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.

2) Senator Chuy Hinojosa was asking all the right questions. Hinojosa consistently questioned why the sate would continue to contract with companies (ahem, GEO) who have a terrible track record that could easily be found with a simple search of the internet (or, Senator, may we recommend signing up for email alerts from TexasPrisonBidness.org?).

Hinojosa has promised further interim hearings on private prison contractors, a notion that Senator Whitmire seemed to validate in several comments throughout the day.

3) The public testimony was thorough and thoroughly one-sided. Speaking for more oversight were our own Nicole Porter, Nick Hudson, Grits for Breakfast blogger Scott Henson, Shirley Noble and Ron Rodriguez, Texas Jail Project’s Diana Claitor, and myself. In addition, written testimony was provided from our own Judy Greene, LBJ Professor Michele Deitch (testimony posted by Grits here), Private Corrections Institute’s Frank Smith and Ken Kopczynski, and Taylor activist Sherry Dana, amongst others.

The lone voice generally supporting privatization was Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Marc Levin, who called on legislators to loosen regulations on private prison corporations so they can become more “innovative” and produce a better product. I was expecting the private prison corporations, what with their lobbyists apparently already around the capitol, to present some testimony, but alas, they were not to be heard from.

4) Oversight needs to be better funded and independent. Private prisons (and public prisons and jails, for that matter) need to be monitored by an independent agency without institutional ties to the prisons they are monitoring. The Texas Committee on Jail Standards is a start towards this oversight, but is so dramatically underfunded, understaffed, and under-powered that it’s fighting a ridiculously uphill battle. Scott Henson from Grits for Breakfast, who provided very solid (and well-dressed) testimony on this, has a great post on the hearings as a whole here.

The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition has provided a useful overview of the hearings and speakers here. We’ll have more news from the hearings as it develops.

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.

The committee also heard public testimony (2:23) opening with our own Bob Libal, followed by Nicole "Give'em Hell" Porter (2:30), and others, including fellow blogger Scott Henson of Grits for Breakfast (2:41), who was indeed in his go-to-meeting clothes as he reported in his account of the hearing. Shirley Noble's attorney offered perspective on several horrible cases of mistreatment in private lockups (2:59), and then Shirley Noble offered heartbreaking testimony about the death of her son Scot Noble Payne (3:15) in GEO Group's custody earlier this year. The attorney of the family of Gregorio De La Rosa read a statement from his older sister (3:25). De La Rosa was murdered by two prisoners in a GEO Group prison in 2001. Then, with a little back and forth, the hearing closed.

Stay tuned for more in-depth analysis of the hearing from Bob...

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:

  1. Senators seek answers in wake of TYC's Coke County prison closure
  2. Law makers pose questions about private prison oversight
  3. Senators say private prison lockups need closer monitoring
  4. Fired TYC monitors had worked for facility's operator
  5. TYC Closes GEO's Coke County Facility
  6. TYC to move inmates out of troubled prison

We'll have updates on last Friday's private prison oversight hearings soon. Until then, followers of TYC news will want to check out House Corrections Committee hearings next week on the implementation of SB 103. Details are here:

COMMITTEE: Corrections
TIME & DATE: 10:00 AM, Wednesday, October 17, 2007
PLACE: E2.016
CHAIR: Rep. Jerry Madden

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.

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
Facility.

17. Discuss authorizing the issuance of a letter which would give ICE the authority to directly communicate with Corrections Corporation of America relating to specific matters pertaining to the services provided at the T. Don Hutto Residential Facility.

Public comments are only allowed at the beginning of the meeting, then these items are later on. We may not have news for you till late morning/early afternoon, but Bob will be at the hearing and we'll get news posted as soon as we can.

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.

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.

Cornell "stock rose $1.13, or 4.5 percent, to $26.19, and reached an annual high of $26.21."

You can always see the latest financial info for GEO group at: http://finance.google.com/finance?q=geo+group&hl=en&aq=t 

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.

"Certainly that's an option if this goes any further," said Mr. Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. "If GEO thinks they've been treated unfairly, let's have a public hearing and look at all the photographs and videos [of the Coke County prison] and let the public decide."

Mr. Whitmire said he was upset at efforts this week by GEO lobbyists to convince legislators that TYC had treated the company too harshly.

"Now enters GEO with their paid lobbyists attempting to put a good face on this," Mr. Whitmire said.

"I'm saying the corporation should back off. They've run a very poor facility that probably violates the youths' civil rights. ... Kids were stepping in their own feces. The sheets were such that a cat or dog wouldn't sleep on them."

GEO spokesman Pablo Paez said he would not comment on any attempts by the company's lobbyists to sway legislators.

The problems have been piling on in recent days for GEO and the TYC. Yesterday the Dallas Morning News reported that TYC had fired 7 employees in the fallout of the Coke County scandal and was launching a criminal investigation into the Coke County facility, including GEO employees there.

TYC Inspector General Bruce Toney said Wednesday he has begun a criminal investigation of operations at the Coke County Juvenile Justice Center near Bronte.

Mr. Toney said his inquiry could focus on TYC employees and those of GEO Group Inc., which operates the prison. "We are going to follow all leads wherever they take us and as high as they may go both in TYC and the operation of that facility," Mr. Toney said.

Citing "deplorable conditions," TYC this week canceled its contract with GEO to operate the state's largest private juvenile prison. All 197 male inmates were removed on Tuesday.

Mr. Toney said he has requested assistance from the state auditor's office and met with the head of the Travis County district attorney's public integrity unit on Wednesday.

He said he also advised the Texas Rangers and Texas attorney general's office of his investigation.

The withdrawl of the juvenile inmates was instigated by a damning report filed by new TYC Ombudsman Will Harrell. Again from the excellent reporting of the Dallas Morning News (and via Grits for Breakfast - by far the best place on the web for continuous coverage on the TYC):

The problems found at the prison in Bronte, operated by the GEO Group Inc. of Florida, were described in a report by TYC Ombudsman Will Harrell.

"There is a greater sense of fear and intimidation in this facility than perhaps any other I have been to," Mr. Harrell wrote. He also noted that:

  • Some young inmates were kept in "malodorous and dark" security cells for five weeks. They were allowed to leave, in shackles, only once a day for a shower.
  • There was an "over-reliance" on the use of pepper spray.
  • Inmates "complain regularly of discovering insects in their food."

Here at Texas Prison Bid’ness, we certainly hope that the light continues to shine on the GEO Group’s prisons.

I’ll be attending a protest, press conference, and tour of GEO’s notorious Val Verde prison in Del Rio this Saturday. More information is here. We’ll have a report on Sunday.

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.

Several sources have indicated that the city of Taylor may attempt to act as the "go-between" and the contract. From KLBJ News:

County Judge Dan Gattis, Sr. says the county’s decision to remove itself as the administrator or “go between” for the facility does not mean T Don Hutto will stop operating a year from today. ICE can continue running the facility either with just a private jail firm, such as CCA. The judge says if the federal agency wants to continue having a local governmental agency involved, the city of Taylor is eligible to fill that role.

Still, this is undeniably a great step in the struggle to close Hutto. We should be proud of what we’ve accomplished as a movement, and now work even harder to get this prison, a true moral failure, closed once and for all.