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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:

  • Former Laredo CCA Detainee Reports Abuse: A Wisconsin businessman who has been a U.S. resident since 1964 recounts being abused in CCA’s Laredo Processing Center. Tomas Contreras, who was detained re-entering the country after a vacation to Mexico for a minor drug arrest from the 1980s, says he was beaten by CCA guards in retaliation for protesting the poor treatment of other detainees. The link includes a video of Contreras telling his story.
  • Detained Family at Hutto Reunited with Cuban Father: The Miami Herald reports that a Venezuelan family that was detained at the T. Don Hutto family detention center has been reunited with their Cuban father. The story is an example of the discrepancy in U.S. immigration law where the Cuban father, due to the “wet foot, dry foot” rule, was released while his Venezuelan family was immediately detained at the Hutto detention center and placed in deportation hearings.

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.

In fact, during my tour, one of the young girls had been sentenced to a TYC facility a few hours away because of her behavior. According to guards this fourteen-year-old who had been previously placed in other residential facilities was acting out because her mother had not been able to visit her regularly during her detention stay. The guards emphasized that her original offense was not serious or violent, although they did not go into detail. She was sentenced to a TYC prison facility for a 9-month stay.

Residential facilities designed to incarcerate young prisoners in the juvenile system are either pre-dispositional or post-dispositional. Following adjudication, courts can set penalties such as probation, confinement, or community service for those found delinquent. Additionally, post-dispositional facilities accept youths placed with them by court order. These institutions vary in the degree of security, the length of stay, and the focus of programs they provide.

State law requires each county to have a juvenile board which consists of district and county judges and is responsible for overseeing the operations of the juvenile justice system in that county. The Harris County Juvenile Board sets policy for the county’s juvenile justice system and designates juvenile judges, appoints the chief juvenile probation officer, and manages the department’s budget.

According to Harris County officials, juvenile prisoners are serving shorter sentences. In 2004, the average stay was 58 days; this year length of stay decreased to 38 days.

Yet since the board continues to search for new beds, a lot of work could still be done to contain capacity and eliminate the need of Harris County to obtain new beds.

The board could work with law enforcement agencies and the district attorney’s office to rethink the way it deals with chronic misdemeanants who are being held for truancy and other nonviolent crimes. Rather than relying on incarceration, identifying ways to strengthen low-income communities in order to effectively structure the time of at-risk youth would reduce recidivism and improve public safety.

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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.

After the problems with GEO facilities came to light in a series of stories by the AP’s John Miller, the Idaho DOC has announced its pre-transfer visit to the facility and the creation of a 13-member “virtual prison” team of Idaho DOC employees to oversee the more than 2,400 Idaho prisoners in county jails and out-of-state private prisons.

How effective these new oversight mechanisms will be is anyone’s guess. As Kathleen has pointed out, Idaho DOC’s own data shows that more effective substance abuse programs and paroling could largely reduce the state’s need to ship inmates to out-of-state private lock-ups. But instead, current plans are for them to ship yet more people to Texas.

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.”

After Sara was released from the Wackenhut lockup, Garcia began telephoning her at her home. He told her family that he wanted to know how she was doing. When asked about his calls, Sara confided to her sister that she had been raped and molested repeatedly by Garcia, who had threatened that he would kill her sister and her mother if she told anyone about the abuse. Her family went into action and contacted TYC, who investigated the charges.

Horrified to learn of the sexual abuse of their daughter by a Wackenhut staffer, the Lowe family filed a lawsuit against the company. Eventually Wackenhut’s executives decided to settle the lawsuit for an undisclosed amount of money. But Sara was highly distraught because Wackenhut’s top managers had been allowed to avoid any admission of responsibility for her rapes. The day the settlement was finalized, Sara committed suicide.

Even before Garcia was convicted for his crimes, auditors had catalogued serious program deficiencies at Coke County. They determined that Wackenhut had failed to meet standards for medical care, casework services, recreation, education, and therapeutic interventions.

Yet even after receiving evidence of shocking abuse and contract failure, TYC’s top managers never closed their contract with Wackenhut. They did not take conclusive steps to prevent the abuse of girls placed at Coke County until 1998, when they switched the facility’s juvenile confinement population from girls to boys. They increased the number of contracted beds at the Coke County lockup from 104 to 200.

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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."

However, research by Dr. Greg Hooks at Washington State University has shown that prisons do not contribute to long-term economic development in rural areas. In fact, in slow-growing counties, prisons actually harm economic growth efforts. 

Maverick County officials might want to think twice before they mortgage the county's future to the GEO Group.

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.

The fact that local officials primarily focus on building new prisons for youth is flawed and fruitless. Now they have plans in the works to ask voters for $76 million to convert an adult prison to a youth prison. If only officials spent the same amount or more on alternatives to incarceration, than surely we could get better results and safer communities.

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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.

Fighting prison privatization was one of many parts of Harmon's work. Harmon frequently visited prisons and also traveled the country to spread his gospel that we expect more from our criminal justice system. We could see the humanity of every person, we could demand that programs exist to really prepare people to return to the community, we could have a world in which we all were cared for after acts of violence. Harmon saw this future and made it his business to create this future. Many people in the movement saw him as a resource and an inspiration, and many called him friend.

Among the many tributes to Harmon on the web:

Our thoughts are with his surviving family members and his many allies, mentees, and friends.

Nicole, Bob, Judy and Kathleen

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.

According to a Houston Chronicle article, a 2004 Louisiana Department of Corrections audit of the Epps facility described its staffing as "adequate."

Before officials agree to such policies that bring in prisoners from other jurisdictions they should be able to answer basic questions.

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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.

A more rational system would actually look first at whether or not these folks need to be incarcerated, and especially how many of them would benefit from drug treatment in the community. Both Montana and Idaho are stuffing their prisons with folks who are addicted to drugs and alcohol. Idaho's Understanding Growth report from 2006 explained that over 85% of their offenders have substance abuse issues. Montana's in similar boat: they reported last fall that 93% of folks in pre-release have a substance abuse problem. Investments in treatment will get us more of the results we want, and stop the relentless swing of the "revolving door" on state prisons. But instead we get higher prison budgets and less money for drug treatment in and out of prison.

And don't even get me started about the GEO Group spokesperson's coy citing of the Pew Report on prison growth earlier this year. The Pew report collected prison population projection reports from all 50 states and looked at trends and possible causes for growth. The report offered policy makers a great piece of advice: states will spend billions on more prison beds unless they get smart and put an end to the overuse of incarceration. From the report:

If states want the best results from their correctional systems over the next five years—both in terms of public safety and public spending -- how should they approach the significant prison population growth that is anticipated? That question is the chief challenge states are facing.

They are not fated to such high rates of prison growth by factors out of their control. The policy choices they make — the sentencing and release laws, programs and practices they enact and fund — are principal determinates of the size, effectiveness and cost of their corrections systems. The key is for policy makers to base their decisions on a clear understanding of the costs and benefits of incarceration — and of data-driven, evidence-based alternatives that can preserve public safety while saving much-needed tax dollars.

But instead we have states relying on private prisons as a quick band-aid to relieve overcrowding, and a poor one at that. The Chronicle writer is correct that another "customer" will soon be eyeing the Dickens County lock-up, although he optimistically says it will be "once its issues are resolved." But Dickens has been able to fetch prisoners and collect money even with its horrid track record.

States can shop around at individual private prisons and try and pick out the least-notorious ones to put prisoners into, but the big picture is that private prisons are a gamble where everyone except the companies are losing.

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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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