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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.

Under the current contract, MTC is being paid a $27.75 per diem per prisoner held in the prison, according to the company. That rate would increase to $30.13 with the fixed fee. $30 a day per prisoner to pay for food (albeit possibly maggot-infested food), staff, clothes, services, AND a profit for MTC seems like a seriously low amount.

But that’s what is apparently happening because nearly 3/5 of the amount the government is paying for the facility is being spent to pay back Willacy County’s enormous debt.

If a problem occurs at Tent City (say maggots in the food – can we mention that too much?) and ICE decides to pull some of its prisoners,that can cause big financial problems for the county. According to the article, the county must maintain a minimum 1,700 detainees consistently to pay back its 20-year bond, so a serious drop in prisoner numbers could affect bond payments and lead to a decline in the county’s bond rating, a scenario that could hinder the county’s ability to issue future bonds for things like schools or parks.

According to Willacy County Commissioner Eddie Chapa, “We would love to have 2,500 (illegal immigrants) but we know that’s not going to be — we have to have the room available in case there’s an influx. If we get 2,200 to 2,300, we’d be very happy.” Maybe it’s just me, but there seems to be something twisted about betting your county’s financial future on the hope that you’ll have a large and growing number of incarcerated immigrants.

As we’ve reported, Willacy County is no stranger to private prison scandals. Its history includes public officials convicted of accepting bribes from prison developers and a $47.5 million settlement in a lawsuit against the Wackenhut Corporation by the family of a prisoner who was beaten to death in 2001.

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.

Could not? Is it possible that they don't know? Highly unlikely. Like most correctional facilities, Hutto staff count heads a few times a day. (This KVUE article from the AP wire reports that counts there happen four times a day. This article also suggests that there are around 400 people currently detained in Hutto, but it's not an exact number.)

ICE probably could answer that question. But, then, the next logical question is, "how many of the detainees at Hutto are children?" and that's the question that they really don't want to answer. After all, hundreds of children sitting in a prison is a pretty unnerving image, and Hutto is unpopular enough already.

Speaking of which: the next vigil at Hutto is scheduled for September 29th.

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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:

Additional improvements ICE will be required to make as a result of the settlement include allowing children over the age of 12 to move freely about the facility; providing a full-time, on-site pediatrician; eliminating the count system so that families are not forced to stay in their cells 12 hours a day; installing privacy curtains around toilets; offering field trip opportunities to children; supplying more toys and age-and language-appropriate books; and improving the nutritional value of food. ICE must also allow regular legal orientation presentations by local immigrants' rights organizations; allow family and friends to visit Hutto detainees seven days a week; and allow children to keep paper and pens in their rooms. ICE's compliance with each of these reforms, as well as other conditions reforms, will be subject to external oversight to ensure their permanence.

Since the lawsuit was filed, all of the 26 children named in it have been released from Hutto. The last few were just released prior to the settlement, moving out of the lockup to live with family members while they await hearings to determine their asylum cases. One child formerly locked up in Hutto, 12-year-old Andrea Restrepo, is quoted by the ACLU:

"I feel much better, I feel tranquil, I can do things now I couldn't do there," said Restrepo. "I am trying to forget everything about Hutto. I feel free. It was a nightmare."

Despite the settlement, the ACLU continues its opposition to Hutto and "remains adamant that detaining immigrant children at Hutto is inappropriate, and calls on Congress to compel the Department of Homeland Security to find humane alternatives for managing families whose immigration status is in limbo."

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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?

Reassurances continue that there's probably nothing to worry about, even as it has emerged that the story does include TB, a theory that has been advanced by Scott over at Grits. But the four people's illnesses are not identical, and so the plan for now is to wait for test results but mostly continue with business as usual. As Forrest Wilder points out at the Texas Observer, GEO Group's profit margin is dependent on keeping their costs low, and the "steady drumbeat of scandal has done little to harm the company's bottom line."

So yes, we may already be back to business as usual at Val Verde... and people will be just as safe there as they have ever been.

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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.

During the 80th Legislative Session, lawmakers implemented legislation that allows law enforcement officials to issue citations for certain Class B misdemeanors rather than lock up defendants in county jails. Other policy measures have yet to be implemented. Grits for Breakfast recently posted about the governor's veto of a significant piece of legislation that would permit parole violators to "bond out" of county jail lockups.

Yet, local officials can implement innovative solutions to improve criminal justice policy in their jurisdiction. For example, they could strengthen pre-release bond programs for low-level, nonviolent defendants. Additionally, in counties like Harris and Dallas where multiple law enforcement agencies contribute to the jail population, the sheriff must work with the judges, district attorneys and police chiefs to address law enforcement and prosecution strategies that contribute to county jail growth. Finally, local officials could leverage available resources to divert defendants arrested for minor, nonviolent offenses to secure facilities where they would receive help and alleviate crowding.

According to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, 18 of the states 246 county jails are privately managed.

 

Private County Jail Capacity

(as of August 1, 2007)

County

Population

Capacity

% of Capacity

Angelina 108111
97.30
Bowie 897921 97.39
Brooks 409 544 75.18
Dickens 402 490 82.04
Falls 96 107 89.72
Frio 296 391 75.70
Haskell
524 555 94.41
Hidalgo
888 990 89.70
Hudspeth
443 518 85.52
Jefferson
453 496 91.33
La Salle
501 566 88.52
Liberty
340 372 91.40
Limestone
999 1022 97.75
McLennan
321 326 98.47
Newton
858 932 92.06
Polk
534 1054 50.66
Val Vere
187 187100.00
Zavala
495515
96.12
Total
8,6439,747
88.67

(Source: Texas Commission on Jail Standards)

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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.

That's right: Idaho DOC will sever their relationship with that particular lockup, but as one Idaho blogger points out, GEO Group is in pretty good shape because the Governor has said that if Idaho welcomes more private prisons inside its borders, it will work with companies that already have contracts with Idaho DOC.

So what else is not happening? Any real loss of business for GEO Group.

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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.

No reports yet on the costs associated with the violence Monday night: the expense of bringing 30 local police to surround the prison, staff time for all these investigations, transportation costs for abruptly transferring prisoners, and which of these costs CCA will pick up and which will be picked up by the state.

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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.

Apparently no amount of scandal can slow GEO Group down. At the end of last month, GEO announced a new contract for a prison in Maverick County. I'll let this post from Bob explain all the scandals that immediately preceded this announcement. And now this week, the CDC is being summoned to Texas to investigate the mysterious illness of the prisoners in GEO Group's Val Verde lockup just as Idaho plans to move prisoners there. But hard to say if that will put a dent in GEO Group's bottom line either. We'll just have to wait for the third quarter report to see what effect all these problems will have on their profitability.

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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:

"I'm highly skeptical of claims that CiviGenics can supply the same services as the county for $17 less - that's a 30% reduction from what the county says it spends now. So is it really possible CiviGenics can perform the same function for 30% less money and actually turn a profit? I find that hard to believe.

Instead, I think taxpayers will likely continue to subsidize the jail beyond the $39 per inmate. Of course, for starters there's the cost of the monitor. And I wonder if that $39 includes all healthcare costs? If CiviGenics cuts corners there, one lawsuit could more than wipe out any short-term savings the county enjoys.

Certainly taxpayers are still liable for any extant bond debt and maintenance costs. What expenditures go into that which aren't included in the $39 figure, I wonder?

What's more, this won't really save taxpayers money. The Sheriff doesn't plan on eliminating deputies' positions by turning the jail over to CiviGenics, but "increasing the number of deputies who patrol county roads." Taxpayers will still foot the bill for their salaries, which are a major portion of of jail costs (plus new patrol-related equipment costs) on top of the salaries for the privatized jailers. So let's be clear: In the end, taxpayers will pay more."

Considering a Private Prison, Jail or Detention Center: A Resource Guide for Public Officials (PDF) has more reasons why a private jail or detention center can do more harm than good for a county's bottom-line.

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