Orlin Wagner / AP
People locked in Leavenworth Detention Center seek help almost every day.
The for-profit facility, which houses federal prisoners awaiting trial or sentencing, has been closed 24 hours a day since someone died there last month. The death follows months of violence targeting both inmates and prison officers inside the facility just 30 miles from Kansas City.
“What we know about the people being held at this facility is that it is getting more and more violent, out of control and people fear for their lives every day,” said Sharon Brett, Kansas ACLU legal director. .
In February, two prison officers went to hospital with serious injuries after an inmate threw hot water, stabbed one woman and kicked another. In June, at least half a dozen more inmates were stabbed. And in August, an inmate named Scott Wilson was brutally beaten. He died two days later.
“I have clients who have been in jail,” said Melody Brannon, the Kansas federal public defender. “They’ve been through tough times in very tough federal prisons across the country. They are terrified of being at Core Civic because they know their lives are in danger every day.”
Leavenworth Institution is operated by CoreCivic, a private prison company that has a contract with the US Marshals Service. A spokesperson for the company said it has worked with the marshals for three decades and that the claims by the ACLU and public defenders are designed to put political pressure on the Biden administration.
During his first week in office, President Biden signed an executive order phasing out contracts with private prison operators. The federal contract with CoreCivic and Leavenworth is due to expire in December.
“The Ministry of Justice is committed to implementing the presidential decree on private detention centers,” Justice Ministry spokeswoman Kristina Mastropasqua said. “The US Marshals Service is carefully reviewing its existing contracts with these establishments, recognizing that any plan must avoid unnecessarily disrupting access to counsel, court appearances and family support.”
Company CEO Damon Hininger told analysts this summer that CoreCivic is exploring its options.
“We are also evaluating options for other government agencies,” Hininger said.
Biden’s decree on private prisons did not apply to immigration establishments, and some people who work at CoreCivic have said they believe Leavenworth’s property may end up housing immigration inmates.
Kansas lawyers calling for the facility to shut down say it has a bad track record. In 2017, the Inspector General of the Ministry of Justice denounced the staff shortage. Sharon Brett of the ACLU worked at the Justice Department investigating civil rights violations against people in prison and other institutions.
“This is exactly the type of facility the Justice Department would review and potentially investigate for constitutional violations,” including cruel and unusual conditions under the Eighth Amendment, Brett said.
Brannon, the Federal Public Defender, said people are only aware of some of the bad things that are happening inside Leavenworth Institution because inmates were able to contact their lawyers to be concerned. She stressed that there is no such right to a lawyer for immigration detainees.
William Rogers worked as a correctional officer at the Leavenworth Detention Center. He said he was assaulted seven times in four and a half years there, including one incident that earned him 14 staples.
Rogers said he sent several letters to directors warning of staff shortages and security concerns, starting in 2018, before being fired last year for violating the use of force policy by pushing a detained.
“The ICE inmates are going to be very vulnerable at this facility,” Rogers said. “Will they be able to express themselves or will they be afraid?”