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2007 Texas Prison Bid'ness Year in Review

As 2007 comes to an end, we thought we'd look back at our first year at Texas Prison Bid'ness and compile some the most important stories we covered this year. Below is list of the top 5 private prison stories in Texas as we saw them, in no particular order.

Many thanks to our readers and other bloggers who have been supportive of our first year. We also would like to thank Kathleen Pequeño, a founding blogger at Texas Prison Bid'ness who departed in November. Her excellent work and writing was key in developing the Texas Prison Bid'ness site and blog. Happy New Year!

- Nicole, Bob, and Judy at Texas Prison Bid'ness

#5 - 80th Legislature: Lawmakers introduced several measures during the legislative session that impact private prisons. Amongst the highlights:

  1. The 80th Legislative Session concluded in May and lawmakers authorized more than 8,500 new prison beds. Voters approved that authorization during the November election. It is unclear how many of the beds will be private, but specific legislation that passed authorized the expansion of private prison capacity which is limited by Texas law.
  2. In addition to measures that expanded private prison capacity, several bills were introduced that should put advocates on notice.
  • First, was HB 1354 which would have changed the square footage requirement for privately contracted facilities to pre-1987 standards. This may be the first sign that private prison lobbyists and corrections officials are trying to minimize the standards achieved under the landmark Ruiz v. Estelle lawsuit.
  • Second, was SB 185 which would authorize the state to contract with a private prison in Mexico to detain undocumented immigrants convicted of state felonies. Despite the analysis of the Senate Criminal Justice committee that it was beyond the authority of Texas to pursue such a measure, it is not dead. In deed the House Corrections Committee is charged with studying policies and procedures related to illegal immigration and border security of TDCJ, county probation departments, and local and county jail facilities.
  • Third, lawmakers failed to approve enhanced oversight of county jail facilities authorized by HB 2244 and HB 2699 . Several Texas county jails are managed by private prison companies. Despite the strong opposition mobilized by Dallas County and the Texas Conference of Urban Counties to defeat the measures, momentum can be built during the Interim. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) will be under Sunset Review during 2009. Also, recent Senate hearings indicate that several lawmakers support stronger oversight of private prisons and jails.

#4 Local Private Prison and Detention Center Opposition Grows in Texas: In addition to opposition to GEO Group's proposed Laredo superjail (see below) and CCA's T. Don Hutto family detention center (also below), several other communities in Texas took strong stands against private prison proposals. Amongst the local prison fights we covered:

  1. Burnet County residents came out in mass to oppose a proposed private jail and detention center in Burnet, Texas, just northwest of Austin. Over 500 people, the vast majority opposed to the prison, turned out for a public meeting on the proposed prison scheme, which involved public financing for the Louisiana-based prison company Southwestern Correctional.
  2. In Fannin County, Leonard residents organized opposition to a faith-based prison proposed by Correctional Concepts, Inc. Even though eight other communities have rejected CCI's proposals and constitutional issues make it questionable that the prison would gain government contracts, CCI pushed forward with its proposal with a representative of the county claiming Satan is "doing everything he can to defeat this project."
  3. In December, Emerald Corrections, another Louisiana prison company, proposed a 1,000 bed detention center in rural Caldwell County. Residents of the area have organized against the proposal; we'll have an update on this jail fight soon.
  4. Protests also occurred at existing private detention centers in Texas, including CCA's Houston Processing Center, where protesters chained themselves to the prison gates, GEO Group's Val Verde Correctional Center, named Texas' worst fall 2007 jail by the Texas Jail Project, and MTC's Raymondville "tent city" detention center where religious opponents organized prayers and protests on behalf of the immigrant detainees held there.

#3 - GEO Group Scandals: Several scandals surfaced during the last year that clarify why it is bad public policy to outsource incarceration to private prison companies. The Boca Raton-based GEO Group, in particular, had a number of scandals that caused the company to lose two contracts in Texas, and lead to a state-wide re-evaluation of prison privatization. Here is a run-down of some our previous coverage of GEO's problems in Texas:

  1. Scot Noble Payne, a Idaho Prisoner, held in GEO's Dickens County jail, committed suicide. Mr. Payne's family filed a lawsuit against GEO alleging deplorable conditions and negligence. Idaho was forced to move its prisoners from GEO’s Dickens County lock-up after Mr. Payne's suicide revealed “squalid” conditions at the jail. Idaho prisoners formerly at Dickens have also being sent to GEO’s Bill Clayton Unit, which itself has seen escapes and disturbances by out-of-state prisoners upset at conditions.
  2. The Coke County Juvenile Justice Center, a Texas Youth Commission (TYC), lockup was closed following reports of horrid conditions and sexual abuse. In fact, seven youth incarcerated at Coke County later sued the company alleging sexual abuse facilitated by a guard who was a registered sex offender.
  3. GEO Group announced that it signed a contract with the Office of the Federal Detention Trustee for the development and operation of a 1,500-bed Detention Facility to house U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) prisoners in a "Laredo superjail." To build the 1,500 bed prison in the City of Laredo and Webb County, GEO president George Zoley traveled to Texas wielding $250,000 checks for both the City of Laredo and Webb County and did not leave empty handed, coming home with building permits and water hook-ups. Later, after public outcry, the city and county rejected the "donation," but the proposed jail continues to draw considerable controversy.
  4. A GEO guard was arrested on felony charges earlier this year for for sneaking a bottle of MD 20/20 wine with two love letters taped to it under the fence of the Val Verde County Jail. Another guard was charged with federal civil rights violations for striking an inmate in the face in 2006 at the troubled facility, which was named "worst Texas jail" for the fall of 2007 by the Texas Jail Project.
  5. Staffing problems continue to plague Pearsall. Limited staff increases safety risks and exposes guards and prisoners to abuse. Former prisoner, Miroslava Rodriguez-Grava, filed suit against GEO for mistreatment. Ms. Rodriguez-Grava is a legal permanent resident of Mexican descent who was held in GEO's Pearsall lockup, the South Texas Detention Center.
  6. GEO hired former Texas Department of Criminal Justice head Gary Johnson to head its operations in Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. A Daily Texan editorial reported that Ray Allen, former House Corrections Chairman, made $395,000 to $835,000 from lobbying contracts, including one with GEO Group, Inc.

#2 - Texas Lege Holds Hearings on Private Prison Oversight

In the wake of the Coke County Juvenile Justice Center scandal and closure, in which kids in the care of the Texas Youth Commission were found in "unsafe and unsanitary" conditions at the GEO Group lock-up, the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee held hearings on private prison oversight.

The hearings brought out numerous criminal justice advocates, including testimony by Texas Prison Bid'ness bloggers Nicole Porter and Bob Libal, and Grits For Breakfast blogger Scott Henson. The highlight of the hearings was the heart-wrenching testimony from Shirley Noble, the mother of Idaho inmate Scot Noble Payne who killed himself in the "squalid" GEO Dickens County jail.

In particular, Senator Chuy Hinojosa asked tough questions about prison privatization. Here's hoping that the scrutiny that rightfully befell the private prison industry after Coke County will translate into heightened oversight in 2008.

#1 - Hutto Family Detention Center Controversy and Opposition

Correction Corporation of America's T. Don Hutto family detention center was probably the highest profile of Texas private prisons. The prison, which holds up to 500 immigrant children and their families awaiting immigration hearings, has drawn protests from local Taylor residents, Amnesty International, and advocates from across the country.

A lawsuit brought by the ACLU, UT Immigration Law Clinic, and others on behalf of families at Hutto was settled by the government in August, bringing better conditions and more education to the prison. In October, Williamson County also briefly debated canceling the contract due to liability concerns after an "inappropriate sexual relationship" was discovered between a guard and detainee, but eventually decided to continue its profitable relationship with CCA.

The year of Hutto protests culminated in a moving holiday vigil marking the first anniversary of the initial Hutto vigil. Hutto: America's Family Prison, a short film about Hutto was also released this fall, and is accompanied by a Hutto blog providing more information on the prison.