Mr. González’s administration, he was sent to Oklahoma under the pretense that he could work or study, and they would reduce his sentence. They had to riot because they were given nothing, and they returned them to Puerto Rico and said they didn’t want any more Puerto Ricans over there,” said the mother of an inmate that preferred to remain anonymous.
At that time, the Inmate Rights and Rehabilitation Association, known as Ñeta, supported the transfer program to the U.S. Now, the Ñeta and other inmate organizations such as Group 25 and the New Group 27 are against the proposal that according to the DCR, will be on a voluntary basis. The DCR secretary said he does not recognize any inmate association.
“My partner’s experience was not good, starting with racism of the [correctional] officers against them (which was the worst,) the American customs of that time… He was in maximum [security] and they would only let him shower two or three times a week and his recreation was literally jailed in cages with the rest of the inmates, risking their security because there was no surveillance. The visits were through monitors, when they were available, because it took months from them to be installed and working properly. When I went with his son it was frustrating for the boy because he would ask when they would be able to play like before and hug him. Both ended up depressed. It got to the point that my partner went into a depression because of the distance, he felt lonely, even though I always went to see him, and he would call me,” said the partner of an inmate in written declarations to CPI.
“Besides not knowing English, it was very hard to try to communicate with the [prison] officers. They never gave them the workshops they offered. That is why the riot happened, mainly because the abuse by the [prison] officers. I was the one who told the media about the riot, at that moment, so Correction (DCR) would handle the matter,” she added.
Were the rehabilitation goals reached in 2011?, the CPI asked the DCR secretary.
“Remember the program was implemented at the end of 2012, obviously there was a change in the [government] administration. This type of initiative should respond to the administration’s public policy. I am sure that the past administration did not have a fiscally responsible policy… But yes, within this group (that went to Oklahoma) we have testimonies and success stories, like it happens in any other initiative,” said Rolón.
“At that time, it was a rehabilitation program that cost money to the people because it wasn’t necessarily seen from the point of view of how we maximized the dollar. Now we are seeing it through the vision that it is a rehabilitation program, that complies with our Constitution but, at the same time, generates savings that, as the government, we seek to be a more cost-efficient government,” he added.
Although the DCR secretary said the previous program was implemented at the end of 2012, by March of that year, 180 inmates had been transferred. Rolón participated in that 2012 transfer initiative as he was the director of the DCR’s Legal Affairs Office, during the Luis Fortuño administration.
Where did the idea of repeating the transfer program come from? the CPI asked the DCR secretary. “During my term I can present several alternatives that I believe comply with the constitutional mandate; obviously I present them. Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority [or AAFAF for its initials in Spanish] is then in charge of evaluating each one of them, in fiscal terms, to see which one is the best. Because this is a team. I recommend an initiative because I believe it complies,” he answered.
The Puerto Rico chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) classified the proposal of inmate relocation to the U.S. as “human trafficking.”
“The government is incurring in human trafficking. That is our point of view, I have said it. What is human trafficking if not doing business with human beings? They [the government] will say it is not human trafficking because it is voluntary. How voluntary can a person’s consent be when they are under the command, supervision and guardianship of the one who is saying they want the consent,” questioned William Ramírez, director of the local ACLU.
The inmate transfer program is excluded from the certified Fiscal Plan
The Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico did not include the inmate relocation program in its Fiscal Plan, but neither has pronounced itself against or conditioned the proposal.
A spokesperson for the Oversight Board told the CPI this does not imply that the [transfers] won’t happen. The spokesperson explained that the Plan is limited to setting a savings objective for the DCR and that if the government wants to go ahead with the initiative, that is a matter of public policy that corresponds to the Executive [branch]. He added that the Oversight Board will limit itself to validate whether it [the DCR] complies with the savings stipulated in the document, under the section of Correction.
“What you see in the certified Fiscal Plan is what we believe you can achieve in terms of savings,” Oversight Board Executive Director, Natalie Jaresko, told the CPI .
Among the recommendations of the Oversight Board is to “liquidate [end] contracts.”
At the end of March, Oversight Board Chairman José Carrión sent a letter to the governor where he stated that proposals for Corrections in the government’s proposed plan needed to be expanded to demonstrate how the savings would be made. The governor answered that the Oversight Board “should not be able to control those decisions.”
The company that wins the bid for the new contract should advise the inmates and their families regarding the transfer process, in addition to giving them basic health, food, clothing, education, recreation and entertainment services. They should also be responsible of providing oral and visual communications services through video or similar media, according to a PowerPoint presentation by Ulrich Jiménez, DCR’s deputy secretary of Management and Administration.
Through Lizzie Portela-Fernández, the CPI requested an interview with Brian Ferrell, VP of Proposal Development of CoreCivic, who immediately abandoned the room when the Pre-Bidding meeting ended. The attorney said she would go find Ferrell, but she never came back. Portela-Fernández was legal counsel to Zoraida Buxó when she was the head of the DCR under the Pedro Rosselló administration. The current governor, Ricardo Rosselló, designated Buxó as a member of the University of Puerto Rico Governing Board.
To the question as to whether Management and Training Corporation is interested in bidding for the DCR contract, Issa Arnita, corporate communications director, just said via email that “Right now, we are just looking into the needs of the government.”
The rest of the private prison companies that were present in the DCR’s Pre-Bidding meeting this past Tuesday were XFed, Trinity Services Group and Trailboss Enterprise. These companies do not administer prisons but offer transportation and meals services and could be waiting to be hired by the company that finally wins the DCR contract.
Erik Rolón announced in the TV program Jugando Pelota Dura that the DCR will soon be opening bidding processes for private companies to administer the Women’s and the Juvenile facilities in Puerto Rico.
Luis J. Valentín Ortiz and Carla Minet collaborated on this story.