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June 2007

Who's Lobbying for Texas Private Prisons?

Our friends at Private Corrections Institute (PCI) have released a newly-updated list of corrections lobbyists nationwide (in Excel). Of particular interest to us, of course, is the list of Texas private prison lobbyists, including Robert "Ray" Allen, the former legislator who now is earning hundreds of thousands of dollars as a lobbyist, and his former chief of staff, Scott Gilmore. Plus, Allen was lobbying on the federal level in 2002 and 2003, representing the National Correctional Industries Association while he was still in the Texas legislature (in his defense he said that he was lobbying on the issue of prison labor, not prison privatization).

According to the list compiled by PCI, there were three dozen lobbyists working the state capitol in 2007 on behalf of companies with some connection to corrections (not all of them working for private prison companies). Of the private prison companies with paid lobbyists working the capitol on their behalf this session:

PCI has also updated their incidents page with new information about incidents in Texas prisons (including a 36-page GEO Group incident report for Texas prisons 1995-2004). All around, they're just a great resource, which is why they're also listed on our "Links" page as an ally

Raymondville Private Prisons and Prison Scandals Have Long History

Yesterday, Kathleen reported that detention center protests have spread from big protests outside T. Don Hutto and civil disobedience at CCA’s Houston Processing Center to a 75-person strong rally in front of the Willacy County Processing Center in Raymondville.

The 2,000-bed ICE detention center, operated by MTC, first drew headlines when it was announced that it would be built in only 90 days and would consist of a series of windowless Kevlar pods. The project then drew fire from Willacy County Attorney Juan Guerra who warned county officials that they couldn’t spend excess project funds on other county projects, as they had planned.

MTC’s Processing Center is by no means the first private prison or prison scandal to engulf Raymondville. Already home to a 1,000-bed private state prison, a 500-bed private federal jail, and a 96-bed county jail, the county is known, even by county leaders, as Prisonville.

As the Texas Observer has reported, Willacy County had already experienced trouble with a previous private prison project. In 2005, two Willacy County Commissioners and one Webb County Commissioner plead guilty to crimes in a bribery case related to prison development in Willacy.  According to the Associated Press ("Webb official sentenced to prison," Nov. 24, 2006) "money was given in exchange for favorable votes on contracts to design, build or manage a 500-bed facility in Raymondville that opened in 2003."  That prison is now operated by MTC and the project involved prison developers Hale-Mills and Corplan.

And, in 2006, a jury rewarded $47.5 million in a lawsuit against the Wackenhut Corporation to the family of a prisoner who was beaten to death in 2001. Wackenhut (now known as the GEO Group) was operating the prison when the prisoner was beaten to death by other prisoners in what the lawsuit contended was a "...pattern and practice of allowing beatings and fights between inmates for money." Since the lawsuit, Corrections Corporation of America has taken over operation of that private prison.

Even though this latest private prison for ICE is made up of temporary structures, its impact on Raymondville's legacy of private prison scandals will be long term.

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Protesters Target Private Prison in Raymondville

About 75 protesters from across the state gathered outside of the Willacy Detention Center in Raymondville this weekend. The private prison, which attracted national attention when it became operational in a mere 90 days, holds 2,000 people. The protesters very aptly described it as a "tent city" --- the prison is not made up of buildings, but a series of windowless structures made of fabric stretched tight over frames. These tents, in turn are surrounded by razor wire (see the photo below).

The 2,000-bed prison is the largest immigrant detention prison in the United States, and part of a broader plan by ICE to imprison more people than ever for immigration violations. The prison has attracted national attention for problems with conditions inside (you can read Democracy Now's interview with Jodi Goodwin or the rawstory.com's excellent story about conditions at Willacy last month).

Protesters did not announce when they plan to return to Willacy's gates, but you can probably find out at their new blog: Tent City. With any luck, the protests will grow larger over time, like the 400-person protest at Hutto that was also this weekend.

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Protests Grow at CCA’s Hutto Detention Center

This past Saturday, I joined more than 400 protesters gathered for a spirited vigil in honor of World Refugee Day outside the T. Don Hutto detention center.

As reported here at Texas Prison Bid’ness, Hutto, which holds migrant and refugee families with their children, has been the site of growing protests and problems inside the facility. Saturday’s vigil was sponsored by Amnesty International, and co-sponsored by a number of other groups.

A “freedom bus” from San Antonio, and two buses from Dallas joined protesters from Taylor, Austin, and Houston at the vigil. Amongst the most powerful speakers were Elsa and her children, who spent 6 months incarcerated at Hutto, and Selhadin, an African refugee formerly detained at the GEO Group’s Pearsall Detention Center. National LULAC president Rosa Rosales also gave a fiery speech and Elizabeth Kucinich, wife of presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, lent her support to the cause.

Hutto’s publicity problems continue to grow in the press as well. Today, The Daily Texan added its voice to the chorus of press outlets calling for the closure of Hutto, calling CCA a “member of the club of misery profiteers.”

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Study Shows New Prisons Won't Keep Texas Safe

The Texas Observer recently blogged about the impact of state policies on incarceration rates. The post centers on a recent report released by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) that compares youth crime statistics in California and Texas.

CJCJ found that Texas’s practice of tough sentencing for youth over the last decade focused on long sentences for nonviolent crimes. Meanwhile, the folks in California decreased the overall number of juvenile prisoners by using prison time only for youth convicted of the most violent crimes. They diverted many young adults who formerly would've been imprisoned.

 

Did these two different strategies produce different results? They did in terms of youth prison growth and prison spending, but the two states had identical drops in youth crime. You can read the six-page report to see the detailed numbers.

How was California able to divert youth from the state's youth prison system? The state offered financial incentives to the local youth authorities to keep youth out of the state system, by charging the counties more for low-level offenders. They also created a separate, dedicated funding source (Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act of 2002) that provides $100 million in funding each year for local juvenile justice programs. Between 1996 and 2003, the California Youth Authority's population of incarcerated youth fell 52 percent, during a period when the juvenile crime rate fell 31 percent. You can read more about how California lowered their prison population and lowered their crime rate thanks to the Justice Policy Institute report, Cost Effective Youth Corrections (for California, check out pages 8-13).

And unlike Texas, which has youth under the age of 18 locked up with adults in adult prisons, California does not have any youth serving prison time in adult prisons.

As the reforms of the Texas Youth Commission continue, it will be interesting to see if state policymakers change sentencing practices as a result. But of course, any decrease in imprisonment might cut into the bottom line of a couple private prison companies, including GEO Group. But, they would likely save millions of dollars and prevent hardship for thousands of youth, families and communities.

Another Hutto Protester Arrested, Free the Children Publishes Protest Footage

A protester arrested in Austin joins the growing number of people drawing attention to the plight of families locked up in the T. Don Hutto prison. The protest at the state capitol was partly a response to an anti-immigration gathering that was already there, as reported by the Daily Texan.

The article's passing reference to criticism of Hutto says, "Some civil rights groups have claimed that the conditions at the Hutto facility are inhumane and unconstitutional." The article didn't give much context for the Hutto protesters, although the Daily Texan has covered Hutto more completely in the past (for example, this fairly comprehensive article from April about the lawsuit filed by the Hutto families).

For more context on Hutto, turn to the Houston Chronicle. They just ran an excellent piece about the growing number of folks calling for an end to the imprisonment of children at the private prison. After all, what reasonable person wants to throw kids in a prison while you determine their immigration status? Of course, even if we shut down Hutto, Corrections Corporation of America is likely to just re-open the prison as a prison for adults, since there's so much money to be made --- the Daily Texan reported in February that CCA was pulling in $95 per person per day locked up in Hutto.

Many people find profiting off of incarcerated children just plain wrong -- like Free the Children. They've posted a great video compilation of protest photos. It might inspire you to turn out for the protest there this Saturday, which will hopefully be even bigger than the protest that drew over 100 people to Hutto earlier this month. We'll be posting more about this protest later this week.

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More Bad Press for GEO on Laredo Superjail Deal

LareDOS, an award-winning monthly alternative paper in the Texas border town of Laredo, has published a scathing indictment (PDF only) of the GEO Group’s recent deal with the City of Laredo and Webb County to build a 1,500-bed private US Marshals federal detention center.

As reported earlier here at Texas Prison Bid'ness, GEO president George Zoley showed up in Laredo last month wielding $250,000 checks for both the City and Webb County -- but Zoley did not leave Laredo empty handed. Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas presented him with a building permit and Webb County Judge Danny Valdez gave Zoley an agreement to provide the prison with water and electrical hook-ups.

The LareDOS article quotes Webb County Commissioner Keke Ramirez lamenting a lack of citizens “tell(ing) us that they did not want a prison here.” That comes as a surprise to us at South Texans Opposing Private Prisons who, along with the Encinal Economic Development Corporation, a group of Laredo educators, and national experts, have repeatedly warned that the superjail could bring potential problems with few benefits.

A Grassroots Leadership report also found that the superjail was largely unnecessary, concluding that the US Marshals' prison population growth in South Texas is almost exclusively the result of misguided prosecution of border-crossers and could be avoided with by lessening our emphasis on prosecution in favor of more effective strategies.

I just returned from a Laredo, where a chat with LareDOS editor María Eugenia Guerra (universally known as Meg), revealed that Mayor Salinas has responded to Meg's reporting by removing LareDOS from the airport and City Hall. We'll keep you updated on developments in Laredo.

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Activists Need Support Following Protest at CCA Prison Earlier this Month

The two activists who were arrested at the June 4 protest at the Houston Processing Center are now each facing a felony charge and will need help with legal expenses. The protesters have many allies, including Free the Children, who has posted information about how to make donations to their legal fund. Although the protest was in Houston, it drew attention to the families trapped in the Hutto prison in Taylor, which, similarly to the prison in Houston, is run for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) by Corrections Corporation of America.

 

The June 4th protest was timed to coincide with this month's G8 meeting in Germany, and call attention to how economic policies are increasingly creating winners and losers, and forcing millions of people to migrate from their homes. It's hard to imagine a more clear example of policies that enrich some people at the expense of others, than the rush to increase immigrant detention here in the U.S. and the private companies that have rushed in to collect many millions in profits.

 

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Legislature Fails to Improve Oversight of County Jails

During the 80th Legislative Session, Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) filed several unsuccessful bills that would have increased accountability over the state’s county jail systems. The measures included:

  • HB 2244 – would have standardized the correctional officer-prisoner ratio
  • HB 2699 – would have required county jails that failed 3 annual inspections to acquire a special monitor to oversee jail operations and security protocols

The Texas county jail system is regulated by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS). We have previously written about the need for improved oversight of private jails where companies like GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) historically have poor hiring practices and weak track records regarding public safety.

HB 2244 established in statute a prisoner supervision rate of 1:48 (1 corrections officer for every forty-eight prisoners); this was to ensure that county jail detainees and employees work and live in a safe and humane environment. During the committee hearing it became apparent that Bexar County correctional officers, who overwhelming supported HB 2244, are very concerned about their safety.

HB 2699 authorized the executive director of TCJS to place any correctional facility that fails three consecutive annual inspections due to management-related deficiencies under a special monitor. This has been a huge issue in Texas, where some of the largest facilities -- including Dallas County and Harris County -- chronically fail state inspections.

Primary opposition to both measures came from Dallas County whose jail is currently under review by the US Department of Justice. The Texas Conference of Urban Counties mobilized strong opposition and worked successfully to defeat the measures.

Both bills were heavily debated on the floor, and Turner was a strong champion – not surprising since Harris County has received significant attention over the years due to chronic overcrowding.

Yet the bills failed to pass. It’s unfortunate, particularly when the legislation received such strong support from not only correctional officers but also TCJS. Hopefully, advocates lead by the Bexar County Deputy Sheriff’s Association will continue to work during the interim. Momentum can be built since TCJS will be under sunset review during the 81st Session.

Former GEO Group Guard Convicted of Providing Contraband

A former GEO Group guard has been convicted of providing contraband to an Idaho prisoner in GEO's Dickens County Correctional Center, and has been implicated in another prisoner's escape. He's facing five years of probation, 1,200 community service hours, and a fine for an ongoing illegal business running contraband into the GEO Group prison in Spur, Texas.

The guard, John Ratliffe, was fired after the escape from Dickens County Correctional Center last December. There's no indication that he'll face additional charges for his possible role in the escape. Tragically, the prisoner who escaped, Scot Noble Payne, was put in isolation for weeks as punishment for his escape, and committed suicide in March. He was part of a group of Idaho prisoners that had been previously incarcerated at another GEO Group prison in Texas and were moved to the Dickens County prison following reports of abuse by guards.

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