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May 2007

Another Private Prison Escape, But the Big Holes are in the Texas Parole System, Not the Fence

The Austin Statesman has reported a second escape from a Texas private prison in a two-week span. What do these escapes have in common? Apart from the fact that both escapes involve minimum-security private prisons, they are also both private prisons that are part of the broken yet highly lucrative Texas parole system.

On May 14th, it was 2 people escaping from CCA's Mineral Wells "pre-parole" prison described by one prisoner as "the abyss." This post by Grits for Breakfast is a great summary of one big problem with the Texas pre-parole system. The men who escaped briefly from Mineral Wells may have served most of their time, but that doesn't mean they were close to release. The Texas pre-parole system can keep them locked up past their "earned time" date, which undermines people's faith in the system and can mean that the resources they've lined up to support a successful transition just sit on hold.

A pre-parole system that holds people in prison too long doesn't make public safety sense or financial sense, but it creates an artificial need for a bigger prison system: a profitable problem for companies like Corrections Corporation of America to offer to solve.

Another pressure on the prison system happens when we send people back to prison for minor parole infractions. Grits for Breakfast has an excellent recent post on this issue as well, citing legislation to reduce the number of people returning to prison for minor technical violations. That legislation didn't pass, but it would've reined in the number of people being locked up for technical parole violations, which is now in the thousands. A prison system that grabs people for technical parole violations and locks them back up quickly has a questionable impact on public safety, but a clear impact on companies whose business it is to rent prison beds to the crowded Texas prison system.

Changes to the parole and pre-parole system will fix big holes that are leaking millions of public dollars every year. That's money that could be better spent on community settings that get people back on their own, prepared to live crime-free lives. But for now, we'll have to settle for these private prison companies fixing the holes in their fences.

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The "Smart Money" May Be in Misery, Unless Texas Gets Smart First

Where some folks see growing prison systems as a serious problem that we can fix, others see dollar signs.

The Wall Street Journal's "Smart Money" feature observed this weekend that the nation's three largest private prisons stand to rake it in with the rise in prison populations projected for the next few years (Profits for Private Jailers). The article mentions a national study that has projected more prison beds across the country. Corrections Corporation of America, GEO Group, and Cornell Corrections, the nation's three largest private prison companies, are all poised to profit if this dire trend continues. If, true to the trends of the last two decades, private prison companies are able to take up close to 8-10% of the "market," that's possibly $2 billion in income.

But the Pew study that the article mentions doesn't just report on more prison beds to predict a gold rush. It points out that if we move quickly and wisely, we can reverse this trend. They estimate that at current rates, our country is looking at over 192,000 more prison beds over the next five years and over $25 billion in increased prison spending. That money will come out of federal, state and local budgets and away from other needed services. Or, as they point out, we can start using our heads -- look at the facts to set policy and spend money on true public safety.

The Pew study has a great two-page summary of how Texas can get a grip on its growing prison spending (PDF). They specifically list opportunities for smart changes that could lower prison spending and redirect money to public safety. Texas, for example, is holding thousands of people for non-violent offenses but is not providing enough drug treatment in the community, a reasonable and effective alternative. And lengthy parole sentences mean not enough parole supervision and more likelihood that people will return to prison on a technical violation.

But, if Texas looks at the facts and makes some smart changes, it could cause a problem: the private prison companies that are hoping to build new prisons in Texas may have to look elsewhere to boost their bottom line.

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GEO Guards Arrested for Burglary and Sneaking Cheap Wine Into GEO Prison

According to the Del Rio News Herald, two former private prison guards are back in the jail where they once worked, but now confined there as prisoners. One was arrested for burglarizing one of her neighbors last year, and the other for sneaking a bottle of MD 20/20 with two love letters taped to it under the fence of the GEO Group contract jail earlier this month. They both face felony charges.

This is the sort of story that you'll find on our recently updated "Problems and Scandals" pages. This incident is on the Problems and Scandals in Texas Private Prisons 2006-2007 page, and we also have a 1990s Problems and Scandals page, and a 2000-2005 Problems and Scandals page.

If you think we're missing any stories about problems at specific private prisons that have been in the news, contact us to let us know.

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Problems Pile Up at Hutto: Employee Fired for Inappropriate Contact

On top of the protests, the international criticism, and the lawsuits, now Corrections Corporation of America has fired a Hutto employee for "inappropriate contact with a detainee," according to KXAN (they've also posted video). KXAN is provocatively saying that there is "much more to the story," but not saying what that "more" is.

While it is appropriate for CCA to be taking action to protect this prisoner from their staffer, this incident is yet another instance of this prison bringing misery into people's lives. More on this as we learn more. I'm sure this awful incident will come up at the June 23rd protest at Hutto.


Houston-based Cornell Corrections Involved in Corruption Cases in Alaska

Alaska lobbyist Bill Bobrick has pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit extortion, bribery and money laundering in the service of a "private corrections company" unnamed in the court documents. But an Anchorage Daily News article speculates that the unnamed private prison company is Cornell Companies Inc, based in Houston and already running six halfway houses in Alaska. According to the article, Cornell has faced a slew of rejections for expanding their business in Alaska:

Cornell, along with partners Veco and Allvest founder Bill Weimer, failed in recent years to win public support for private prison proposals in Anchorage, Delta Junction, Kenai and Whittier. It also failed to win state approval for a juvenile psychiatric treatment center in downtown Anchorage.

A lobbyist for the prison company -- who was working as a government informant and who has not been identified in court papers -- paid a total of $24,000 to Bobrick's Pacific Publishing, according to court documents. Bobrick turned over $10,828 to Anderson and kept the rest, the documents say. Anderson later complained he wasn't getting enough and was paid another $2,000 by the government informant, according to the indictment against him. The informant matches the description of Frank Prewitt, a former state corrections commissioner who went to work for Cornell.

The case is part of a widening corruption probe --- Bobrick is the seventh person charged as part of the investigation. Former representative Tom Anderson has been indicted and his case is going to trial in June. Bobrick will not be sentenced until after he cooperates in the prosecution's case against former representative Anderson. No word yet on how this case might affect Cornell's future business prospects in Alaska.

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GEO Group Flings Money and Promises to Laredo

Last week the Laredo Morning Times reported on an apparent largesse by the GEO Group's CEO George Zoley. Zoley promised a cool quarter million dollars each to the City of Laredo and to Webb County at a press conference. It may sound like a lot of money, but for Zoley and the GEO Group, it's a small investment in local goodwill with a huge cash payoff.

GEO has sealed a deal on a new federal jail in Laredo, a smaller version of the project that was being referred to as the "superjail" and has been met with considerable opposition. GEO anticipates this new 1,500-bed prison will pull in $31.5 million per year once it's operational in 2008. It will take the prison less than a week to earn GEO half a million dollars in revenue once it's full of prisoners. GEO was hoping to sweeten the deal for themselves by getting the county to foot the bill for construction, but the county nixed that idea, opting only to pay for the utilities necessary for the prison.. at a cost of approximately $500,000. For those of you doing the math, the county is getting $250,000 and paying $500,000 to help GEO get their prison.

Why pay money to have a prison in your county? GEO Group wasn't just handing out money... GEO is predicting all sorts of tax benefits, jobs galore, and other perks... even though there is plenty of evidence that prisons cost rural communities on several levels and don't deliver on all their promises (see this excellent summary on the false promises of rural prisons by Tracy Huling). Laredo isn't exactly rural, but like a number of rural communities, it's counting on the prison as an economic development tool. And the prison will make money... for GEO Group.

There's big money to be made in private prisons in South Texas. A May 2006 count by the Texas Observer put the number of private prison beds in South Texas alone at approaching 5,000. 5,000 prison beds making money a day... that's a lot of profit, and lot of lives... certainly the sort of profit that will get someone handing out money and promises pretty freely.

Private Prison Guard Arrested for Drug Smuggling

The San Antonio Express News reported this past week that a private prison guard was arrested for smuggling drugs into a private correctional facility.

The private prison guard , 31-year old Hector Almanza, reported smuggling items in to the GEO run facility before, like a cell phone. An article mentions that another guard was arrested for smuggling May 11th.

Almanza is in the Bexar County Jail and will be transferred to the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service.

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Prisoners Escape from CCA Prison

Recently, two prisoners escaped from the CCA-run Mineral Wells facility. Sadly ironic, since the prison is a pre-parole facility where prisoners of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice are sent when they have less than one year left on their sentence. The unit holds about 2,100 prisoners.

According to correctional officials, the two escapees -- who were discovered missing during an early morning prisoner count -- were spotted by a law enforcement helicopter within five miles of the prison on private property.

The prisoners were arrested and could now face felony escape charges and more prison time.

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Denials Stack Up Against Government's Weak Defense of Hutto

The federal court hearing the case against the imprisonment of families in CCA's Hutto prison awarded several victories to the families last week, rejecting the assorted requests for dismissal or delay in the case presented by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).

Denial #1: ICE's attorneys argued (unsuccessfully) that since ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) has released all ten of the children who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit, the suit should be dismissed. Except that the judge noted that all the people who have been released could be re-detained at any time... as in, once the lawsuit has been dismissed. Thus, a resounding denial to ICE for dismissal of the case.

Denial #2: ICE then argued that if the judge wouldn't dismiss based on the previous claim, that he stay (delay) the litigation to give them time to settle. This section of their brief is titled "The Release of All Ten Plaintiffs Make this an Ideal Time to Mediate the Dispute As Envisioned Under the FSA." Or it could be titled, "This Litigation Will Reveal Things About Hutto We Want to Hide... Can You Please Delay it For As Long as Possible?" But the judge slammed that request down. From the ruling:

It has, however, been this Court's experience that an impending trial date tends to facilitate settlement far more effectively than a stay of all proceedings. Moreover, reasonable discovery is necessary to facilitate a settlement of this case. ...This discovery may well be inconvenient, but it does not appear to be "onerous," particularly in light of the limitations... to which Plaintiffs have agreed.

Denial #3: ICE also asked the judge to dismiss the case on a stangely inventive technicality: that the ACLU had not exhausted "administrative remedies" before turning to litigation. But that argument didn't make it very far. The court expressed "confusion and frustration" with this interpretation of the situation, and pointed out that there is no requirement of this nature. He specifically noted that the government does not have any "rights" that have been violated by the lawsuit, and denied their request for dismissal.

Denial #4: One of the May 9th rulings also allows for consolidation of the cases as requested by the families -- and opposed by ICE. In the words of the judge, the government provides "no reason why consolidation would be inadvisable in these clearly related cases." Consolidation of cases has been granted to the families --- another "no" to the weak arguments of ICE.

ICE was put on notice in April that there's a good chance that the families will prove their case. But they're still fighting every step of the way, and are now using the litigation as a pretext for barring a UN expert and the local media.

Want to Read the Court Documents?

There is a fairly comprehensive archive of legal documents on the Hutto case on the web thanks to the Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse. But the latest rulings aren't posted there yet, so we have PDF versions of the May 9th Hutto orders below. More rulings and orders are sure to follow as ICE continues to flout the law and common sense with the imprisonment of families at Hutto.

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Scandal Prompts Warden to Resign from Private Prison

Grits for Breakfast recently posted on the departure of Warden Ron Alford from the Dickens County Correctional Center (DCCC). News reports stated that Alford resigned amid complaints from Idaho prisoners housed there and after an Idaho prisoner committed suicide at the private prison.

Corrections officials reported finding problems with access to treatment programs, poor lighting, inadequate out-of-cell time and food, clothing and cleanliness. DCCC is run by the GEO Group.

This is not the first time that Idaho has removed its prisoners from a GEO run facility in Texas. In July of 2006, the Beaumont Enterprise reported that the Idaho Department of Corrections was planning to transfer 419 prisoners following allegations of prisoner mistreatment, prisoner protests and an escape from a private prison in Newton. Idaho Department of Correction agreed to transport 419 of their inmates out of the Southeast Texas prison and into yet another GEO Group-managed facility.

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