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Investigation Into Private Prisons Reveals Crowding, Under-Staffing And Inmate Deaths


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Last week, the Justice Department announced it would start to phase out the use of private for-profit prisons to hold federal inmates.

Our guest today may have had something to do with that. Seth Freed Wessler is an investigative reporter who spent much of the past four years looking into conditions at the 13 privately operated prisons in the federal corrections system.

Wessler sought records under the Freedom of Information Act from the Bureau of Prisons, which finally released them after Wessler sued and got a court order. The resulting 9,000 pages of medical records and 20,000 pages of monitoring reports paint a troubling picture, particularly in the area of medical care for inmates.

Wessler wrote a series of stories which told of crowded conditions, understaffing, inmate deaths from untreated illnesses and four prison riots, all related to complaints about medical care. Seth Freed Wessler is an independent reporter working for The Investigative Fund. His series on conditions at the 13 privately run federal prisons appeared in The Nation.

Well, Seth Wessler, welcome to FRESH AIR. How long has the Federal Bureau of Prisons been using private correctional facilities?

SETH FREED WESSLER: The Bureau of Prisons in the mid-and-late '90s began a process of privatizing a subset of the federal prisons that it manages. In the '90s, the size of the federal prison population was growing massively.

And the federal BOP decided that to house some of this population of prisoners, they would start contracting with private corrections companies. And very soon, the Bureau of Prisons decided that they would use these facilities - these private separate facilities - to hold noncitizens convicted of federal crimes.

And the logic was that noncitizens, because they'll later be transferred to immigration officials and deported, are an ideal group of people to hold in these sort of explicitly stripped down federal prisons because unlike citizens who the federal government says need to be provided re-entry services to return to their communities, noncitizens will be deported and so don't have to be provided those same services.

DAVIES: Right - even though the sentences are pretty long - right? - in some cases.

WESSLER: Yeah. Yeah. People spend years in these prisons. Usually, the last few years of their sentences - and are then transferred to immigration authorities and deported. So men I talked to who had been held in these facilities for three, four, five years - really languishing there, often just sort of waiting out their time with little access to programs or services before, later, they'll be deported.

DAVIES: Just to be clear here, these are not - we're not talking about immigration detention facilities that the immigrations customs enforcement folks do. These are people who have committed crimes and are in federal custody, right?

WESSLER: That's right. There's a separate immigration detention system operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold people who are waiting for deportation, who are - who may be deported.

These facilities are used only for people who are convicted of federal crimes and are being held by the Federal Bureau of Prisons for those convictions. Many of the people in these facilities are held for a crime called re-entry after deportation. That is returning to the United States after they've been previously deported.

And increasingly over the last 15 years, that act of crossing the border after a deportation has been treated not as a civil violation that's responded to with - just by deportation - but as a crime. And sentences for crossing the border after deportation can be years and years.

The average sentence for illegal re-entry is a couple of years. And so many of the men inside this sort of separate segregated system of federal private prisons are held for just that crime of crossing back over the border.

DAVIES: The logic here was that it was easy enough for people once deported to return that they had to really impose a tough penalty so as to discourage that? Is that the idea there?

WESSLER: That's right. In the mid-2000s, the federal government started prosecuting huge numbers of people - tens of thousands of people a year - criminally for crossing the border in an attempt to deter them from crossing again.

In fact, when federal investigators went looking for evidence that that deterrence worked, they didn't find any. But last year, more than 70,000 people were charged criminally for illegal entry or illegal re-entry. Those prosecutions now make up about half of all federal prosecutions and have helped to grow the size of the federal prison system.

So while the prison system has expanded in significant part because of drug prosecutions - and that gets a lot of attention - in the federal context, these immigration violations that have been criminalized are also helping to expand the size of the population of federal prisoners.

DAVIES: OK. Before the Justice Department made this announcement that it would try and wind down the use of these private prisons, how many prisoners, roughly, are being held in these private correctional facilities?

WESSLER: There are currently 22,000 federal prisoners held in private facilities. Most of those are used only to hold noncitizens. And they make up about an eighth of the federal prison system.

At one point, that number was about 30,000. It's started to fall a bit in the last few years. And the Department of Justice announcement says that the Bureau of Prisons will have to begin diminishing its use of these facilities, closing them over the next few years as the contracts end.

By next year, that number of prisoners in federal private facilities will have dropped to about 14,000. And within five years, the federal BOP is to sort of zero out the number of people held in private facilities altogether.

DAVIES: So you spent a couple of years getting documents, interviewing people. In broad terms, what kinds of problems did your reporting discover?

WESSLER: When I began investigating these prisons, I found that the men held inside were being held in conditions that were incredibly disturbing. And this is especially true in the context of medical care, which I investigated at length.

I found that in case after case, prisoners who were sick with treatable illnesses were not being provided even baseline levels of medical care and were complaining time and again about pain and illness. And those illnesses got worse and worse. And in some cases, without any substantive care at all, men died as a result of substandard care.

I wrote about the case of a man named Claudio Fajardo Saucedo (ph). He was in his early 40s and was held at the Reeves Facility, a GEO Group-run facility in West Texas. And soon after he arrived at that facility, he started to complain of pain - back pain, headaches, other pain. And he complained over and over again.

In fact, he complained 18 times - at least 18 times in two years. And every time he complained of this pain, which was getting worse and worse, he was seen only by low-level medical staff - in this case, licensed vocational nurses who go through training for about a year and are supposed to act as support staff to registered nurses.

Well, those were nearly the only people that Mr. Fajardo Saucedo was seeing when he went to these clinics. He was sent back to his cell only with Ibuprofen or Tylenol until finally, after two years of being held in this facility, he collapsed outright in the facility and was sent to a local hospital, where he immediately tested positive for AIDS and died days later of AIDS-related illnesses.

What's striking about this is not only that he was completely neglected for these two years - that he wasn't provided any substantive care from doctors or more highly trained medical providers. But also, this prison - Bureau of Prison rules require that prisoners who arrive at new facilities be tested for HIV, and he was never tested for HIV, even as he complained of illnesses that would have suggested he might have been HIV positive. Doctors who I asked to review his medical records said that had he been tested and had the facility known that he was HIV positive, he very likely could have been treated and would have been alive today.

DAVIES: Seth Wessler is an investigative journalist who's just completed a two-year series on issues in privately run prisons in the federal corrections system for The Nation. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Seth Wessler. He's an investigative journalist. He completed a two-year series on conditions in privately run prisons in the federal system. Recently, the Justice Department announced that it would begin backing out of using privately run for-profit prisons.

I want to talk about the conditions in some of these facilities that are - 13 facilities, right - at which non-citizens are kept in and - that who are convicted of federal crime. You described in some detail a prison in Raymondville, Texas, Willacy County. And I was struck by the description of just the housing units, where people slept. How did that work?

WESSLER: The Willacy County facility in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas is a facility that the bureau - the Bureau of Prisons decided to start using several years ago. It's a prison that has had a long history of problems. In fact, the Willacy facility was actually built to be a detention center where people would be held for a pretty short amount of time. And as a result, it's not a regular prison. It's not built out of concrete. There are no real walls in most of the facility. It was actually a facility built entirely out of Kevlar tents. There were rows of these massive Kevlar domes that stretched for a couple of football fields and held in each of them 200 prisoners, men charged with and convicted of federal crimes.

Inside of these tents, men who I talked to who had been held there said that the facilities would get incredibly hot, that it would smell terrible inside, that sometimes the toilets would back up. And they were held in these - in these tents for months and sometimes years at a time. This same facility, the Willacy facility, actually lost a contract with federal immigration authorities years earlier largely because of really terrible conditions inside.

And just months after the immigration agency got out of this contract, ended its contract with the Management and Training Corporation to run this prison, the Bureau of Prisons reopened the facility as a federal prison or prison for federal prisoners contracting again with the Management and Training Corporation to hold its inmates.

DAVIES: And in these big domes where you say 200 inmates would live together, did anybody have private cells or were they just racks of bunks?

WESSLER: No, they were rows of bunk beds, and so men would sleep a couple of feet apart, and they had no privacy whatsoever. They were left largely alone to manage their own affairs, usually with one guard overseeing a whole crowd of prisoners. And from time to time, they'd be let out of the domes and allowed to spend time on a concrete yard. And in the middle of all of these tents, guards would walk back and forth, watching what happened inside of these yards. But by and large, men spent months, sometimes years, held in these Kevlar domes in this - what started to be called the tent city in Willacy.

DAVIES: And was it typical in these private prisons that prisoners stayed in group dwellings as opposed to cells with just one or two inmates?

WESSLER: You know, what's interesting about these private prisons is that they're all very different because they're often built in haphazard ways. There's another facility called Big Spring in another part of Texas that was constructed on the premises of an old Air Force base and in an old hotel in this town of Big Spring. And so some prisoners in that facility were held in cells that where 10 people were sleeping in a room the size of about a normal hotel room. In other places, prisoners were held in much larger areas in other places in several people - in cells that held just several people. There's no real order to how these places are built. The private companies find spaces and then rent these spaces out to the federal government.

DAVIES: Health care is a - was a big issue in - among the inmates and led to riots. I mean, there were - what? - four riots, all of them related to medical care, right?

WESSLER: That's right. You know, it's incredibly unusual in federal prisons for unrest, for protests to turn into riots. But at least four times in these for-profit prisons, prisoner protest turned into massive riots. And at Willacy, the south Texas facility I talked about, that riot, which started as a protest and then as a result of incredible force used by prison guards - rubber bullets, tear gas, these sort of BB-filled exploding grenades that prison officials used to respond to that protest - a riot erupted.

And prisoners actually so decimated this facility, burning holes and - cutting and burning holes in the sides of those Kevlar tents, that in that case the federal government determined that the facility was, quote, "uninhabitable" and closed it down last year.

When I spoke with prisoners who were held in the facility, men who were now locked in other prisons or had not - or who had been deported and I spoke to in Mexico, as well as with prison guards, it became immediately clear that this was a protest that had emerged over issues including, most substantively, bad medical care in this facility.

DAVIES: These privately run prisons in the system are for non-citizens, I mean - very typically people who were arrested - illegal immigrants who were arrested for trying to enter the country after having been deported, and the standards are different, right? How are the requirements and standards different for a regular Bureau of Prisons facility which citizens are housed? How are the standards different for them as opposed to these privately run prisons?

WESSLER: The Federal Bureau of Prisons, when it runs its own facilities, it applies hundreds of rules and standards, these things called program statements to the operation of those facilities. Those program statements guide how everything works from the nitty gritty of medical care to how many guards will be on any given unit to how prisoners are fed and so on. When it began contracting with private companies to hold some federal prisoners, one of the ideas was that these companies could help the Bureau of Prisons save on costs, and in an attempt to help these prison companies do that, the BOP, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, applied fewer rules to these facilities. So only a few dozen of those program statements actually apply to the way these facilities operate. And what that means is that the kinds of programs and services that exist in regular Bureau of Prisons facilities simply don't operate in these facilities.

In the context of medical care, the contracts that the companies sign with the federal government require the companies to follow some of the Bureau of Prisons' own rules. But in other areas, the prisons are allowed to sort of make it up as they go. And that includes the prisons staffing plans, so one of the things that I found in my reporting was that in these for-profit prisons, the companies are using much lower-trained kinds of medical workers, often licensed vocational or licensed practical nurses, who have about a year of training. These LVNs are the sort of front-line workers in this medical system. So when a sick prisoner has a problem, the person that they're talking to is somebody who's really not trained to provide substantive care, and that can be the only person that this - that an inmate sees for months sometimes at a time.

DAVIES: So in that case, you have a, you know - a medical person who typically provides medical support services, and they're the one diagnosing what could be a serious or complicated medical issue.

WESSLER: Well, what ends up happening is that somebody comes in and complains of a headache or of back pain or of another kind of illness, and it's this low-level medical worker who's making decisions about what should happen next. And often that decision is that nothing should happen next or that this person just needs some Tylenol. And so the prisoner will be sent back to their cell with a couple of pills of Ibuprofen, and that's it.

And then again, that same person will come back and complain again of a similar illness and see only one of these low-level nurses. I asked doctors to review the medical files I obtained of prisoners who were held inside of these facilities. And they said over and over again that these low-level licensed vocational nurses were really operating outside of their legal scope of practice, outside of what they've been trained to do.

And then when I got to obtain more records from the Bureau of Prisons, I found that the Bureau of Prisons itself, the monitors that the agency sends into these facilities to check on how these private companies are operating - they found that 10 of these private prisons had actually broken state nursing practice laws by pushing nurses to work outside of their legal scope of practice of what they're trained to do.

DAVIES: Seth Freed Wessler's stories on privately run prisons appeared in The Nation. After a break, he'll tell us about what federal monitors reported on conditions in those prisons and why those reports didn't lead to change. Also, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews two reissues from the late tenor saxophonist Teddy Edwards. Kevin says Edwards mixed awesome technique and irresistibly slinky phrases. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with investigative reporter Seth Freed Wessler who spent much of the last four years looking into conditions at privately run prisons in the federal corrections system. The Justice Department announced last week it would phase out the use of private prisons. Wessler's stories appeared in The Nation. Let's talk about how this whole financial arrangement works and how it might connect to some of these issues. You know, a lot of the services that government provides aren't provided by public employees. They're done in private contracts.

You know, building roads - I mean, typically, private construction companies competitively bid for work. They complete it. It's inspected. And they're paid. Let's talk about how it works for prisons. How does a contract typically work for a private prison?

It must be a big, expensive thing to build a prison. How long are the contracts? What are the provisions? What are the standards and the methods for making sure that the contractors live up to them?

WESSLER: So the Bureau of Prisons puts out calls for proposals when they want to open a new private prison. And a group of companies - at this point, really, only three companies - Corrections Corporation of America, GEO Group and a company called Management and Training Corporation bid for these contracts.

The contracts usually last about 10 years. And during that period of time, there are points when the Bureau of Prisons can decide whether to extend the contract further. One of the main reasons that the federal government decided to contract in the first place is that it believed that contractors could save money.

And there are real questions about whether that's actually happened. But even if the prisons cost about the same, which is what research suggests, what's different about private prisons from prisons run by governments is that - let's say you're spending - the government spends a hundred dollars per prisoner.

In a public prison, a prison run by the government, all of that money is going to the management of the facility. But in the context of private prisons, some of that money is profit for these companies. And so there is an incentive to cut down on costs.

And one of the most expensive parts of federal prisons - of prisons in general - is the operation of medical care. What I found in my reporting - interviewing people who worked inside these prisons - is that there was this sort of constant pressure to cut costs, a culture of austerity inside of these facilities.

I talked to an older doctor in his mid-80s, a man named John Farquhar, who worked for several years as the prison doctor in Big Spring Prison, a private facility in West Texas run by the GEO Group.

Just days after he arrived, took the job as the medical director of Big Spring, his corporate bosses arrived to tell him that they felt that they needed to cut down on the number of 911 calls made out of the prison because those calls cost too much money.

DAVIES: Those are cases where they need an ambulance to get someone to a higher level of care?

WESSLER: That's right. You know, I came across this doctor because through Freedom of Information Act request, I obtained thousands of pages of medical records of men who had died in these facilities - 103 men who died inside of these facilities.

And in some of those records, I found notes from nurses or physician's assistants and, in this case, from the physician. And in those notes, it was remarkable because not only was he appearing to provide sort of more care and a higher level of care than most of the other doctors in the facilities that I looked at were providing - that is, in facilities that had doctors at all.

But he left these sort of indignant notes behind about how upset he was about the quality of care that he was able to provide. He said in one note, this prisoner will almost certainly die.

This was in the context of a case where he had been trying to transfer somebody out to get care outside of the prison. And he was told by his corporate bosses that he wouldn't be allowed to do that. In another note, he wrote, I feel badly for the shabby care.

You know, this is a guy who clearly wanted to be providing higher-quality medical care. He'd been a doctor for decades. He'd been a military doctor. He's now a doctor for the Veterans Administration in Texas. And he felt that these pressures to cut costs made that very difficult to do.

DAVIES: You know, I'm sure it's not easy to get highly trained medical personnel to work in a prison system. It's not the kind of environment most medical professionals would imagine working in. They're often in remote places.

So there is going to be a difficulty, I think, in getting good-quality people to do that. And they're probably going to have to pay more. Is that addressed at all when this arrangement was set up?

It's simply going to - you're going to have to spend some money - aren't you? - to take care of literally thousands of people who can have health issues.

WESSLER: That's right. You know, the Bureau of Prisons across the board has struggled to fully staff its medical units. And that's especially a problem in rural areas where it's hard to find doctors to come and work.

But there were facilities in my investigation that for months - nearly a year in some cases - had no medical doctor at all or who significantly understaffed their nursing departments for months and months at a time.

In fact, the Office of Inspector General from the Department of Justice found in a previous investigation that a prison called Reeves in West Texas, another GEO Group-run facility, was systematically understaffing its medical unit.

And only after the investigation did that begin to change. But the fact that it did change after the investigation suggests that it's a problem that could be fixed and that the contractors weren't fixing.

DAVIES: You know, you said that in these private prisons, which are for noncitizens - I mean, typically, illegal immigrants who were caught trying to re-enter the country - they're designed to have fewer services - rehabilitative services, educational program, addiction counseling, mental health services.

But they are supposed to provide some standard of medical care and decent living conditions. And as with all government contracts, there's a monitoring system, right?

Somebody's supposed to come in regularly, examine the conditions, review records and see whether the public is getting what it's paying for to these private companies. You looked at a lot of these monitoring reports. What did they show?

WESSLER: Well - so after the Bureau of Prisons set up this system of private facilities, it also set up what is really a pretty robust system of contract monitoring. So it hires a couple of people for each facility to actually be on-site and watch over what the facilities are doing.

And then every year or every six months, a group of monitors trained very specifically in subject areas go into these facilities to check to see if the prisons are following the terms of the contract. I obtained nearly a decade of these monitoring reports. And the reports show that for years, monitors documented deep and systemic problems in these facilities.

And the monitors would send these reports back to Washington. And what I found is that despite these ongoing problems, officials in Washington - contracting officials in Washington - didn't impose the full fines or use their full enforcement muscle available to them to force changes inside of these facilities.

In fact, the Office of Inspector General report from the Department of Justice that came out recently found that when prisoners died inside of these facilities, and those deaths were connected to medical negligence - that the Bureau of Prisons didn't have an effective way to force the companies to correct those problems. And so prisoners would die. And the problems would go on.

DAVIES: Now the contracts provided for specific monetary penalties, right? I mean, this is the way you build a contract. I mean, if you don't deliver the service, you are penalized. And presumably for-profit providers would pay a lot of attention. As you looked at these records in cases where monitors said things are not working here, people are being endangered, do you have a sense of why financial penalties weren't imposed? What led to those sets of decisions?

WESSLER: I interviewed a number of former Bureau of Prison monitors who were tasked with overseeing the operations and contracts of these facilities. And what I found was that on-the-ground monitors were proposing quite significant fines when things went wrong. So when a facility failed to provide prisoners with infectious disease care or a prisoner died as a result of not receiving the kind of medical care that they needed that the onsite monitors would ask the Bureau of Prisons in Washington to impose significant fines.

But what they said - a number of federal monitors told me this, including fairly high-level people who were tasked with overseeing the contracts - what they said was that those fines were repeatedly either made smaller or refused altogether by federal officials in Washington, that the full fines that could have been imposed for deficiencies, for failures to meet the terms of the contract simply weren't imposed at all. And in some cases, federal contract monitors proposed closing facilities that had repeatedly failed, and they were told by their bosses in Washington that they wouldn't be allowed to close those facilities. Instead, contracts were renewed repeatedly with failing facilities.

DAVIES: Were there ever cases where there were questions about whether some of the for-profit correctional companies might have had influence on decisions in the Bureau of Prisons?

WESSLER: One of these private facilities, the Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, Miss. It was the site in 2012 of a pretty major riot that left 20 people injured, and a prison guard was killed in this riot. The riot erupted after complaints about poor conditions inside, significantly about medical care and really left a stain on that facility.

After the riot, federal monitors who were tasked with overseeing the operations of this facility proposed to senior bureau administrators that the prison lose its contract, that they shut the facility down. And my sources, former Bureau of Prisons monitors who were tasked with overseeing these contracts, say that they were told by their bosses in Washington that they wouldn't be allowed to close the contract.

The contract with CCA was renewed in 2013 and again in July of 2015. What my sources tell me is that one of the factors that stopped this contract from being closed down were the close ties between present Bureau of Prisons officials and officials in CCA who had formerly worked for the Bureau of Prisons, in particular a man named Harley Lappin, who was the director of the Bureau of Prisons and left in 2011, immediately taking a pretty lucrative contract with the CCA.

DAVIES: That's the private prisons facility or the Corrections Corporation of America.

WESSLER: That's right. So he left his job in government and took a job earning more than a million dollars for Corrections Corporation of America. And my sources tell me that the refusal by senior bureau officials to close the facility down was in part a result of conversations and close ties between Mr. Lappin and existing Bureau of Prisons officials that Mr. Lappin was pressing the Bureau of Prisons not to close the Adams County facility and that the contract was renewed. In 2015, the key Bureau of Prisons official who blocked the termination, the end of the CCA contract to run Adams County, he also left his job at the BOP and has taken a contract with CCA, with Corrections Corporation as a consultant as well.

DAVIES: You tried to reach of the principals involved here as well as the company, Corrections Corporation of America. What does everyone say about this?

WESSLER: Corrections Corporation of America, who responded for itself and for Harley Lappin, said that no ethics laws had been broken. The former Bureau of Prisons official who recently left kicked responsibility for the Adams County contract to other people in the Bureau of Prisons and said that no wrongdoing had happened. But the facility in Adams County remains open. Its contract was renewed a year ago. And what I found in my reporting is that federal monitors, just after the contract was renewed following the riot, found that five people had died in that very facility in the wake of clearly substandard medical care. And yet the contract was renewed again after that.

DAVIES: Seth Wessler is an investigative journalist who has just completed a two-year investigation of the operations of private prisons for The Nation. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Seth Wessler. He's an investigative journalist who just completed a two-year look at the operation of private prisons in the United States for The Nation. The Justice Department has announced it will begin phasing out private correctional facilities.

The Justice Department has said it wants to phase out the use of these private correctional facilities. What will be the immediate impact, and what will happen more long term?

WESSLER: The Justice Department has ordered the Bureau of Prisons to start to shrink and eventually end its use of private facilities. Over the next couple of years, the number will start to fall. And within five years, the number of federal prisoners in private facilities will be zeroed out. The announcement follows a report from the Department of Justice's inspector general that found that after 20 years of operation, the facilities simply don't save meaningfully on costs and significantly diminish the quality of operations inside of the facilities.

There's more violence inside. There's more contraband found inside of these facilities. And they found that the Bureau of Prisons is not meaningfully overseeing and monitoring the medical care provided inside of these contract facilities. What's striking is that the Bureau of Prisons has actually known these things for years.

And in my reporting I found story after story of people who were left to suffer significantly inside of these prisons. I reported on the story of a man named Jesus Enrique Zavala, who was 28 years old when he arrived at the Taft facility in California. He arrived and told nursing staff who interviewed him that he had suffered previously from mental illness, had taken medication for bipolar disorder and anxiety and had previously attempted suicide. And he was nonetheless provided no substantive mental health care.

And he was left in a solitary cell where after weeks of being basically left alone with any real attention from anyone was found hanging in his cell. He committed suicide there. One of the things that's striking about prisons in general is that prisoners are cut off from their communities. But in these facilities, prisoners are sort of doubly cut off because not only are they behind prison bars, their families, often the first-line advocates for them, are often over borders.

And so in this case, this man's family actually didn't learn that he had died for a whole year after his death. And they didn't know why he had died. That is, they didn't know he had killed himself until I was able to call them and tell them what I had found in this medical file.

DAVIES: Do the three companies that run the federal private prisons also operate state and local prisons?

WESSLER: Yeah, Corrections Corporation of America, GEO Group and Management and Training Corporation are the biggest players in private incarceration around the country. They have contracts with states and with the Department of Homeland Security to operate detention centers.

And they're starting to get into other areas as well. So in addition to managing prisons, private corrections companies also manage transportation for prisoners. They're getting contracts for mental health care, and they manage post-release surveillance. So there's many other ways that private prison companies are making money on the criminal justice system.

In the scheme of their business, this is a relatively small part, but it sends a big message. The Department of Justice sees this as a message to states and to other federal agencies as well that private prisons just don't provide the services that they expect.

DAVIES: And do we have any idea how much money these firms make in this business?

WESSLER: It varies firm to firm. Federal contracts make up about half of Correction Corporation of America's business. But that includes the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security. These federal prison contracts make up between about 5 and 15 percent of business for the companies that run them.

DAVIES: And do they make tens of millions, billions?

WESSLER: Yeah, the contracts are for tens of millions of dollars a year. Those are major losses for each of these companies. So as these facilities close over the next several years, these companies will be looking for new ways to make profit.

DAVIES: Seth Wessler, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WESSLER: Thanks very much for having me.

DAVIES: Seth Freed Wessler is an independent reporter working for The Investigative Fund. His series about conditions in privately-run prisons appeared in The Nation. Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews two reissues of the late tenor saxophonist Teddy Edwards. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.