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December 2007

2007 Texas Prison Bid'ness Year in Review

As 2007 comes to an end, we thought we'd look back at our first year at Texas Prison Bid'ness and compile some the most important stories we covered this year. Below is list of the top 5 private prison stories in Texas as we saw them, in no particular order.

Many thanks to our readers and other bloggers who have been supportive of our first year. We also would like to thank Kathleen Pequeño, a founding blogger at Texas Prison Bid'ness who departed in November. Her excellent work and writing was key in developing the Texas Prison Bid'ness site and blog. Happy New Year!

- Nicole, Bob, and Judy at Texas Prison Bid'ness

#5 - 80th Legislature: Lawmakers introduced several measures during the legislative session that impact private prisons. Amongst the highlights:

  1. The 80th Legislative Session concluded in May and lawmakers authorized more than 8,500 new prison beds. Voters approved that authorization during the November election. It is unclear how many of the beds will be private, but specific legislation that passed authorized the expansion of private prison capacity which is limited by Texas law.
  2. In addition to measures that expanded private prison capacity, several bills were introduced that should put advocates on notice.
  • First, was HB 1354 which would have changed the square footage requirement for privately contracted facilities to pre-1987 standards. This may be the first sign that private prison lobbyists and corrections officials are trying to minimize the standards achieved under the landmark Ruiz v. Estelle lawsuit.
  • Second, was SB 185 which would authorize the state to contract with a private prison in Mexico to detain undocumented immigrants convicted of state felonies. Despite the analysis of the Senate Criminal Justice committee that it was beyond the authority of Texas to pursue such a measure, it is not dead. In deed the House Corrections Committee is charged with studying policies and procedures related to illegal immigration and border security of TDCJ, county probation departments, and local and county jail facilities.
  • Third, lawmakers failed to approve enhanced oversight of county jail facilities authorized by HB 2244 and HB 2699 . Several Texas county jails are managed by private prison companies. Despite the strong opposition mobilized by Dallas County and the Texas Conference of Urban Counties to defeat the measures, momentum can be built during the Interim. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) will be under Sunset Review during 2009. Also, recent Senate hearings indicate that several lawmakers support stronger oversight of private prisons and jails.

#4 Local Private Prison and Detention Center Opposition Grows in Texas: In addition to opposition to GEO Group's proposed Laredo superjail (see below) and CCA's T. Don Hutto family detention center (also below), several other communities in Texas took strong stands against private prison proposals. Amongst the local prison fights we covered:

  1. Burnet County residents came out in mass to oppose a proposed private jail and detention center in Burnet, Texas, just northwest of Austin. Over 500 people, the vast majority opposed to the prison, turned out for a public meeting on the proposed prison scheme, which involved public financing for the Louisiana-based prison company Southwestern Correctional.
  2. In Fannin County, Leonard residents organized opposition to a faith-based prison proposed by Correctional Concepts, Inc. Even though eight other communities have rejected CCI's proposals and constitutional issues make it questionable that the prison would gain government contracts, CCI pushed forward with its proposal with a representative of the county claiming Satan is "doing everything he can to defeat this project."
  3. In December, Emerald Corrections, another Louisiana prison company, proposed a 1,000 bed detention center in rural Caldwell County. Residents of the area have organized against the proposal; we'll have an update on this jail fight soon.
  4. Protests also occurred at existing private detention centers in Texas, including CCA's Houston Processing Center, where protesters chained themselves to the prison gates, GEO Group's Val Verde Correctional Center, named Texas' worst fall 2007 jail by the Texas Jail Project, and MTC's Raymondville "tent city" detention center where religious opponents organized prayers and protests on behalf of the immigrant detainees held there.

#3 - GEO Group Scandals: Several scandals surfaced during the last year that clarify why it is bad public policy to outsource incarceration to private prison companies. The Boca Raton-based GEO Group, in particular, had a number of scandals that caused the company to lose two contracts in Texas, and lead to a state-wide re-evaluation of prison privatization. Here is a run-down of some our previous coverage of GEO's problems in Texas:

  1. Scot Noble Payne, a Idaho Prisoner, held in GEO's Dickens County jail, committed suicide. Mr. Payne's family filed a lawsuit against GEO alleging deplorable conditions and negligence. Idaho was forced to move its prisoners from GEO’s Dickens County lock-up after Mr. Payne's suicide revealed “squalid” conditions at the jail. Idaho prisoners formerly at Dickens have also being sent to GEO’s Bill Clayton Unit, which itself has seen escapes and disturbances by out-of-state prisoners upset at conditions.
  2. The Coke County Juvenile Justice Center, a Texas Youth Commission (TYC), lockup was closed following reports of horrid conditions and sexual abuse. In fact, seven youth incarcerated at Coke County later sued the company alleging sexual abuse facilitated by a guard who was a registered sex offender.
  3. GEO Group announced that it signed a contract with the Office of the Federal Detention Trustee for the development and operation of a 1,500-bed Detention Facility to house U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) prisoners in a "Laredo superjail." To build the 1,500 bed prison in the City of Laredo and Webb County, GEO president George Zoley traveled to Texas wielding $250,000 checks for both the City of Laredo and Webb County and did not leave empty handed, coming home with building permits and water hook-ups. Later, after public outcry, the city and county rejected the "donation," but the proposed jail continues to draw considerable controversy.
  4. A GEO guard was arrested on felony charges earlier this year for for sneaking a bottle of MD 20/20 wine with two love letters taped to it under the fence of the Val Verde County Jail. Another guard was charged with federal civil rights violations for striking an inmate in the face in 2006 at the troubled facility, which was named "worst Texas jail" for the fall of 2007 by the Texas Jail Project.
  5. Staffing problems continue to plague Pearsall. Limited staff increases safety risks and exposes guards and prisoners to abuse. Former prisoner, Miroslava Rodriguez-Grava, filed suit against GEO for mistreatment. Ms. Rodriguez-Grava is a legal permanent resident of Mexican descent who was held in GEO's Pearsall lockup, the South Texas Detention Center.
  6. GEO hired former Texas Department of Criminal Justice head Gary Johnson to head its operations in Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. A Daily Texan editorial reported that Ray Allen, former House Corrections Chairman, made $395,000 to $835,000 from lobbying contracts, including one with GEO Group, Inc.

#2 - Texas Lege Holds Hearings on Private Prison Oversight

In the wake of the Coke County Juvenile Justice Center scandal and closure, in which kids in the care of the Texas Youth Commission were found in "unsafe and unsanitary" conditions at the GEO Group lock-up, the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee held hearings on private prison oversight.

The hearings brought out numerous criminal justice advocates, including testimony by Texas Prison Bid'ness bloggers Nicole Porter and Bob Libal, and Grits For Breakfast blogger Scott Henson. The highlight of the hearings was the heart-wrenching testimony from Shirley Noble, the mother of Idaho inmate Scot Noble Payne who killed himself in the "squalid" GEO Dickens County jail.

In particular, Senator Chuy Hinojosa asked tough questions about prison privatization. Here's hoping that the scrutiny that rightfully befell the private prison industry after Coke County will translate into heightened oversight in 2008.

#1 - Hutto Family Detention Center Controversy and Opposition

Correction Corporation of America's T. Don Hutto family detention center was probably the highest profile of Texas private prisons. The prison, which holds up to 500 immigrant children and their families awaiting immigration hearings, has drawn protests from local Taylor residents, Amnesty International, and advocates from across the country.

A lawsuit brought by the ACLU, UT Immigration Law Clinic, and others on behalf of families at Hutto was settled by the government in August, bringing better conditions and more education to the prison. In October, Williamson County also briefly debated canceling the contract due to liability concerns after an "inappropriate sexual relationship" was discovered between a guard and detainee, but eventually decided to continue its profitable relationship with CCA.

The year of Hutto protests culminated in a moving holiday vigil marking the first anniversary of the initial Hutto vigil. Hutto: America's Family Prison, a short film about Hutto was also released this fall, and is accompanied by a Hutto blog providing more information on the prison.

Latest Developments Among Idaho Prisoners

The Houston Chronicle recently reported that Idaho prisoners on the way to Val Verde Correctional Facility were delayed due to further review of contract obligations by local officials.

Prisoners were being moved to Val Verde after an investigation following the suicide of Scot Noble Payne at the Dickens County Correctional Center in Spur, Texas. That facility was managed by GEO Group and Mr. Payne's suicide has resulted in increased scrutiny by Idaho and Texas public officials.

Despite the reported transfer the details had not been finalized by county officials in Del Rio where the prison is located.

Because a Texas county official has yet to approve the contract to house Idaho prisoners at Val Verde, they have first been sent 100 miles away to the Bill Clayton Detention Center in Littlefield, Texas.

GEO also manages the Val Verde prison and according to reports has a strong incentive to protect the company’s relationship with the Idaho Department of Corrections.

The company hopes to win contracts with Idaho to build a large new prison here [Texas] to help accommodate the state's 7,400 inmates.

It is quite remarkable that despite the list of GEO prison scandals in Texas, states are continuing to contract with this company. Even more striking is that Idaho continues to do so.

Recently, Texas lawmakers looked into scandals at the state's private prisons. We hope that the Texas Senate under the scrutiny of Senator Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa will continue to monitor the contracts and develop policies and procedures that hold these private prison companies accountable.
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Correctional Concepts, Inc. Proposes "Faith-Based" Private Prison in Leonard, Texas

A non-profit private firm, Correctional Concepts, Inc. has proposed a "faith-based" private prison in Leonard, Texas in Fannin County. At a December 13th Leonard City Council meeting, no action was taken on the prison issue despite a large turn-out from opponents of the prison who had collected 400 signatures opposing the prison from around the town of 2,000. From the Leonard Graphic,

Leonard City Council members took no action on four agenda items concerning a faith-based prison that could be located in the community. A motion to withdraw from contract negotiations with Corrections Concepts Inc. by Steven Bolin died for lack of a second and two other items, one calling for a referendum in the May municipal election and one for calling for a public hearing died for lack of a motion

More than 70 people packed the Leonard City Council chambers Tuesday evening as the council took up discussion on the items relating to an agreement with Corrections Concepts Inc. and the construction of a faith-based prison in Leonard.

Of course, a faith-based prison raises constitutional questions that could limit the prisons ability to attract contracting clients. According to an article in The Herald News, Fannin County, along with another 8 Texas counties and communities, have already rejected CCI's offers to place a religious prison in their communities.

According to another article in the Leonard Graphic:

Dallas attorney John Sheedy, who represents the city of Leonard in the corrections concept, presented a short overview of the plan, but did not open the floor to questions from those attending the meeting.

Sheedy is clearly no neutral observer representing the county's best interest in this process, but rather a proponent of the prison project. And, frankly, his answers to questions about why other communities have been concerned about faith-based prisons are a bit loopy. From the Graphic article,

As to why Corrections Concepts Inc. has not been accepted in any other community, Sheedy said he believed in Satan. “He exists, he doesn’t (sic) this project to succeed,” he said. “He is doing everything he can to defeat this project and he is using good people with good intentions. Satan is much more powerful than anybody in this room, he will twist that person around where they think they are doing the right thing in fighting it.”

Well, if that doesn't inspire confidence in county's representation in the matter... We'll keep you updated on developments from Leonard, Texas.

Staffing Problems at GEO's Pearsall Detention Center?

Via a tip from our friend Frank Smith at the Private Corrections Institute, it appears that the GEO Group is having some pretty serious staffing problems at the South Texas Detention Center, an immigration holding center in Pearsall, Texas. According to GEO Group's website, positions are currently open as:

  • Human Resources Generalist
  • Training Administrator
  • Grievance Coordinator
  • Recreation Specialist
  • Business Manager
  • Assistant Shift Supervisor
  • Assistant Business Manager
  • Assistant Facility Administrator
  • Chief of Intake
  • Food Service Cook
  • Inmate Accounts Clerk
  • Major
  • Lieutenant
  • Detention Officers
  • Shift Supervisor Lieutenant
  • Maintenance Technician

As Scott Hensen at Grits for Breakfast has reported, staffing problems run deep in both Texas prisons and juvenile facilities. Pearsall has its own challenges when it comest to staffing the 1,900 bed detention center. The town of 7,000 is located 55 miles south of San Antonio, with no major population centers nearby. Staffing problems at prisons and detention centers can lead to less effective and more volatile prison conditions.

As we've reported, despite protests and controversy (including an upcoming OAS report and cases indicating a lack of mental health care at the Pearsall detention center), private prison corporations continue to profit from the boom in immigrant detention beds, including longer detention of asylum-seekers.

We'll keep you updated on developments from Pearsall and GEO's other Texas prisons.

Caldwell County Commissioner Pitches Emerald Detention Center Idea

Caldwell County Commissioner Joe Roland is quoted repeatedly in an article in Thursday's San Marcos Record promoting the idea of a private 1,000-bed detention center in rural Caldwell County to be operated by Emerald . According to the story, local residents don't need to be concerned about the prison because "they aren’t hard core criminals, after all. Just people who crossed a border in order to make a better life."

As we reported last week, Emerald and its supporters have said that the facility would hold Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees. However, ICE is not commenting on such speculation. ICE Spokesperson Nina Pruneda was quoted in the Austin American-Statesman as saying "no such discussions have taken place in any meaningful sense."

Of course, the larger question is why the government is spending so much money to incarcerate "people who crossed a border to make a better life." As we've reported, private prison corporations are benefiting handsomely from punitive border policies.

Luckily, public hearings are scheduled before the County moves forward in approving the detention center project. I've already heard from several people concerned about the prison, so we will probably see some lively public debate on this issue. We'll keep you informed on what's happening in Caldwell County.

Hutto Anniversary Vigil Brings Out Large Crowd; Protesters Enter Prison to Deliver Toys

I was lucky enough to be involved in this Sunday's vigil at Correction Corporation of America's T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas. Of course, Hutto has gained infamy for being one of only two immigrant detention centers in the U.S. to hold immigrant families, including children as young as toddlers.

This month's vigil brought out a crowd, up to 150 by some counts, from Taylor and other parts of Williamson County. Attendees also came from Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, Corpus Christi, and other parts of the state. The program was opened by the women of PODER, followed by speeches by numerous advocates including Taylor residents, a formerly detained asylum-grantee, LULAC national president Rosa Rosales, Jaime P. Martinez, founder of San Antonio's Cesar Chavez march who also serves as LULAC's national treasurer, Border Ambassador Jay Johnson-Castro, and Mustafaa Carroll of the Dallas Council on American Islamic Relations.

The programs was concluded with a moving candlelighting vigil lead by Rev. Jim Rigby from St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in north Austin. Then, protesters walked into the prison to deliver hundreds of toys, books, and music players to the people detained inside. Greg Moses from the Texas Civil Rights Review has a great story at Counterpunch about the moving action.

Selected Previous Texas Prison Bid'ness Hutto Coverage:

December Hutto News Round-Up
8 Year-old Separated from Mother at Hutto
Another Hutto?
Williamson County Does Not Cut Hutto Contract
Reactions to Hutto Lawsuit Settlement
Protesters Outside the Gate; Problems Inside At Hutto
ICE Won't Let UN Inspector See Children at Hutto

More at TDonHutto.blogspot.com.

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New TYC Conservator has ties to Private Prison Industry

 

Governor Perry appointed a new conservator to manage the Texas Youth Commission. The Austin American Statesman reported that Richard Nedelkoff has an extensive resume in corrections. Recently, Nedelkoff served as chief executive officer for Eckerd Youth Alternatives, a private nonprofit organization based in Clearwater, Fla.-based that manages residential programs for at-risk youth in 10 states.

 

Nedelkoff intends to stay on with Eckerd, dividing his time as necessary to do the job at the commission, he said. He succeeds Ed Owens, a conservator in semi-retirement who had been waiting for several weeks for a replacement.

Comments on Grits for Breakfast suggest that the Nedelkoff appointment will lead to an increase in contract care for TYC. Time will tell. In the wake of recent scandals such as at Coke County, the agency ended its contract with the GEO Group. TYC reports that 17 facilities are managed by private contractors.

We will continue to monitor how Nedelkoff's tenure impacts contract care capacity.

 

Harris County Sending More Prisoners to Private Facility in Louisiana

The Houston Chronicle reported that Harris County will send an additional 200 prisoners to a private facility in Louisiana. We have recently discussed why this is bad policy and it's implications for the local community.

Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to send an additional 200 county inmates, including 180 women, to a private Louisiana detention center to reduce overcrowding.

The Louisiana facility is owned by Emerald Correctional Management and tax payers will pay $9 million a year to incarcerate 600 prisoners from Harris County. The story states that the cost of incarceration in Louisiana is $37/day -- $5 less than in Harris County. However, officials do not explain whether those expenses include transportation and other costs. Given the history of private prison financing it is highly unlikely.

It is a shame that Harris County officials continue to rely on jail expansion rather than diversion as a strategy to contain capacity. Our pal at Grits for Breakfast has a written extensively on public policies that county officials can use to control for local jail populations.

We will continue to monitor the bad decision-making in Harris County that results in sending prisoners to private facilities out of state.

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GEO Group Attorney Says It's 'Reasonable to Expect' Violations

The Laredo Morning Times recently covered the Webb commissioners court's consideration of a contract with GEO Group. According to an attorney for GEO Corp.:

The violation of GEO Group policies by some of its employees, which court documents allege led to the suicides of former inmates in GEO-run prisons, should be reasonable to expect from a company that employs 10,000 people worldwide. That defense of the company was offered by GEO Group attorney Carlos Zaffirini at the Monday meeting of the Webb County Commissioners Court.

In the hearing, concerned citizens gave testimony relating to the county's "non-standard service contract" with GEO Group to provide water and sewer lines. Concerned citizens raised the issue with Pct. 4 Commissioner Sergio "Keko" Martinez following a series of scandals at GEO prisons in Texas.

Apparently, GEO officials do not believe citizens have the right to oversight of correctional facilities:

Zaffirini .. [stated] the outcries were "steeped in emotion and void of logic," and added the merits of GEO's current troubles in Texas, which include a current lawsuit alleging sexual abuse by a GEO prison guard in Coke County, should be discussed in those courts and not in Webb County.

The debate lasted for more than two hours with Commissioners deciding not to investigate the matter further. Commissioners then returned after a lunch break and decided to instruct County Attorney Homero Ramirez to study the county's obligation to provide water services to the private prison corporation.

We will continue to monitor the developments of GEO's activities in Laredo and throughout Texas.

Emerald Proposes a Private Immigrant Detention Center in Caldwell County

Yet another private immigrant detention center is being proposed in Texas, this time in the central Texas county of Caldwell County. Private prison operator Emerald Corrections, a Louisiana-based company that operates three private detention centers in Texas, is proposing the facility. According to an article in Monday's Houston Chronicle,

Emerald's proposal calls for a $30 million, 1,000-bed facility to built between Lytton Springs and Dale, about 30 miles southeast of Austin. The facility would house men and women separately for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Mike Moore, director of business development for Emerald.

Funding would come from private sources. The facility would have a $4 million to $5 million annual payroll, bring 200 to 225 jobs in Caldwell County and 200 jobs for the larger economic region, Moore said.

"I think it's a great proposal," said County Commissioner Joe Roland. "It's a lot of money in Caldwell County that we didn't have."

Caldwell County officials might want to talk to residents of LaSalle County, home to one of the Emerald's other detention centers in the small town of Encinal. The Economic Development Corporation there issued a statement opposing expansion of that prison facility siting concerns that the community would become known as a prison town.

While a piece by Austin American Statesman reporter Susannah Gonzales quotes Emerald spokesperson Mike Moore as saying that "Caldwell County is a perfect place," Immigration and Customs Enforcement, per usual, is not committing saying only that "no such discussions have taken place in any meaningful sense."

We'll keep you updated on developments from Caldwell County.

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