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April 2008

New Film "The Visitor" Tackles Immigrant Detention Issue

I was able to see the new film The Visitor at a pre-screening in Austin a few weeks ago, and highly recommend it. It follows a college professor who befriends an immigrant couple only to find his friend detained at private prison, which seems modeled after the GEO Group's Queens, NY detention center, after being caught up in a minor incident with the police. It's a pretty realistic look at the detention system. Take a look at the trailer:


The film is screening in selected theatres across the country, including several Texas locations. Check in out. See this site for locations and showtimes.

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Business of Detention: Great New Site on Private Detention Industry

A great new interactive site has been developed by Renee Feltz and Stokely Baksh, students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, called The Business of Detention. Check out the trailer:


The site features interviews with yours truly and Texas Prison Bid'ness found Judy Greene. We'll feature more clips from the Business of Detention in the coming days, but please check out the website for more information on the rise of the private detention industry in Texas.


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Is Sending Fort Bend County Prisoners to Dickens County Jail a Good Idea?

A great letter last week in the Fort Bend Star ("Sending Prisoners to Another Facility Disturbing," April 16, 2008) about the Ford Bend County Commission's decision to send county prisoners over 500 miles away to the Dickens County Correctional Center. According to the letter, authored by local resident Sue Ann Lorig (and referencing Texas Prison Bidness),

Although some of the Fort Bend County Commissioners find the location a joking matter, long-distance separation is not humorous to the families of inmates. When inmates are hundreds of miles away, few families can visit. Children especially suffer.

Children of incarcerated parents are at higher risk of incarceration themselves, and they exhibit many problems that accompany parental separation, especially (when) they can't even visit. For the inmates, family connections can mean the difference between future success and recidivism. Studies have shown that continued contact with family can reduce prisoner recidivism.

Certainly long-distance separation of prisoners from their families can have devastating impacts. Just last spring at the Dickens County Correctional Center, Idaho inmate Scot Noble Payne committed suicide after enduring what the AP later called "squalid" conditions. The Idaho Department of Corrections health director later called the facility the worst prison he'd ever seen and "beyond repair."

So, why would Fort Bend want to send their prisoners to a prison with this track record? Well, one answer might lie in the change of ownership - the GEO Group, who had operated the prison, handed over management to CiviGenics, another private prison corporation, in December.

But CiviGenics has had its own troubled history in Texas. As we've reported, a 21 year-old immigrant took his own life in CiviGenics Ector lock-up last month, and CiviGenics facilities in Texarkanas and Waco have both experienced sexual assault incidents at their facilities.

Our previous coverage of Dickens County Correctional Center:

Hutto Still No Family Prison "Model"

Yesterday, there were a flurry of news stories about Tuesday's ICE-sponsored press tour at the T. Don Hutto family detention center. Nicole reported yesterday the favorable coverage that media outlets seemed to be providing Hutto in the wake of the tour.

Today, the media is far more critical of Hutto and the press tour. First, Lisa Falkenberg in the Houston Chronicle ("Imprisoned families: On the real tour," April 24, 2008) pens a terrific commentary taking on ICE's contention that the "family-friendly" additions to the facility would have happened without public scrutiny:

The family-friendly reforms come after more than a year of harsh media spotlight, tireless efforts by The Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children and a pile of lawsuits brought by the ACLU of Texas.

Yet, as immigration officials ushered reporters through the facility this week to show off their progress, one high-ranking ICE official tried to claim that the changes would have happened without the lawsuits.

"Everything that was included in that settlement was either done prior to the settlement, in progress during the settlement or contemplated prior to the settlement," Gary Mead, ICE's acting director for detention and removal, was quoted saying in an Associated Press story.

Mead is the same guy who told me early last year — when Hutto's fence was still rimmed in razor wire and immigrant kids were still issued uniforms, counted three times a day and subjected to substandard education and health care — that his agency had already made the former prison as homelike as it could.

"I think we've done a very good job of softening things to make it as family-friendly as we can," Mead told me in February 2007.

That doesn't sound like a reform-minded official intent on pushing for major changes.

Falkenberg speculates that Mead's comments "may be nothing more than public relations spin." She finishes her piece by criticizing plans for more "Hutto-like" detention centers as

a troubling prospect in and of itself, considering that ICE has been specifically instructed by Congressional appropriations committees to prioritize alternatives, such as effective, less-expensive electronic monitoring. But one can only hope the mistaken model of converting a former prison into a "homelike" environment won't be duplicated.

Falkenberg's story is followed by a blog entry at Daily Kos titled "Hutto No Model for Prison for Children" by Gouri Bhat of the ACLU. Bhat was one of the attorney who sued ICE on behalf of families detained at Hutto over the prison's conditions last year. The settlement from that lawsuit is one of the factors leading to bettering of conditions at the prison.

Bhat calls Mead's statement that the activism and lawsuit had nothing to do with the changes at Hutto "disingenuous at best." She goes on to say,

Other reported statements by Mead are still more disturbing — specifically, his assertion that Hutto will be a model for future family detention centers to be opened by the government. Clearly, ICE’s enthusiasm for detaining families is undiminished, despite Hutto’s $33.6 million annual price tag and numerous admonitions from Congress to explore less expensive alternatives to detention before locking up immigrant children. If more family detention centers are on the horizon, the ACLU’s Hutto settlement should serve as a useful model in many respects and a cautionary tale.

However, despite the hard-won reforms at Hutto, the facility — managed by a for-profit adult corrections company — is still fundamentally and structurally a prison. As such, Hutto is far from the best or most appropriate place to house infants, toddlers, children and teens who are detained with their parents. Julie Myers, ICE Assistant Secretary and Mead’s boss, appeared to recognize this when she told Congress in October 2007 that "the physical structure of Hutto — a former prison — will not be used as the model for future facilities." We hope in this case, the boss is right.

We'll keep you updated on more media from the Hutto press tour as it comes out.

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ICE Makes Changes to Hutto, Lays Groundwork for Expansion of Family Detention

Recent media reports at the T. Don Hutto detention center, a prison owned by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), highlight changes to the private prison.  The notorious Hutto facility has been the target of numerous protests and a lawsuit as a result of its use to incarcerate immigrant families; some detainees as young as  newborns.  Press reports state that government officials are using a media blitz to lay the groundwork for additional family detention facilities that will be added to federal prison capacity over the next year.

According to an article in the San Antonio Express-News, reporter Hernán Rozemberg states:

Mired in controversy since its opening in May 2006, the 512-bed center has been through several makeovers. Administrators opened it for a swift media tour Tuesday to show how much has changed since the first tour 14 months ago.

Last year, the use of family detention at the private prison was resulted in litigation by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas Law School.  The lawsuit settlement required CCA, which contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Williamson County, to meet comply with several standards that change the conditions of confinement at the prison.

ICE officials, like Gary Mead, stated in an Austin American-Statesman article written by Juan Castillo, that they learned a lot as they moved to lock up children and their parents:

"Candidly, when (Hutto) opened, we were new to the family residential facility business. We learned a lot," Gary Mead, acting director for detention and removal at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Tuesday.

As a result the changes required by the settlement and to improve public relations, the private prison recently opened its doors to the media to advertise changes underway at the facility.  Despite any aesthetic changes and additions of certain amenities, the facility in Taylor, Texas is fundamentally still a prison. 

Specifically, certain structures such as cell walls and the location of toilets in the space where someone sleeps cannot be altered.  However, that does prevent the news media from participating in the coordinated public relations campaign According to news reports those changes include:

  • Metal toilets changed to porcelain;
  • Curtains to surround the toilet and shower area;
  • Eliminating the razor wire that surrounds the private prison;
  • Outdoor recreation area that includes two soccer fields, a volleyball court, and tow playgrounds;
  • Exercise area including treadmills and stationary bikes;;
  • Planned fieldtrips for the children who are imprisoned; and
  • Salad bar and a "hot bar" in the cafeteria — and the more homestyle recipes are a hit with the mostly Central American detainees thanks to one of them working as a cook.

Regardless of these changes, Hutto continues to be a private prison.  What continues to be disturbing is that ICE is going to expand the policy of locking up families.  Once again this represents a failed social policy as the United States continues to rely on incarceration even though Congress has insisted on alternatives to family detention.

Given that ICE is implying that they are looking to expand family detention capacity, we will monitor these developments.

GEO Group Presents to Lehman Brothers Investors

Last month, the GEO Group presented information at the Lehman Brothers 2008 High Yield Loan and Syndicated Loan Conference. On the call, George Zoley, the company’s Chairman and CEO, discussed why GEO is a good investment for Lehman Brothers stockholders. The call makes clear that private prison profiteers continue to exploit the poor sentencing policies in the United States and across the world that result in the over use of incarceration as a social policy.

It was truly remarkable and disturbing how Zoley talked about the nation’s significantly large prison population in terms of profit and revenue. His presentation mentioned nothing regarding the human factor of prison expansion and how GEO’s large market share contributes to overuse of a failed social policy and the disintegration of communities.

Zoley mentioned that GEO has a total global bed capacity of 59,000 beds. That makes GEO the 7th largest prison in the U.S. directly after the state of New York; according to GEO, Texas is number three after only California and the Federal system. That number includes beds in operation and those under construction in 61 U.S. facilities and 6 international facilities in Australia, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.

According to Zoley, GEO has 7,400 beds under development in Texas alone for completion over the next few months. Those beds include:

Facility Ownership
Beds Under Development
Annual Operating Revenues
Exp. Start Date
Montgomery Co. Detention Center
Managed Only
Maverick County Detention Center
Managed Only
Laredo USMS Facility

Zoley also mentioned that two facilities are empty and GEO is looking for customers at the federal or state level to contract with. One of those prisons includes the notorious Coke County Juvenile Justice Center. The Texas Youth Commission (TYC) contracted with GEO to provide beds in the facility until late last year when scandals were widely reported in the news that young prisoners were not given proper education and forced to live in squalid conditions.

He mentioned that GEO is the world’s second largest private prison provider after the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). According to GEO figures, there are a total of 210,000 private prison beds worldwide; CCA has 36% of the global market share while GEO claims 28% of the global market share.

Zoley, the company’s top executive, emphasized that demand for prison bed space continues to be driven by U.S. social policy that has resulted in a 1 out of 100 adults in prison or jail, and 1 out of 31 adults under some form of criminal justice supervision in the form of probation, parole or imprisonment. To rationalize why GEO is a good investment, Zoley relied heavily on recent reports published by the Pew Research Center in 2007 and 2008. Those reports mention the nation’s prison population will continue to increase over the next five years and that 24 states are operating over capacity leading to an increased demand for more prison bed space.

According to Zoley, specific social policies that continue to drive private prison demand include the efforts to control borders with Mexico which lead to a need in more detention bed space. Further, he mentioned that Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) and United States Marshal Service (USMS) are consolidating contracts in an effort to reduce costs that all contribute to an increase in demand for private prison space.

GEO finances private prison construction in several ways using public bonds, 3rd party ownership, and company ownership. The company values federal clients because they offer the largest contracts and the most profitable contracts on the best terms.

The GEO presentation provided a great deal of information regarding the priorities of the private prison corporations and the overall vision of the company's senior executive. It is disturbing how Zoley and other private prison profiteers continue to exploit bad public policies in an effort to increase revenues for corporations that should not exist in the first place.

If you would like to listen to the GEO presentation, you can find it online here: GEO presentation to Lehman Brothers

Opposition of CCA Executive to Federal Judgeship

A significant amount of opposition has been registered against Gustavus A. Puryear IV, general counsel since 2001 for Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). CCA is the nation's largest for-profit private prison company. As many of you know, several of the private prisons in Texas are operated by CCA. We recently posted information on CCA's latest investor phone call.

Puryear was nominated by President Bush in June of 2007 for a federal judgeship for U.S. District Court in the Middle District of Tennessee (the same jurisdiction where CCA's corporate headquarters is located).

An effort in Tennesse has developed that has worked hard to oppose the Puryear nomination. Tennesseans Against Puryear opposes the nomination for several reasons including:

  • Because as CCA's general counsel, Puryear, would hold a judgeship in the same district where CCA's corporate office is located, where numerous lawsuits against CCA are filed;
  • He has little trial experience in federal court; during his time at CCA he has worked to conceal damaging information about the company and has belittled prisoner litigation; and
  • As the top lawyer for the nation's largest private prison company is particularly ill suited to serve as a federal judge.

We find it encouraging that community groups are working the process to hold the President accountable for his nominations. Puryear's appointment could significantly impact the ability of the judicary to oversee private prison corporations and the various government agencies that contract with them. As the nomination process continues we will keep y'all posted.

Hutto Resolutions Pass County Conventions

I've been slow to post this news, but we've heard that resolutions opposing the use of family detention at the CCA's T. Don Hutto detention center passed Democratic Conventions in Travis County (Senate District 14, and possibly 25 as well), Williamson County, and Brewster County back on March 29th. If you know of other counties (Bexar and Harris, perhaps?) where the resolution passed, please let me know.

The next step for the Hutto resolution is the Texas Democratic Convention June 5-7 in Austin where the state Democratic Party has the opportunity to adopt an alternatives to family detention line into its platform. We'll keep you updated on what happens in June.

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Raymondville MTC Guard Accused of Stealing from Detainees

Weslaco's News Channel 5 ("Detention Center Investigating Allegations Against Guard," April 9) is reporting that a guard at MTC's Ramondville detention center, also known as Tent City because it is constructed out of windowless kevlar pods, is accused of stealing property from an immigrant detainee. According to the story,

NEWSCHANNEL 5 learned a guard is accused of stealing property and money from a detainee. We spoke to J.C. Conner, the company's regional vice president on the phone. He confirms the investigation. He adds, "By policy, we carefully maintain every detainee's property. If any of it is missing, it is promptly replaced in its entirety."

... This is the second time within a year employees at the facility are being investigated. Last year, four guards were arrested after they allegedly used a company van to cross illegals past the Sarita checkpoint.

We'll keep you posted on developments from Raymondville. Check out our previous coverage of MTC's Raymondville detention center:

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Eight Unaccompanied Immigrant Minors Sue Cornell Over Physical Abuse

Eight unaccompanied minors formerly held under the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement have sued Houston-based Cornell Companies alleging physical abuse and other violations of their constitutional rights. According to the KRIS TV ("Detention Facility for Immigrant Kids Sued") article,

Eight immigrant teenagers held at a facility for unaccompanied minors filed a federal lawsuit Thursday claiming they were abused and denied access to attorneys.

The teens from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Cuba were being held at the San Antonio facility run by Houston-based Cornell Companies Inc. under a contract with the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Undocumented minors caught by authorities in the United States fall under the care of ORR while their immigration cases are decided.

But Susan Watson, an attorney for Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, said the teens were beaten and subjected to other excessive force in violation of their constitutional rights.

At least one teen was knocked unconscious, but complaints to facility administrators were ignored, according to the lawsuit.

As the article rightly states that this isn't the first problem at a Cornell facility.

Arkansas fired Cornell from the operation of a juvenile facility in November 2006 after finding employees inappropriately injected youth with anti-psychotic medication to control behavior.

And in September, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials removed 600 detainees from an Albuquerque, N.M., facility run by Cornell, citing failure to maintain safety, health and well-being standards there.

As we reported last week, Cornell has made a bid to take over the former Webb County juvenile detention center and turn it into a half-way house. This lawsuit might give Webb County officials further pause in their negotiations with Cornell.

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