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October 2007

Williamson County Does Not Terminate Hutto Contract

I just returned from Georgetown, where the Williamson County Commissioners Court today amended the T. Don Hutto contract, but did not terminate the county's part of the contract. The new contract will involve a $250,000 legal defense fund in case of lawsuit. CCA will also pay the county $5,000 a month to hire a monitor for the facility.

The public comment section was limited to 10 today, with 9 speaking against Hutto including Scott Medlock from Texas Civil Rights Project, Rev. Mary Ferris, a Presbyterian missionary from Williamson County, Taylor residents Jose Orta and Neal Kopit, Williamson County residents Mary Ellen Kersch, Sherry Dana, and Jane Van Praag, Jay Johnson-Castro from Del Rio, and Dr. Asma Salam from Dallas. The lone voice in favor of the facility was the CCA Warden Evelyn Hernandez.

Nevertheless, it took the commissioners just a few minutes to vote to continue the contract, and no commissioners gave any rationale for their decision. According to the Austin American Statesman:

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More on Coke County

The Austin Chronicle recently weighed in on the Coke County scandal that plagued the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) last month. Senator Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa (D-McAllen) continues to hold GEO Group accountable for the horrible conditions uncovered at the private youth lockup.

"I'm not surprised at what we found at Coke," said Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, author of last session's TYC-reforming Senate Bill 103. "GEO Group has a long history of problems and litigations, not only in Texas but around the country."

It is clear from the way that horrid conditions at Coke County came to light a great deal needs to be done in terms of improving oversight of private prisons throughout Texas.

According to officials involved at all levels, three investigations were conducted at Coke County over several weeks. Those investigations were conducted by three separate agencies that included the Harris County TYC Review Monitor, the Independent Ombudsman Office, and TYC's Internal Audit Division.

The Harris County Juvenile Probation Board established a TYC Review Monitor position when the TYC scandals were widely publicized in media outlets earlier this year. Using statutory authority that requires agencies to share information, the TYC monitor travels to youth prisons around the state to insure that Harris County youth are confined in safe and humane conditions.

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T. Don Hutto on Tuesday's Williamson County Agenda

T. Don Hutto will be on the Williamson County agenda (PDF) for next Tuesday's meeting. The county will be discussing the following items related to Hutto:

13. Discuss and take appropriate action on contractual relationships expressed in both the Inter-Governmental Service Agreement between the United States Department of Homeland Security/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Williamson County, Texas and in the operation Agreement between Williamson County, Texas and Corrections Corporation of American concerning the T. Don Hutto Facility.

14. Discuss and take appropriate action on granting the United States Department of Homeland Security/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement authority to communicate directly with Corrections Corporation of American on specific matters relating to the T. Don Hutto Residential Facility.

Public comments will be taken at the beginning of the meeting, starting at 9:30. In order to get a seat or a place on the public comment list, you probably want to show early. (Last time the item was discussed CCA bussed in a group of 40 employees at least an hour early to take up all the room's seats.)

The room should have more Hutto protesters this time around as Hutto Walk III is scheduled to end at the meeting. Check out Eye on Williamson for videos from the last time Williamson County took up the Hutto issue.

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Lack of Mental Health Care in Private Detention Centers; OAS Agency to Investigate Hutto

This morning's San Antonio Express News has an excellent story from reporter Hernán Rozemberg about the lack of mental health care in Texas private detention centers.

According to the article, cases of untreated mental illnesses are rampant in detention centers in south Texas. The story uses two separate cases from GEO Group's Pearsall detention center to make the case:

One was diagnosed with schizophrenia. The other was manic-depressive. But as far as the federal immigration detention system is concerned, the pair say, their illnesses were checked at the door.

The cases of two immigrants in South Texas reflect the systematic medical maltreatment detainees face across the country as the government rushes people in and out to save a buck by skipping treatment, said Javier Maldonado, a San Antonio immigration lawyer.

Maldonado is representing Miroslava Rodríguez Grava and Isaías Vásquez Cisneros, Mexican immigrants held at the South Texas Detention Complex, a 1,904-bed federal immigration prison in Pearsall.

The article also reveals that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an agency of the Organization of American States, will investigate conditions at detention centers in the U.S. this December, including CCA's infamous T. Don Hutto family detention center in Taylor.

According to the story:

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ICE Letter to Williamson County Raises Issues

Williamson County has been discussing terminating its contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Corrections Corporation of America to operate the T. Don Hutto detention center. Several news reports indicated that a letter from ICE this spring had brought about the discussion of contract termination.

We've obtained a copy of this letter and attached it as a PDF (sorry about the quality; it's a scan of a fax). The letter, dated May 23 and addressed to County Judge Dan A. Gattis, is signed by ICE contracting officer Susan D. Erickson. It starts (emphasis mine),

This letter is in response to an incident involving inappropriate sexual relationship between a Correction Corporation of America (CCA) employee and a resident of T. Don Hutto Residential Facility (sic). The Office of Detention and Removal Operations reported that during the weekend of May 19 and 20, 2007 a CCA employee had in appropriate with ICE Detention Standards and procedures as require under the IGSA.

The letter outlines a series of corrective actions that must have taken place within 10 days of receipt of the letter including an explanation of why CCA's laser monitoring system was not in use at the time of the "inappropriate sexual relationship" and mandatory staff training on maintaining appropriate sexual relationships with detainees.

The letter goes on to say that two other incidents in which CCA contracted with workers not legally authorized to work at the prison. I don't know what that means, and the letter doesn't explain it.

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MTC Prison Populations Growing, Partially Off Texas Expansion

Management and Training Corporation, a private prison corporation operating several prisons in Texas, has posted "tremendous growth" according to company statement posted online last month.

Part of that growth is due to the expansion of the Willacy County "tent city" detention center in Raymondville. According to the statement,

The Willacy County Texas Commissioners Court approved the IGSA with the Department of Homeland Security for a 1086-bed expansion of the Willacy ICE facility. The targeted start-up for that project is January 2008.

The statement doesn't mention that Willacy County went another $50 million in debt to fund this expansion. That debt, added to the county's already staggering debt from previous prison projects, means the county is $8,700 in debt for every person residing in Willacy County.

CCA's Willacy State Jail Locked Down, Whitmire Calls for Investigation

In a story that doesn't seem to be getting much media coverage, the Austin American Statesman reported Friday that CCA's Willacy County State Jail had incurred a disturbance last week which raised existing demands for investigation and oversight of private prisons.

According to the story, the jail

remained on lockdown Thursday after a dispute between rival prison gangs over control of cellblock tables erupted into a chain of violence that left 19 convicts hurt, according to state prison officials.

Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, who has demanded greater scrutiny of private prisons, called for a full investigation into why the episode took hours to quell. Prison officials said such an inquiry was under way.

Officials with Corrections Corporation of America, which runs the 1,069-bed Willacy County State Jail, did not immediately return phone calls for comment.
No serious injuries were reported, and no staff members were injured.

Of course, Whitmire's concerns about private prison oversight were raised significantly by the recent investigation and closure of GEO Group's Coke County juvenile center by the Texas Youth Commission which lead to last week's hearings on private prison oversight.

Senator Chuy Hinojosa has said the committee would look into private prison operators' records as a way to make sure the state wasn't contracting with private prison companies notorious for mismanagement and abuse.

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LCS Corrections’ Patrick LeBlanc Loses Louisiana House Race

As we’ve reported, LCS Corrections co-owner Patrick LeBlanc was running for state representative for Louisiana House District 43. LeBlanc lost Saturday's election and the ongoing scandal over Texas commissary and detention contracts may have influenced the eleection. According to the Daily Advertiser:

The involvement of his opponent's company in a Texas jail contract investigation may have helped Page Cortez capture the House District 43 race in Saturday's election.

Complete but unofficial returns show Cortez, R-Lafayette, with 7,742 or 55 percent of the vote and Patrick LeBlanc, R-Youngsville, with 6,218 or 45 percent.

As Nicole wrote last month, now-indicted former Bexar County Sheriff and his longtime campaign manager John Reynolds are accused of receiving money and a Costa Rica golf trip in exchange for awarding Premier Management, another comany owned by LeBlanc and his brother, the commissary contract at the Bexar County jail.

Reynolds plead guilty to a charge of felony theft, and must speak openly about his dealings with Premier, the LeBlanc Brothers, and LCS Corrections as part of the plea deal. The scandal is threatening to spill over into Kleberg and Nueces Counties where Premier and LCS have been cultivating close relationships with county officials.

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House Corrections Committee Takes a Look at TYC Problems

The House Corrections Committee had its own committee hearing about oversight of Texas lockups, with their focus on the Texas Youth Commission (TYC). Will Harrell, the TYC Omsbudsman appointed earlier this year, offered extensive testimony on his first round of visits to TYC prisons, addressing questions about his new office and how they collect information.

At about the 30 minute mark, Harrell started taking questions focused on the GEO Group's Coke County youth lockup, recently shut down by TYC for its horrible conditions. He describes one unit in the prison where youth were kept completely isolated for up to two weeks at a time, and only let out of their cells in shackles for showers, in direct violation of TYC policies. Before Harrell left the lockup, he met with the superintendent of the lock-up, who explained why he felt like the TYC policy didn't apply to this prison.

In turn, Harrell explained to the legislators:

"We always heard 'you should be careful about having private vendors provide social services because they'll cut corners.' In Coke County, they didn't cut corners, they didn't bother to build the corner to cut."

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Hutto Updates: No Decision Next Week

I just checked the Williamson County Commissioner's Court agenda for next Tuesday, and it appears that the Hutto contract termination decision will not be made on October 23rd, but be delayed at least week.

As Eye on Williamson notes today, the discussion around contract termination centers on a worry that Williamson County could be held liable in lawsuits against the facility. The decision is not being made on the basis that it is unethical to incarcerate children and their families, a point underlined by a video of Commissioner Cynthia Long telling reporters that the imprisoned families at Hutto have it "far better than the conditions that the vast majority of these people have left."

EOW also features a rebuttal from UT Law Professor Barbara Hines to Long's claim that "unfortunately as children some time we have to suffer with the sins of our parent," implying that the children's parents have committed crimes. Hines offers this in response:

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