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March 2007

Lawmakers Seek to expand Private Prison Capacity

The ACLU recently opposed legislation (HB 198 by Corrections Chairman Jerry Madden) that expands private contract capacity in Texas prisons. Today, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice can only contract 4,580 beds in state prisons. A current piece of legislation raises that cap by 1,000 beds to 5,580. Recently, the ACLU published Texas: Tougher than Ever, But are we Safer? a report that emphasizes the answer to prison capacity pressure is sentencing reform not 1,000 new private beds.

Legislators questioned why the ACLU and others opposed a mere 1,000 bed capacity increase. We stated that even incremental increases in the privatization of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice are not the best policy option, and allow private interests to inject themselves in the sentencing policy debate that will undermine sentencing reform efforts like prison diversion for low level drug offenders.

Instead of focusing on expansion, state lawmakers can implement policy changes that would free up bed space quickly enough to avoid expansion measures.

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Improved Oversight Needed for Private Jails

Lawmakers are trying to identify mechanisms for oversight of Texas correctional facilities in light of recent prison sexual assault scandals. Officials recently settled with the family of a raped prisoner who committed suicide in the private Val Verde County Jail, managed by GEO Corp. Recently, Michele Deitch suggested Texas needs to create an independent agency responsible for conducting regular inspections of all correctional facilities.

According to Deitch, an independent oversight agency should have a "golden key" that gives it access to any institution at any time without prior notice. Inspectors should be able to meet confidentially with juvenile and adult prisoners; interview employees; and examine official records.

The type of oversight Deitch is suggesting is different from anything currently operating in Texas today. After all, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards did not successfully monitor the Val Verde County Jail.

LeTisha Tapia was raped after being labeled a snitch. Tapia, who died at the Val Verde County Jail in July 2004, was housed in the same cell block as male inmates and reported that guards allowed male and female inmates to have sex with each other. An independent monitor with the ability to maintain Tapia's confidentially and prevent retaliation could have saved her life.

National Prison Rape Elimination Commission in Texas this week

This week the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission is holding hearings in Texas to discuss the prevalence of in-prison sexual assault. The commission will address sexual abuse in the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). More than 1,600 sexual assault allegations reported by states last year; over 500 were in Texas alone. Since 2004, 13 allegations of prison sexual assault were reported from private prisons in Texas.

One victim of in-prison sexual assault was 23-year old LeTisha Tapia, who was a prisoner at the Val Verde County Jail managed by GEO Corp. After being labeled a snitch, Tapia was raped male prisoners. She committed suicide following her assault. Recently, Val Verde and GEO settled with Tapia's family for $200,000. Tapia was the mother of a 5-year old son.

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How bad does it need to get before we close Hutto?

Earlier this month, the ACLU filed multiple lawsuits to close Hutto, a prison-for-profit that confines people who are awaiting their immigration detention hearings, and if they're parents, confines their children too. The prison was built as a medium-security prison, but now it's holding families, and roughly half of the people confined there are children. In case you're wondering what a prison that holds children looks like, you can get a look thanks to this two-minute video about Hutto by the ACLU.

But it's not just the ACLU calling for it to close: the Houston Chronicle last week called the Hutto prison " inhumane and shameful." They cited the report issued by Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services that asked for immediate closure of the prison.