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January 2008

Senate Criminal Justice Committee Charged with Studying Private Prisons During Interim

Private prison effectiveness and cost-savings will be amongst the items the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice will study before the 81st Session. According to the committee charges, available in their entirety here, the committee will

Determine how private prisons are complying with state laws and how cost, safety, living conditions and rehabilitative services at private prisons compare with state-run facilities. Include an assessment of the staff turnover rates and compensation of private contractors when compared with state-operated facilities, and of the contract bidding processes used by the Texas Youth Commission and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

We'll have a more detailed post in the coming days, including a look at the Criminal Justice interim charges, and some suggestions for the commitee. I'm also sure that others in the blogosphere, including Grits for Breakfast, will weigh in the coming days.

Inmate Commits Suicide at CCA's Henderson Unit

Sad news out of CCA's Henderson Unit last week. From a story in the Longview News-Journal,

HENDERSON — An inmate at Bradshaw State Jail in Henderson was found dead in his cell this past week, a Texas Department of Corrections spokesman said.

Gregory Cole, 30, was discovered hanging by a bed sheet from the light fixture in his cell at about 11 a.m. Jan. 15, said Jason Clark. Jail personnel performed emergency care on Cole, and he was taken to a hospital. He was pronounced dead at 11:30 a.m.

In June 2006, Cole was sentenced to 10 years in state jail for possession and intent to deliver a controlled substance in McLennan County, Clark said. The spokesman did not know where Cole lived.

Of course, after any inmate's death there should be a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding the tragedy. The article sheds a very small amount of light on the process for a private or public prison in dealing with a suicide.

Clark said investigators with the inspector general's office were notified of the death. He said the inspector general's office always is notified when an inmate dies. A call to the inspector general's office was not returned Tuesday.

The Texas Department of Corrections has more than 155,000 inmates in jails across the state, Clark said. Thirty-two of the department's inmates committed suicide in 2007, and 30 inmates committed suicide in 2006, Clark said.

Clark said he did not know if Cole had been placed on suicide watch.

Bradshaw State Jail is a privately-operated facility owned by Corrections Corporation of America. A spokesperson for the jail did not return a call Tuesday.

We'll keep you updated on any developments in the investigation into this tragic death.

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Senator Judith Zaffarini Accepts GEO Group Money for Re-Election Campaign

The Laredo Morning Times reported last week that State Senator Judith Zaffarini, a state Democratic powerhouse, accepted $500 from the GEO Group's PAC in the last half of 2007. GEO Group is of course the company behind the controversial federal detention center in Laredo.

The Raba-Kistner PAC contributed $5,000, and the Texas GEO Group Inc. PAC contributed $500. In December, the Webb County Commissioners Court authorized payment of an invoice to Raba-Kistner of more than $150,000 for services the San Antonio-based company provided to the county for work on the county's presidential permit application for the proposed rail bridge in northwest Webb County.

The county also recently entered into a contract with the GEO Group to provide water and sewer services for the company's new 1,500-bed detention facility under construction near the city of Rio Bravo.

Zaffirini's husband, Carlos Zaffirini, represents the GEO Group in local negotiations with the county.

Of course, a $500 contribution is not an incredible amount of money - it certainly must pale in comparison to the amount of money that Carlos Zaffirini has taken in from the GEO Group as their local counsel for the past 5 years - and numerous other Texas politicians have accepted similar donations from private prison corporations.

Still, one has to be concerned by the close relationship between a private prison corporation and one of the most powerful political families in south Texas. Zaffirini is facing a campaign challenge from former Webb County Judge Louis Bruni (who interestingly was an initial proponent of the GEO Group prison), who lost his re-election campaign by getting fourth of four candidates. His fund-raising numbers don't make it seem like his base of support has increased much. Despite spending $96,000 of his own money, his only campaign contribution in this reporting period came from his sister.

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Caldwell County Officially Rejects Private Detention Center

Via a reader, and confirmed by an article in the San Marcos Record, Caldwell County voted on January 16 to officially reject a private immigrant detention center proposed by Louisiana-based Emerald Corrections. As we've reported, the facility was the topic of a heated town meeting where 150 opponents asked an Emerald prison developer tough questions about the facility and held an informal vote against the prison. From the Record article:

(Commissioner Joe) Roland said initially, the proposal “seemed like an opportunity” that could bring much-needed jobs. He said there was also “a lot of misunderstanding” surrounding the proposal and that the people housed at the facility would not have been hardened criminals, just people who broke the law on a misguided path to a better life.

He said the community meeting was “something I did on my own to find out, to get the pulse of the community.

Public opposition would have been only the first hurdle for the project; commissioners would also have had to figure out how to supply the facility with the estimated 80,000 gallons of water it would need every day.

Our previous coverage of the Caldwell County detention center fight:

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Additional Detainees at Hutto?

KLBJ has the story this morning that the Williamson County Commissioner's Court will be discussing converting a wing of the controversial T. Don Hutto detention center to house adult women immigrant detainees. From the story:

This morning, the Williamson County Commissioners will consider a proposal to create a new wing of the T Don Hutto Residential Center. The former prison in Taylor is used by Immigration and Custom’s Enforcement (ICE) to detain immigrant families awaiting immigration or asylum hearings.

ICE is suggesting the about half of T Don Hutto be used to detain non-criminal females. Right now, about 250 men, women and children are being held at the former prison, which has the capacity to hold 500 people

T Don Hutto is run by Corrections Corporation of America via a contract with Williamson County, which in turn has a contract with ICE.

We'll keep you updated on what happens in Williamson County today, and keep covering the T. Don Hutto lock-up.

Update: Word from Williamson County is that the motion was passed by the Williamson County Commissioners Court.  Hutto will be home to 250 women without children when there is space for them.  We'll have more when the news stories about this come out.  

Private Telephone Contracts Coming Soon to TDCJ

Texas prisoners will have access to telephones in the next few months. The service will be provided via a private contractor who will install the phones in prisons around the state. According to recent reports, about 4,000 phones will be installed in state prisons. Texas is the last state to provide this service to state prisoners.

This policy is a long time coming. Advocates and family groups have worked for years to provide telephone access to state prisoners. According to Lisa Sandberg in the the Houston Chronicle, "All calls to relatives and friends on an approved list will be recorded, and prison officials will be in charge of monitoring them".

It is certainly a step in the right direction for improving the conditions of Texas prisons. As Grits for Breakfast mentioned, telephone access among prisoners is a behavior management tool and serves to keep prisoners in contact with their families and friends. That is significant since the majority of Texas prisoners will return home.

Undoubtedly, telephone contracts will raise a need for vigorous advocacy as watchdog groups monitor the contracts and make sure that families are not being overcharged for prison telephone calls.

The Vera Commission reported in it's 2006 report Confronting Confinement that the price of prison telephone calls minimized the condition of prisons by reducing the ability of prisoners to maintain contact with family and friends. The Commission found that safety is promoted in correctional facilities when prisoners are allowed to communicate with people in their home communities and maintain personal relationships. This is particularly important in Texas where prison sentences have increased in recent years and prisons are located in remote areas.

We will monitor these telephone contracts and and assess how the cost and management are impacting prisoners and their home communities.

Private Jail Guards Charged with Delivering Drugs

The Chronicle reported that two private jail guards were charged with delivering marijuana and Ectasy to a federal prisoner detained in the Liberty County Jaill; CivicGenics manages the facility.

Shondalyn S. Jones, 25, of Dayton, and Manitra L. Taylor, 42, of Cleveland, both employed by the corporation that runs the county jail, were taken into custody about 11:45 a.m. after they accepted the illegal drugs and $1,000 from an undercover agent in a parking lot at the intersection of Main and U.S. 90 in Liberty, investigators said.

The guards were fired following these allegations. However, the fact that two private jail employees were hired indicates bad management of the facility and highlights why private prison outsourcing continues to be bad public policy.

County officials could certainly improve their management of the facility. According to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS), the private jail's bed capacity numbered 372 earlier this month. Yet, the number of prisoners incarcerated exceeded current space and reached a capacity level of 101.9%. Liberty County reported that 121 or nearl 32% of jail detainees were Federal prisoners.

You would think that if Liberty County officials were going to rent beds to other jurisdictions they would vigoursly manage the capacity and avoid jail overcrowding.

 

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PDF icon TCJS Population Summary 1.08.pdf31.67 KB
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Children in Jail: New Website and Short Film on T. Don Hutto

Via Grits and Eye on Williamson County, there is a new website and an upcoming short documentary about the T. Don Hutto family detention center in Taylor, Texas. The film and interactive website are called Children in Jail, and based on the trailer, the film looks really good:

 

We recently named the controversy around T. Don Hutto our the one of the top five private prison story for 2007, and have highlighted another great short film on the detention center - Hutto: America's Family Prison. Here's hoping Children in Jail and America's Family Prison will continue the scrutiny on T. Don Hutto and the practice of incarcerating immigrant families for a profit in 2008. We'll keep you updated on upcoming screenings of both films.

Leonard "Faith-Based" Private Prison Decision Delayed Again

According to a source in Fannin County, the Leonard City Council has again delayed a vote on the private "faith-based" prison proposed by Correctional Concepts, Inc. The proposal has been met with considerable opposition from community members concerned that the prison won't help the city's economy and that constitutional questions may prevent the prison from ever opening. At this month's meeting, a number of community members spoke against the prison proposal. Here is a visual representation of some of the opposition the prison proposal has evoked:

We reported last month that Correctional Concepts has failed in attempts to site prisons in at least 8 other Texas counties. A representative of the city of Leonard who spoke at last month's meeting stated that opposition to the prison was the work of Satan himself. We'll keep you updated on the prison proposal and opposition in Leonard.

No One Held Accountable in Hutto Sexual Abuse Case

The Taylor Daily Press reported this week that the complicated system of private prisons and varying jurisdictions results in weak accountability measures at the T. Don Hutto Facility. We have covered the developments around the family detention center in Taylor, TX that houses immigrant families including children.

The story utilizes extensive open records documents related to a case of of a prison guard reported to have had an "inappropriate sexual relationship" a female detainee last year. Yet, the complex reality of laws and contracting that created Hutto makes it difficult for law enforcement agencies in various jurisdictions to hold the alleged abuser accountable. According to the story

On Monday, May 21, the Williamson County District Attorney's Office declined to prosecute the case, according to the ICE report.

Jana McCown, first assistant district attorney, said the incident and possible charges of official oppression did not fall under Texas law because T. Don Hutto is a federal detention facility.

Several officials at the state and federal level have investigated the incident but found that neither locale had the authority to prosecute the alleged perpetrator.

Yet, while it is illegal for federal prison guards to have sexual intercourse (consensual or not) with prisoners, federal prosecutors cannot levy charges either. The law applied to prisons under the U.S. Attorney General, which does not include ICE detention centers. This was due to loophole in the law that lawmakers fixed after the Hutto sexual assault occurred.

The problem arose with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. The new federal agency took over the detention of immigrants from Immigration and Naturalization Services, an agency under jurisdiction of the Department of Justice, according to a press statement from the office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California.

It is truly remarkable that lawmakers could have been so careless and created a situation where no one can be held accountable for sexual abuse. This certainly raises awareness for the fundamental flaw in outsourcing incarceration policy to private prison companies. Creating a context where no one can be held accountable for sexual abuse is bad public policy.

Lawmakers need to seriously consider these policy issues as they rely on private contractors to provide corrections services.

Previous Posts on the T. Don Hutto Facility:

  1. Hutto News Round-up
  2. Hutto Contract Update
  3. More Hutto News - the Problems Continue

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