The former warden of the privately operated East Hidalgo Detention Center, Elberto E. Bravo, was arrested last Friday in a complex bribery scandal. According to local reports, Bravo participated in a scheme to bribe former Hidalgo County Justice of the Peace Melo Ochoa to lower the bond for a Mexican drug trafficker, Luis Martinez-Gallegos .
Private prison operator LCS Corrections removed Bravo from his post as warden in February 2012 amid a federal investigation, but it is unclear if it is related to this case.
The complex case began when Martinez-Gallegos was stopped by Hidalgo County law enforcement officers and arrested for possession of 89 kilograms of cocaine in his vehicle.
According to Breitbart Texas, "Bravo, another woman, and a local attorney worked to get Martinez’s bond lowered so that federal authorities could deport him before the case went federal, the criminal complaint shows."
Ochoa took the cash and decreased the bond from $2.5 million to $50,000. Martinez-Gallegos was subsequently released and deported. What did former private prison warden Bravo have to gain from deporting a drug trafficker? That remains a mystery.
The Texas Observer broke the news in September that Corrections Corporation of America was getting back into the business of family detention in the remote South Texas town of Dilley.
The deal was for a facility that now sits on a 50-acre site just outside the town of Dilley, 70 miles southwest of San Antonio. The property is part of Sendero Ranch, a “workforce housing community,” more commonly called a “man camp,” for oilfield workers. Sendero Ranch is owned by Koontz McCombs, a commercial real estate firm.
The involvement of Red McCombs, a well-known University of Texas alumnus and booster, did not sit well with students at UT. At a protest at the eponymous McCombs School of Business, they demanded that McCombs either break the lease or students and faculty would push to have his name dropped from the school.
That wasn't the only thing about the deal that had people calling foul. The unusual contract involves a lease agreement between real estate group Koontz McCombs, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), CCA, and the town of Eloy, AZ, which is nearly 1,000 miles away.
As a result of the contract being "passed through" Eloy — which already contracts with CCA — the competitive bidding process, environmental impact report, and other safeguard measures were completely bypassed in the interest of opening the detention camp as expediently as possible. This deal streams revenue to Eloy, but leaves them free from any of the liability that comes with running a private detention facility.
Of course, CCA is not new to family detention. CCA operated the notorious T. Don Hutto family detention center until 2009, when the Obama Administration removed families from the facilities amid outcry and lawsuits over the conditions inside. Reports emerged that children as young as eight months old wore prison uniforms, lived in locked prison cells with open-toilets, were subjected to highly restricted movement, and were threatened with alarming disciplinary tactics, including threats of separation from their parents if they cried too much or played too loudly. Medical treatment was inadequate and children as young as one lost weight.
The facility opened amid criticism in December and is planned to be the single largest immigrant detention center in the U.S. With a nearly $300 per person/per day rate, CCA is poised to make millions locking up asylum-seeking women and children in the massive detention camp.
Almost as soon as it opened in August, the Karnes Family Detention Center was the subject of controversy.
First, immigrant rights advocates rallied around Sara and her 7-year-old daughter Nayely when word got out that the GEO Group was denying the girl medical treatment for a life-treatening brain cancer and that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was refusing to release them. Calls demanding their released flooded the facility for two days. Once reporters started calling, officials at the facility finally released Sara and Nayely.
Nayely went on to get treatment at Dell Children's Hospital in Austin before she and her mother moved to be with family in the U.S.
Then in October, news broke again of problems at the facility. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), along with Immigration Rights and Civil Rights Clinics at the University of Texas Law School, Human Rights First, and the Law Office of Javier N. Maldonado, filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and ICE demanding the immediate investigation of and swift response to widespread allegations of sexual abuse and harassment at the detention center in Karnes City.
According to the complaint, guards removed female detainees from their cells late in the late evening and early morning hours for the purpose of engaging in sexual acts in various parts of the facility, and attempted to cover up these actions.
The MALDEF release also says that "although this unlawful conduct was reported to Karnes Center personnel, to date, no reasonable actions have been taken to stop or prevent this abuse, or to prevent its escalation."
But that wasn't the end of the controversy. In November and December, the Karnes County Commissioners Court faced wide-spread public opposition to a proposal before them to approve GEO's plans to expand the facility. Several public meetings were packed as the Commissioners weighed the proposal.
Though the Court would eventually vote 3-2 in favor of expansion, one commissioner who voted "no" was particularly upset over threats made by GEO. Commissioner Pete Jauer voted against the expansion in part because GEO Group said that they would sue the county if they didn't vote in GEO's favor. "I still don't like to live under the threat hanging over my head with their right to sue us if they're good neighbors,” Jauer told KSAT.
The family detention center is now poised to expand to 1,200 beds and cribs in the New Year, which will also double GEO's profits on the facility.