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October 2007

Highlights of Last Friday’s Private Prison Oversight Hearings

Last Friday’s Senate Criminal Justice Committee hearings on private prison oversight brought up so many blog-able moments that I’ve been having trouble narrowing my thoughts down to actually get them on the blog.

Kathleen has already posted a good play-by-play of the hearings, including a link to the video with time-posts to help you navigate the speaker list, and Nicole has a good wrap-up of the latest on TYC’s problems, which spurred Senator Whitmire to hold these hearings.

Here are some of the highlights of the hearings as I saw them:

1) Obviously, the heart-wrenching testimony of Shirley Noble, mother of Idaho inmate Scot Noble Payne who committed suicide in GEO’s squalid Dickens County prison, was the highlight of the hearing. Her testimony brought an absolute silence to what had been a bustling room. She powerfully made the case against further state contracts with The GEO Group and the importation of out-of-state prisoners thousands of miles from their family members.

Attorney Ron Rodriguez also read a powerful statement from the family of Gregorio De La Rosa, an inmate who was beaten to death in Wackenhut’s old Willacy County Jail four days before he was supposed to go home, who eventually won a $47.5 million settlement from the company.

Watch the State Senate Ask Hard Questions About Texas Private Prisons

You can watch the video of Friday's Senate Committee on Criminal Justice as they talked about monitoring (and the lack of monitoring) of Texas' private prisons and jails. (The link requires Real Player to work.) I decided to offer some signposts for those of you who may want to watch just a particular part of it instead of the entire three-and-a-half hour hearing.

The committee opens with Ms. Dimitra Pope, the acting head of the Texas Youth Commission, and includes an extensive back and forth with her and committee members about monitoring of private prisons for youth (and public ones as well). Here's where it becomes obvious where some of the senators stand.

Then, onto Brad Livingston of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) about overall monitoring issues of the wide range of private lockups (1:18 mark in the hearing). Mr. Livingston indicated that TDCJ has just over 17,400 "contract beds" in secure settings (translation: beds that are operated by private companies, some for-profit, some non-profit) and 1,600 private beds that are in halfway houses and treatment facilities.

He's followed by Bonita White of TDCJ (1:58) to talk about the use of private beds in her system of community corrections (adult probationers).

Then came the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (at 2:03) who explained the monitoring system of Texas county jails, in which four inspectors are responsible for annual inspections of over 267 county jails (private and county-operated lockups). They explained, among other things, that they have no authority to monitor the Texas prisoners who have been exported from Harris County's jail to a private prison in Lousiana or jails in Texas holding only federal detainees.

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Private Prison Scandal Latest Development at TYC

    The latest scandals plaguing the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) uncovered in investigations by the Independent Ombudsman and the agency's facility audit report have once again surfaced the problems with private facilities in Texas.

    The TYC audit report emphasizes that there were systemic problems in GEO managed facility because staff did not respect the integrity of audits and believed they could obtain another contract with another agency. The audit integrity was compromised because several of the quality insurance monitors employed by TYC previously worked for GEO.

    These scandals emphasize the systemic problems that result in contracting out corrections.

    Recent coverage of the TYC Coke County Scandal can be found below:

    Breaking News: Williamson County Tables Hutto Contract Termination

    I just returned from the hearings of the Williamson County Commissioners Court hearings on the T. Don Hutto prison, and wanted to post a quick update.

    The meeting started with public testimony from several CCA employees (CCA had bussed in dozens of employees from the prison) and executives, as well as local and statewide activists opposed to detention of children and their families (including myself).

    The County Attorney then spoke briefly outlining that the county had received a letter from ICE which brought about the termination letter from last week. (I'm working on obtaining the letter from ICE.)

    CCA's attorney then attempted to persuade the county that it would not be held liable in case of a lawsuit due to nuances in Texas case law, and CCA offered a $250,000 fund to defend the facility against lawsuits.

    The County then moved to table all the points on the agenda dealing with T. Don Hutto, saying that it would revisit the subject in a few weeks. They are sending the issue back to the County Attorney, in an apparent attempt to reach a deal with CCA regarding liability which would keep the prison open.

    We'll have more on this story as it develops.

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    So Many Hearings, So Little Time

    In the flurry of news about GEO Group's latest crisis, let's not forget that we're also making progress on the closure of Hutto.

    Texas' prison for the whole family is facing trouble with the awakening of the Williamson County commisioners to the morass that the T. Don Hutto prison could lead them into. So far, they've drafted a letter terminating the contract. Next step: actually terminating the contract.

    The decision about whether or not to end the contract is supposed to be made at the Williamson County Commissioners meeting tomorrow (Tuesday, October 9) at 9:30 AM at the Justice of the Peace, Pct. #3 Courtroom, 301 S.E. Inner Loop, in Georgetown, Texas.

    From the October 9 online agenda:

    14. Discuss and Authorize the issuance of a notice of termination to the U.S. Immigration and Customs
    Enforcement (ICE) relating to the termination of the Intergovernmental Services Agreement effective
    December 21, 2005 and modified April 18, 2006 between Williamson County and ICE.

    15. Discuss and Authorize the issuance of a notice of termination to the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) relating to the termination of the Agreement effective February 1, 2007 between Williamson County and CCA relating to detention services at the T. Don Hutto Residential Facility.

    16. Discuss and authorize amendments to that certain agreement by and between Williamson County and CCA effective as of February 1, 2007 relating to detention services at the T. Don Hutto Residential

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    Update: Private Prison Hearings Moved to Friday at 9am

    It appears that the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice's hearings on private prisons have been moved to Friday. Here's the latest information:

    COMMITTEE: Criminal Justice
    TIME & DATE: 9:00 AM, Friday, October 12, 2007
    PLACE: E1.016 (Hearing Room)
    CHAIR: Senator John Whitmire

    The Senate Criminal Justice Committee will meet to discuss the oversight of private correctional facilities in the State of Texas. The committee will hear invited and public testimony.

    We'll keep you posted on developments.

    Thursday: State Senate Committee to Hold Hearings on Private Prisons

    Via Grits, The Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee will be holding hearings into the oversight of private prisons this coming Thursday. The information is here:

    COMMITTEE: Criminal Justice

    TIME & DATE: 1:30 PM, Thursday, October 11, 2007 see updated info here

    PLACE: E1.016 (Hearing Room)

    CHAIR: Senator John Whitmire

    This of course all comes in the fall-out of the scandal and ultimate closure of GEO's Coke County Juvenile Justice Center, where youth were found living in filth, and a string of ongoing problems at private prisons in Texas.

    Texas Prison Bid'ness will be there covering the story (and possibly testifying). Expect to see private prison lobbyists in full force as well, as GEO has already dispatched them to the capitol to spin Coke County as an injustice against the company. We hope to see some of y'all there as well.

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    GEO Group Stock Slides on Texas Inquiries; CCA and Cornell Continue to Grow

    The GEO Group's stock continued to slide on Friday on concerns that the scandal and ultimate withdrawal of juvenile detainees from the company's Coke County detention center in Bronte, Texas might endanger to other contracts the company has in Texas. According to the Associated Press:

    Shares of Geo Group Inc. dropped Friday on concerns that it may lose more contracts in Texas, while shares of other private prison operators rose.

    The Texas Youth Commission canceled a contract with Geo Group Tuesday, following an audit that said conditions at the Coke County Juvenile Justice Center were unsafe and unsanitary. The center was the largest private juvenile prison in Texas, and brought Geo Group about $2 million in revenue per quarter.

    On Friday, AvondalePartners analyst Kevin Campbell said Texas state legislators are considering a review of Geo's other contracts in the state.

    The stock dropped $2.08, or 7 percent, to $27.76.

    It's better news for CCA which has seen their stock prices grow in recent days, despite Williamson County possibly terminating the contract to operate the notorious T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor this coming week. Again from the AP:

    Corrections Corp. of America said it increased a contract with the state of California, and will provide housing for up to 7,772 inmates. It previously agreed to house 5,670 inmates. Shares rose $1.54, or 6.1 percent, to $26.85.

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    Whitmire Orders Investigation of GEO lock-ups; GEO Sends in Lobbyists

    We’ve been posting about GEO’s ongoing Texas troubles for months, and those troubles finally seem to have caught up with the company in the wake of the removal of juveniles detained at Coke County Juvenile Justice Center, a facility contracted by the Texas Youth Commission.

    State Senator John Whitmire, the powerful chair of the Texas Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, has launched a probe into the company’s contracts with the state. According to the story this morning Houston Chronicle:

    Democratic Sen. John Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, cited the "terrible job" Geo Group Inc. did running the West Texas youth lockup and said Thursday he plans to review adult corrections contracts the state has with the company.

    Whitmire is clearly upset about the abuse and “filthy conditions” reported at Coke County. He is also rightfully peeved that GEO Group is sending lobbyists to convince legislators that they were acting too swiftly in pulling the youth from the prison. According to the Dallas Morning News:

    State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, threatened to hold a public hearing on GEO's operation of the TYC prison.

    Hutto Contract Update

    Following the lead of the Statesman and other news outlets yesterday, we reported that the Williamson County Commissioners Court had voted to terminate its contract for the T. Don Hutto immigration prison within a year.

    Turns out we may all have been a little ahead of ourselves.

    After speaking with someone in the county judge's office and a few reporters, we've figured out that yesterday the county actually directed the County Attorney to draft a letter to the government indicating termination of contract.

    The County Commission will vote on the termination letter next Tuesday, October 9, at their 9:30am meeting. Local activists are encouraging all concerned residents to attend.

    According to the San Antonio Express-News:

    County commissioners will make the departure official when they vote to approve the contract-termination letter next week.

    There's also the question of whether the prison will actually close if the county votes to terminate the contract next week. Again from the Express-News:

    Even with the county out of the picture, the lockup is not necessarily going to be shuttered. The government would have to scramble to keep CCA in its current role or put bids out for other companies, as well as look for another administrator.

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