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Big Stories of 2013 - #2 - City of McAllen rejects GEO Group prison for immigrants

As we say goodbye to 2013, Texas Prison Bid'ness is highlighting the top private prison stories of the year.  Our second biggest story of 2013 was the City of McAllen's rejection of a GEO Group prison for immigrants. 

This summer, a battle broke out in McAllen, Texas over the possibility of the city partnering with private prison corporation GEO Group to open a 1,000 bed facility to detain individuals charged with federal crimes for the U.S. Marshals Service. (Full disclosure: my organization, Grassroots Leadership, was involved in the effort to stop the deal).  Under the proposal, the city would have expanded its existing contract with the U.S. Marshals service, and the private company would in turn pay McAllen a portion of the government's daily per-inmate payment.

As Piper reported back in July, the local paper, McAllen Monitor, learned more than year before that city officials had been talking to GEO Group behind closed doors, but agreed not to report it to avoid "tipping off potential competitors and skunking the deal."  The paper later editorialized against the proposal citing concerns about the GEO Group's human rights record, as well as the facility's cost to taxpayers, claiming that private prisons have cost other Texas communities millions of dollars. 

Advocacy organizations and McAllen residents quickly also mobilized opposition to the proposal, citing GEO Group's record and the fact that more than 90% of those detained in the U.S. Marshals custody in the McAllen are being charged with immigration crimes under the controversial Operation Streamline program.  Rio Grande Valley organizations including La Union del Pueblo Entero and Proyecto Azteca allied with statewide groups including the ACLU of Texas, the Texas Civil Rights Project, and Grassroots Leadership to deliver a letter signed by 50 national, state, and local organizations.  

Rio Grande Valley residents also organized a petition signed by 500 community members, turned out overwhelming resident opposition at the city’s public forum, and put together a film screening and private prison panel discussion hosted by the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network. 

In the end, the city voted against opening GEO's bid and sent the proposal back to the company unopened (thwarting the possibility that it could have been released to the press or an advocacy group as part of an open records request).   The vote effectively killed the deal for now, though McAllen City officials have raised the possibility that they could revisit the idea of a private prison in the future.