Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Why Does Potter Feel "Secured" by Wackenhut?

I had an odd set of reactions reading last Wednesday's issue of Willy Week (I always seem to be about a week behind commenting on them, don't I?) about Mayor Tom Potter quietly arming guards for Portland's City Hall, as part of an agreed increase in security but in a surprise rollout of the change. For a while I wasn't sure what the point of the story was: was it about City Hall not really needing the extra security, seeing as how there's been no spike in crime at the building that I know of, and of course the city and country are in the trough of historic crime lows...or was it that hello, 9/11 was five years ago and you're just now beefing up security? Or was it that Potter did it on the sly? Or is it that they're carrying concealed weapons?

And while I was turning all that over in my head:
City Hall guards wouldn't comment, and Ben Blair, the head of Florida-based Wackenhut's local operations, which includes security at the two city buildings, said he couldn't discuss the extent to which the guards were packing heat.

"Those types of questions go straight to the security posture of the building," Blair says.
WACKENHUT! They're guarding Tom Potter? Isn't he an ex-cop? I could tell you about Wackenhut's sad past when it comes to security, but I'm sure this article reaches a specific narrative at some point, and nobody wants to see me get on my high horse about what an awful company it is. So let's get back to the article...Erik Sten says he knew even if Randy didn't--and as long as it wasn't Force 10 from Navarone in the lobby, he was willing to give it a try. Ahh, so it's a commissioner conflict piece! See, Sten's calling out Randy AND the old man! (Randy does much of Sten's work for him here, freaking about "frightening characters." I know for a fact being an urban firefighter is not a weirdo-free experience, so I don't know when he got so fearful. Too much time off the line, I guess.)

No, wait, that's not the story. It's money...of course, of course. The city's spending $1.1 million on the upgrades, for just two buildings? And the other upgrades have been delayed? Wait, it's an inefficiency in government piece! They can't even pick a security force right! The first company couldn't qualify because the City was favoring cops with Portland PB experience, and they didn't have enough. So that left them (intentionally? Is this actually a corruption piece about Potter favoring his retired cop buddies from PPB? Ooooh, me likey corruption pieces!) to fall back on option #2, Florida-based WackenAAAAGGGGHHHH!

That's one too many references about the company that is to keeping things secure, as Paris Hilton is to preserving her family's financial legacy and social reputation. Forgive me, but I've gotta go on a bit of a rant here. I restrained myself the first time they came up, but now I must tell you that the real story is who Portland has contracted their security with, and how anyone important in Portland could not know what a suckful company Wackenhut is.

I'm sure most readers are at least familiar with the name Wackenhut--cause it's funny--and may even know they do security for a living. Some may even know that they make big bucks running prisons for states. But what most people (including me) likely didn't know is that the company is now run by the Danish firm Group 4 Falck, (certainly not a catchier nom). I came to know about Wackenhut during the 90s when the prison industry went through the roof, starting with Mario Coumo's New York. It was a way to score both political points and put people to work in rural areas where towns desperately wanted some kind of employment apparatus to save them. As Michael Scott puts it, a win-win-win scenario.

Well, guess which company caught onto the boom and made themselves the second largest private security company in the U.S. Wackenhut eventually picked up all kinds of security contracts, but they made their bread on prisons, prisons they took over from state and local governments who decided that private entities could run every function of government better. And for a while it seemed like that perfect American capitalist match: making money off America's strong values.

But toward the end of the 90s, the blue-collar feel-good narrative began to implode. I recall reading at the time a 1998 Atlantic Monthly piece that was more broadly about the prison-industrial complex, and how economy and politics were running prison management like the machine that made thneeds, and prisoners were the truffula tufts. I apologize that it's subscriber only, but it's almost worth renewing my expired subscription just to read it again. A prime culprit in Atlantic's observance of the Southwestern states that had gone full gonzo with privatization was Wackenhut. Why? They simply sucked at their jobs:
# New Mexico: Riots broke out at two facilities operated by Wackenhut. At the company's Santa Rosa facility in Guadalupe County, a riot in August 1999 left one guard dead and one inmate wounded. Nine days earlier, an inmate was beaten to death by another wielding a bag of rocks. In its first year under Wackenhut control in 1998, the Hobbs Correctional Facility in Lea County was the site of three fatal inmate stabbings, six nonfatal stabbings, a "near-riot" and allegations of guards using excessive force, according to reports in both the Albuquerque Journal and Albuquerque Tribune. The papers also reported that in January 2000, four mentally ill inmates in the Hobbs facility filed a class action lawsuit alleging that they were denied access to medical treatment. The inmates also alleged that the facility was understaffed and the guards were poorly trained and abusive.

# Louisiana: In April 2000, allegations of guards abusing juvenile offenders prompted the state to take control of the Jena Juvenile Justice Center run by Wackenhut, the Baton Rouge Advocate reported. The facility, opened in December 1998, was plagued by problems, including riots during the first month the facility was open, allegations of "abusive and untrained" guards, and lack of "meaningful" rehabilitation programs, medical care, and educational opportunities. The paper reported that inmates also complained of shortages of food, supplies, and clothing. According to the Advocate, juvenile inmates said they would purposely mutilate or attempt to kill themselves, hoping to get away from their "tormentors."

# Florida: At the Broward County work release facility in Ft. Lauderdale, allegations of sex between guards and inmates, and a successful escape, caused the county sheriff to ask for tighter oversight of the Wackenhut facility. According to The Palm Beach Post, five guards were either reprimanded or fired as a result of the allegations. In June of 2000, the Florida state ACLU filed a public records suit against the Palm Beach Gardens-based Wackenhut for "stonewalling" access to records. The ACLU said they believed the documentation it sought would confirm ongoing allegations of sexual harassment, abuse, and "excessive profit" taken by the company.

# Elsewhere in Texas, a former inmate of the Wackenhut-run minimum-security lockup in Lockhart claimed she was raped repeatedly over a four-month period. In July 1998, as reported in the American-Statesman, the former inmate filed a federal suit alleging that, although a prison internal affairs investigation found that the sex was not consensual, Wackenhut officials failed to fire or reprimand the accused guard. The guard later quit after a second sexual assault allegation came to light.
As bad as all that is, the one thing this piece doesn't cover that the Atlantic article did (and you'll have to take my word for it) is the horrendous record private companies have with their #1 job: simply keeping people from getting out of the prison and back into the community. In fairness here, Wackenhut is no worse than other prison security providers, but none of the companies deserve any fair praise for their efforts.

Undeterred as caretakers of our prison systems, Wackenhut started guarding energy complexes, notably nuclear power facilities. The SEIU just last month took a swipe at the company for failing in their duty to secure the Seabrook facility in New Hampshire:
The union outlined problems at those facilities including inadequate staffing, shortcuts during patrols, workers allowing unescorted visitors to enter protected areas and permitting unsearched new fuel containers into a protected area and leaving them unattended.

Wackenhut spokesman Mark Shapiro pointed out Wackenhut itself is not included in the NRC citation.

Stephen Lerner, director of SEIU property services, said: "Wackenhut has again demonstrated an inability to play by the rules and provide adequate security. Until the NRC takes action against this irresponsible contractor, the public can have little confidence that our nation's nuclear facilities are safe and secure."
The SEIU piece then lays out its major beefs with Wackenhut, primarily around poor training and overworking, that contribute to security lapses. The NRC can't say it wasn't warned; SEIU had been making the same claims for three years:
According to the union's analysis of public documents, press reports and surveys of employees, inappropriate people are placed in sensitive positions as part of Wackenhut's hiring practices.

Despite the company's claim that it provides extensive training to guards, the union alleges Wackenhut security officers often receive limited training.

The company's working conditions make it difficult for its employees to provide quality service, the union said. Many security officers work excessive overtime and Wackenhut has retaliated against - rather than encouraged - employees who point out security lapses.

"Wackenhut is underbidding everyone," said the SEIU's Cappella, whose union has an agreement with 30 different security contractors in Chicago alone - all offering fully paid health plans. "They are just about the only company that is refusing to provide a fully paid health plan for workers and their families."

Most of Wackenhut's plans are 80/20 or 66 percent employer paid and devoid of family benefits, he said.

"For someone making eight, nine or 10 bucks an hour, they can't afford [health care]," Cappella said.
Perhaps realizing that their failure to secure the facilities they were entrusted with might be seen as detrimental to receiving further contracts, in the case of Massachusetts's Pilgrim nuclear station Wackenhut seized on an ingenious solution: use a subsidiary that tests security teams on behalf of the nuclear watchdog agency, to test Wackenhut's personnel guarding the facility!
The deal was described in one editorial as "a frightful excursion into privatized homeland security," and was the subject of bipartisan criticism in a key Congressional oversight committee.

Rep. Christopher Shays (R-CT), chairman of the House subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations, said "A proposal to hire an attacking force from the same company used to protect several plants raises legitimate concerns about the integrity of future mandatory force-on-force exercises."

The program was "like a take-home exam," said Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA). "The very company that makes a living guarding nuclear power plants is also testing nuclear power plants' security." Danielle Brian, Executive Director of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), Washington's leading government accountability group on nuclear issues, told the Associated Press that the contract, "is not an apparent conflict of interest -- but a blatant conflict of interest."
Think it can't get worse? How about their record securing airports? In Hawaii, the president and associates of a small airline scheduled a meeting to complain about the poor treatment given their employees by Wackenhut personnel assigned to Maui's Kahului Airpot--and got an asskicking by the airport's chief officer for their trouble.

In that case the assaultees had a right to be there--heaven help you if you're an immigrant who is placed into a detention facility at a major airport like JFK, who has hired--guess who--to run those facilities. Some of the described behavior is no doubt due to the current posture taken by INS regarding detained immigrants--but it's no surprise that Wackenhut seems more than willing to apply that posture in practice.

Still not convinced? I saved the best (worst) for last: the Department of Homeland Security--the folks who brought you bloated bureaucracy, billions in no-bid security contracts, and a near-total lack of oversight--even they have limits to the amount of bald incompetence they'll tolerate:
After revelations of extensive security breaches at Department of Homeland Security headquarters, DHS has decided to solicit a new contract for security personnel.

The new contract was supposed to go into effect April 1, but DHS has been mum on whether it actually signed a new contract, and if so, with which company. Wackenhut Services Inc., the company that generated criticism for security shortcomings, currently provides protection at DHS headquarters. DHS would not say whether Wackenhut has received another contract to provide security.

Several current and former security guards at the Department of Homeland Security’s sprawling Nebraska Avenue complex have called attention to what they characterize as a lack of training and preparation of guards employed by Wackenhut. An Associated Press report published last month described the mishandling of an anthrax threat at the headquarters, as well as accounts of under-guarded building entrances and malfunctioning detection equipment.
Feeling safe yet, Tom? And while we're at it, if you're trying to do a favor for some of your old cop pals, why are you helping their employer perpetuate the practice of paying your friends like shit, and offering them lame benefits? The bottom line, which I congratulate you on reaching with me after the preceeding diatribe, is that Wackenhut has no business guarding my parking space--much less Portland's government buildings. Not only are they a company that frankly fails to meet the City's standards for being good employers, they're not even good at the job they're being paid to do. At least Wal-Mart actually has low prices to justify their serial assrape of suppliers and workers--what's Wackenhut's excuse?