July 2007

CCA Detention Center Protests, Problems Continue

Two protests of Corrections Corporation of America and the T. Don Hutto detention center occurred this past weekend as problems continue at several CCA detention centers around the state.

I attended a Friday protest outside CCA’s Austin office which drew over 50 people from Austin, San Antonio, Taylor, and Houston despite rain and a flash flood warning. The protest focused on CCA’s profiteering from the expansion of immigrant detention facilities, including the T. Don Hutto family detention center in Taylor, Texas. Demonstrators delivered a letter to the CCA office to air grievances.

The protest was followed by a larger vigil on Saturday outside the Hutto detention center in Taylor. This weekend’s protests come on the heels of last month’s large protests at Hutto and as problems continue to mount at CCA detention centers in Texas.

Last week, a Wisconsin man charged that he was abused while detained at two CCA Laredo detention centers. According to Tomas Contreras, a 40-year legal resident of the U.S. who was detained after an 18 year-old minor drug conviction appeared on his record as he was re-entering the country, he and several other men were beaten after reporting poor treatment at the facilities.

On Sunday, CCA got more bad news in Laredo as one of its employees was arrested for possession of over 1,000 pounds of marijuana and several assault rifles.

1,000 More Beds for Raymondville (AKA Prisonville) Detention Center

Raymondville ICE Detention CenterRaymondville ICE Detention CenterThe Brownsville Herald is reporting that there will be a 1,000 bed expansion to the Raymondville MTC ICE Detention Center. The prison, which is made of windowless Kevlar tents, already incarcerates up to 2,000 immigrants at a time, making it one of the largest immigrant detention centers in the country.

As the Texas Observer reported and we covered here, Raymondville already has a long a troubled history with private prisons that includes county commissioners pleading guilty to bribery charges in a private prison case and a $47.5 million settlement against a Raymondville Wackenhut (now GEO Group) prison by the family of a prisoner who was beaten to death.

The prison was also hit last month with a 75-person strong protest, an event that was covered by the Valley-based blog Tent City.

Harris County Making Wrong Decision to Deal with Inmate 'Surge'

The Houston Chronicle reports that Harris County is sending several hundred jail detainees to a Louisiana private prison operated by Emerald Companies. The county jail has been plagued for years with chronic overcrowding problems and has regularly been de-certified by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) as result.

Historically, Harris County shifts the blame to other agencies and officials for its overcrowding problems. For example, Commissioner Steve Radack continues to argue that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) does not pick up "paper-ready" prisoners within the 45 days that they should.

Some background: The Texas Commission on Jail Standards defines "paper-ready" inmates as an inmate awaiting transfer to a state prison following a conviction of a felony or revocation of probation, parole or release on mandatory supervision and for whom all paperwork and processing required under Section 8(a), Article 42.09, Code of Criminal Procedure is completed.

Yet, according to TCJS, on June 1st (the last time statistics are available), only 136 inmates detained in all of Texas' county jails were classified as TDCJ paper-ready and past the 45-day mark. On that same day, Harris County incarcerated more than 200 detainees beyond their current capacity levels.

Stakeholders in Harris County could implement decisions today that would address overcrowding with and not require contracting with private prison companies.

The decisions of various stakeholders that comprise the Harris County criminal justice system contribute to jail overcrowding. The jail represents the hub of the county’s criminal justice system where law enforcement, the courts, and corrections officials interface. Two factors determine the county jail population: the number of intakes and the length of confinement. In order to reduce crowding, Harris County officials should:

  1. Improve data collection to use in data-guided decision making
  2. Encouraging the use of personal bonds to divert low-risk defendants
  3. Develop effective policies and practices to enable criminal justice decision makers to use alternatives to incarceration.

Harris County officials, starting with the Commissioners Court, the Sheriff, and the District Attorney must decide that enough is enough and identify solutions that will address chronic overcrowding and implement them.

Moving jail detainees out of Texas will make it difficult for these individuals to eventually reintegrate into society because their ability to maintain ties with the community is weakened. As a result, Harris County's entire criminal justice system will be compromised, and we'll all wind up paying down the road.

Idaho to Send Inmates to Scandal-ridden GEO Val Verde Prison

GEO Group's Val Verde Jail and PrisonGEO Group's Val Verde Jail and PrisonJohn Miller at the AP has reported that the Idaho Department of Corrections will move inmates to the GEO Group’s Val Verde Correctional Facility and Jail in Del Rio, Texas. This comes just days after the Idaho Department of Correction (IDOC) announced it was moving its prisoners out of another Texas GEO Group prison in Dickens County. That move came after a prisoner suicide and a national story (also by Miller) in which he revealed that IDOC’s health care director described Dickens as “beyond repair” and the worst prison facility he had ever seen. The IDOC's health care director made that statement months before Idaho announced that they would move the prisoners.

Why does IDOC think that Val Verde will be any better? Their record doesn’t look good. The facility has been subjected to two well-documented lawsuits. In one suit, an employee claimed racial discrimination after a superior displayed a hangman’s noose in his office and took pictures in KKK garb while posing in GEO Group (then called Wackenhut) uniform.

The other lawsuit was brought on behalf of the family of a detainee who committed suicide after reporting that she had been sexually assaulted, beaten, and denied medical care. GEO settled both cases and both are mentioned in today’s article.

So why the infatuation with Texas private prisons? Lewiston-based KUXO just ran an interesting story about GEO Group's contributions to Idaho policitians:

The GEO Group entered Idaho politics in 2005, when it hired its first lobbyist - a year later, it divvied up $8,000 between campaigns for Gov. Butch Otter, Lt. Gov. Jim Risch and drug czar Debbie Field. Since then, GEO has won contracts worth $8 million annually to house more than 400 Idaho inmates in Texas, including at two prisons where problems became so severe that Idaho demanded inmates be relocated.

Idaho officials will say that this business boon for GEO Group is all about relieving Idaho's overcrowded prisons. But, as Kathleen points out, Idaho’s prison capacity problems are largely coming from a broken prison system in which close to two out of every three prison admissions are inmates returning for parole (and probation) violations. IDOC’s own numbers also say that 85% of inmates have substance abuse problems and that substance abuse is a major contributor to recidivism (people returning to prison after release).

Idaho lawmakers could deal with the problem of Idaho's gowing prison system by strengthening their substance abuse programs and focusing on lowering recidivism rather than sending even more inmates to poorly operated, scandal-ridden Texas private prisons. But that's not what's happening this week.

While GEO Scandals Continue, Executives Continue to Get Rich

While GEO Group continues to have major operational problems at many of its Texas prisons, its executives continue to cash in.

The AP reports that Wayne Calabrese, GEO’s President and Chief Operating Officer, has exercised options on 30,000 of the company’s shares, bringing in nearly $800,000. According to Salary.com, company founder and CEO George Zoley hauls in nearly $3.7 million in annual compensation.

The recent headlines for the GEO Group have not been good. An Idaho inmate’s suicide at the GEO’s Dicken’s facility led the AP to report on the prison's “squalid conditions.” Idaho has since announced plans to move its inmates to another prison.

The AP expose came just days after GEO made headlines in San Antonio after an inmate took hostages in GEO’s lock-up there using a paper gun, and a month after GEO drew fire in Laredo over a deal to build a 1,500 bed USMS contracted prison there.

Will the scandals, shoddy conditions, and inadequate care lead the GEO Group to reconsider its executives’ exorbitant salaries? In the world of for-profit prisons, I’ll put my money on "no."

Idaho Planning to Send Even More Prisoners to GEO Group, What's Reinke Thinking?

It was just four days ago that a national news story exposed the squalid conditions at GEO Group's Dickens County Correctional Center. But Idaho Department of Correction Director Brent Reinke has already announced his intention to place more prisoners into GEO Group prisons. Tomorrow (Tuesday) he'll be asking the Governor for permission to move even more Idaho prisoners to GEO Group's private prisons in Texas.

This is the same director who published the Idaho Department of Correction (DOC) annual report earlier this year, with his executive summary explaining:

Education and treatment offer the best return on investment in the correction’s arena because of the proven impact on crime reduction.

That's because IDOC has shown that people who successfully complete in-prison cognitive programs are less likely to return to prison. This saves the community thousands of dollars for each person who avoids a return to lockup, potentially millions if it can be widely implemented. Reinke called it, "the best return on investment" and the community called it "what we want" when IDOC interviewed them back in 2005.

Over the last few years, Idaho's Department of Correction has struggled to keep up with the growth of their prison system. Although in this 2006 report, Idaho DOC's tried to pin this on the growth in Idaho's population, about two out of three prison "admissions" are people returning on parole violations. DOC reports that the leading factors for recidivism are low educational achievement and substance abuse. In 2006, IDOC's then-director Beauclair reported,

Added prisons is only part of the equation, the lack of community-based treatment is also a huge issue. More drug treatment is needed in cities around Idaho.

Idaho's own figures from 2006 indicated that 85% of their prisoners have a substance abuse problem.

But until Idaho figures out how to deal with drug addiction effectively and slow down returns to prison, GEO Group remains poised to rake in the dough --- an already projected $7 million from Idaho this year. That's bound to increase if the Idaho governor and Board of Correction give the green light to Reinke to ship even more prisoners to Texas.

Sheriff's Aide Accused of Taking Bribes by Commisary Private Contractor

Private prison scandals include not just prison operators but extend to all services provided in the state’s 246 county jail facilities. The most recent involves the commissary account at the Bexar County Jail.

According to recent reports, prosecutors are investigating the donations of Louisiana company hired to provide commissary. The District Attorney’s office claims that Premier Management Enterprises gave $27,500 to John Reynolds, the campaign manager for Sheriff Ralph Lopez.

Apparently, Premier wrote the checks as "donations" or "consulting fees" to charities and a private computer services firm. According to the reports, the jail commissary and one in the annex generates $2 million a year in gross sales. Not surprising since the sheriff’s reported that over 75,000 individuals are booked into the jail each year. According to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, the jail was over current capacity levels -- in June the jail was at 102% of capacity.

At this time it is unclear if the Sheriff is a target of the investigation. But questions were raised in 2005 when Lopez acknowledged accepting a foreign golf outing to Costa Rica from Premier.

Lopez continues to support Reynolds and says that he will continue to be his campaign manager in the upcoming election. As this story continues to unfold it will be important to see how these relationships impact the management of the county jail.

MSNBC reports on squalid conditions at Dickens

Geo Group's Dickens County Correctional Center hit the front page of MSNBC yesterday with the headline, "Suicide Reveals Squalid Conditions." The suicide referred to in the title is that of Scot Noble Payne, who killed himself in solitary confinement after an escape attempt last December. His family is one of many families that have complained about the decrepit conditions at GEO-run prison.

Geo Group Prison in Spur, TexasGeo Group Prison in Spur, TexasThis week, Idaho has announced plans to move the prisoners to yet another GEO Group prison. It turns out that the Idaho Department of Correction's own head of health care, who toured the prison shortly after Payne's suicide (which would likely place this visit in March) described the prison as the worst he had ever seen and the prison in general "beyond repair."

Yet, there are no reported plans for GEO Group to close Dickens or to repair it before putting other prisoners there. According to GEO Group's website, there are closer to 500 prisoners there. That means that 125 prisoners are being moved because conditions there are squalid, yet the rest of the people there will just have to live with squalor. From all indications, these 125 people will soon be replaced with other people, and the conditions will remain the same until Texas refuses to allow gulags to operate inside its borders.

Scott Henson did an excellent write-up of the GEO Group's Texas operation at Grits for Breakfast

Idaho Moving Prisoners Yet Again in GEO Group Shell Game

Idaho DOC has announced that they are pulling prisoners out of GEO Group's Dickens County Correctional Center and transferring them to a yet-to-be-announced GEO Group prison. This is the fourth move of these 125 prisoners since 2005, coming just a few months after a prisoner suicide and the resignation of the warden. Dickens County Correctional Center was in the news just last month following the conviction of a former guard for providing contraband. News reports don't say where the prisoners will be moved to, but there are plenty of GEO Group prisons to choose from --- GEO Group's website currently lists 19 prisons in Texas. 

Grand Jury Refuses to Indict Houston CCA Protesters; More Protests Planned

Police at Jun 06 protest at Houston "Processing Center"Police at Jun 06 protest at Houston "Processing Center"As we reported here, two Houston activists were arrested last month for civil disobedience outside CCA’s Houston Processing Center in protest of Correction Corportaion of America's ongoing detention of immigrant families at the T. Don Hutto detention center.

In a move that defense attorney Randall Kallinen called a “fear factor to keep them from protesting,” the District Attorney’s office charged the two activists with felony possession of a criminal instrument. The criminal instruments in use? Bike locks used to lock the protesters to the detention center gates.

A Houston grand jury yesterday refused to indict the two activists on the felony charges. Misdemeanor charges are still pending, and a legal fund has been set up to help to offset the activists' legal costs.

Houston Indymedia also reports that Houston Sin Fronteras, the group that initiated the June protest, is planning another protest tomorrow, July 4th at 8am, in front of the CCA Houston Processing Center.