Bureau of Prisons headquarters in Washington.

Bureau of Prisons headquarters in Washington. Mark Van Scyoc/Shutterstock.com

Federal Official Boosted Use of Private Prisons; Now He Has a Top Job at One

The revolving door at the Bureau of Prisons raises ethical questions.

A former federal official who earlier this year instructed the Bureau of Prisons to identify inmates to be transferred to private detention centers has left his government job for a position with one of the largest contractors housing federal prisoners.

In January, Government Executive reported that Frank Lara, then the bureau’s assistant director for correctional programs, sent a memorandum with the subject line “increasing population levels in private contract facilities” to agency leaders. In it, Lara tasked facility leaders with identifying inmates for transfer to private facilities, saying it would “alleviate the overcrowding at Bureau of Prisons’ institutions and maximize the effectiveness of private contracts.”

A few months later, Lara announced his retirement. Earlier this month, he began working at the GEO Group as its director of operations. The company is one of the largest contractors housing federal inmates. In fiscal 2018, for example, GEO Group has received $147 million in awards from the bureau, according to federal spending data. While Lara’s memo went out to all bureau leaders, it mentioned only one facility by name: Rivers Correctional Institution in Winton, N.C., which is owned and operated by the GEO Group.

The GEO Group did not respond to several emails, and when asked about the hiring over the phone, a company official hung up. Government Executive was unable to reach Lara directly.

Eric Young, president of the union local that represents bureau correctional officers, called Lara’s move, “The biggest damn conflict of interest that I’ve ever seen.”

Just prior to the memo’s release, dozens of bureau officials, including Lara, attended a conference hosted by the American Correctional Association. The conference was sponsored by the GEO Group, among others. The bureau said it spent $153,000 on travel costs associated with the conference. The Washington Post reported last year that GEO held its own annual conference at a Trump resort in Florida, and that it donated $225,000 to a pro-Trump super-PAC in the run up to the 2016 election and an additional $250,000 to his inauguration.

GEO Group has been one of the largest clients of the lobbying firm Ballard Partners since Trump took office, registering as a client in February of 2017 and since spending $850,000 with the group, according to lobbying disclosures. Politico deemed Ballard “the most powerful lobbyist in Trump’s Washington.” According to the Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets database, Ballard has held 355 meetings with White House officials and 56 with representatives of the Justice Department, the Bureau of Prisons’ parent agency.

The revolving door at the Bureau of Prisons is not new. CoreCivic, for example, GEO Group’s main competitor in the contract prison space, has frequently hired ex-federal officials for leadership positions. Harley Lappin served as the bureau’s director before transitioning to becoming CoreCivic’s executive vice president and chief corrections officer. William Dalius worked at the bureau for 30 years, most recently as the administrative division assistant director and chief financial officer. He is now the vice president for operations at CoreCivic. Kim White was a regional director at the bureau and later the assistant director for human resources. She is now CoreCivic’s assistant director of human resources. John Baxter spent 24 years at the bureau before joining CoreCivic and is now its vice president for mental health services. Charles Cox spent 23 years at the bureau, during which, according to his résumé, he played an “instrumental” role in developing the agency’s “private secure and community corrections procurement strategies.” After his retirement, Cox went to work for Corrections Corporation of America, CoreCivic’s predecessor. After a stint back in public service at the county level in North Carolina, Cox finished his career as a vice president at GEO Group.

Rodney King, a spokesman for CoreCivic, said experts in corrections overwhelmingly come from the public sector and therefore the company must recruit from former public officials.

“Our goal is to recruit and retain the best people from the biggest pool of talent, whether that means developing and promoting from within our organization or recruiting experienced professionals from outside CoreCivic,” King said. “We of course recruit from the public sector for a wide range of roles at our company. Not doing so would severely limit the pool of qualified candidates for jobs with our company. That applies not just to positions in our leadership ranks, but also our teachers, treatment specialists and corrections officers.”

Nick Schwellenbach, the director of investigations at the Project on Government Oversight, said the revolving door creates ethical issues. “It raises some severe questions about who these senior executive branch officials are working for,” he said. On Lara specifically, he added the transition “definitely flunks” the smell test.

Pushback From Congress

Lara's memo followed guidance from Attorney General Jeff Sessions last year that reversed an Obama administration policy to phase out the use of private prisons. In 2016, former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates issued a memo instructing the bureau to either end private facility contracts when their terms expired or “substantially reduce [their] scope” to correspond with declining inmate populations. Sessions said Feb. 23, 2017, that Yates' decision “changed long-standing policy” of the bureau and impaired its “ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.”

Many lawmakers expressed outrage at the time, accusing Trump of rewarding his campaign donors.

“This is how our corrupt political and campaign finance system works,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said after Sessions' announcement last year. “Private prison companies invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and today they got their reward.”

The bureau began contracting with private prisons in 1997 to address overcrowding. Contract facilities currently house about 18,000 federal inmates, or 11 percent of the total population. A 2016 inspector general report found the contract prisons “incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable BOP institutions and that the BOP needs to improve how it monitors contract prisons in several areas.” The private facilities confiscated eight times as many contraband cell phones, had higher rates of assaults (both inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-officer) and were placing inmates’ rights and needs at risk.

Lara’s memo came just days after the bureau held a conference call with facility administrators, instructing them to prepare for a 12 percent to 14 percent reduction in their authorized staffing levels. Such cuts would result in shedding 5,000-6,000 jobs, at least some of which are currently vacant. Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget proposed a cut of about 6,000 bureau positions, more than 1,800 of which were correctional officers.

The bureau has faced increasing pressure from Capitol Hill as it has continued efforts to eliminate the positions, with lawmakers ramping up pressure on the agency to add to its workforce. The federal prisons overseers have so far not backed down from the scheduled elimination of around 6,000 vacant positions, as well as additional vacancies that have arisen during an extended hiring freeze at the agency. The bureau has increasingly depended on a process known as “augmentation,” in which non-correction officers are reassigned to guard duties.

The fiscal 2018 omnibus spending measure President Trump signed into law in March provided a $106 million increase to the Bureau of Prisons budget. A Senate report on the omnibus directed the bureau to “curtail its over-reliance on augmentation and instead hire additional full-time correctional staff before continuing to augment existing staff.” A bipartisan group of lawmakers, however, have raised concerns that the bureau had no plans to implement the changes mandated by Congress, and multiple sources told Government Executive earlier this year that the agency had not backtracked from its planned staffing cuts.

Bureau Director Mark Inch resigned abruptly in May, just nine months after taking office. The New York Times subsequently reported that Inch had become frustrated by the administration flouting “departmental norms” and Sessions leaving him out of meetings on “major staffing, budget and policy decisions.”