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May 2007

Hutto Prison Troubles Continue To Gain Notice Even as They Reject UN Expert

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is facing increasing criticism about the problems inside the T. Don Hutto prison. The website "Texas Civil Rights Review" has compiled a detailed list of problems with conditions at the T. Don Hutto prison for immigrant families. They're all the types of problems one would expect when a corporation is running a prison for profit: inadequate medical care, inappropriate levels of security, a lack of appropriate legal materials and programming. And of course, additional problems that come with keeping 200 children in a prison while you determine their immigration status: lack of appropriate schooling, supervision, and nutrition.

T. Don Hutto Prison in TaylorvilleT. Don Hutto Prison in Taylorville -- this older image shows the razor wire they took down earlier this year Maybe CCA has improved conditions since some of these problems were dcoumented, but it's hard to say since Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) won't let in Jorge Bustamante, a U.N. expert on protecting migrants from abuse, and they won't let the local media in either (this report includes some video footage shot outside the prison during the protest outside Hutto on Monday).


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Legislative Update

As the end of the state's 80th Legislature quickly approaches I thought it important to list introduced legislation that impacts prison privatization. Some of the bills filed this year include:

  • HB 198 by Madden -- The introduced bill expanded contracted bed capacity with private vendors and counties at the unit level by 1,000-beds to 1,500-beds, and increased overall private prison capacity by a total of 1,000-beds. Before HB 198 made it out of the House, Rep. Kolkhorst amended private unit capacity down from 1,500 to 1,150. The word is to watch the final version of this bill as former House Corrections Chairman Ray Allen is walking the halls as a lobbyist for GEO.
  • HB 1354 by Madden -- This bill changes the square footage requirement for privately contracted facilities to pre-1987 standards. HB 1354 is bad for Texas because post-1987 prison beds were constructed to meet constitutional requirements stipulated by Ruiz. All new construction should at a minimum meet the Ruiz standard, and requirements for private prisons should be held to a higher standard. Long-term prison bed standards in public and private prisons must be held to a higher standard than county jails, probation, and parole facilities where stays are shorter.
  • SB 185 by Estes -- which purports to authorize the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to house prisoners convicted in Texas in private prisons in Mexico, particularly Mexican nationals. A similar measure was vetoed in Arizona during 2005.
HB 1354 and SB 185 are likely dead as neither bill has made it out of committee. Anti-private prison advocates will need to watch HB 198 to make sure that it does not get any worse if it makes it to the Governor's desk.
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CCA Announces Profitable First Quarter of 2007, Plans to Cram in More Texas Prison Beds

Corrections Corporation of America announced its first quarter profits on May 3rd, and the financial picture appears rosy, thanks in part to the profitability of locking up entire families in CCA's T Don Hutto prison in Taylorville.

From the press release:

Federal revenues were favorably impacted by new contracts from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement ("ICE") at our T. Don Hutto Residential Center, our Stewart Detention Center and our Eloy Detention Center.

Overall, CCA reported an increase in net income of almost 50% -- from about $21 million in the first quarter of 2006 to almost $33 million for the same period this year. "Net income" refers to their after-tax profits only --- these profits are based on gross income almost $350 million dollars from governments in the first three months of 2007.

Corrections Corporation of America is also reporting plans to add thousands of prison beds across the country, including expanding the Eden Detention Center to 1,394 federal prison beds. They're going to add 129 beds to that prison, for a cost of $20 million -- that's about $155,000 per bed.

Although according to a press release from earlier this year, CCA already has 1,300 prisoners in the Eden prison. This expansion will take them to 1,394 beds, but as a result, they'll be able to cram 1,558 prisoners in there. Is this possibly unsafe? Yes. Possibly inhumane? Yes. Possibly profitable? Absolutely.

Former Corrections Chairman using Influence

A recent Daily Texan editorial reported that Ray Allen, former House Corrections Chairman, made $395,000 to $835,000 from lobbying contracts, including one with GEO Group, Inc. Given the momentum behind private prison expansion and the changing of private prison contract oversight policy, it appears that Allen is working hard for his money.

One bill to increase private prison beds -- reported to be a GEO backed bill -- is HB 198 by Corrections Chairman Jerry Madden, which could expand overall prison capacity by 1,000 beds. Chairman Madden claims that there is current capacity -- about 40 empty beds -- in the Venus unit, and that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) can't contract for them because of the cap on private prison beds. So why the 1,000 new beds?

HB 198 already passed out of the House and will be heard in Senate Criminal Justice next week. Senators could at the very least limit the expansion to the 40 beds Madden claims are currently available.

Additionally, it appears that TDCJ and House Leadership have reached an agreement to move the office that oversees vendor contract monitoring to Austin, where private lobbyists will have greater access. According to reports, the office will structurally be under the Institutional Division, but its headquarters will be in Austin with a satellite office in Huntsville.

Fascinating developments.... It will be interesting to see how influential Allen has been when Session comes to close at the end of May.

ICE Won't Let UN Human Rights Expert See Children in the Hutto Prison

ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement), the federal agency facing a lawsuit for their imprisonment of children awaiting immigration hearings, is rejecting a visit by a UN human rights expert to take his own look at the prison. Jorge Bustamante is here for a highly-publicized immigration tour, and he'll be able to tour the border region and several cities, but he won't be able to go inside the T. Don Hutto prison.

This comes after revelations in that the Texas Department of Family Protective Service is not authorized to go in to the prison either to check on conditions for the kids... Corrections Corporation of America has managed to get an exemption from the oversight of DFPS. You can read the letter that DFPS sent them online thanks to links at Eye on Williamson.

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Mass Firing of Texas Youth Commission Staff Makes National News --- But What about GEO Group's Past Record?

It's not the sort of national news story that any state agency wants --- the firing of 66 staffers of the Texas Youth Commission with previous felony convictions. But it reflects a typical double standard, as individuals are dealt with harshly, while a corporation gets to keep on with business as usual, in spite of their horrible record of problems and abuse.

Geo Group's Coke County Juvenile lockup may not be the absolute worst of the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) scandal, but their problems reach back far and pretty deep, and it would be a shame for TYC to not address them while they are in the public eye.

Geo Group already had a notorious record when it won the contract with TYC. Then GEO Group was allowed to keep its contract even after the horrible 2000 lawsuit for sexual abuse of a girl named Sara Lowe in their custody that revealed widespread problems at Coke County Juvenile. An employee with a past sex offense conviction had abused and then stalked the girl, 11 other girls reported abuse, and in other incidents, two employees pled guilty to sexual assault. As a result of the suit, Coke County Juvenile stopped housing girls. But the story ended tragically, with Sara Lowe's suicide the day of the settlement.

With a record like that, you would think GEO Group would be worried about how they're going to weather this shake-up at TYC that's dealing with the employees of Texas Youth Commission so harshly. But with thousands of reports of abuse, misconduct and poor conditions at youth prisons across Texas, Coke County Juvenile is managing to stay out of the headlines (sometimes), maybe because they are not the absolute worst Texas youth prison.... For example, of over 2,000 reports of medical care problems across the state, Coke County Juvenile ranks sixth in complaints, with 95 reports of poor medical care, -- more than most, but again, not the absolute worst of the bunch. And Coke County Juvenile has only made recent headlines for firing one employee with a previous felony conviction --- an employee with a juvenile conviction for exposing himself to another child. So, yes, there are other now-former TYC employees with more serious charges, but some of their past convictions are not clearly ones that should get them fired.

And maybe some of those folks with 20-year old felony convictions were well-suited to do corrections work. Many people who turn their lives around after a felony conviction can make outstanding role models and advocates for people in conflict with the law. But Jay Kimbrough, the conservator of TYC right now, only agreed to temper his "no felons: period" approach after legislators pointed out that some previous felony convictions don't always present a problem for working in corrections. It makes sense to take into account the circumstances of their past and their overall performance in the workplace. Once you've done an evaluation like that, sure, some of these folks should not be working in corrections, especially not with youth.

And similarly, corporations like GEO Group, and their Coke County Juvenile lock-up, should also be evaluated based on their record. Geo group's Coke County Juvenile may not be the absolute worst right now, but it has a lengthy record and it's right in the middle of the scandals at TYC. Maybe there are concerns about cancelling GEO's lucrative contract, since they have been known to sue you if you cancel their contract. But given their long history of poor conditions and scandalous abuse, maybe it's time to get GEO Group out of the Texas youth prison business, and get Coke County Juvenile prison cleaned up along with the rest of TYC.

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