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September 2007

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Advocate Discusses How Private Prisons Can Evade Public Information Laws

Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News, appeared on the radio show Law and Disorder to discuss his recent victory in a lawsuit against the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC). The court decision requires the DOC to pay Prison Legal News $541,000 in fines and legal fees for violating the state’s Public Records Act through withholding and destroying government documents related to medical abuse and neglect in Washington’s prisons.

This court decision has serious implications for the thousands of men and women incarerated in private prisons and jails throughout Texas. In this conversation, Wright specifically mentions how private prison firms seek to undermine public information laws. The ability of private companies to skirt the issue is one reason it is important for the care of prisoners to remain in the public domain.

We recently provided information in the post entitled, "Finding Information on Texas Prisoners" where we outline basic requirements on the Texas Public Information Law. Whether someone is in a state-run prison or a private prison, if they are a Texas prisoner, they and their family members can still get information about them. This Washington State ruling can serve as a reminder to states that they should not expect to hang a curtain of secrecy around their prisons by contracting with a private corporation.

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Idaho May Fling Open Its Doors (and Wallets) to Private Prisons

One might think that Idaho would have had its share of private prison woes thanks to Texas --- the escapes, the nationally-recognized squalor, the suicide of an Idaho prisoner, the embarrassment of praising a private prison mere days before the state health division announces a major mobilization to identify an illness there that has killed prisoners... but instead, Idaho is forming a committee to plan for private prison companies in their state to rake in millions (assuming they can avoid lawsuits).

The Boise Weekly has covered this story with a very thorough article, quoting a wide range of folks, including a marketing director from Corrections Corporation of America, a spokesperson from to Governor Otter's office, and our allies at the Private Corrections Institute and the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. It's worth reading the whole article, but here's one point I must comment on:

"We have a critical need right now to do something immediately to address the [prison] population crisis that we're seeing," said Jon Hanian, Otter's press secretary. "When you're talking about a private prison vs. a state-run one, building one, you're talking about up to four years on the state-run side vs. 18 to 24 months. The private side is going to be a more immediate impact."

Want an even faster impact? How about if Idaho reduced "re-admissions" to their state prison system? Take a look at the numbers on the August 2007 prison admissions: of just over 200 people admitted to the Idaho prison system, less than 50 were new to the system. Three out of four people entering prison were revocations of probation, parole, or the rider program. Lowering the recidivism rate would reduce the demand for prison beds, which has been on the rise for a while. Is this news to anyone?

Idaho's prison population has been growing by roughly 6.5 percent annually, and Reinke estimates it will take an additional 2,000 to 3,000 beds to meet the state's short-term needs.

"What I'm concerned with right now is bed capacity," Reinke said. "This is not a new need."

No, it's not a new need for Idaho. In early 2006, IDOC released Understanding Growth, a one-pager that re-iterated key factors for recidivism: low educational achievement and addiction. But instead of forming a committee to figure out where to pump money into reducing recidivism, Idaho officials have formed a committee and invited "industry representatives" to sell their wares. Wow, how did this committee get the green light?

According to campaign finance reports filed with the state, both CCA and GEO Group, the two largest private prison operators, donated $5,000 to Otter's 2006 campaign for governor.

As one might expect, there is a stern rejection from the Governor's spokesperson that money could have any effect on the political process. I'm sure they're right, that money couldn't have any effect on any of this... although, wait a second, how much money are we talking? Well, by the end of the year, IDOC could easily have 1,500 prisoners in "contract" beds (1,000 in out-of-state private prisons, 500 in county jail beds), and director Rienke mentions needing 2,000 to 3,000 beds. Reinke's estimate of fees is $40-$50 per day per person. So let's take take a very low estimate of the money that might be involved in a private prison expansion into Idaho:

1,500 new prison beds x $45 per day per prisoner = $2 million per month

These millions for the companies will come with other things too, just for the state of Idaho. All anyone in Idaho has to do is glance at Texas: the scandals, the deaths, the lawsuits. As Ken Kopczynski of PCI asks, "Why does your governor think having a private prison in Idaho is going to be any different than the mess they had in Texas?"

Why indeed. 

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Finding Information on Texas Prisoners

A family member recently contacted us asking for help on finding information on a prisoner incarcerated in a private prison. I pointed her to the information that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) must release on prisoners confined in a public or private facility.

Texas' Public Information Statute, Sec. 552.029 requires TDCJ to disclose the following information on state prisoners:

  1. The prisoner's name, identification number, age, birthplace, department photograph, physical description, or general state of health or the nature of an injury to or critical illness suffered by the prisoner;
  2. The prisoner's assigned unit or the date on which the unit received the prisoner, unless disclosure information would violate federal law relating to the confidentiality of substance abuse treatment;
  3. the offense for which the prisoner was convicted or the judgment and sentence for that offense;
  4. the county and court in which the prisoner was convicted;
  5. the prisoner's earliest or latest possible release dates;
  6. the prisoner's parole date or earliest possible parole date;
  7. any prior confinement of the prisoner by TDCJ; and
  8. basic information regarding the death of a prisoner in custody, an incident involving the use of force, or an alleged crime involving the prisoner.

Folks might also be interested in other public information that TDCJ, the Texas Youth Commission or any county jail that incarcerates people in Texas must provide. Texas Government Code, Chapter 552, gives anyone the right to access government records from state and local governments in Texas, excluding the judiciary. However, certain exceptions may apply to the disclosure of the information. For example, information that the government claims is pertinent to an ongoing criminal investigation is exempt from disclosure.

Below is a general outline of the open records process in Texas. In the past, advocates have used the procedure to obtain information on unit lockdowns, number of prisoner deaths, and in-prison sexual assault incidents.


The Request

  • Submit a request by mail, fax, email, or in person according to a governmental body’s reasonable procedures. The “reasonable procedures” of each governmental body may be different. Therefore, it is necessary to research those procedures online or to call the governmental body directly.
  • Include enough description and detail about the information requested to enable the governmental body to accurately identify and locate the information requested. For help on constructing the proper description, see the following records request example.
The Government’s Response
  • The governmental agency is required to produce requested information within 10 business days of your request.
  • If the requested information cannot be produced within 10 working days, the agency must notify the requestor and set a date and time to provide it within a reasonable time.
Additional information on the Texas Open Records Act can be found at

Premier Private Commissary Scandal Keeps Growing

In recent months we covered the scandal out of Bexar County that involved the Sheriff and his aide accepting gifts from the private firm based in Louisiana managing the commissary contract.

The Advocate and WBRZ news recently reported that Bexar County prosecutors say now-resigned Bexar County Sheriff Ralph Lopez and his long-time campaign manager John Reynolds received money and a golf and fishing trip to Costa Rica in exchange for awarding Premier Management the contract to run the county jail’s commissary.

Premier Management's owners, Louisiana brothers Michael and Pat LeBlanc, also own LCS Corrections, a private prison firm that operates several private jails in Louisiana and Texas.

Grits for Breakfast also covered recent reports in the San Antonio Express News that the scandal extends to Kleberg and Nueces counties where Premier staff cultivated relationships with elected officials in order to reap the benefits of privatized county jail commissary contracts and private detention centers developed by LCS Corrections.

According to Grits, the Texas Rangers are investigating the details of these relationships. We will continue to monitor this scandal as events unfold. Our previous coverage can be found below:

  1. Bexar County Sheriff Indicted
  2. Private Commissary Contracts Lead to Corruption in Bexar County
  3. Sheriff's Aide Accused of Taking Bribes by Commisary Private Contractor
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Reactions to Hutto Settlement: A Good First Step, Much More To Go…

Last week’s settlement between the ACLU, University of Texas Immigration Law Clinic and other lawyers representing children in CCA’s T. Don Hutto family detention center and the Department of Homeland Security has brought a variety of reactions.

Vanita Gupta, a lead lawyer from the ACLU said of the settlement, "Though we continue to believe that Hutto is an inappropriate place to house children, conditions have drastically improved in areas like education, recreation, medical care, and privacy."

The settlement improves conditions at the facility and installs a Federal Magistrate to monitor the prison, amongst other changes.

Barbara Hines of the UT Immigration Law Clinic said "We are hopeful that by limiting the population at Hutto to families in expedited removal except in exigent circumstances, and adopting more meaningful release procedures, that the length of stay for children will be significantly reduced.

Still, most advocacy groups and media observers think the settlement is only a first step, with the ultimate issue of incarceration of innocent children and their families at Hutto still a pressing concern. Some of the reactions have included:

The Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, who together with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, issued the important Locking Up Family Values report in February on family detention called the settlement “a good first step” but the agency “remains concerned that finding alternatives to detention for families is not a priority.”

LIRS’s Annie Wilson was “proud that our report has led to concrete results at Hutto,” but added that “now it's time to take the next steps. We've demonstrated time and again that there are more humane alternatives that work.”

Taylor activist Jose Orta noted that the dozen protests outside the prison had an impact, but that “the facility retains its essential character as a medium security prison. The rights of children simply must come first. Simply put, you don't put innocent children in prison. The settlement agreement is a good first step but our work as concerned citizens has only just begun. We will continue to hold vigils and protest the detention of innocent children. T. Don Hutto as a residential center is flawed, inconsistent, and in violation of national and international standards.”

Less enthusiastic was Ralph Isenberg, the Dallas businessman who had been influential in the release of several Hutto families. Isenberg, in an interview with Dallas’s WFAA, argued that “had this thing gone to court I believe the judge would have shut this facility down because the fact still remains, you don't put children in prison."

Lisa Falkenberg of the Houston Chronicle had possibly the most pointed commentary on the settlement. “A limited settlement may be good news for many Hutto detainees. But it isn't the answer,” she wrote. “It will take an act of Congress to ensure humane treatment for immigrant children. As we've seen, we can't count on ICE officials to act on their own. It took federal litigation to persuade them to allow teddy bears.”

Texans United for Families, an advocacy coalition that I work with, applauded the settlement, while vowing “to increase its advocacy for closure of the prison and for more humane alternatives to detention of immigrant children and their families.”

The next vigil at Hutto is planned for September 29th.

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More protests at CCA's Houston Processing Center

This Monday, I attended a Labor Day demonstration hosted by Houston Sin Fronteras outside the Houston Processing Center, a CCA-operated immigrant detention center that was the first private prison in the world.

The protest was held in solidarity with recently deported immigrant rights activist Elvira Arellano and other immigrant families torn apart by detention and deportation. The event brought out several media outlets, including Houston’s KHOU. XicanoPwr has more photos of the demonstration.

The protest was the fourth protest this summer, including a June demonstration in which two activists were arrested for civil disobedience. The activists faced felony charges until a Houston grand jury refused to indict them. They have recently settled the misdemeanor charges, but are still in need of financial support. More protests are being planned.

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Yet Another GEO Group Lawsuit Filed Friday: Pearsall Detention Lockup

The latest civil suit against GEO Group for mistreatment of a prisoner in Texas was filed Friday by attorneys for Miroslava Rodriguez-Grava, a legal permanent resident of Mexican descent who was held in GEO's Pearsall lockup, the South Texas Detention Center. The prison is about 45 minutes from downtown San Antonio in Frio County, and holds people who are awaiting their immigration status hearings or in some cases are awaiting deportation.

From the filing document: (I have changed the "Defendant" and "Plaintiff" references to make for easier reading).

Although aware that [Rodriguez-Grava] required special treatment and reasonable accommodations due to her mental disability, [GEO Group] failed to provide such treatment and accommodations.
[GEO Group] also failed to provide [Rodriguez-Grava] with her prescribed medication.

[GEO Group] also failed to provide adequate and regular psychiatric treatment to [Rodriguez-Grava].

As a result of [GEO Group's] failures to address [Rodriguez-Grava's] medical needs, [Rodriguez-Grava's ]physical and mental condition deteriorated requiring that she be placed in segregation and isolation.

Despite numerous requests for medical treatment and reasonable accommodations by [Rodriguez-Grava] and her immigration lawyer, [GEO Group] refused to remedy the situation. Instead, [GEO Group] retaliated by purposefully misdiagnosing her condition, denying her adequate treatment and reasonable accommodations, removing her crutches and stripping her naked and placing her in an isolation room.

During the course of [Rodriguez-Grava's] confinement at [GEO Group's] facility, [GEO Group's] agents ridiculed [Rodriguez-Grava] on a regular basis because of her disability. [GEO Group's] employees taunted [Rodriguez-Grava] by telling her she is not truly sick, that she is faking her illness, that she has no rights in the United States, and that she will soon be deported to Mexico.

The Pearsall lockup was built in 2005, originally by Corrections Services Corporation, which was later acquired by GEO Group. Although the company paid $40 million for construction of the prison on "donated" land, the original agreement locked the city of Pearsall into picking up the tab for utilities to the prison: water, sewer, and gas, along with a tax abatement. No word yet if the city will be on the hook for any payouts to settle civil suits... what seems to be a standard business expense in the private prison business.

More on this as we learn more.

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Protests to Private Detention Centers Continue to Grow

When I first started following the growth of the private immigrant detention system in Texas several years ago, there were very few groups actively challenging immigrant detention and private prison expansion in Texas.

Today, organized campaigns to close private detention centers or stop construction of new detention centers in several Texas locales have gained momentum. Here’s a run-down of some of the action:

CCA’s T. Don Hutto Detention Center is possibly the most controversial of the private detention centers. This former medium security prison holds immigrant children and their families for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The facility has drawn oppositions from groups such as Texans United for Families, Freedom Ambassadors, Amnesty International, the ACLU, and University of Texas Immigration Clinic. The last two groups settled a lawsuit recently to improve conditions at the prison, mandate a monitor for the prison, and release some of the children at the prison.

MTC’s Willacy County Detention Center in Ramondville may not be far behind in its level of notoriousness. The prison, known alternatively as “Tent City” or RITMO, is a windowless series of Kevlar pods holding ICE detainees. It’s drawn protests ranging in style from vigils, prayers, blogs, and a community forum. Revelations from prisoners and guards that maggot-infested food was being served will probably not help the prison’s reputation, although expansion plans are in the works.

The Laredo “superjail,” a proposed contracted U.S. Marshals detention center, has seen opposition from a coalition of groups calling itself South Texans Opposing Private Prisons, which I have been involved with for several years. Initially proposed as a 2,800 bed detention center for pre-trial detainees (the vast majority of whom would be undocumented immigrants prosecuted criminally for crossing the border), the jail proposal has been downsized to 1,500 beds.

CCA’s Houston Processing Center has drawn several protests this summer, including a civil disobedience action which drew (ultimately dismissed) felony charges against the activists who chained themselves to the prison’s gates, and yesterday's protest, which drew 25 people and considerable media. I'll do a full write-up later today complete with photos.

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