BOISE, Idaho — After months alone in his cell, Scot Noble Payne finished 20 pages of letters, describing to loved ones the decrepit conditions of the prison where he was serving time for molesting a child.
Then Payne used a razor blade to slice two 3-inch gashes in his throat. Guards found his body in the cell’s shower, with the water still running.
“Try to comfort my mum too and try to get her to see that I am truly happy again,” he wrote his uncle. “I tell you, it sure beats having water on the floor 24/7, a smelly pillow case, sheets with blood stains on them and a stinky towel that hasn’t been changed since they caught me.”
Payne’s suicide on March 4 came seven months after he was sent to the squalid privately run Texas prison by Idaho authorities trying to ease inmate overcrowding in their own state. His death exposed what had been Idaho’s standard practice for dealing with inmates sent to out-of-state prisons: Out of sight, out of mind.
It also raised questions about a company hired to operate prisons in 15 states, despite reports of abusive guards and terrible sanitation.
'They cut corners'
Hundreds of pages of documents obtained by The Associated Press through an open-records request show Idaho did little monitoring of out-of-state inmates, despite repeated complaints from prisoners, their families and a prison inspector.
More than 140,000 U.S. prison beds are in private hands, and inmates’ rights groups allege many such penitentiaries tolerate deplorable conditions and skimp on services to increase profits.
“They cut corners because the bottom line is making money,” said Caylor Rolling, prison program director at Partnership for Safety and Justice in Portland, Ore., a group that promotes prison alternatives.
Payne, 43, was placed in solitary confinement because he escaped from the prison in December by scaling a fence and eluding capture for a week.
He was among Idaho inmates sent to the prison in Spur, Texas, run by a Florida-based company called the GEO Group. The business operates more than 50 prisons across the United States as well as in Australia and South Africa.
'A major contributing factor'
Soon after Payne’s suicide, the Idaho Department of Correction’s health care director inspected the prison and declared it the worst facility he had ever seen. Don Stockman called Payne’s cell unacceptable and the rest of the Dickens County Correctional Center “beyond repair.”
“The physical environment ... would have only enhanced the inmate’s depression that could have been a major contributing factor in his suicide,” he wrote in a report on Payne’s death.
Stockman said the warden at Dickens ruled “based on verbal and physical intimidation” and that guards showed no concern for the living conditions.
“They denied me everything. To buy a pencil with GEO, it took three signatures. They’re cheap,” Alford said in an interview. He disputes Stockman’s findings on his treatment of Idaho inmates.
GEO spokesman Pablo Paez declined to comment on Alford’s performance and would say only that the company had been working to address Idaho officials’ concerns. But on Thursday, the state announced plans to move 125 inmates from Dickens to other facilities, citing the poor living conditions.
The private prison business has been booming as the federal government seeks space to house more criminals and illegal immigrants.
“Sometimes it may be a better situation for the inmates, and sometimes it’s not,” said prison consultant Douglas Lansing, a former warden at the Federal Correctional Institution in Fort Dix, N.J. “Monitoring is a vital component. You can’t just move them out of town and forget them.”
That appears to be largely what happened with Idaho’s inmates.
The prisoners were sent to Dickens in August from another GEO-run Texas prison after complaints about abuse by guards.
But in the following seven months, Idaho sent an inspector to Texas only once. That inspection found major problems, including virtually no substance-abuse treatment, and a complete lack of Idaho-sanctioned anger-management classes and pre-release programs.
There’s no evidence the inspector’s recommendations were followed. And no one from Idaho visited the prison again until after Payne’s suicide.
Most of the time, the Idaho prison employee responsible for monitoring the GEO contract used only the telephone and e-mail to handle grievances, which also included complaints about inadequate church services, poor food and limited recreation time.
Each time, Alford insisted everything was under control, according to correspondence reviewed by the AP.
The new director of the Idaho prison system concedes his department did not adequately review the inmates’ treatment when he took office in January.
“If I had to do it over again, I would have,” Director Brent Reinke said.
Former Director Vaughn Killeen said he couldn’t afford more aggressive monitoring during his term that ended in December.
“We weren’t happy about the things that were going on down there,” Killeen said. “We didn’t have that level of budget to accommodate full-time monitors.”
Some other states are more vigilant. Washington state, for instance, has 1,000 inmates in Arizona and Minnesota and places full-time inspectors at the prisons. A superintendent visits every six weeks.
Problems with GEO prisons are not limited to Dickens.
Elsewhere in Texas, a female inmate’s family sued GEO in 2006 after she committed suicide at the Val Verde County Jail near the Mexican border. LeTisha Tapia alleged she was raped by another inmate and sexually humiliated by a GEO guard after reporting to the warden that guards allowed male and female inmates to have sex.
In March, an investigation into sex abuse allegations at another GEO-run Texas prison led to the firing of a guard who was a convicted sex offender.
And at GEO prisons in Illinois and Indiana, hundreds of inmates rioted this past spring.
The complaints have not hurt the company’s balance sheet. It reported profits of $30 million in 2006, four times the amount reported in 2005.
Inmates at Dickens say conditions have improved since Payne’s suicide.
Hot and cold water problems have been fixed, and cleanliness was judged “adequate,” according to a May 31 report by a new Idaho contract monitor.
But prisoners still complain about sewage from adjacent cells, poor medical and dental care, and a lack of educational programs. Inmates like Robert Coulter, who was convicted of robbery, say authorities should have acted sooner.
“They basically put us down here and just dumped us,” he said.
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