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Highlights of Last Friday’s Private Prison Oversight Hearings

Last Friday’s Senate Criminal Justice Committee hearings on private prison oversight brought up so many blog-able moments that I’ve been having trouble narrowing my thoughts down to actually get them on the blog.

Kathleen has already posted a good play-by-play of the hearings, including a link to the video with time-posts to help you navigate the speaker list, and Nicole has a good wrap-up of the latest on TYC’s problems, which spurred Senator Whitmire to hold these hearings.

Here are some of the highlights of the hearings as I saw them:

1) Obviously, the heart-wrenching testimony of Shirley Noble, mother of Idaho inmate Scot Noble Payne who committed suicide in GEO’s squalid Dickens County prison, was the highlight of the hearing. Her testimony brought an absolute silence to what had been a bustling room. She powerfully made the case against further state contracts with The GEO Group and the importation of out-of-state prisoners thousands of miles from their family members.

Attorney Ron Rodriguez also read a powerful statement from the family of Gregorio De La Rosa, an inmate who was beaten to death in Wackenhut’s old Willacy County Jail four days before he was supposed to go home, who eventually won a $47.5 million settlement from the company.

2) Senator Chuy Hinojosa was asking all the right questions. Hinojosa consistently questioned why the sate would continue to contract with companies (ahem, GEO) who have a terrible track record that could easily be found with a simple search of the internet (or, Senator, may we recommend signing up for email alerts from TexasPrisonBidness.org?).

Hinojosa has promised further interim hearings on private prison contractors, a notion that Senator Whitmire seemed to validate in several comments throughout the day.

3) The public testimony was thorough and thoroughly one-sided. Speaking for more oversight were our own Nicole Porter, Nick Hudson, Grits for Breakfast blogger Scott Henson, Shirley Noble and Ron Rodriguez, Texas Jail Project’s Diana Claitor, and myself. In addition, written testimony was provided from our own Judy Greene, LBJ Professor Michele Deitch (testimony posted by Grits here), Private Corrections Institute’s Frank Smith and Ken Kopczynski, and Taylor activist Sherry Dana, amongst others.

The lone voice generally supporting privatization was Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Marc Levin, who called on legislators to loosen regulations on private prison corporations so they can become more “innovative” and produce a better product. I was expecting the private prison corporations, what with their lobbyists apparently already around the capitol, to present some testimony, but alas, they were not to be heard from.

4) Oversight needs to be better funded and independent. Private prisons (and public prisons and jails, for that matter) need to be monitored by an independent agency without institutional ties to the prisons they are monitoring. The Texas Committee on Jail Standards is a start towards this oversight, but is so dramatically underfunded, understaffed, and under-powered that it’s fighting a ridiculously uphill battle. Scott Henson from Grits for Breakfast, who provided very solid (and well-dressed) testimony on this, has a great post on the hearings as a whole here.

The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition has provided a useful overview of the hearings and speakers here. We’ll have more news from the hearings as it develops.