CCA Guard Killed During Riot was on Prisoners’ “Hit List”
A federal lawsuit filed by the family of a guard murdered during a riot at a Mississippi facility claims that prison officials knew the guard was on a “hit list” compiled by prisoners when he was called in to help quell the disturbance.
Catlin Hugh Carithers, 24, was beaten to death during a May 20, 2012 riot at the Adams County Correctional Center near Natchez. The facility is operated by the Nashville, Tennessee-based Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest for-profit prison company. The 2,567-bed Adams County facility houses low-security adult male immigrants for the federal Bureau of Prisons, most of whom face deportation after finishing their prison sentences.
Adams County Sheriff Chuck Mayfield initially told reporters that the disturbance involved a power struggle between two different factions of prisoners, but an affidavit filed in federal court by an FBI agent in August 2012 stated the riot was a protest by prisoners against poor food, inadequate medical care and alleged mistreatment by staff at the facility.
In addition to Carithers’ death, half a dozen guards were held hostage and others were trapped for hours inside the prison. Twenty people, including both prisoners and employees, suffered injuries; investigators said the riot involved up to 300 prisoners and caused an estimated $1.3 million in property damage.
Ironically, the cover of CCA’s 2012 annual report featured a full-page color photo of the Adams County Correctional Center as it looked before the riot.
Numerous prisoners were charged with participating in the disturbance. Nine pleaded guilty on March 11, 2014 to one count each of rioting in a federal correctional facility, according to a press release issued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Nine other prisoners had previously been charged in connection with the riot and four were convicted.
The lawsuit filed by Carithers’ family claims that “the facility was short staffed and underequipped, and the inadequate staffing and treatment of the inmates created dangerous working conditions for correction officers working there.” Further, CCA “created a dangerous atmosphere for the correction officers by depriving the inmates of basic needs and treating them inhumanely.”
The suit also alleges that two days before the riot, a CCA security official was alerted by an informant at the facility that prisoners planned to stage the protest and that Carithers was one of several guards on a “hit list.”
The next day, according to the lawsuit, “the inmate informant again informed the facility security officer that the situation was more serious than first thought. Again, the inmate warned that certain correction officers were on a ‘black list’ and any officer that disrespected an inmate would be punished.” The informant was communicating with the security official via text and email using a contraband cell phone, which the informant was allowed to possess.
The CCA security official, identified by the informant as John Vanik, allegedly knew that Carithers was on a “hit list” when Carithers was called into work after the riot broke out – on his day off – and knew that prisoners “intended on injuring, or punishing” the guards on the list. An email from Vanik stated he had passed the informant’s warnings on to the warden.
The hours-long disturbance at the Adams County prison began at 2:40 p.m. and centered on the inner compound and housing units. Prisoners were seen armed with makeshift weapons, including broom handles and trash can lids. They also built a bonfire in the prison yard but none tried to escape. Sheriff Mayfield said the facility’s Special Operations Response Team (SORT) and guards from other CCA-run prisons in the area responded to the disturbance, along with sheriff’s deputies and the Mississippi Highway Patrol.
On the day of the riot, one prisoner told a local news channel that the CCA guards “always beat us and hit us. We just pay them back…. We’re trying to get better food, medical [care], programs, clothes, and we’re trying to get some respect from the officers and lieutenants.”
The Jackson Free Press reported receiving an email from a prisoner the day after the disturbance, stating: “The guard that died yesterday was a sad tragedy, but the situation is simple: If you treat a human as an animal for over two years, the response will be as an animal.”
PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann said the informant at Adams County contacted him following the riot. Friedmann, who also serves as president of the Private Corrections Institute (PCI), a non-profit watchdog group opposed to prison privatization, said that according to the informant, the day before the disturbance the warden met with two prisoners whom he believed were leaders among prisoner factions at the facility.
What the warden did not realize, however, was that the two “leaders” no longer had any influence over the other prisoners, as they had been removed from their leadership positions prior to the riot. “CCA didn’t know and these guys didn’t say they’d been forced out by the other inmates. They weren’t aware these guys had no say anymore and no power to control the guys in their groups,” Friedmann explained.
“The next day the inmates begin congregating on the yard,” he continued. “The [guards] who were there at the time took a strong, hard response, and they threw tear gas from the roof to break up the congregation, and [the prisoners] climbed up on the roof and assaulted the guards throwing tear gas at them.” Carithers was one of the guards on the roof.
Friedmann also blasted CCA board chairman John D. Ferguson for refusing to honor Carithers at the company’s annual shareholder meeting on May 16, 2013. Friedmann, who served six years in a CCA-operated prison in the 1990s, called for a 30-second moment of silence for Carithers near the end of the meeting.
“CCA holds a shareholder meeting just once a year, and they couldn’t give 30 seconds to honor the memory of one of their own who died in the line of duty,” Friedmann said in a PCI press release. “That is callous and insensitive. It is also indicative of the value that CCA places on its employees. This is the one time, at the annual meeting, that shareholders could collectively recognize Mr. Carithers.”
Friedmann said he became a shareholder in order to keep a watchful eye on CCA. “I own a small amount of stock which allows me to attend the company’s annual meetings and introduce shareholder resolutions,” he stated.
The riot and its aftermath caught the attention of federal lawmakers. “There are some issues with the privately run facilities, so I think between the Bureau of Prisons and the Department of Homeland Security, you will see some restricting of that process,” said U.S. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, a Mississippi congressman and the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Homeland Security.
The lawsuit filed by the Carithers family remains pending; CCA filed a motion to dismiss, which was denied on March 17, 2014. See:Carithers v. CCA, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Miss.), Case No. 5:13-cv-00066-DCB-MTP.
CCA is not the only for-profit prison company that has experienced problems in Mississippi. Private prison firm GEO Group lost contracts to operate three facilities in the state, including the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility, which was the subject of a federal lawsuit that exposed extremely brutal and violent conditions, including rampant sexual abuse of juvenile offenders. [See: PLN, Nov. 2013, p.30].