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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:

County commissioners voted unanimously to continue their contract with Corrections Corp. of America, which operates the T. Don Hutto Residential Center. Earlier this month, commissioners took steps to end the contract with CCA by October 2008. While the facility has been controversial, commissioners said they were worried about the county's potential liability stemming from its relationship with the center.

CCA subsequently offered free legal protection and $250,000 for the county should it ever face litigation. Commissioners said Tuesday that CCA's offer assuaged their fears.

The contract will now expire at its original date, Jan. 31, 2009. Commissioners said they'll discuss the possibility of extending the contract closer to its expiration date.

We'll have more on the Hutto issue as it develops.

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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.

The Independent Ombudsman office was created as a part of the omnibus reform package passed during the 80th Legislature -- SB 103. The Ombudsman reports to the Conservator. The office is staffed by Will Harrell, the former Executive Director of the ACLU of Texas. At a recent hearing, Harrell stated that the lines of authority for his office were not clear, but that when he completes investigations of youth lockups he sends the reports to the Governor's office and the Conservator. However, it is clear that how the Ombudsman works with TYC officials to improve conditions issues must still be worked out. According to Jim Hurley, TYC Spokesperson:

Hurley applauded his [Harrell] report's content, he was concerned that he did not receive a copy until after his office's own investigation was complete. "If I'm the ombudsman, and I'm out there, I'm not going to go away, write a report, and then not send it to the one person who can actually make changes."

At a recent TYC oversight hearing convened by the House Corrections Committee, Harrell stated he would start sending reports to TYC's Acting Executive Director - Dimitria Pope.

Another layer of oversight includes TYC's own Quality Assurance Monitors who are supposed to insure compliance with private contractors. Yet, it was these monitors -- four hired to oversee Coke County -- who were found to have serious conflict of interests that covered up the squalid conditions at the facility.

According to Hurley, the most worrying fact is that the on-site quality-assurance monitors had given the facility a clean bill of health. In his report, Harrell singled them out for criticism, writing, "With so many Q/A's assigned to this single facility, more than my staff for the entire state, why do these problems persist?"

Pope has promised at recent legislative hearings, that a review of the agency's contract monitoring system is underway. As this new information surfaces we will keep you informed.

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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:

The attention extends beyond U.S. borders. Florentín Meléndez, president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, said he received U.S. approval this month to visit immigration prisons, including the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility near Austin, starting in December.

"It's really worrisome to see all these reports," Meléndez said by phone from El Salvador. "We're interested in making sure people are being treated well — they're human beings before they're illegals."

Hopefully, ICE won't turn away this international inspector as it did last spring with U.N. Rapporteur Jorge Bustamante last spring.

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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.

Needless to say, a sexual relationship between a staff member and a detainee is always cause for concern, but is certainly even more so when the detention center is holding children against their will. As far as the news media has been able to tell, no charges have been pressed against anyone in the case, and full details of the incident remain murky.

Nevertheless, the incident was serious enough that ICE sent this letter to Williamson County. The letter also suggests that ICE believes that Williamson County holds liability for Hutto, even if CCA's lawyers are trying to convince the county otherwise.

PDF icon ICE letter to WillCo I.pdf752.21 KB
PDF icon ICE Letter to Willco II.pdf407.88 KB
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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.

The statement also doesn't mention the numerous cases of maggots found in prisoners' food or the protests and prayers held outside the prison.

Another protest walk to the detention center is scheduled for later this week: From the Texas Civil Rights Review,

Raymondville Walk II. October 26-27. Friday and Saturday. From the Harlingen Travel Center to Raymondville, the seat of the corruption ridden Willacy County Commissioners Court.

The MTC statement also says the company is planning to profit off of the expansion of the company's East Texas Intermediate Sanction Facility, which currently holds 300 parole offenders. According to the company,

Also in May, MTC completed construction of the 1160 bed East Texas ISF facility. The new construction added 860 beds. MTC is negotiating to fill up these additional beds with more ISF inmates or parolees.

We'll keep you updated on whether recent hearings on private prison operations and oversight will affect whether this MTC prison will be filled in the near future.

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.

The scandal became an issue for LeBlanc in the race for state house. According to The Advocate, his opponents used the issue in political advertisements:

LeBlanc, an architect who is in the private prison business, is running for the District 43 seat against Page Cortez, who co-owns a furniture store. Both men are Republicans.

Cortez is supported by state Sen. Mike Michot, R-Lafayette and state Rep. Joel Robideaux, I-Lafayette, who have formed a political action committee called Leadership for Louisiana. LeBlanc’s company, Premier Management Enterprise, gave money to a phony charity run by the sheriff’s associate, who made sure Premier was awarded a commissary contract.

The sheriff eventually pleaded guilty to not reporting a fishing and golf trip in Costa Rica that LeBlanc’s company paid for. While the San Antonio District Attorney’s Office has announced its work is finished, federal authorities have said they are continuing to investigate the matter — though they have not named any targets of the investigation, including LeBlanc or his company.

One of Leadership for Louisiana’s ads says that voting for LeBlanc is a “risk,” with the investigation still ongoing.

Local journalists also asked tough questions. Lafayette’s The Independent ran a front-page story on Mr. LeBlanc’s candidacy and private prison and commissary connections. The story, by reporter Scott Jordan, started out by noting that the run may have been LeBlanc’s first foray running for office, but he’s far from a stranger to politics:

It’s LeBlanc’s first run for elected office, but the 53-year-old architect and co-owner of private prison firm LCS Corrections (whose predecessor is Gulf Coast Corrections, Inc.) is no stranger to politics. LeBlanc’s enterprises — LCS and Premier Management — have secured contracts with government agencies for at least 10 years.

The firm has been awarded contracts in states including Louisiana and Texas. In addition to the prison system contracts, LeBlanc is a longtime behind-the-scenes force on the local political scene. He’s contributed funds to multiple candidates over the years, most recently hosting a 2005 fund-raiser for U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany attended by Vice President Dick Cheney, and he recently contributed $4,600 to Republican presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani.

In December 2006, LeBlanc mailed out an eight-page survey gauging local residents’ opinions on local, state and national candidates, fueling speculation that he was gearing up for a bid for office.

The paper then dove into LeBlanc’s rocky relationship with the media:

Public enemy No. 1 for Patrick LeBlanc is the San Antonio Express-News, which first reported on the Bexar County investigation in December 2005. LeBlanc filed a lawsuit against the San Antonio newspaper in 2006 alleging that it libeled him, and the suit is still pending. (A clerk at the San Antonio courthouse said last week that there has been no activity regarding the lawsuit for a year.)

The Express-News has continued its coverage of the Premier Management/Bexar County ties, and in mid-September 2007 also reported that a sheriff in Kleberg County gave Premier a contract to run its jail commissary and received consulting fees from Premier Management.

The most recent Express-News reports were picked up and commented on by the San Antonio Lightning online newspaper, which Lightning Publisher/Editor RG Griffing describes as “conservative, but we’re also muckrakers. We think that’s a lofty thing to be.”

Last month, Griffing called LeBlanc’s Lafayette campaign headquarters to speak with him. LeBlanc, through campaign worker Judy Keller, refused to comment. During the telephone call, Griffing asks Keller if LeBlanc plans to sue him, too. Griffing then later posted a recording of the phone call on the Lightning’s Web site.

LeBlanc was weary to engage The Independent, what with its critical reporting of his connection to the Bexar County/Premier scandal. If it could land an interview with Patrick LeBlanc, what would it ask?

  1. What’s your primary motivation for running for District 43 state rep?
  2. What are the primary differences between yourself and Page Cortez?
  3. You say you’re pro-life, but you’ve been one of the biggest local supporters of the Rudy Giuliani campaign, and Giuliani has a long record of being pro-choice. How do you reconcile that dichotomy?
  4. What specifically did the San Antonio Express-News write that caused you to sue the newspaper for libel?
  5. You’ve been in the private prison business for more than 20 years. Why did Premier pay consulting fees to the Kleberg County sheriff and Bexar County Sheriff Ralph Lopez’s campaign manager?
  6. Former Premier employee Ian Williamson left the company in late 2006. Why did he leave, and why did he call Bexar County’s Reynolds in spring 2007 after he left Premier, asking for receipts for donations Premier made to his charities?
  7. How can you assure District 43 voters that the ongoing investigation in Bexar County would not distract from your legislative duties if you are elected?

We’ll keep following this story.

Our previous of LCS, Premier Management, and the Bexar County scandal:

  1. Sheriff’s Confidant Pleads Guilty in Bexar County Premier Management Scandal
  2. A Closer Look at LCS Corrections
  3. Premier Private Commissary Scandal Keeps Growing
  4. Bexar County Sheriff Indicted
  5. Private Commissary Contracts Lead to Corruption in Bexar County
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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."

The later exchange between Harrell and Representative Darby (whose district includes GEO Group's infamous lockup) was captured here in a story from the San Angleo Standard Times. The whole hearing is over 6 hours, so a whole evening's worth of fascination if you're up for it. You'll need Real Player to watch it.

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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:

No one at Hutto has been charged with any crime. It is a misdemeanor to enter the US illegally but ICE does not routinely lodge these charges. The statute is 8 USC 1325. Everyone at Hutto is charged with a civil violation of the immigration law. The law provides that those who fear persecution as many do have the right to make that claim in the context of their deportation case. In addition not everyone at Hutto has entered illegally. The Iraqi Christians detained at Hutto come to the border and ask for asylum at the bridge. They don’t enter illegally and are still detained at Hutto. Other detainees come to the airport with valid visas but seek asylum, they end up at Hutto. I strongly disagree with her statement that people are better off at Hutto than where they came from. How many detainees has she talked to?

Check back here and at EOW for more news on the T. Don Hutto detention center developments.

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