Former Guard Launches Hunger Strike to Protest Private Prison Company

Activists want San Diego County to cancel its contracts with the Corrections Corporation of America.

Mark Bartlett, center, began his hunger strike with a protest in San Diego on July 5.

When the Corrections Corporation of America bought two halfway houses in San Diego for $36 million in 2013, the company seemed committed to maintaining the status quo. CCA said it hoped guards and other employees at the facilities, known as "residential reentry" centers, would stay on. The company also announced that it would continue operating the facilities under the old owner's name, Corrections Alternatives, because of its "strong and positive reputation."

Yet according to a former guard, CCA's acquisition led to cutbacks in staff, food, and programming meant to help inmates reintegrate into the community. "The transition was ridiculous," says Mark Bartlett, who worked at the Ocean View reentry facility until he was fired in 2015. "It's turned into a business where they're cutting corners on everything. Whether it's with cutting staff on payroll, cutting food, the lack of nutrition, cutting programming."

Bartlett, a 33-year-old who served as an Army prison guard in Afghanistan and grew up near the San Diego facility, kicked off a hunger strike on Tuesday evening to protest what he sees as poor conditions at Ocean View. He and a group of local activists have drawn up a list of demands, compiled with the input of current inmates. Their top demand is that San Diego County end its contracts with CCA—and they want federal and state agencies to do the same. Bartlett says he will not eat until the demands are met.

While he was a guard at Ocean View, Bartlett says he began reporting issues, including forged documentation of searches and falsified hours spent training guards, to the facility's director and to CCA's human resources office. He says he took a "stress leave" from his job last August after he found that working in the prison was triggering his PTSD. When he couldn't set a date to return to work, he says, the company let him go.

Bartlett doesn't have records documenting the alleged conditions inside Ocean View. He is demanding that the federal Bureau of Prisons release its audits of the facility, and that San Diego police and fire departments disclose community complaints about Ocean View, as well as records of emergency calls there. He is also demanding official investigations of staffing levels, narcotics use, sanitation, and medical care at Ocean View.

CCA spokesman Jonathan Burns said that the company’s San Diego facilities are "appropriately staffed," and that their staffing patterns are approved by public agencies. According to Burns, CCA's only cutback at Ocean View in 2013 was eliminating a single administrative position. He also says that CCA has no record of Bartlett making formal allegations regarding employee training logs.

CCA, the country's second-largest private prison operator, leases the reentry facility at Ocean View, which houses local, state, and federal inmates. It also owns Boston Avenue, a federal reentry facility in San Diego, and the Otay Mesa Detention Facility, a 1,500-bed federal immigration detention center south of the city. Its acquisition of the Ocean View and Boston Avenue facilities in 2013 was its first foray into the business of halfway houses. Since then, its investment in the sector has grown. It currently owns or runs 25 halfway houses with more than 5,000 beds in six states.

Inmates assigned to halfway houses are typically nearing the end of their sentences. Some are allowed to leave the facility to go work, while others prepare for employment in training programs and counseling. Catherine Mendonca, a women's rights activist who will fast alongside Bartlett, wonders whether CCA's San Diego facilities are fulfilling their promise to help inmates prepare for freedom. "If they're getting proper nutrition, if they're getting opportunities to actually get a job—all of these are actually questionable," Mendonca says. "Is this actual rehabilitation? Or is this something to profit off the backs of those incarcerated?"

This story has been updated.