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July 2007

Private Detention Centers in the News

There were a number of stories on private detention centers in Texas this past week. The headlines included:

County Officials must Rethink Juvenile Justice Policies

We recently posted that Harris County is searching for juvenile detention beds as a result of a restructuring of the Texas Youth Commission (TYC). The County has authorized funding for leasing prison capacity from private lockups, and is considering buying a new prison over an hour away. This story once again emphasizes that local policies implemented by the District Attorney's office and law enforcement agencies are driving up incarceration numbers. As a result, county officials must rethink these policies and identify innovative solutions that don’t rely on adding new beds to the system.

I recently toured Harris County's Juvenile Detention Center in downtown Houston. The facility was at full capacity and was basically a prison for kids. County juvenile detention facilities are residential facilities that hold youths awaiting court decisions. The lockup held kids as young as 10 years old. That Harris County is considering obtaining additional capacity in a county more than an hour a way is seriously troubling.

As I walked the halls of the juvenile lockup, staff requested that I and the others on the tour volunteer to mentor kids in the lockup and show them the attention and care that many young people need and crave. As county officials consider placing these children in lockups away from their home communities they must also consider the impact on their behavior, their ability to undergo treatment, and their families.

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Idaho DOC Director to Visit GEO’s Troubled Val Verde Detention Center Before Sending Prisoners There

In what you’d think would be normal common-sense procedure, the Idaho Department of Corrections Director will actually visit GEO’s Val Verde Detention Center this Thursday before his state sends 56 prisoners there in September.

As we’ve reported, Idaho’s experience with Texas private prisons has been troubled, to say the least. Last August, Idaho moved prisoners from the Newton County Correctional Center, a GEO Group-run prison in east Texas, after reports of inmate abuse included prisoners being forcibly cuffed and maced. From Newton, the Idaho prisoners were transferred to GEO’s Dickens unit where an inmate escape and eventual suicide led to scrutiny and withdrawal of some of the prisoners from the “squalid” jail last month.

Now GEO is scheduled to move 56 prisoners to the Val Verde Detention Center, which has already been subjected to two well-documented lawsuits. In a 2005 suit, an employee reported that his superior displayed a hangman’s noose in his office and took pictures in his prison uniform donning KKK garb.

The second lawsuit was brought by a civil rights organization on behalf of the family of a detainee, LeTisha Tapia, who committed suicide after reporting that she had been sexually assaulted and denied medical care. GEO settled both suits.

TYC has Interesting Definition of What is a "Problem" at Youth Private Prisons

In today's Houston Chronicle article (also available here) about neglect, physical and sexual abuse in private prisons for youth, Paula Morelock claims problems have never resulted in fining TYC contractors because, "If it comes to that, we'd just stop the contract." Yet when Morelock was responsible for contracting at the Texas Youth Commission (TYC), one of the worst cases of prisoner abuse in the history of privatization in Texas resulted in rewarding the contractor with a larger contract.

GEO Group (then called Wackenhut) hired Rufino Garcia, a man who’d been arrested in 1974 for a sex offense against a child, to work as a "lead careworker" at its Coke County prison, which then held young girls.

When Garcia met Sara Lowe at Coke County in 1994, he was 39 years old. Sara Lowe was just 15. In 1996, when he pleaded guilty to two counts of indecency with a child and two counts of sexual assault of a child (all second degree felonies), Garcia admitted that two weeks after he first sexually assaulted Sara Lowe—touching her breasts and making her perform fellatio—he submitted a “level change” request slip for her, writing that “Ms. Lowe has been very positive and has been improving every day.”

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Despite Problems, GEO Attains Contract for Maverick County Detention Center

Despite a string of operational problems at its Texas facilities, the GEO Group announced this week that it has signed a contract to build a 654 bed detention facility in Eagle Pass, Texas.

As readers of Texas Prison Bid'ness might remember, GEO has made headlines in the last few months after an Idaho inmate’s suicide at the GEO’s Dicken’s facility led the AP to report on the prison's “squalid conditions," a San Antonio inmate took hostages in GEO’s lock-up there using a paper gun, and GEO drew fire in Laredo over an apparent quid-pro-quo deal to build a 1,500 bed USMS contracted prison.

According to GEO’s statement, the prison will be financed using revenue bonds issued by a Public Facility Corporation, a quasi-governmenal agency that will hold liability for the facility’s financial success.

The GEO statement also quotes Maverick County Judge Jose Aranda as saying "This new facility will bring good paying jobs and economic development to our community. We look forward to the many benefits this project will provide our citizens over the coming years."

Harris County Searching for Juvenile Detention Beds

Today's Houston Chronicle reported that the Harris County juvenile board authorized using millions of dollars to place youth in private detention facilities throughout Texas.

It seems the county is working hard to find new beds for juvenile prisoners now that the state's kiddy prison system -- the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) -- has changed its policy on which prisoners it will and won't accept, focusing on youth who have been convicted of serious crimes rather than misdemeanors.

According to reports, county officials could send more than 140 juvenile detainees to a Colorado County lockup as the Juvenile Probation Department tries to find a place for hundreds of young prisoners.

The lockup that county officials are considering is more than an hour outside of Houston and defeats the purpose of the juvenile detention lockups that are supposed to be near detainees' homes to keep them in their community in order to maintain relationships with families and friends. It ignores the lessons of California, which has similar youth crime rates to Texas but is using lock-ups far less than Texas for youth.

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Thank you, Harmon Wray

We're sad this week at Texas Prison Bid'ness at the departure of Harmon Wray, noted activist and a leader in the restorative justice movement. Harmon was also an early leader in the fight against private prisons, as you can see by this article he wrote in 1986, when Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) was just beginning to eye the prison industry and see dollar signs. Harmon correctly foresaw that mixing prisons and profits was a recipe for mistreatment, abuse and disaster. From his paper:

Perhaps the most critical flaw in the privatization move is that it is inherently expansionist. A corporation paid per prisoner and per diem will look to lock up more and more people for longer and longer stretches.

Harmon bought a small amount of stock in CCA in the 1990s (as Prison Realty Trust) so that he could vote and protest at shareholder meetings.

Louisiana Residents Pose Questions About Harris County Jail Transfers

We recently posted about Harris County's decision to transfer more than 400 prisoners to northern Louisiana -- about 6 hours away from Houston -- to deal with jail overcrowding.

The residents of Epps, Louisiana town are bothered by the recent transfers of more than 100 Harris County Jail detainees to a private prison. And they should be. Officials can't answer basic questions about the Texas prisoners that will be housed in a facility managed by the Emerald Corporation.

As a result, local residents are demanding answers that should have been answered before county officials agreed to the transfer. Epps residents recently questioned elected officials about the training standards for the private prison guards, the total number of prisoners arriving, and their risk level. It appears that city leaders could not answer those questions and put residents' fears to rest.

This latest story represents the poor policy decisions officials are making at all levels to control jail populations in the local jails. The Harris County Jail has experienced chronic overcrowding that in recent years forced as many as close to 2,000 prisoners to sleep near the floor in low-rider bunk beds. The county chose to transfer prisoners to the Epps lock-up because it could not comply with the 48:1 staffing ratios mandated by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards for safety of workers and prisoners.

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Gambling with People's Lives and Taxpayer Dollars

I agree with the Houston Chronicle's Sunday article that governments are gambling with people's lives when they place people in private prisons (Private prison facilities running out of room, Demand forces governments to take a gamble on some facilities). The writer offers an excellent slice of the problems with a couple of the more notorious private prisons in Texas, including the Dickens prison/jail that has attracted national attention for its squalor. But I want to add a couple of tidbits to the article.

One thing that we're not hearing about is the effects on the Idaho system of exporting Idaho prisoners. Idaho DOC explained in their 2005 Annual report that they were selecting low-risk prisoners and moving them far from home, a process which gets more difficult the more they do it, as there are fewer prisoners to cherry-pick for the private prisons. Idaho DOC calls the result a "hardened" system within their state prisons, because the prisoners that remain in-state are the ones with disciplinary write-ups or medical/legal issues.

Plus, all these moves cost money and disrupt the ability of the Idaho DOC to provide and manage programs to get people to leave prison and not come back. Not to mention the illogic of sending people a thousand-plus miles from family and community if they are doing well and preparing for a successful re-entry. So for some Idaho prisoners, no disciplinary write-ups = no family visits.

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Protest and Prayers at Raymondville "Tent City"

A quick addition to Bob's earlier post about the protests of Hutto. South Texas has also seen another private prison protest recently. The Christian Peacemaker Team Borderlands Witnesses visited the Raymondville ICE Detention Center last week, for a vigil and prayers that were observed by some of the Raymondville guards and a handful of prisoners.

Attorney Jodi Goodwin, who has been providing legal assistance to people detained there, commented on their blog:

The conditions at Raymondville have not changed, at least according to my clients....The transparency that might have existed before in the days when we gave legal rights presentations in the dorms, has been veiled by the US government. Now, no one gets in, not even the UN inspectors. Tell me, what do you have to hide, government?

Again, I can not thank you enough for the prayers for those detained in Raymondville. Trust me, they all know you were there!!!

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