The politics of private prisons and child abuse

Minnesota’s largest prison for boys currently faces investigation over covering up allegations of sexual abuse. A staff member reported the allegations to her superiors, yet nothing was done to address them. The facility never reported the incidents to the state authorities, which violates state law. When the state began to investigate the allegations, it appears the people running the private prison Mesabi Academy used their political connections to quell the inquiry:

After Mesabi Academy objected to a certain investigator being on the case, St. Louis County removed him. When the county alerted two other counties it had “health and safety” concerns about the facility, Mesabi threatened to sue. And shortly after a St. Louis County official announced the contract was ending, a powerful politician intervened on Mesabi’s behalf and expressed concern about potential job losses at the Iron Range facility. The contract was renewed.

n Friday, county officials said they had closed their six-month investigation into Mattson’s allegations without determining any maltreatment had taken place. They said they had insufficient evidence.

But St. Louis County also confirmed Mesabi Academy didn’t report several allegations of sex abuse to authorities. State law required the academy to report such allegations to St. Louis County Child Protection or law enforcement within 24 hours of being told.

In all, the county said Friday it had closed its investigation into 20 allegations of maltreatment over the past 14 months, saying in each case that maltreatment could not be determined.

In at least three of those cases, it was clear that Mesabi Academy knew of allegations but did not report them to the county. It’s not clear how many others it kept secret.

There is a big enough problem with abuse in juvenile prisons to begin with it. Private prisons do not necessarily improve the situations because they have a completely different incentive to protect their reputation. Many of these prisons are run by corporations that operate several prisons. One black mark on one prison can affect their ability to create or continue to operate the others.

Mesabi Academy faced more complaints than any other facility in the state. When considering that against the allegations of systematic cover up, it does not look good. For example, several ex-staff members stated that they were warned not to report abuse to any outside authorities:

Current and former staffers at Mesabi Academy said in dozens of interviews that the facility routinely conducts internal investigations and discourages employees from reporting problems to outside law enforcement, according to APM Reports.

Todd Wilman, who worked at Mesabi Academy for 13 years, said there was a code of silence when it came to anything that would reflect badly on the company.

“They wanted to make sure you kept your mouth shut,” Wilman said. “You didn’t say nothing. And if it was reported outside the building, your so-called career could be ruined at that point, because you’d be fired. And it was also stated that they could make it tough enough where you couldn’t find another job.”

The county recently reopened the investigation, yet it is unclear what will come of it. It will be difficult for them to substantiate any allegations if the cover up is so extensive. Making matters worse, it appears the facility manipulates the children involved in the allegations by holding their privileges at bay should the boys choose to report anything.

I doubt Minnesota will do much to protect the boys. The state sends most of the convicted juveniles in the surrounding counties to Mesabi Academy. The state likely will not do anything to jeopardize such an easy solution to their juvenile offender problem. This is why I think it is unlikely that state the was unaware of what occurred at the facility. The allegations range back to 2009, and no matter how well people are at cover ups, nothing goes on so long involving dozens of people without someone talking.

Chances are the state knew about the allegations and simply did nothing because the public knew nothing about it. Once the allegations began to make news, however, the state had to at least pretend to act. This probably would have worked in the media cooperated with the attempt. By reporting on the cover up at the facility and bizarre way in which the state decided to drop the investigation, the media put the state in a no-win position. They have to investigate or it will clearly look like they are avoiding it and that could bring federal inquiry.

We will see where this goes, but again, I doubt the state will actually do anything to protect the boys.


3 thoughts on “The politics of private prisons and child abuse

  1. A private prison company has a contract with the state guaranteeing a certain occupancy level. A financial incentive for judges to sentence people to prison who shouldn’t be there. The “us versus them” mentality of the cops comes from the top down. The top is the American Bar Association and let’s not forget that judges are noting more than elected lawyers. Instead of carving “Justice” above the courthouse door, “Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here” would be much more appropriate.

  2. Pingback: The politics of private prisons and child abuse –

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