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June 2008

Sheriff's Deputies Protest Privatization Protest in McLennan County

KWTX has a story ("Sheriff’s Officers Concerned About Private Jail Proposals" June 24, 2008) about McLennan County Sheriff's Deputies protesting turning over even more of the county's jail system to a private company. According to the article,

Sheriff’s officers packed the meeting of the McLennan County Commissioner’s Court Tuesday to air concerns about proposals that would turn operation of county jail facilities over to a private company.

A private firm now operates the downtown jail, but other facilities are still county-run.

But the county is under mounting pressure to solve its jail-overcrowding problem and one option commissioners are considering is construction of a new jail big enough to hold a thousand prisoners.

The price tag for the facility could run as high as $60 million. Among the options on the table is hiring a private company to build and operate the new jail.

Without the new facility, County Judge Jim Lewis projects that by 2010, the county will be renting space for almost 450 prisoners it doesn't have room for, at a total cost of nearly $27,000 a day or almost $10 million a year.

We believe that a county can't build its way out of an overcrowding problem. And, as both Nicole on this blog and Grits for breakfast have noted here and here, common sense solutions to reduce the incarcerated populations exist in nearly all Texas counties.

CiviGenics, operating as CEC these days, currently operates part of the McLennan County jail system. The company has had a series of problems at the McLennan County facility - where a sexual assault scandal involving a CiviGenics employee and a controversy over company payments to the County Sheriff raised questions - The company has also been rocked by sexual assault scandals at its Liberty County and Texarakansas jails.

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

New Family Detention Center in Raymondville?

KGBT is reporting ("Detention Center Plans for Raymondville," June 26) that one of the three new family detention centers proposed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, similar to the notorious T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, might be located in Raymondville, Texas. According to the story,

A new facility to house illegal immigrants and their children could be coming to Raymondivlle if city leaders have their way.

Federal officials recently put out a bid to construct three new detention facilities modeled after one in Hutto, Texas.

Raymondville leaders are putting in a bid to land one of them right here in the Valley.

If approved the facility would be built on city-owned land next to a jail complex that already houses 46-hundred local, state and federal inmates.

Raymondville is already home to 4,600 detention beds, including the windowless kevlar detention center known as "tent city."  ICE may believe it can easily contract for another detention center in a community that already has so much detention center infrastructure.  However, as we've reported, there is growing opposition to family detention here in Texas and from national organizations that might complicate that effort.  We'll keep you updated on news about family detention centers. 

Nashville Scene Exposes CCA, ICE on Hutto

The Nashville Scene, Corrections Corporation of America's hometown alternative weekly, has published a blistering expose ("Locked and Loaded," June 19th) on the company, with particular attention paid to CCA's T. Don Hutto family detention center in Taylor, Texas. The story draws heavily on court documents from the lawsuit against the facility, including this heart-breaking testimony:

After she arrived in Taylor, Elsa and her family shared a tiny living area, where they’d be loudly awoken at 5:45 a.m. Elsa, Richard and Angelina then had 20 minutes to eat breakfast. When they didn’t finish on time, guards would just snatch their food and throw it in the trash. “When this happens, the children cry and cry,” Elsa later explained in an affidavit that chronicled her plight.

The detention center was very cold, so much so that the guards walked around wearing gloves. But they’d yell at Elsa if she asked for a blanket. One time they came into her cell and confiscated two of her sweaters.

“They don’t care that we are cold,” she said. “They don’t care if we eat or if we don’t eat.”

Elsa and her children wore prison uniforms and spent hours in their pod, often with no toys or books for the kids. One day, Elsa and her family were in the doctor’s office, where all the kids were playing with crayons. Angelina drew a picture, but a guard grabbed the girl’s artwork. She cried a lot at Hutto, wondering what her family had done wrong.

“Mommy, where is God that he doesn’t want to help us? Mommy, tell God to come and take us out of here and take us to our house,” Elsa recalled her daughter saying. “Mommy, why do they have us as prisoners if we have never killed anybody?”

Unfortunately, such stories of horrid conditions at Hutto were almost common-place before the settlement between the ACLU and UT Immigration Law Clinic and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Amongst the more interesting elements of the article are the revelation that internal ICE memos were highly critical of conditions at Hutto. According to the story,

Just about everyone else who walked through the gates at Hutto, including federal authorities, saw it as a deeply troubling facility. In March 2007, ICE inspectors visited Hutto and, in their own distinct bureaucratic language, corroborated the anguished accounts of the detainees. The inspectors noted that their “overall review of the facility can be accurately rated as deficient” and determined that the staff wasn’t following basic standards of detention.

“The Review Team’s observation of CCA’s overall attitude is of disinterest and complacency in their work performance,” the agency noted in its report.

A month later, an interoffice memo from ICE said that at Hutto, CCA is “losing staff as quick as they can hire them.” That’s because the company was only paying its detention officers around $10 an hour, nearly $4 less than what they could make at the county jail.

“As long as CCA continues to hire employees at this rate per hour, they will continue to experience the problems they are currently experiencing on the floor,” read the memo. “The current problems CCA is experiencing are a direct result of what ‘they are paying their employees for.’ Unfortunately, it is at ICE’s expense.”

We'll keep you posted on further developments on Hutto. For more information, see our previous coverage or check out tdonhutto.blogspot.com.

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Texas Increases Private Prison Population

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) released its latest numbers in June regarding the national rate of incarceration and provided state level data as well. According to the BJS the total number of prisoners in custody during 2007 numbered 2.3 million.

As usual, Texas ranks high among the number of prisoners incarceated in state custody. Prisoners in Texas comprised nearly 173,000 of the total number of people in federal and state custody. Additionally, 18,720 of Texas prisoners were detained in private facilities (see chart below); a total 0f 10.8% of prisoners in the state. During 2006, Texas imprisoned about 18,220 prisoners in private facilities for percen-change of plus 2.74% in a single year.

Last year, lawmakers passed reforms meant to reduce the state's reliance on incarceration. Those policies have been lauded by the recent Pew Report and other states as a model. Time will tell if Texas is able to minimize it's overal prison population, and the number of people in private lockups as well.

Largest 20 State Private Prison Populations 2007

State Number of Private Prisoners
% of all State Prisoners

New Mexico

2,835 43.4%
Montana 1,273 36.7%
Hawaii 2,044 33.8%
Wyoming 677 32%
Alaska 1,503 28.3%
Idaho 1,932 26.1%
Vermont 559 25.8%
Oklahoma 5,950 23.2%
Colorado 5,021 22.2%
Mississippi 4,779 22%
Tennessee 5,180 19.6%
Arizona 6,275 16.9%
Minnesota 1,144 11.6%
Kentucky 2,424 11.2%
Texas 18,720 10.8%
New Jersey
4,892 9.2%
Louisiana 3,114 8.4%
Florida 6,420
6.8%
Washington 1,036
5.9%
Indiana 1,142
4.3%

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics

Abuse Allegations Could Cost Cornell Youth Detention Contract

Houston-based Cornell Companies appears to be losing its contract to detain immigrant youth at its Hector Garza center according to an excellent article by Hernan Rozemberg in Sunday's San Antonio Express-News ("Youth Center Director Cites Suit in Feds' Decision," June 15). The facility holds unaccompanied minors apprehended in the United States for the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of Health and Human Services.

The center has seen its supply of detainees shrink since a lawsuit was filed against the company, its warden, and employees alleging neglect and abuse. According to the Express-News story:

Unlike other HHS-contracted “shelters” or dormitory-style campuses, the Hector Garza center is designated “staff secure” because it's a more restrictive setting meant to handle problematic youngsters.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in San Antonio in April, came as a result of a brawl between center residents and staff in February. Staffers called police to help quell the mayhem, which concluded with four minors under arrest.

According to the suit, filed by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, excessive violence used by staff and police symbolized incessant abuse that minors reported to supervisors to no avail. State and federal officials are accused of covering up abuse reports.

Incredibly, the warden of the facility seems to be blaming the lawyers in the case for the allegations of abuse:

Fernández said overzealous lawyers preyed on minors' survival instincts, prompting them to sue the center. Staff and residents had cordial and even amiable relations before lawyers began showing up, he lamented.

We'll keep you updated on developments from Garza and other Cornell units around Texas. Our previous coverage on the subject: Eight Unaccompanied Minors Sue Cornell Over Physical Abuse.

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State Democratic Resolutions Committee Passes Hutto Resolution

Earlier this month, a combined version of resolutions calling for alternatives to family detention passed through the Resolutions Committee at this year's Democratic State Convention.

As Bob wrote in April, we knew that versions of the resolution had passed through Senate District Precincts in Travis County (Senate Districts 14 and 25) and Williamson and Brewster Counties. The next step was the State Convention.

A Temporary Resolutions Committee met two weeks before the convention to organize and categorize 2,000 resolutions, and on Friday, June 6th, each of Texas' 31 Senate Districts elected a member to a Permanent Resolutions committee to consider Resolutions on the following morning. The Permanent Resolutions Committee met on Saturday, June 7 from 8:00 am to almost 6:00 pm, and during that time it approved only about 100 resolutions. The Hutto Resolution was one of those, and after passing through the committee, it was referred to the elected State Democratic Executive Committee (SDEC) for further consideration.

The resolution language that passed through the Resolutions committee was briefer and slightly weaker than that approved at the Travis County Senate District Conventions, which I attended. The whereas sections were significantly cut, and the resolution does not require copies of the resolution to be sent to Michael Chertoff, President Bush, Congressional leaders, and members of the Texas delegation to Congress. Overall, though, the language approved by the Resolutions committee is a major step in the right direction.

The fate of the Hutto resolution is now in the hands of the SDEC. If approved, the Texas Democratic Party will add to its platform that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security should consider all alternatives to the detention of immigrant and asylum-seeking families with children, and the resolution will go to the Democratic National Convention in August.

It is nice to see a major political party take a position on family detention, especially as we've learned that Immigration and Customs Enforcement has accepted bids for three more Hutto-like family detention centers.

The resolution language that passed ut of the Resolutions committee is below:

RESOLUTION FOR ALTERNATIVES TO DETENTION OF IMMIGRANT AND ASYLUM-SEEKING CHILDREN
WHEREAS border protection is important to the security of the nation as a whole;
WHEREAS immigration affects the economic and social well-being of both the United States and Mexico;
WHEREAS a private firm re-opened the T. Don Hutto Residential Facility in Taylor, Texas, for the purpose of detaining immigrant and asylum-seeking families who are awaiting immigration proceedings,
WHEREAS it is not appropriate to convert a medium-security prison and rename it as a family detention center where children are detained with their families and some children are separated from their families;
NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Texas Democratic Party add to its platform that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security should consider all alternatives to the detention of immigrant and asylum-seeking families with children, and must reunite children with their families; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that a child who is brought into this country by a family member shall not be subject to criminal sanctions, and the child's presence in the U.S. shall not be defined as unlawful.

We'll keep you updated on the resolution's progress.

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Potter County Sheriff Bribed by Jail Commissary Manager

Our pal Scott Henson at Grits for Breakfast recently posted on another jail commissary scandal - this time in Potter County. According to Grits,

An all-woman jury yesterday in Amarillo brought back a guilty verdict against Potter County Sheriff Mike Shumate for taking bribes from the Dallas-based commissary manager, Mid-America Services. The "bribes" the state was able to prove were mostly meals, though quite a few of them...

Texas Prison Bid'ness and Grits have covered several private commissary contracts in the past year. According to Scott:

Commissary contracts have been a big source of alleged corruption in Texas Sheriff's Departments in the past year. In Bexar and Kleberg Counties, a Louisiana based company called "Premier" allegedly bribed the Bexar County Sheriff with swank golfing trips and gave the Kleberg Sheriff private consulting contracts after he left office.

It seems that the amount of scandal at the local level is signicant when it comes to private jail contracts. With limited accountability and oversight at the county level, who knows what scandals remain to be covered at the state's many county jails.

Previous Commissary Posts:

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Barbara Hines: New Family Detention Centers a Step in Wrong Direction

The Dallas Morning News ran an op-ed by Professor Barbara Hines on Monday against ICE's proposal for three new family detention centers of up to 200 beds each. Hines is a professor at the University of Texas' Immigration Law Clinic and was an attorney for detained children in the lawsuit challenging conditions at Hutto.

Here's a highlight from the article:

These facilities, each to be built with up to 200 beds, will expand the system of family detention made controversial in recent years at the T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas.

The proposal for new centers is a step in the wrong direction. Congress has repeatedly called on ICE, the agency within the Department of Homeland Security responsible for immigration matters, to implement alternatives to detention programs for families, stating that detention of families should be the last alternative and not the first.
In 2006, when I first went to Hutto, I was appalled by the living conditions. Children as young as infants, along with their families, were detained in a converted medium-security prison run by the Corrections Corporation of America, a for-profit prison management corporation. Children received one hour of education a day and wore prison uniforms. They were required to be in their cells for long periods during the day to be present for multiple cell counts.

Many of the detainees at Hutto have come to the United States fleeing persecution or social turmoil — asylum seekers fleeing civil conflict in Eastern Africa, Iraqi Christians targeted by fundamentalists and Central Americans seeking refuge from drug, gang and domestic violence. No detainee has been accused of a crime.

Check out the full op-ed, and our previous coverage of ICE's new family detention proposals:

Women's Commission Issues Statement Opposing New Family Detention Centers

The Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children has issued a strong statement (PDF) opposing Immigration and Customs Enforcement's proposal to construct three new contracted family detention centers around the country.

The facilities would dramatically expand the system of family detention made notorious at Corrections Corporation of America's T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor. Bids for the facilities are due next Monday, June 16th. According to the release,

The Women’s Commission calls on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to immediately halt the alarming growth of family detention. “This is a system that has already been found to be completely inappropriate for families, and we are deeply distressed by this expansion,” said Michelle Brané, director of the detention and asylum program with the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children. “What’s more, it ignores the explicit directive of Congress that ICE release families whenever possible.”

The decision to add new facilities to the agency’s roster of family detention centers comes despite a 2007 lawsuit alleging that children detained at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas were subjected to conditions of confinement that violated minimum standards of care for minors in federal custody. The resulting settlement forced ICE to undertake substantial modifications in physical appearance, medical care, disciplinary actions, education and recreation at the Hutto facility.

ICE responded to the lawsuit and massive public outcry by issuing “family residential standards.”
However, they are based on adult correctional standards intended to regulate the behavior of criminal inmates, not preserve and protect the unique needs of non-criminal families. Also, DHS’ Request for Proposals for the new facilities violates its own standards in an alarming number of critical areas, including the provision of medical care, education, recreation and the use of restraining devices. “ICE’s failure to comply with its own standards is further evidence that the agency does not intend to open—or at the very least, properly administer—family-centered, non-penal residential programs,” according to Brané.
For more on the three new proposed family detention centers, see our coverage from last week or check out tdonhutto.blogspot.com for background information and to read the bidding documents.
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LCS Opening 1,100-bed Detention Center in Nueces County

The Corpus-Christi Caller-Times has an article about the opening of a new 1,100 bed private detention center in Robstown, a small city in rural Nueces County.  

The new LCS Detention Center near Robstown is scheduled for completion late this summer following a series of setbacks.

Off County Road 2826 in what used to be a cotton field, the new 1,100-bed facility likely will be the destination for prisoners brought there by federal agencies such as the U.S. Marshals, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Border Patrol.

Once it opens, the facility is projected to create more than 200 jobs and pump more than $1 million a year into Nueces County coffers via prisoner contracts and property taxes, county officials said.

LCS Corrections Services is one of the largest private prison operators in the nation, with six other prisons -- one in Brooks County, one in Hidalgo County, three in Louisiana and one in Alabama.

Two things jump out at me from this passage.  First, the story says that the facility is "likely" to hold federal detainees from the U.S. Marshals and ICE and prisoners from the BOP.  The use of the term "likely" to me indicates that the company may not have a contract in place to bring prisoners in.  I wonder, given LCS's record of failing U.S. Marshals assessments, if that agency is rethinking sending prisoners to these facilities. 

While this seems like a line lifted from a company press release, it's almost laughable to claim that LCS is one of the largest private prison operators in the nation.  If anything, LCS is one of the smaller private prison corporations - certainly trailing far behind CCA, GEO, Cornell, MTC, and CiviGenics in terms of "market share" with its six prisons. And, it has certainly had its share of problems in the past.  See our previous coverage of LCS, in our "Closer Look at LCS Corrections" post from last year.

The article then goes on to claim that the area will experience a financial boon from the construction of the prison.

Once it opens, the facility will bring 210 to 220 jobs to the area. Starting corrections workers with no experience will make $11.50 an hour. Once they complete training, the pay increases, Harbison said.

The private prison is projected to generate more than $400,000 a year in fresh property tax revenue for the county and another $1 million or more in annual cash via an agreement where the county passes federal prisoners through to the private facility in exchange for a share of the profit, county officials said.

Because the federal government does not deal directly with private detention businesses, Nueces County is in the process of negotiating a new federal prisoner housing rate for its own jail as well as a rate for prisoners housed under what is known as a "pass-through" contract. That new rate will include the Robstown facility as well as upgrade the rate that LCS and Nueces County are getting for a similar corrections facility at La Villa, in Hidalgo County.

Under the "pass through" agreement, Kaelin will serve as the ultimate oversight for any federal prisoner at the private facility.

Nueces County now gets a daily rate of $2 per prisoner, or some $1,900 a day for serving as overseer at La Villa. LCS gets roughly $43 a day per prisoner.

I'll be interested to see how many of the jobs actually go to residents of the Robstown area.  As prison critics have stressed for years, the vast majority of prison workers drive into rural communities for work.  Prisons are increasingly criticized as poor economic development tools.  Greg Hooks' prisons and economic development study in our Considering a Private Jail? report (PDF) has more information on the detrimental impact a private prison or detention center has on a rural community's economy in the long-run.

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