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Recommendations for Senate Criminal Justice Committee

On November 13th, I testified to the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee at its interim charge hearing looking into how private prisons are complying with state law.  You can watch the entirity of the hearings online here

Like last year's committee hearings in the wake of the Coke County detention center fall-out, the most memorable moments were the testimony by Shirley Noble, mother to Idaho inmate Scot Noble Payne, who committed suicide at the GEO Group's Dickens County lock-up in Spur, Texas. 

Ms. Noble was joined by the sister and son of Randall McCullough, an Idaho inmate Randall McCullough who committed suicide at GEO's Bill Clayton lock-up in Littlefield, Texas. McCullough had been held in solitary confinement for over a year as administrative punishment for a fight that was not criminally prosecuted.  Their testimonies certainly put a powerful human voice to the debate over private prisons.

I focused my testimony on concrete, common sense proposals that the legislature could make to improve oversight and accountability in Texas' vast system of private prisons, jails, and detention center.  The recommendations included:

1) Developing a system of annual reporting for all TDCJ and TYC-contracted facilities.  Ideally overseen by an independent monitoring or data collection agency, providing consistent annual or bi-annual reporting of data in private prison and comparable public facilities.  These reports should include staffing levels, staff retention and turnover rates, assaults, grievances, cost savings, medical care data, deaths, uses of force, sexual assaults, major incidents, lawsuits against the facility, guard to prisoner ratio, escapes and escape attempts, enrollment in drug treatment programs, enrollment and achievement levels in education programs, disciplinary cases, weapons possession, possession of drugs, possession of contraband, staff assaults, offender assaults, and recidivism rates out of private and public facilities.

It is especially important that this data is made public given allegations that some private prison corporations are providing records to state agencies that are inconsistent with internal records.  Another legislative solution is that private prisons corporations should be subject to open records requests.  

2. Barring the importation of out-of-state prisoners to Texas private prisons and in county-operated jails.  Texas has its own problems in jails and prisons; it does not need to be importing prisoners.  The true horror stories coming out of GEO’s prisons from Idaho prisoners – including the testimony which we will hear today of family members who have died in these facilities – speaks to the fact that these facilities have major operational problems, and limited state resources should not have to be expended overseeing such facilities.  It’s a state embarrassment to have national media decrying private prisons in Texas holding prisoners on behalf of other states.  

According to data from the Jail Standards Commission, after Idaho completes the transfer of its prisoners out of the Littlefield unit, a move predicated on reported operational under-performance and in the wake of the suicide of Randall McCullough, there will be only 88 out-of-state prisoners in Texas jails and private prisons –  40 New Mexico prisoners at the Dickens Unit, 39 at the Bailey County jail, and 8 at the Parmer County jail.

3.  Exploring the idea of a company-wide investigation and potential contract suspension period for companies routinely found to be out-of-compliance and with records of abuse and mismanagement.  When a company is routinely found to violate inmate’s civil rights, operates unsafe and unsanitary facilities, and not accurately report statistics, a systematic review of that company’s state contracts should be ordered.  If repeated problems occur, the state should explore suspending contracts with the company. 

We'll keep you posted on how these ideas are incorporated in the coming legislative session. 

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Fort Bend Council in Fort Bend County has a SAFP program which operates on an outpatient basis. There are counselors in the Rosenberg, Texas offices at (281) 342-8828 who have knowledge of exactly how the program operates and its general success -- when compared to the SAFP Prison alternative it would seem that only for the worst of offenders should the SAFP Prision system be reserved. The stories of deaths and abuse are horrifying in the SAFP Prison and new alternatives MUST QUICKLY be found before more lives are needlessly lost. The entire purpose of the SAFP program is compromised beyond all recognition by the reality of what is happening in these facilities.