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August 2007

Willacy County Goes $50 Million More in Debt to Expand MTC’s Tent City

Last week, Willacy County Commissioners approved an additional $50.1 million in revenue bonds to expand the notorious MTC Tent City detention center. According to the Valley Morning News, the detention center, a series of tent-like structures made of windowless Kevlar pods that already has capacity to hold 2,000 ICE detainees, will expand by 1,000 beds.

The added debt will now mean that Willacy County must pay back $54.8 million to bond holders by September 2010 and another $56.6 million by 2028. The money brought in to the prison through the federal contract to hold the immigrant detainees is supposed to raise the capital to pay back the debt, while the private prison company (in this case MTC) takes a cut of the income as it goes.

As Forrest Wilder at the Texas Observer blog writes, that is a staggering $8,700 debt per resident of Willacy County, a county with a population of 20,082 and a prison capacity of 4,600.

The new bond deal led Commissioner Aurelio Guerra this week to question a “fixed annual fee” of $27.4 million that will be paid to MTC if the average monthly inmate count falls below 2,500 inmates.

Thanks to the Settlement, ICE Can Now Have Monitors at Hutto

ICE has not yet posted their statement about the Hutto settlement to the press room of their website (9 AM PT August 29th), which is surprising, given that to hear them tell it, the settlement is even better for them than it is for the children who have now been released from Hutto. From the Houston Chronicle:

ICE spokeswoman Nina Pruneda would not answer questions about the settlement on Monday, but she released a statement that defended conditions at Hutto and welcomed the outside monitoring.

The judge's participation "will help improve communication about the facility and end any misconceptions and allegations falsely made about the Hutto facility," the ICE statement said.

That's a fascinating argument for monitoring: that the presence of a monitor at a prison could end any false accusations of mistreatment, rather than end any actual mistreatment or address any issues of confinement that concern the children held there. Okay... so maybe ICE could've ended some of those false accusations by letting a leading UN expert on the human rights of migrants, Jorge Bustamante, take a look at Hutto back in May, instead of inviting him and then abruptly cancelling his visit.

More from the article:

Pruneda also said Monday afternoon that ICE could not provide the number of detainees currently in Hutto.

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Breaking News: Government Settles Hutto Lawsuit

The Associated Press is reporting that the government has settled the lawsuit brought by the ACLU and others over the detention of immigrant children at the T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas.

The Hutto detention center, a converted medium-security prison operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), has come under fierce criticism from human rights activists and immigration lawyers. The trial against ICE by several Hutto families was set to open today (Monday) but Judge Sam Sparks had already told Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) earlier this spring that the families were likely to prevail.

The settlement does not close the prison or release all the children incarcerated there, but does better conditions at the jail. According to the ACLU's statement released today:

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"People are as safe as they have ever been" in GEO Group's Val Verde Lockup

That's the word from a state health services doctor in charge of figuring out why two prisoners from GEO Group's Val Verde prison have died and two more are ill, according to the San Antonio Express News. I think the statement is supposed to be reassuring (unless you consider the experience of LeTisha Tapia at Val Verde).

According to the article, at least 50 people and several labs have participated in the investigation, although it still seems like there are big gaps in our knowledge about what's going on. One reason for this information gap is that one of the prisoners who died was not autopsied. But this article includes a surprising (or maybe not so surprising) detail about that:

The investigation produced little information on the fourth inmate. He was one of the two who died, and he did so shortly after becoming ill. He apparently was a Honduran whose body was embalmed and shipped to his country after the Bexar County medical examiner's office declined a request to perform an autopsy. (emphasis added)

Has anyone asked why the medical examiner's office declined to perform an autopsy?

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County Jail Capacity Expands in Texas

According to the San Antonio Express News, county jail capacity increased dramatically in recent years and continues to grow. Reportedly, 52 new jails are currently under construction or in the early planning stages.

Texas counties contain more that 84,000 county jail beds -- nearly 10,000 of those beds are private (see chart below). About 32,000 jail detainees are pretrial felons compared to 10,100 convicted felons. Remaining jail detainees include misdemeanants, parole violators, state jail felons, and those held on bench warrants.

Expanding jail capacity continues to be a failed policy option. Jail space has grown significantly in recent years, and yet cities like Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio continue to experience chronic overcrowding. We previously reported that Harris County (Houston) is dealing with overcrowding problems by sending detainees to a privately managed lockup several hundred miles away in Louisiana. Jail crowding leads to significant problems like exposure to infectious disease and high levels of violence due to inadequate staffing levels.

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What's Not Happening at GEO Group's Val Verde Jail

State health authorities issued a statement in response to rumors related to the deaths of two prisoners from GEO Group's Val Verde lockup. This seems to be in response to an inquiry from the Del Rio New Herald about the numerous contacts they have received.

The state is saying that the deaths are not a tuberculosis outbreak and not from assaults by staff. They have also said that no staff are ill with similar symptoms. But no word yet on what has caused the two prisoner deaths and what can prevent other prisoner deaths.

Val Verde just received a favorable review from Idaho Department of Correction director Brent Reinke after his visit there. Idaho is choosing Val Verde over the Dickens lockup that has attracted so much negative attention lately. According to Idaho's Spokesman-Review:

Fifty-six Idaho inmates still remain in the Dickens County Correctional Facility in Spur, Texas, where Idaho inmate Scot Noble Payne committed suicide in March. Reinke said the state hopes to move them all shortly to another private Texas prison operated by the same firm, the GEO Group, in Del Rio, Texas. He said GEO plans to sever its relationship with the Dickens County lockup in December.

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Bexar County Sheriff Indicted

The Bexar County Sheriff is facing charges related to payments he received from a private company who does business with the jail, Louisiana-based Premier Management Enterprises. As we've previously reported, they've received the lucrative Bexar County Jail commissary contract. This indictment is part of a larger investigation of Sheriff Ralph Lopez, his longtime campaign manager John Reynolds, Premier, and others.

It's worth mentioning that the LeBlanc brothers mentioned in the article as principals of Premier Management Enterprises are the same that own Louisiana Correctional Services, a private prison company that has a couple of prisons in Texas (as you can see on our map) and is trying to build one in Nueces County as we speak.

Lopez's attorney says that he's looking forward to their day in court, but no word in the article about when that day will be.


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Mineral Wells Still on Lockdown Two Days After Disturbance

The lockdown of the minimum-sercurity Mineral Wells pre-pareole prison continues days after a disturbance involving hundreds of prisoners. Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) has not said yet when the lockdown will be lifted, although they are saying that state officials are "interviewing" hundreds of prisoners. I think the word she actually means is "interrogating" --- I'm sure that prisoners won't have the option of declining to be "interviewed" as part of this investigation.

CCA is reporting that 36 prisoners have been transferred to other prisons because they are believed to have been involved in some of the violence. These prisoners are probably facing longer sentences even though they were assigned to Mineral Wells because they were approaching release.

CCA's spokesperson pointed out that Mineral Wells is a minimum-security facility:

"These inmates are placed there because they have clean disciplinary records, and they are generally cooperative." -- Rose Thompson, CCA spokesperson

Right, because CCA, who operates the lock-up, counts on getting prisoners that are fairly easy to manage. That helps keep the cost of operation of this particular prison down while actually leaving the more difficult-to-manage prisoners for the state-run prisons. An interesting way of keeping costs down and profits up.

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GEO Group Reports on Strong Financial Quarter

GEO Group's second quarter financial statements came out last week, and according to George Zoley:

"We are very pleased with our earnings results which reflect strong performance from our three business units as a result of better-than-expected performance by a number of our facilities and new contract wins. Our organic growth pipeline remains strong with projects totaling more than 11,000 beds under development, including projects we activated in the first half of the year, representing more than $198 million in combined annual operating revenues."

GEO Group reported over $258 million in revenue for the second quarter, roughly a 25% increase over the same period last year. That brings their revenue to almost $500 million for a six-month period, including their US prisons, prisons in other countries, and the GEO Care business. You can check out the latest up to date information about their stock thanks to Google finance.

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Parker County Privatizing Jail

Today's Fort Worth Star-Telegram has the story that Parker County is privatizing its county jail, turning over operations to CiviGenics.

Grits for Breakfast raises great questions about the purported "cost-savings" that county officials are touting in conjunction with the privatization move:

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