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November 2007

Interim Charges Focus on Corrections Funding

This week, Speaker of the House Tom Craddick (R-Midland) released the interim charges for several House Committees including Appropriations and Corrections. These charges have implications for public and private capacity in the state's prison system.

During the 80th Legislative Session a significant amount of funding was appropriated to corrections that not only included building 3 new prisons but also monies for substance abuse treatment and community alternative programs. At this time the interim charges that have been released include:

  1. Monitor and examine the implementation of funding appropriated during the 80th Legislature to the Texas Youth Commission, Juvenile Probation Commission, Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), and Correctional Managed Health are Committee.
  2. Assess the relationship between mental illness and criminal behavior and offer reforms needed to address the proliferation of mental illness in the adult and juvenile criminal justice systems. This review should include an examination of data sharing between criminal justice and health and human services agencies, proper screening, assessments, treatment, discharge planning, post-release supervision, and community services.
  3. Review and research the availability, coordination, efficiency, and allocation of substance abuse treatment resources for probationers, pretrial defendants, people in the custody of the TDCJ, and parolees. This review should include methods to reduce and improve current assessments, training, and referring protocols and the identification of any barriers that may be impeding all of the above.
  4. Consider new strategies for meeting prisoner reentry challenges in Texas, including the evaluation of programs with documented success. This review should include the availability of housing and occupational barriers.
  5. Provide a comprehensive analysis and study of the Texas state jail system, including original intent for use, sentencing guidelines, and effectiveness. Develop suggestions for changes and improvements in the state jail system.
  6. Study policies and procedures related to illegal immigration and border security of the TDCJ, county probation departments, and local and county jail facilities, and make recommendations to improve coordination with international, federal, state, and local authorities.

We anxiously await to hear what other committees will be asked to review over the Interim in the House and the Senate. At a recent Senate Criminal Justice Committee hearing, Senator Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa asked for the committee's interim charges to address private prisons.

We will continue to monitor these developments and post information about Legislative committees that consider these issues.

Previous coverage of the 80th Legislature:

  1. TX Voters Approve Prison Expansion
  2. More Prison Beds on the Way
  3. Legislative Update
  4. 80th Legislative Session: Mixed Results on Private Prisons



Prison Profiteers: New Book by Prison Legal News

Our friends at Prison Legal News have released the third in their series of anthologies on mass incarceration in the U.S., Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Incarceration? This time the focus is on who benefits from mass incarceration, including a look at the private prison industry. From the publisher:

Prison Profiteers is unique from other books on the market because it exposes and discusses who profits and benefits from mass imprisonment, rather than who is harmed by it and how.

Why is sentencing reform dead on arrival in every state legislature and congress? What is the biggest transfer of public wealth into private hands in recent history? Read Prison Profiteers and you will know! Hint: It has to do with prisons.

Locking up 2.3 million people isn’t cheap. Each year federal, state, and local governments spend over $185 billion annually in tax dollars to ensure that one out of every 137 Americans is imprisoned. Prison Profiteers looks at the private prison companies, investment banks, churches, guard unions, medical corporations, and other industries and individuals that benefit from this country’s experiment with mass imprisonment. It lets us follow the money from public to private hands and exposes how monies formerly designated for the public good are diverted to prisons and their maintenance. Find out where your tax dollars are going as you help to bankroll the biggest prison machine the world has ever seen.

The book features contributions from our TPB's own Judy Greene on private prison giants CCA and the GEO Group, as well as pieces on privatized prison health care, prisoner transportation, and pieces on how mass incarceration affects urban neighborhoods and rural economies. I'll be ordering my copy from Prison Legal News' bookstore.

Burnet County Private Jail Fight

Last Monday, I drove out to Burnet, about an hour outside of Austin in the Texas hill country, to witness a community forum on a proposed 587-bed private jail and detention center. The meeting was called by Burnet County Commissioners and the recently-created Public Facilities Corporation - a quasi-governmental agency which has the ability to float revenue bonds to pay for prison construction - after an apparent groundswell of local opposition to a private jail initiative.

Private jail opposition huge!

After fighting Austin traffic and paying for a toll road, I arrived for the 7:00 p.m. meeting around 6:30 to find the old courthouse nearly full. Opponents of the jail, who seem to be very well-organized, told me they'd mailed out 7,000 fliers and placed by an ad on the local radio station announcing the meeting. I was pleased to see that audience members were being handed Considering a Private Jail, Prison or Detention Center, a pamphlet developed by Grassroots Leadership and South Texans Opposing Private Prisons, as well as a chart explaining the jail's proposed financing.

By 7:00, the courtroom was spilling well into the halls with at least 500 people, nearly all seemingly opposed to the private jail scheme. The plan, similar to those increasingly common in many Texas counties, is to finance the construction of a new county jail by floating revenue bonds (through the Public Facilities Corporation) and paying back the bonds by profiting from the importation of federal U.S. Marshals or Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees.

Opponents of the jail were allowed to speak first. Five Burnet citizens laid out the case against the jail, including the pitfalls of private jail companies, potential dangers in floating debt for private jail expansion (perhaps county officials should look into Willacy County where every resident is currently a staggering $8,700 in debt due to prison expansion), and a general sense that shipping inmates into Burnet County wasn't necessary or good for the county.

Who stands to benefit?

Moderating the meeting were Russell Rau and Ira Cotler, representatives from C3 Corrections, a private jail financing and developing company who has apparently been hired by the county to put the financing deal together. Private prison watchers will recognize Cotler's name as the former CFO and Executive Vice President of Correctional Services Corporation, a company bought by the GEO Group in 2005. According to C3's website, the company:

offers its clients the most unique and innovative consulting solutions offered in the corrections field today. For the first time in the corrections industry, one organization has compiled some of the industry's leading experts to offer specialized consulting services across the full spectrum of solutions to include: Project Development, Finance, Operational Support, Accounting/Budgeting and Support Services.

Also supposedly involved in the Burnet County deal are Municipal Capital Market Groups, a bond underwriter who has underwritten many private prison bonds in Texas, and construction company Hale Mills. Hale Mills was one of three companies potentially involved in the Willacy County bribery scandal back in 2005. Three south Texas county commissioners plead guilty to receiving bribes, but no company officials were ever charged with a crime.

The prison would be operated by Southwestern Correctional, a Louisiana company represented at the meeting by Clay McConnel and associated with LaSalle Management Company. McConnel spoke at the Monday meeting and claimed that his companies operate 6 Louisiana prisons and one here in Texas. I'm still trying to track down which facilities those are.

What's next for Burnet County?

KXAN reported that the County Commission is moving ahead with plans to study the proposed jail site. Clearly, Burnet County residents have sent a message the jail plan is controversial, if not downright unpopular. Grits for Breakfast, per usual, has good advice on the topic as well:

Building a jail so much bigger than the county needs makes the county reliant on the current jail and prison boom continuing ad infinitum, or at least over the next 15-20 years while they're making bond payments. Maybe it will. So far other counties making that assumption have been lucky. But personally I don't believe the current growth in Texas' incarceration rate is sustainable, either pragmatically, socially or economically, so Burnet County: If 10 years down the line you find yourself making large debt payments on a half-empty jail, don't say nobody warned you. It's a bad idea, and not just for NIMBY reasons.

We'll keep you updated on the jail and opposition from Burnet County.

Update: I just saw reporter Catherine Hosman's story on the meeting in the Burnet Bulletin. Check it out for more details from the meeting...


Former Laredo CCA Warden Sues for Wrongful Termination

A former warden at Corrections Corporation of America's Laredo Processing Center has sued the company claiming that he was wrongfully terminated because of his race and age, according to the Laredo Morning Times. According to the article,

Jose L. Hinojosa was the warden for the Corrections Corporation of America's processing center in Laredo, a 350-bed unit on East Saunders St. that handled Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, detainees from 1987 to 2006, according to court documents.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court, alleges Hinojosa was ordered to resign as warden because he is a Mexican-American man who, at the age of 62, told superiors he intended to keep his job for 10 more years.

This was done in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the lawsuit alleges. Hinojosa is asking for more than $3 million in damages.

Two things jump out at me after reading this story. First, this is the same facility where Tomas Contreras, the 40 year U.S. resident who was detained coming back from visiting family in Mexico, was allegedly beaten after raising concerns about conditions.

Second, the lawsuit is seeking $3 million in damages. A suit of that size for discrimination makes CCA's offer to provide Williamson County a $250,000 credit line to fight lawsuits at the T. Don Hutto family unit almost laughable. If a serious incident (perhaps "inappropriate sexual contact" or an 8 year-old girl being separated from her mother for 4 days) occurs at Hutto, $250,000 would be a drop in the bucket for legal fees and damages the county could incur.

JFA Report Offers Ways to Reduce the Prison Population

The JFA Institute released a new report this month entitled Unlocking America: How to Reduce America's Prison Population. The report analyzes why the prison system has grown so significantly in recent years and offers specific recommendations for how states and the federal government can reduce the number of people incarcerated. The report's recommendations include:

  1. Reducing time served in prison;
  2. Eliminate the use of prison for parole or probation technical violators;
  3. Reduce the length of parole and probation supervision periods; and
  4. Decriminalize “victimless” crimes, particularly those related to drug use and abuse.

Texas legislators and voters recently approved the construction of three new prison units to meet the need of the state's growing prison population. The report offers a good overview of how the prison population can be controlled and ultimately reduced without new expansion.

The report also cites the financial interests that undermine efforts of sentencing reform that can lead to the reduction in the prison population. In the concluding remarks, the authors state:

We also recognize that as the system of imprisonment has grown, so too has the investment and the vested interests that support its operations and growth. In order to reverse the current trends we will have to find a way to re-allocate the money, political influence, and jobs that the current system provides. This will not be easy and it will take many years to wean us off the excessive use of imprisonment.

Related posts include:

  1. TX Voters Approve Prison Expansion
  2. More Prison Beds on the Way
  3. Who's Lobbying for Texas Private Prisons?
  4. Legislative Update
  5. 80th Legislative Session: Mixed Results on Private Prisons

Laredo City Council Rejects GEO's "Donation"

We reported on Monday that the Webb County Commissioner's court had rejected a $250,000 "donation" from the GEO Group after the transaction was criticized as "dirty" by Laredoans and in the excellent monthly publication LareDOS.

Word from Laredo is that the Laredo City Council has followed suit. The Council quitely rejected a similar $250,000 donation after South Texans Opposing Private Prisons organizer Ricardo Soliz and Laredo lawyer Ron Rodriguez, who has represented several families of inmates abused in GEO prisons, spoke against the donation. According to the Laredo Morning Times:

City Council turned down the $250,000 donation from Geo after returning from executive session to discuss a separate item. City Council took the same action the Commissioners Court took regarding the $250,000 donation from Geo Group.

Several hours before council made the decision, several Laredoans strongly expressed opposition to not only the city accepting the donation but also to the city and county allowing the facility to be built in Laredo.

"This is not a donation - this is a payment," said Ronald Rodriguez, an attorney representing two families whose loved ones died in a prison run by the Geo Group.

"This transaction smells. You know what the money's for," Rodriguez added, alluding to it being a buyoff to receive the clearance to build.

Also, check out MEG's column on the subject in the new issue of LareDOS which carries the story on page 6 (careful, it's a big PDF!). We'll keep you updated on further developments from Laredo.


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Another Hutto?

In spite of the growing infamy of ICE's T. Don Hutto prison operated by Corrections Corporation of America, there is yet another proposal that includes a new prison for the whole family. The SAVE act (H.R. 4088 submitted Nov 06, 2007) would authorize another prison that could hold immigrant parents and children. From the bill (with emphasis added):


(a) In General- The Secretary of Homeland Security shall make arrangements for the availability of 8,000 additional beds for detaining aliens taken into custody by immigration officials.
(b) Implementation- Efforts shall be made to--
(1) contract private facilities whenever possible to promote efficient use and to limit the Federal Government's maintenance of and liability for additional infrastructure;
(2) utilize State and local facilities for the provision of additional beds; and
(3) utilize BRAC facilities or active duty facilities.
(c) Construction- The Department of Homeland Security shall construct facilities as necessary to meet the remainder of the 8,000 new beds to be provided. (d) Family Detention Facility- To further meet the special needs of detained families, the Department of Homeland Security shall retain or construct a family detention facility, similar to the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility, offering no less than 500 beds.
(e) Responsibilities- The Secretary of Homeland Security shall be responsible for providing humane conditions, health care and nutrition, psychological services, and education for minors.
(f) Authorization- All funds necessary to accomplish the directives within this section are authorized to be appropriated.

That's right, the plan is to make another Hutto prison... only bigger.

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Problems Haunt GEO's Val Verde Correctional Center

Karen Gleason from the Del Rio News Herald reported Saturday that a former GEO Group guard has been indicted on federal civil rights charges for twice striking a federal detainee while employed at the Val Verde Correctional Center in October of 2006.

According to the article, 20 year-old Emmanuel Cassio (meaning Cassio was a 19 year-old correctional officer at the time of the alleged assault) was indicted by a federal grand jury on one felony count of deprivation of rights under the color of law, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Of course, this isn't the first incident at the Val Verde Correctional Center. As we've reported, the Val Verde Detention Center has been subjected to two well-publicized lawsuits. In a 2005 suit, an employee reported that his superior displayed a hangman’s noose in his office and took pictures in his prison uniform donning KKK garb. The second lawsuit was brought by a civil rights organization on behalf of the family of LeTisha Tapia, a detainee who committed suicide after reporting that she had been sexually assaulted and denied medical care. GEO settled both suits. The settlement from the Tapia suit included a full-time county monitor to the prison.

This summer, the facility was again rocked after four inmates came down with a mysterious illness. Three of the inmates later died, but a state investigation could find nothing at the prison linking the prison to the illnesses.

I attended a protest in October at the prison after the Texas Jail Project named the facility the "worst Texas jail" for the fall of 2007. The protest, sponsored by Texas Jail Project, Grassroots Leadership, and the Border Ambassadors was lively, and drew many family members and formerly incarcerated people at the facility who complained the that food was inadequate, and that drugs were readily available in the facility.

The protest was followed by a brief tour of the facility led by GEO's warden, John Campbell, and accompanied by the county monitor, Cody Wheeler. The tour was mostly uneventful, as one might expect with a planned prison tour given to jail advocates. Warden Campbell insisted that not much had changed in the facility over the past several years, because nothing had really been wrong in the prison to start with.

We'll keep you posted on news about Val Verde and other GEO Group prisons in Texas.


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Guards at MTC's "Tent City" Accused of Immigrant Smuggling

We'll add this one to the "ain't that ironic" category. Four MTC "Tent City" detention center employees have been accused of smuggling undocumented workers using an MTC van. According to the story in the Valley Morning News:

The four, all employees of Utah-based Management Training Corp., are accused of involvement in transporting 28 illegal immigrants from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, federal officials said.

Garcia and Sanchez attempted to smuggle the 28 in a MTC company van and told authorities that they were prisoners from the detention center en route to San Antonio, federal officials said. Officials said the 28 were picked up at locations around Harlingen.

The four are accused of harboring and smuggling illegal immigrants in criminal information documents, but have not been indicted because their cases have not yet been presented to a grand jury, Herrera said.

As we're reported, the MTC prison known as "Tent City" is a series of windowless Kevlar pods holding two thousand immigrant detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The facility has been home to plenty of controversy since its opening, with prayer vigils and protests held outside and maggots found in the food inside.

Despite the problems, the prison is set to expand by another 1,000 beds, at a cost of $50.1 million in revenue bonds floated by Willacy County, which is home to both the "Tent City" detention center and two other privatized correctional centers. The County is reportedly a staggering $8,700 in debt for every county resident due to prison expansion projects.

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GEO Group Continues to Draw Fire Over Laredo "Superjail"

GEO Group's Laredo "Superjail" continues to draw fire from local opponents and the South Texas press, and it looks like Laredo decision-makers may finally be starting to take notice. As Kathleen reported back in May, GEO Group CEO George Zoley visited Laredo and distributed $250,000 checks to the city and county governments, a visit that coincided with zoning permits and utility hookup awards.

An article in last Wednesday's Laredo Morning Times outlines how Webb County Commissioners rejected the $250,000 "donation" from the GEO Group after it was criticized by local attorney Ron Rodriguez, who has represented several victims of abuse in GEO prisons, amongst others. From the article:

"Commissioners, this is not a donation, this is a payment," said Ron Rodriguez, who represents the families of Guillermo De La Rosa, an inmate who died while serving time in a Geo Group facility in Willacy County.

"This transaction is dirty, the money is dirty and everybody that touches it will have dirty hands," Rodriguez continued.

The Commissioners then voted unanimously to reject the "donation." Word from Laredo is that the Laredo City Council, who was also offered a $250,000 "donation," will likely vote tonight on a proposal to reject the money as well.

The "superjail" proposal has also been drawn continued criticism from LareDOS, the award-winning alternative monthly. The latest issue (caution - giant PDF!) features three articles about the "superjail" - including pieces about last month's Senate Committee on Criminal Justice hearings sparked by the scandal at GEO's Coke County juvenile facility, a story about about a protest at GEO's Val Verde prison, and a piece by yours truly about GEO's ongoing operational problems in Texas. We'll keep you updated on the status of the Laredo "superjail" and its opposition.

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