New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie continues to evade all comment regarding his undeniable involvement and personal endorsement in a system of privately run halfway houses. Initially designed and sold to supplement the state’s general prison system, it now seems to have dangerously spiraled out of control, mutating into a network of mismanaged platforms where drugs, gang activity and routine violence are all allowed to run rampant.
Details stemming from a 10-month investigation recently outlined in a New York Times article highlight how, largely on the strength of Christie’s push, New Jersey, after years of the state being forced to contend with overcrowded prison systems and airtight budgets, has now emerged as a model, privatized plan trumpeted as a solution to all such cash strapped riddles.
The Community Education Centers (CEC) stands as one of the nation’s largest operators of all such facilities, many of which now rival the size of some actual prisons, boasting several hundred beds at each locale and, for good measure, bearing little of the blight and decay which once made them such easily recognizable eyesores in the typically low-income neighborhoods they’ve longed littered.
As for Christie, his ties to CEC date back as far back as the mid 2000’s, in particular the year 2010 when he openly championed the company “as representing the very best of the human spirit.”
Those hard pressed and misfortunate enough to have garnered a first-hand view of their own to speak of offers a far different tale.
Countless sources outlined to The Times a system where inmates are easily able to sneak in and out of the minimally secured facilities and often left unsupervised to the point of being able to commit further crimes ranging from sexual assault to daily drug dealing, much of which goes unchecked.
Additional analysis from among thousands of pages of government documents and more than 200 interviews conducted with current and former department workers, inmates and other top officials found that since 2005, more than 5,000 inmates have escaped from various state facilities, including at least 1,300 over just the last 29 months, which mark Christie’s rise in office.
By contrast, state prison systems reported just three escapes in 2010 and none in the first nine months of 2011, the last period for which the state gave figures.
The Times also found that often escaping was as simple as leaving through an unguarded back door or a side or emergency entrance. Others who strayed were found to have merely placed dummies in their beds to serve as decoys or simply decided to go AWOL after they were released to take part in varying state-sponsored work-release programs.
In fact, many of the facilities were found not to be equipped with any correction officers at all, and workers are not allowed to restrain inmates who try to leave or to locate those who do not come back from work release. The only recourse among staffers is to alert authorities.
“The system is a mess,” Thaddeus B. Caldwell, who spent four years tracking down halfway house escapees all across Jersey as a senior corrections investigator, told The Times. “No matter how many escaped, no matter how many were caught, no matter how many committed heinous acts while they were on the run, they still kept releasing more guys into the halfway houses, and it kept happening over and over again.”
So much so, that some of those like Caldwell who worked so tirelessly in keeping the system’s checks and balances in order are now haunted by the most dastardly of instances in which all machinations proved woefully flawed.
Two years ago, David Goodell, an inmate of Newark’s Logan Hall, escaped from custody after feigning a seizure without so much as causing a ripple among primarily minimum wage staffers, most of whom assumed their positions with little or no related experience.
From there, he headed straight for the suburbs, where he made contact with a former girlfriend with whom he had come to have beef with.
Within hours of his escape, Viviana Tulli laid dead of suffocation and a blood-soaked Goodell would be cornered and captured by police after attempting to flee in her vehicle.
In another instance, the state chose to ship Rafael Miranda to one of its, at best, minimally secured facilities, despite his long history of weapons violations. For four months, Miranda remained on the lam, only to be taken back into custody after he shot another man to death just three months away from the halfway house from which he’d escaped.
And then there’s the case of Valeria Parziale, she of some 15 aliases and a checkered history of drug and burglary offenses to match. In 2009, Parziale slipped away from a Trenton facility and remained free long enough to sever a man’s ear with a folding knife following a liquor store dispute. At the time of that collar, Parziale hadn’t even been documented with police as a fugitive.
And yet, as recently as 2010, Gov. Christie, who once served as a registered lobbyist for CEC, again took to the podium to espouse: “Places like this are to be celebrated.”
So what gives? It’s a known fact that the cost of housing privately-run prison systems have long been sold on the premise they carry only a fraction of the cost of similarly operated state institutions. Still others view the movement as yet another step in the right wing’s dogged determination to privatize any and all government operations, including even the safeguarding of penal institutions, where matters of life and death may readily be at hand.
Still, and despite endless assurances to the contrary from the likes of CEC and fellow private prisons industry giant Corrections Corporation of America, a recent study by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, found all such claims have “simply not materialized.”
Besides, even if they proved to be irrefutable, are staffing, fringe benefit and other labor-related cost cuts, all of which the study concludes are unfounded and may simply be a further ploy in the right wing’s desperate efforts to thin the roils of government workers and marginalize the numbers of unionized workers who typically tend to lean democratic, enough of a reason for such actions?
The now somewhat mythical conviction that private prisons save money drove scores of states to turn their penal institutions over to private companies, all largely on the word of the likes of Gov. Chris Christie.
How ironic that of all places, it’s a study born in Arizona that most definitely paints the portrait. A recent study there finds privatization may only not save money they can cost more to operate, even though they often steer clear of the sickest, costliest inmates.
“There’s a perception that the private sector is always going to do it more efficiently and less costly,” Russ Van Vleet, a former co-director of the University of Utah Criminal Justice Center said in a Times interview. “But there really isn’t much out there that says that’s correct.”
Glenn Minnis is a NYC-based sports and culture writer. Follow him on Twitter at @glennnyc.