Now hiring signs line the street outside the CoreCivic-owned Leavenworth Detention Center.
CNN  — 

Leavenworth Detention Center seems like a prime example of why President Joe Biden wants to close private prisons: So far this year, the federally contracted jail has been the site of multiple stabbings and a fatal beating. Former guards say drugs and weapons are common behind bars – and for months, many cell doors didn’t even lock. A judge called it “an absolute hellhole” at a recent sentencing hearing. 

But while the Biden administration is ending contracts with private companies like the one operating the detention center, the Kansas facility and others like it are trying to get around the President’s directive and still collect federal money.

One key loophole they’ve found: holding detained immigrants for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Biden signed an executive order his first week in office that banned new private prison contracts, but it didn’t apply to immigrant detention centers.

A Pennsylvania federal prison owned by the corporate giant GEO Group has reopened as an immigrant detention center, and local officials around the country told CNN prison companies are exploring the same playbook for at least a half-dozen other private facilities with expiring contracts, including possibly at Leavenworth. 

Activists say the moves amount to a broken campaign promise from the President.

“The Biden administration is literally allowing private prison companies to fill beds that were emptied out under the executive order with immigrant detainees,” said Eunice Cho, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU National Prison Project. “These companies are basically playing an end run around the executive order.”

Elsewhere, local or county governments are simply stepping in as middlemen, accepting federal funds to hold federal inmates and negotiating new contracts with the same private prison companies to get around the executive order.

The tactics have led to an uncertain future for prisons like the Leavenworth Detention Center, which was the first maximum-security federal private prison in the country when it opened three decades ago (and is separate from the more well-known government-run federal penitentiary nearby). The detention center’s contract, with the prison company CoreCivic, is set to expire at the end of next month. 

Former correctional officers Brenda Lust, left, and Shari Rich both quit after more than a decade working at the Leavenworth Detention Center, as they felt the prison was no longer a safe working environment.

Eight current and former correctional officers at Leavenworth told CNN the private jail was putting inmates and staff alike in danger – allegations that CoreCivic denied. Many of the officers argued the jail shouldn’t be allowed to stay open in any form.

“That facility really needs to be completely shut down,” said Shari Rich, who quit in July after almost 13 years working at the detention center. “Our families are very glad we’re out of there.”

Despite campaign promise, Biden order excluded ICE

Closing private prisons has been a long-standing goal for liberal activists – and Biden’s election put it within reach at the federal level.

Under President Barack Obama, the Department of Justice moved to end its use of private prisons in 2016, following an inspector general report that found federal private prisons were more violent than publicly run facilities. But after President Donald Trump took office, the order was quickly rescinded.

Biden reversed course again in January, directing the attorney general not to renew contracts for privately operated detention facilities. His executive order applied only to Department of Justice facilities: about a dozen federal private prisons contracted by the Bureau of Prisons, as well as at least a dozen other private federal jails contracted by the US Marshals Service, which mostly holds pretrial inmates.

The order didn’t include ICE detention centers, which are overseen by the Department of Homeland Security – even though Biden had pledged on his campaign website that as president he would “make clear that the federal government should not use private facilities for any detention, including detention of undocumented immigrants.”

That created a significant loophole. George Zoley, the executive chairman of the GEO Group, said during the company’s quarterly earnings call on November 4 that in working to reopen the private prisons closed by Biden’s order, “we’ve made our facilities known to the ICE officials … and they are evaluating those facilities.”

Federal contracts for prisons and jails accounted for about a fourth of revenue last year for the two largest private prison companies, CoreCivic and the GEO Group, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings, while ICE facilities made up a slightly larger share. Roughly 8 in 10 ICE detainees are held in private facilities. 

The companies objected to Biden’s executive order, saying the reasoning behind it was flawed. “Our efforts are fully aligned with the administration’s goal to prioritize rehabilitation and redemption for individuals in our criminal justice system,” CoreCivic spokesperson Ryan Gustin said in an email. “The fact that we’ve worked with both Democrat and Republican administrations for the past four decades is a testament to the quality of the services we provide and the genuine need the government has for them.”

The prison companies are also adapting and expanding beyond the detention industry to continue raking in federal contracts. In a stark sign that Biden’s order hasn’t blunted their business, the two corporate private giants have been awarded more federal money per day during the Biden administration than during the Trump administration, according to a CNN analysis of federal contracting data.

Former Leavenworth Detention Center correctional officer William Rogers kept stacks of reports and letters he filed to the prison management documenting his concerns over safety at the prison.

Since Biden took office, the federal government has approved more than $888 million in direct payments to CoreCivic, the GEO Group and their subsidiaries – or about $3 million per day of Biden’s administration. That’s more than the $2.9 million per day of the Trump administration or $2.2 million per day of the Obama administration. Most of the Biden spending came from ICE.

In many cases, the Biden administration is fulfilling contracts originally signed by previous officials, not awarding new deals. But the spending shows how the private prison industry has adapted to the changing political climate: ICE has awarded more than $255 million in payments to a GEO Group subsidiary for ankle monitors and other monitoring services for immigrants in 2021, significantly more than the Trump administration paid for the same program. The monitoring program accounts for the largest private prison company payments of the Biden era.

“The idea of alternatives to detention is being more popularized and receiving support on a bipartisan basis,” Zoley said on the earnings call. “It’s cheaper and it’s effective, and the technology is being continuously improved.”

How prison companies are getting around executive order

Across the country, prison companies are trying to get around Biden’s executive order in two ways. In some cases, they are working to reopen private prisons as immigrant detention centers. Elsewhere, they are recruiting local governments to act as intermediaries, taking over prison contracts but then passing federal funds on to the private companies. 

So far, one federal prison has reopened for ICE. The Moshannon Valley Correctional Center, in central Pennsylvania, closed at the end of March, and in late September the GEO Group and ICE signed a contract with the county to reopen the facility as an immigration detention center.

While local activists and immigrant advocates criticized the deal, John Sobel, the chairman of the Clearfield County Board of Commissioners, said that it worked out well for his community. In addition to saving roughly 300 jobs at the prison, the county will receive an annual fee of $200,000 under the contract, he said. 

“It’s a very rare occasion when an entity closes and jobs are lost that you’re able to restore them within such a short time,” Sobel said. 

Moshannon likely won’t be the only facility to see such a conversion – prison companies are exploring the possibility of reopening other closed prisons to hold immigrants, local officials around the US told CNN. 

In Tipton County, Tennessee, the CoreCivic-run West Tennessee Detention Facility closed in September after its contract with the Marshals Service ended. Before the prison closed, local officials were already in negotiations with ICE and CoreCivic about the possibility of an immigration detention center, according to county records.

Jeff Huffman, the county executive, said that CoreCivic wanted “to use the county as a passthrough” for ICE, although the details are still being negotiated. He said he thought locals would support an immigrant detention center due to the economic impact of the facility remaining shuttered. 

“I don’t know what you do with a closed prison that’s growing up in johnsongrass and weeds,” he said. 

CoreCivic, one of the largest private prison companies, runs the Leavenworth Detention Center.

And in Big Spring, a small West Texas city that’s home to the GEO Group’s Big Spring Correctional Center, Mayor Shannon Thomason said his city has reached out to both ICE and the US Department of Health and Human Services about the possibility of converting the private prison into an immigrant detention center or a facility for unaccompanied immigrant minors after its contract expires at the end of this month.

“ICE has expressed an interest,” Thomason said. “If we do go as an immigrant detention facility, my intent is for it to be a model detention facility.”

Other communities, however, have turned down prison companies’ pitches for immigrant detention. In rural Hinton, Oklahoma, the Bureau of Prisons ended its contract with the GEO Group-run Great Plains Correctional Institution, which closed in May. 

With the prison closed, the town lost about 230 jobs, as well as $1.5 million a year in utilities and fees, according to local officials. Because of the lost revenue, the Hinton government cut one of its six police officer positions as well as its only code enforcer, said Shanon Pack, the town administrator.

But Jason Garner, the head of the local economic development agency that contracts with GEO to run the prison, said that the company’s proposal to revive the facility for ICE was a nonstarter.

GEO “wanted to use it as a processing facility for illegal immigrants,” Garner said. “They worked on a contract for that, but we didn’t like the idea because they were going to process the detainees and release some of them into the community.”

In Youngstown, Ohio, the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center, a Marshals Service jail run by CoreCivic, was originally set to close in late February, when its contract expired. But the Marshals Service inked a deal with the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office to keep it open: The feds pay the county, then the county pays CoreCivic. Even though the jail is still run by a private company, the company never signs a contract directly with the federal government – and avoids running afoul of Biden’s order.

A similar arrangement is being negotiated for the Western Region Detention Facility in San Diego, another Marshals Service jail run by the GEO Group. While its contract was supposed to expire at the end of September, it was granted a six-month extension, and GEO is in talks with the city of McFarland – 250 miles north of the facility – to serve as a middleman, according to city records. 

Activists blasted these maneuvers as a blatant strategy to get around Biden’s directive. “It goes against the spirit of the executive order and against the promises Biden made,” said Setareh Ghandehari, the advocacy director of the Detention Watch Network, an advocacy group.

The GEO Group did not respond to specific questions about its contracts but said in a statement that it was focused on providing “innovative, flexible, high-quality solutions that help our government agency partners address current and future support services and infrastructure needs.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment, and Department of Justice and Marshals Service spokespeople did not answer questions about why the contract extensions had been allowed.

“The Department of Justice is carefully examining its existing contracts with these facilities, while also taking care to avoid unnecessarily disrupting meaningful access to counsel, timely court appearances and case resolutions, and access to family visitation and support,” a spokesperson wrote in an email. 

An ICE spokesperson said all facilities holding its detainees are “required to follow ICE’s stringent detention standards, which help ensure that all detainees are treated humanely.”

Failures at Leavenworth: ‘An absolute hellhole’

Just beyond the barbed wire fence that surrounds the Leavenworth Detention Center, a string of “NOW HIRING” yard signs and banners advertise a starting wage of $22.75 per hour.

But according to guards who work at the jail, which holds up to about 1,000 inmates for the Marshals Service, the recruitment effort is a sign of critical understaffing. In interviews with CNN, eight current and former correctional officers painted a picture of a violent, dangerous prison that spiraled out of control during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Former correctional officer Justin Chmidling holds documentation of reports he filed while working at the Leavenworth Detention Center, including photos of cafeteria trays that he said inmates were using as weapons.

The problems start with the jail’s most basic function: Many of the doors to individual cells simply didn’t lock, after being broken by inmates, all of the guards interviewed by CNN said. Ron Miller, the US marshal for Kansas, confirmed in an interview that broken cell door locks had been a problem in the facility earlier this year but said the issue had been fixed in recent months. 

The prison has also faced near-constant understaffing, the employees say: Single officers would be assigned to staff areas that in past years would be covered by four or more guards, and several key security posts – known as pod control posts – regularly went unmanned. 

A scarcity of employees has been a problem at Leavenworth for years, with a 2017 inspector general report finding that up to 23% of correctional officer positions were vacant. But guards said the vacancies increased during the Covid pandemic, as more and more employees quit. Constant turnover also meant that many newer guards receive little training before they start working.

Guards said weapons such as improvised shanks and drugs are rampant behind bars, with cell blocks often filled with the acrid smell of K2, a type of synthetic marijuana. 

“Just walking down the hallway, it feels like you get a contact high,” said Justin Chmidling, who started as a guard in February 2019. He said he quit in September after the stress of working there made him physically ill.

The deadly cocktail of understaffing, drug use and weapons has led to an eruption of violence in recent years. Data provided by CoreCivic to a federal public defender, and included in an inmate’s motion for a sentence reduction, show that the number of assaults and uses of force has jumped from 2019 to 2020 and 2021. And Leavenworth Police Department data shows a similar increase in calls for service to the facility for reports of battery, assault and rape.

Many of the problems with the prison have previously been reported by the Missouri Independent, a nonprofit news organization.  

Former correctional officer William Rogers said he was assaulted seven times in the detention center over his four and a half years working there, including three times that sent him to the hospital. Documents he provided to CNN show that he and colleagues repeatedly warned CoreCivic higher-ups about violence and security oversights.

“Right now we seem to have lost control of the jail,” he wrote in one letter to his warden. “Leaving these posts empty is putting staff at great risk,” he wrote in another report.

But he said that almost none of his missives received a response. “It’s about the profit for them. They don’t care to make it better,” he said in an interview. Rogers was fired last year for violating a use of force policy by pushing an inmate. 

Former correctional officer William Rogers said he was assaulted seven times over four and a half years on the job.

In one incident in February, an inmate threw boiling water in the face of a correctional officer, then stabbed, kicked and punched her, according to multiple guards. The inmate also stabbed a second officer as she tried to step in, sending both to the hospital.

In August, Leavenworth inmate Scotty Wilson was attacked by another inmate at the facility, who bashed him in the head with a metal food tray. He died two days later.

Wilson was being held at the CoreCivic facility for failing to show up to a halfway house after a previous prison stay. Wendi Anaya-Wilson, his widow, said he had described the prison as “total chaos,” telling her in phone calls that inmates “had to watch themselves and there was no guards and doors didn’t lock.”

“He was only looking at eight to 14 months, but what he got was the death penalty,” Anaya-Wilson said in an interview. She pulled up photos on her phone from the hospital showing her husband’s bruised and bloodied head – just above his tattoo of the couple’s names and faces. 

Wendi Anaya-Wilson and her husband, Scotty Wilson, who died after another inmated attacked him at Leavenworth Detention Center.

In a statement, CoreCivic denied “specious and sensationalized allegations” that Leavenworth is violent or dangerous, arguing that criticism from former employees and activists is “designed to exert political pressure rather than to serve as an objective assessment” of the jail.

Both public and privately run corrections facilities deal with contraband and violence, and staffing shortages have hit prisons around the country in recent months, Gustin, the CoreCivic spokesperson, pointed out. He said Leavenworth has “made significant capital investments to the facility to improve safety and security,” including adding a locksmith position, repairing any damaged locks, reducing violent incidents and interdicting more contraband. The company declined to allow a CNN reporter to visit the facility. 

Federal officials overseeing the facility have made clear they’re aware of the problems. 

“The only way I could describe it, frankly, what’s going on at CoreCivic right now is it’s an absolute hellhole,” Julie Robinson, the chief judge of the US district court for Kansas, declared during a September sentencing hearing, according to a transcript reviewed by CNN. A staffer for Robinson declined an interview request for her. 

What’s next for Leavenworth?

With the Leavenworth contract set to expire at the end of December, the Marshals Service is starting to pull detainees out of the jail – but what comes next is still uncertain.

Miller, the US marshal for Kansas, said that most inmates are being relocated to a separate government-run federal prison in Leavenworth. Conditions have improved in the CoreCivic jail as the inmate population has decreased, he said.

Still, he said he would have recommended the contract not be renewed even if it weren’t for Biden’s order. “CoreCivic was not able to address it,” Miller said of the violence in the facility.

Earlier this year, CoreCivic proposed that the county government take over the facility. The CoreCivic CEO, Damon Hininger – who grew up nearby and launched his career as a corrections officer at the Leavenworth Detention Center in 1992 – described the proposal during a meeting of the county commission in April as “a thoughtful but creative way” to keep the jail open and comply with Biden’s executive order.

But the county commission eventually turned down the proposal, worried about lawsuits related to the jail. Since then, “we’ve not had any further contact” from CoreCivic about the facility’s future, said Vicky Kaaz, a commissioner. 

The Leavenworth County Courthouse building, where the county commissioners' office is located, in Leavenworth, Kansas.

During CoreCivic’s quarterly earnings call on November 9, Hininger told investors the company is “currently in discussions with other potential government partners to utilize the Leavenworth facility,” adding that conversations are happening at a “couple of different levels.”

In Leavenworth, rumors are swirling about who that partner could be. Paul Kramer, the Leavenworth city manager, said he had heard that CoreCivic was exploring the possibility of reopening the jail as an ICE detention center. Several guards said that executives at the prison were still assuring employees in recent weeks that the jail would stay open. An ICE spokesperson declined to comment on whether the facility was being considered.

Any facility that’s transformed from a prison to an immigrant detention center would require major renovations. But in at least one past example, a troubled prison converted to hold immigrants continued to have problems after reopening in its new form. 

​​In 2019, the Bureau of Prisons stopped using the Adams County Detention Center in Natchez, Mississippi, operated by CoreCivic, after reports of chronic understaffing, lack of medical care, poor conditions and a riot that had killed a guard. A few months after the Bureau of Prisons left, ICE began using the facility to hold detainees. Local ICE officers objected to the use of the Adams County prison as an immigration detention center “because of that facility’s history of chronic understaffing in correctional and health services” but were overridden by ICE headquarters, according to a report from the US Government Accountability Office.

Earlier this year, an inspector general report found “violations of ICE detention standards that threatened the health, safety, and rights of detainees” at the facility, including a medical oversight that had led to a detainee death and lax Covid procedures that had resulted in an outbreak.

Activists are worried that if Leavenworth does reopen as an immigrant detention center – or in another form – the problems plaguing the facility would continue. Federal public defenders and local American Civil Liberties Union chapters urged the Biden administration in a September letter to keep the facility closed.

Sharon Brett, the legal director at the ACLU of Kansas and a former Justice Department lawyer who spent years investigating prison conditions for the federal government, said Leavenworth could be appealing to ICE due to its central location in the US, as well as a new Illinois law forcing the agency to stop detaining immigrants in that state. 

“It’s a thousand-bed facility that will be sitting empty in a region that would be ripe for ICE to target,” Brett said. “As long as the government is going to continue to rely on detention, there is an opportunity for corporations to profit.”