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GEO uses influence to win psychiatric contract; Advocates raise eyebrows and concerns

Via Grits' excellent post ("Geo Group secretly snagged forensic psych hospital contract in budget conference committee," July 11), we find out that the GEO Group has won a contract for a new state psychiatric hospital in Montgomery County, through it's medical subsidiary GEO Care.  

Here's how the Dallas Morning News's Emily Ramshaw ("Troubled prison firm's deal for new psychiatric hospital raises questions," July 11) starts that paper's Saturday story on the scandal,

A private prison company's history of filthy conditions, sexual abuse, suicides and riots in some of its Texas lockups isn't stopping the state from paying it $7.5 million to run a new psychiatric hospital near Houston.

Lawmakers inserted an earmark into the state budget to fund the future Montgomery County facility starting in 2011. But they said they didn't know until this week that the county had selected the GEO Group to operate it, although GEO lobbyists were pushing for it as early as February.

The new facility came as a post-session shock to mental health advocates, who acknowledge the need for it. But they say they weren't informed about it and never would have signed off if they knew Florida-based GEO was operating it.

Mental health advocates are rightly pissed off about what appears to be an allocation of money behind closed doors and without Department of State Health Services requesting the funding.  

"Why would we want to use an entity that hasn't had a stellar reputation?" asked Monica Thyssen, children's mental health policy specialist with Advocacy Inc. "If the process had been more transparent, there probably would have been other state officials who would've said, 'I don't know if GEO is the best use of state dollars.' "

GEO officials, who run more than 50 facilities in the United States, including five mental health facilities in Florida, declined to comment, saying in an e-mail that they don't discuss "specific business development efforts and/or contracts."

Grits proposes an interesting theory on why the GEO Group may have been pushing so hard for the psychiatric contract in Montgomery County:

UPDATE: A commenter points out that Montgomery County commissioners last year made a conscious decision to substantially overbuild their jail beyond current needs on the assumption that the facility, to be run by the Geo Group, would make enough profit from immigration detention to "spare taxpayers additional costs." One supposes that immigration detention is no longer paying the bills if the county and Geo are seeking to use the Montgomery County Jail for competency restoration beds! I wonder if that's the facility they're talking about? 

Clearly, if the state agency, mental health advocates, and elected officials were unaware of this contracting process, it should be reviewed.  We'll keep you posted.