JACKSON — A private prison operator that’s giving up its business in Mississippi could face up to $104,000 in fines from federal workplace safety regulators.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said GEO Group exposed employees to assaults by inmates at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility near Lost Gap.
Citations issued yesterday by OSHA say GEO Group knowingly failed to provide adequate staffing, fix malfunctioning cell door locks or provide training to protect employees from inmate violence, including stabbings, bites and other injuries.
“Prisons may be inherently dangerous workplaces, but the employer is still required to take every reasonable precaution to protect corrections officers and other staff against safety and health hazards, including assaults,” Clyde Payne, the director of OSHA’s Jackson office, said in a statement.
GEO Group of Boca Raton, Fla., did not respond immediately to a request for comment. OSHA often reduces its fines when a company appeals.
It’s the second time that GEO Group’s management of Mississippi prisons has been questioned. A group of lawyers sued over mistreatment of youth offenders at GEO Group’s Walnut Grove Correctional Facility in central Mississippi.
U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves wrote that evidence presented “a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world,” including guards smuggling drugs to inmates, employees having sex with inmates, denial of medical treatment and denial of basic educational services.
GEO announced in April it was giving up its prison contracts this summer at Walnut Grove, East Mississippi and at Marshall County Correctional Facility in Holly Springs. The Mississippi Department of Corrections said last week that another private operator, Management & Training Corporation of Centreville, Utah, has signed 10-year operating contracts for all three. MTC will take over the prisons during the summer.
OSHA proposed a $70,000 fine against GEO Group over failure to keep enough guards on duty, fix cell locks and train workers to protect themselves at the 1,500-bed prison near Meridian. Willful violations carry higher fines because an employer knew about them.
Officials said the prison didn’t meet minimum staffing requirements between Dec. 13, 2011, and Jan. 29. For example, guards had to make head counts alone on Dec. 13, without a required colleague. At times, only three guards were present in a unit that was supposed to have eight.
From Dec. 13, 2011 through Feb. 13, 2012, locks on some cells were sabotaged, meaning inmates could open them from the inside, but guards could not open them from the outside. Door lock indicators also gave false readings.
The citations said employees were injured in the head, eyes, face, hands, legs and body by inmate assaults.
GEO Group was instructed to implement a workplace violence prevention program and stress counseling for employees, do better maintenance on locks, increase staffing, and do more to search for weapons and contraband.
The company was also fined $16,500 for failing to conduct medical evaluations for workers required to wear respirators. That was a repeat violation because a similar problem was cited by OSHA in November 2010 at GEO Group’s Pompano Beach, Fla., jail.
GEO Group also faces $17,600 in penalties for violations including failing to make sure that respirators fit employees, that respirators were stored away from dust or chemicals, and failing to make a plan to control bacteria and viruses transmitted by exposure to blood and other bodily substances.
The GEO Group has 80,000 beds at 116 prisons and jails in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and South Africa.