US Prison Boss Who Oversaw the Accidental Early Release of 3,200 Inmates Is Now Running Probation Program in the UK

Privatization of probation in the UK means ex-convicts will be in the hands of companies with some pretty questionable records.

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Mar 15 2016, 8:15pm

Chris Grayling (right), who as justice secretary privatized probation. Photo by BIBA Broker. Thumbnail image via Oh-Berlin.com

As head of the Department of Corrections in Washington State, Bernie Warner oversaw the accidental early release of 3,200 prisoners. Having left that job, he became the vice president of corrections at US firm Management and Training Corporation (MTC), a US private prison operator that has been hit by numerous riots and scandals. And now, thanks to the government's privatization of probation, Bernie and MTC are bringing their stellar record to the UK.

Last year, the Conservative government handed probation services—which manage ex-prisoners on release from prison, trying to guide them away from crime—to private companies. MTC are running two of the biggest new "Community Rehabilitation Companies" in London and the Thames Valley. All but the most violent ex-prisoners in London are being managed by MTC and their partners, operating under the name MTCNovo. The MTCNovo website doesn't say who is in charge, but company records obtained by VICE show that Bernie Warner is one of the American directors of UK based MTCNovo, and has been since last December.

Soon after Bernie left his job in charge of prisons in Washington State, a scandal erupted. Since 2002, his Department of Corrections had released 3,200 prisoners early, thanks to a computer error. State officials admitted that in 2015 alone there were two killings by ex-prisoners who should have been in prison but had been let go before their time due to the faulty computer program.

Warner told the Seattle Times he didn't know and "was shocked to learn that the department was releasing inmates inaccurately for the past 13 years, and when it was found out in my administration, it was not addressed."

Officials also admitted that Warner's department knew about the early release problem in 2012, but attempts to fix the computer system were delayed 16 times. They also said that Warner's assistant secretary, who reported directly to him, definitely knew about the faulty computer program.

MTC in the US told VICE: "Bernie Warner had no knowledge of any early release of offenders during his tenure and is fully cooperating with the state's investigation." As he was in charge of the department, ignorance of such a major failing raises questions over his leadership. But MTC said Warner had taken Washington State Department of Corrections to "new heights," and he "will be a tremendous asset to MTC and its mission of rehabilitating offenders within our care."

Warner was appointed to run MTC's prisons division after a series of scandals hit the firm. These scandals were unfolding as then Justice Secretary Chris Grayling was giving control of probation in London and the Thames Valley to the private sector.

Grayling announced MTC were one of his choices to run probation in his controversial privatization program in late 2014. The firm formally took over London probation in February 2015. Grayling was replaced as justice secretary by Michael Gove in May 2015. Gove has unpicked some of Grayling's policies, but is sticking with his probation privatization.

These seven-year probation contracts are massive. The government will pay MTCnovo $1.4 billion in London and $273 million in the Thames Valley for the work.

...disorder, periodic mayhem, and staff ineptitude which leads to perpetual danger to the inmates and staff.

Unfortunately, the firm's recent prison record does not inspire confidence. In July 2015, there was a riot at the MTC-run Arizona State Prison-Kingman, which meant 1,200 prisoners had to be shipped out. In September 2015, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey announced he was severing all links with MTC. The state governor sacked MTC from Arizona's prisons following an investigation into the cause of the riot. According to the official report, the investigation found, "A culture of disorganization, disengagement, and disregard for state policies by MTC," along with a "failure by MTC to conduct critical staff training, and withholding these failures from Department of Corrections monitors."

Also in July 2015, a federal judge ordered improvements for inmates at the MTC-run Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Mississippi. This followed a lawsuit launched by campaign group the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in defense of the inmates' constitutional rights. The case was deeply damning of MTC's prison. Judge Carlton Reeves said, "The evidence before the court paints a picture of a facility struggling with disorder, periodic mayhem, and staff ineptitude, which leads to perpetual danger to the inmates and staff." SPLC's case said gangs "ran amok" in the youth jail, while staff "colluded" with them. During the court case, MTC's prison's governor admitted that two staff were being fired for sexual misbehavior, but he was waiting for DNA evidence to see if a third guard sexually assaulted multiple inmates.

In February 2015, there was a riot at the MTC-run Willacy County Correctional Center in Texas. Around two thirds of the 2,800 inmates refused work details and set fire to three of the ten tents in which they were housed. The riot was suppressed after guards used teargas and 300 inmates were removed. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said the riot was "most unsurprising" because of poor conditions: Inmates slept in 200 closely placed beds per tent. ACLU's visitor found inmates "getting thrown into isolation cells for complaining about bad food and poor medical care, being denied both urgent and routine medical care, and being cut off from contact with their families." In March, the National Bureau of Prison's canceled MTC's contract at the prison.

Asked about these problems, MTC's US spokesperson told VICE, "Operating prisons is inherently challenging and not without risks. Incidents happened at both public facilities and those operated in partnership with companies like MTC." The firm said it is, "proud of the impact we have had in the lives of offenders over the last three decades—helping them to change their behavior in order to be successful in society after release," adding "This mission continues in the United Kingdom."

MTCNovo's UK spokesperson said, "The Ministry of Justice, of course, carries out a detailed assessment" of firms it's appointed, and the government "is well aware of MTC's record of 30 years in the US," which it described as a "strong reputation for providing quality service."

The government's privatization of probation involves a number of other firms with patchy records on public contracts, and other "Community Rehabilitation Companies" (CRC's) are in difficulty: In South Yorkshire, the probation service run by Sodexo failed a Ministry of Justice audit. The Kent, Surrey, and Sussex CRC also had problems with a Ministry of Justice audit, while the Welsh CRC has been criticized for job cuts.

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