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July 2008

Proposed Raymondville Family Detention Center Being Pushed by Prison Developer

While we've reported that one of the three new family detention centers proposed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement may end up in Raymondville, I hadn't seen this Valley Morning Story until recently. The story provides more details on the proposed Raymondville lock-up,

City officials are considering a proposal to build a 200-bed, $30 million detention center to hold illegal immigrant families.

Raymondville city commissioners sent a letter to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to support a plan to build the detention center, City Manager Eleazar Garcia said Wednesday. "We haven't committed ourselves to anything yet, except we're interested and would like to know more about it," Garcia said.

Since the mid-1990s, Willacy County has built prisons and a detention center in the Raymondville industrial park. Already there are a 1,000-bed state prison, a 500-bed county prison, a 96-bed county jail and a 3,000-bed illegal immigrant detention center, the largest in the United States.

We've reported in the past on Raymondville's growing dependence on immigrant detention beds to survive economically. We've also reported that prisons do not create long-term economic growth, and that prison towns tend to scare away more beneficial industries. Of course, there are those that stand to benefit from a new detention center in Raymondville - prison developers and private prison operaters.

According to the article, one of those is Michael Harling of Municipal Capital Markets Group.

Michael Harling of Municipal Capital Markets Group in Dallas, which would work to finance the project, said it would create 200 jobs. Harling called the city to ask if officials would consider the project, Garcia said.

"They asked if the city would be supportive of putting it in the industrial park," Garcia said. The city would sell bonds to fund construction of the project, Harling said.

Federal revenue derived from holding illegal immigrants would pay off the bonds, Harling said. Garcia said the detention center would allow illegal immigrant parents to be housed with their children.

"It's not a detention center," Harling said. "It's a facility for holding families, for holding people who have not committed crimes."

I certainly find it interesting and more than a little disturbing that a prison financier - someone who makes their money off the floating of bonds to build prisons - is the one who is acting as the spokesperson for the policy of detaining children and their families.

We'll keep you updated on developments on ICE's three new proposed family detention centers.

SAFP Prisons to be Discussed at Fall Legislative Hearing

The Austin Chronicle discusses the origins of Texas' Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facilities (SAFPF) in it's latest edition. The article provides an interesting overview of Texas' treatment prisons which is particularly important given the current focus on prison alternatives. Despite, the current dialogue around diversion, Texas still expanded prison capacity in recent years through SAFPF and other in prison treatment programs.

According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), SAFPF are an intensive six-month therapeutic community program (nine-month program for offenders with special needs) for offenders who are sentenced by a judge as a condition of community supervision or as a modification of parole/community supervision.

The Senate Criminal Justice committee will meet this fall to discuss the legislative appropriations to in prison treatment programs administered in SAFPF lock ups. During 2007 the Legislature appropriated $234 million to TDCJ as a part of a prison expansion initiative. The state proposes to increase SAFPF funding by $63.1 million during 2008-09. Vendors like the Chicago based Gateway Foundation manage lucrative contracts with TDCJ to run SAFPF programs.

Currently, TDCJ contracts with Gateway to run the Ellen Halbert Unit in Burnet County. As with many private prison contracts there are reports of mismanagement and abuse at the Halbert Unit. As a result the Senate Criminal Justice committee will to discuss the lockups and the monies allocated to them. The Chronicle states that SAFPF prisoners collected testimonies to disclose their experiences in the correctional facilities. According to the testimonies of former prisoners:

the SAFPF program – in theory a substance-abuse treatment alternative to hard prison time – instead relies heavily on dubious forms of psychological and physical abuse. Several inmates describe a group punishment known as "tighthouse," during which inmates are forced to sit upright in plastic chairs, unmoving and silent, for as long as 16 hours a day and for weeks to months on end – a "mind-crushing" form of cruelty that has resulted in mental breakdowns and suicide attempts.

The September hearing should provide an interesting overview of the current state of SAFPF lock ups and other in prison treatment programs. We'll be sure to keep you posted!

Waco Tribune Editorializes Against Jail Privatization

Via an excellent post at Grits for Breakfast, the Waco Tribune Herald has an editorial ("Costs of Privatization," July 13) in its Sunday edition about the recent controversy over a privatization plan to address jail overcrowding. I'll leave it to the editorial board to explain their position:

Time after time the state has had to step back from sweeping privatization edicts. Either too few bidders stepped forward to provide services or those who got contracts dropped the ball.

So while it’s troubling that McLennan County commissioners are considering doing the same with their jail, it’s good that they are going to take their time and not take a leap based on misleading advertising.

Yes, privatizing the jail likely will save money. A bidder will do whatever it needs, cut every necessary corner, to meet any dollar figure that will win its way into a government contract.

The fine print is that private enterprise won’t necessarily do the job better, or with sufficient accountability that taxpayers know that it is so.

We acknowledge here that some government services are reasonably contracted out. Food service is one.

But when actual lives are placed in state custody, contracting out the function is fraught with concerns.

The biggest concern about privatizing, aside from the business’s desire to put profit first, is the problem of proprietary information.

A private contractor doesn’t have to reveal information about the possible criminal backgrounds of employees, how it spends public dollars and who else is contributing to it. That’s private.

If a private contractor hired a felon to watch the felons, it’s no one else’s business.

Jailers for McLennan County have vigorously opposed privatization of the jail, and not just out of concern for their own jobs.

They are concerned about the quality of service that might be offered by a for-profit entity. They are concerned about transparency in its operations.

See our previous coverage on the privatization debate in McLennan County:

McLennan County Opposition to Jail Privatization Plan

Sheriff's Deputies Protest Privatization in McLennan County

McLennan County Seeking New Private Jail

Sheriff Receives $12K from CiviGenics

Jail Alternatives Can Save Money

Nueces County Negotiating Higher Rates for LCS Prisons

The Corpus Christi Caller-Times ("Nueces County Seeks More Money for Federal Prisoners," July 9) is reporting that Nueces County is attempting to renegotiate a federal contract to house pre-trial federal detainees for the U.S. Marshals Service in two south Texas private jails operated by LCS Corrections - one in Hidalgo County and one in rural Nueces County.   According to the article,

After spending millions to fix the problems with the Nueces County Jail that led to the removal of federal prisoners in June 2006, the county filed an initial request in January seeking the return of the prisoners with a pay increase.

The county wants to recoup as much as $61.49 per inmate per day to house prisoners at the county jail, up from the $45.15 rate negotiated in 1991. Neal also is negotiating additional compensation for two private detention facilities owned by Louisiana based LCS Corrections Services.

Because the federal government does not deal directly with private detention businesses, LCS has a contract with Nueces County that gives Sheriff Jim Kaelin ultimate responsibility for any prisoner transferred to LCS’ Hidalgo County facility. In exchange, the county gets $2 per prisoner, per day from LCS.

Nueces County's pass-through agreement is one of the more bizarre in that the county actually receives federal money to house prisoners in a private jail in a another county. The newer of the two LCS prisoners that Nueces delivers federal prisoners to is the Robstown facility in Nueces County which has raised environmental concerns that Nicole has reported on over the past few months. 

The feds might have reason to balk at providing more money to LCS when, as the Texas Observer reported in March, the Hidalgo County facility was deemed “at risk," the worst rating in a federal review last year.   According to the Observer,

At East Hidalgo, the inspectors found dozens of violations of federal standards. Medical, dental, and mental health care is virtually nonexistent. Initial medical screenings are performed by unqualified nurses and do not include a physical examination, or an appraisal for chemical dependency, mental retardation, and suicide risk, according to the report. Moreover, the jail has no dentist or mental health professional on-site. A hallway is used as an examination room. Staff are not trained to deal with suicidal detainees despite eight suicide attempts in the year prior to the report.

Security is poor. At the time of the inspection, visitors didn’t even pass through a metal detector when entering the building. The jail has no “specific instructions” on when firearms may be used; no procedures for maintaining weapons or for controlling keys, kitchen tools, and medical equipment; no effective plan for a mass evacuation; and no training program on the use of force.

Sanitation is lacking. Employees are not tested for blood-borne pathogens, increasing the risk of disease to both guards and inmates. Detainees are issued “sporks,” but the utensils are not sanitized, nor are barbering tools.
Two juveniles were discovered by the inspectors at the adult-only detention center and immediately removed. In addition, the report reveals that 19 inmate-on-inmate assaults had occurred in the previous year. After six inmates escaped in 2006, the state jail commission cited the facility for employing too few guards, for the third time.

We'll keep you posted on developments from Nueces County's contract negotiations and from LCS prisons in Texas.

McLennan County Opposition to Jail Privatization Plan

On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to attend and provide testimony to the McLennan County Commissioners Court along with members of the McLennan County Sheriff Officer's Association and the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas about a proposed jail privatization plan.

The meeting, for the third week in a row, was packed with Sheriff's Officers opposing the proposal. The front page of Tuesday's Waco Tribune blared "Jailers to Sheriff: No Privatization," a sentiment that pretty accurately described the mood of the meeting.

The agenda started with public comment which included members of the Waco Police Department, other law enforcement agencies, and members of the public denouncing the privatization plan on the grounds of public safety, job security for those that work at the jail facilities, and the rights of those incarcerated at the jail.

At the beginning on the meeting's formal agenda, a county clerk reported that despite sending a request for proposal nearly a dozen private prison corporations, the county only recieved one proposal - from CEC/CiviGenics which already has a jail contract with the county. I found it odd that the big private prison corporations like CCA and GEO wouldn't submit a bid for this contract, but the single bid might have something to do with CEC/CiviGenics close relationship with the McLennan County Sheriff.

At the end of the meeting I testified along with Ken Witt and Rick White from the Sheriff Officers Association and members of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas. The testimony largely focused on public safety and human rights violations of inmates that tend to occur in private jail facilities.

For more media coverage on the McLennan County jail fight, see these press sources:

Waco Trib: Sheriff Association Calls on Sheriff to Oppose Privatization Plan

Waco Trib: McLennan County Recieves Single Bid for County Jail Proposal

KWTX: McLennan Receives 1 Bid for County Jail

The issue is scheduled to be on this coming Tuesday's county agenda. We'll keep you posted on developments from McLennan County as they come.

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New LCS Prison will Increase Environmental Hazard

Louisiana-based LCS Corrections Services will open up a prison in Nueces County later this year. We recently wrote that the new facility is expected to contribute as much as 150,000 gallons of treated waste water into the Petronila Creek on a daily basis. According to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, locals see problems with the new prison's environmental impact:

... residents living near the creek raised concerns that the additional water from the prison would flood the creek on a more frequent basis...

In an article written by Jaime Powell in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times ("Prison Firm to Clean Up Creek Area," July 4), officials from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality state that the treated wastewater flowing from the prison into the creek must meet strict state quality standards and will be regularly monitored.

We sure hope that is the case. Strict accountability must be undertaken as this prison goes online and contributes to the environmental decline of Petronila Creek.

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Rusk County Expanding Prison by More than 560 Beds

Rusk County Commissioners recently approved the expansion of the East Texas Intermediate Sanction Facility by more than 560 beds. The current maximum capacity numbers 300 beds in the prison that houses both men and women in Henderson, Texas. The Management and Training Corporation (MTC) operates the private prison.

According to reports the expansion will cost $8 million to $10 million dollars. Once again local officials mistakenly believe that increasing prison capacity will improve economic development by adding jobs to the local economy.

This facility expansion is a result of the focus on treatment that took place during the 80th Texas Legislature, that authorized the expansion of state prison capacity that provides substance abuse treatment.

We explained over a year ago that Texas developed a complicated prison terminology to mask the true size of the state's prison population.

It will be interesting to follow the expansion of state prison beds as a result of the 80th Legislature and the implications for private contracts. We'll keep you posted.