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The DOJ Faces Pressure To Close A Prison Which May Dodge Executive Order To Close

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

There's pressure on the Justice Department to close a violence-prone detention center in Kansas. The for-profit facility has been on 24-hour lockdown after a person died last month. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: People locked up in the Leavenworth Detention Center have been reaching out for help nearly every day. Sharon Brett is legal director at the ACLU of Kansas.

SHARON BRETT: What we know from people who are detained inside this facility is that it's become increasingly violent, out of control and that people are fearing for their lives every single day.

JOHNSON: In February, corrections officers went to the hospital with severe injuries after a detainee threw hot water and stabbed one woman and kicked another one. In June, at least a half-dozen more detainees were stabbed. And in August, a detainee named Scott Wilson suffered a brutal beating. He died two days later. Since then, the facility's been in lockdown, only allowed out to shower every three or four days.

MELODY BRANNON: I have clients who have been in prison. They've done hard time in really difficult federal prisons around the country.

JOHNSON: That's Melody Brannon. She's the federal public defender in Kansas.

BRANNON: They are terrified to be at CoreCivic because they know their lives are in danger every day.

JOHNSON: The Leavenworth facility is run by CoreCivic, a private prison company that has a contract with the U.S. Marshals Service. A spokesman for the company says it's worked with the marshals for three decades, and it says allegations by the ACLU and the public defenders are designed to put political pressure on the Biden administration. During his first week in office, the president signed an executive order phasing out contracts with private prison operators. The federal contract with CoreCivic and Leavenworth is set to expire in December. The company's CEO, Damon Hininger, told analysts this summer CoreCivic is exploring its options.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAMON HININGER: We are also evaluating options for other government agencies.

JOHNSON: Other government agencies - Biden's executive order on private prisons did not apply to immigration facilities, and some people who work at CoreCivic say they think the Leavenworth property could wind up housing immigration detainees. Lawyers in Kansas who are demanding the facility shut down say it's got a bad track record. In 2017, the Justice Department inspector general called out the place for staffing shortages. Sharon Brett of the ACLU used to work at the Justice Department investigating civil rights violations against people in prison and other institutions.

BRETT: This is exactly the type of facility that DOJ would look at and potentially investigate for constitutional violations.

JOHNSON: Starting with, Brett says, conditions that are cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEAN BLUNT SONG, "100") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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