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August 2008

Teen Uses Football to Smuggle Contraband into CCA Prison

This story should be added to the always growing list of private prison scandals, Mineral Wells Index ("Teen Caught with pot near prison" August 25, 2008):

A 14-year-old male was taken into custody late Thursday night near the Corrections Corporation of America facility after they were notified of a “suspicious person” in the 700 block of Heintzelman Road.

According to police reports the youth attempted to send two footballs stuffed with marijuana and cell phones.

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Another Idaho Inmate Commits Suicide in a GEO Group Texas Prison

Yet another Idaho prisoner has committed suicide in a GEO Group prison in Texas, according to an article in the Times-News ("Inmate suicide could be second for prison program" August 21),

The state's Virtual Prison Program is only a year old and the Monday death of inmate Randall McCullough, 37, could be the second suicide involving the initiative outside of Idaho.

Idaho prison officials said Wednesday they're still investigating if McCullough committed suicide at a private contracted facility in Texas - Bill Clayton Detention Center run by the GEO Group Inc. - which is holding 371 inmates each at $51 per day under a contract that expires in July 2009.

The Virtual Prison Program started in July 2007, but the state started putting inmates in non-state owned facilities in October 2005, said Idaho Department of Correction Spokesman Jeff Ray.

Six state inmates have committed suicide since July 2006, not including McCullough, Ray said.

This death follows the tragic death of Scot Noble Payne a year ago at GEO's Dickens County Correctional Center. After Noble Payne's suicide, a subsequent investigation revealed squalid conditions and the Idaho Department of Corrections Health Director called the prison the worst facility he'd ever seen. Incredibly, and against our advice, Idaho didn't bring its prisoners back home, it moved them to other GEO prisons in the state.

Clearly, housing inmates thousands of miles away from family and a support network creates even more isolating conditions for prisoners and makes re-entry much more difficult. Simply put, it's bad public policy. McCullough family sums it better than I can in the Times-News article,

Some of McCullough's family members said they think Idaho should keep its inmates in the state.

IDOC has said building another with 1,500 beds could cost $191 million - not including staff, Ray said.

Family of Idaho inmates housed in other states can't visit them easily, said McCullough's grandmother, Nadine Smith, of Twin Falls. "He was in trouble, he was in prison, but we missed him and wanted to see him."

McCullough's sister, Laurie Williams, of Lynden, Wash., said she hadn't seen him in three years.

"I don't think (Virtual Prison Program) should exist," Williams said. "Idaho should step up to the plate and bring their prisoners home."

Prisoners are isolated even more when distanced from their families, said Williams. "That's all they have to look forward to. They have nothing else except the people in there ... That's damn lonely."

Texas should strongly consider a disallowing prison facilities from importating out-of-state prisoners.  We don't want to have to be writing a similar story about and Idaho inmate at a GEO Group Texas prison next summer.

House Corrections Committee Hearings Thursday

The Texas House Corrections Committee will be holding an interim meeting tomorrow (Thursday, August 20th) to discuss several items. None are specifically about private prisons, but the conversation about Texas State Jails, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's prisons for felonies carrying a sentence of two years or less, should of interest to Texas Prison Bid'ness readers. Here's the information from the Committee's website:

COMMITTEE: Corrections
TIME & DATE: 9:00 AM, Thursday, August 21, 2008
PLACE: E2.016
CHAIR: Rep. Jerry Madden

The House Committee on Corrections will hear invited and public testimony
on the following interim charges:

1. Explore the use of technology practices that improve efficiency, safety, and coordination of criminal justice activities on the state, local, and county levels.

2. Consider new strategies for meeting prisoner reentry challenges in Texas, including the evaluation of programs with documented success. This review should include the availability of housing and occupational barriers.

3. Provide a comprehensive analysis and study of the Texas state jail system, including original intent for use, sentencing guidelines, and effectiveness. Develop suggestions for changes and improvements in the state jail system.

Scott Hensen over at Grits for Breakfast covers the hearings including a statement from Texas Criminal Justice Coalition about findings regarding prisoner re-entry programs that they will release at tomorrow's hearings.

Feeling the Heat, Corrections Corp. Launches "The CCA 360" to Respond to Critics

Corrections Corporation of America has launched The CCA 360.com a website for the corporation to respond to critics. You'd think that a leading corporation in a billion dollar industry such as private prisons would be able to come up with something more catchy than "The CCA 360" for a website, but apparently not. The website is a response to ongoing criticism of the private prison industry generally and CCA's operations more specifically. According to a front-page post by CEO John Ferguson:

For people seeking the unfiltered, full 360-degree view of CCA, we have created this Web site - TheCCA360.com. This site provides greater detail about news coverage of CCA, including the publicized tragic death of an inmate in a CCA facility, and viewpoints we’ve shared with our customers and employees.

The website apparently was developted to take on criticism of the company's operations by non-governmental organizations and activists though Texas Prison Bid'ness has not yet made the company's hit-list! Our friend Alex Friedmann, the former CCA prisoner whose efforts seem to have de-railed the federal judicial nomination of former CCA chief counsel Gus Puryear has. The website also addresses critics of CCA's T. Don Hutto family detention center claiming, as ICE has in the past, that improvements at Hutto had nothing to do with public protests, a litigation settlement, or widespread media scrutiny.

As soon as CCA was selected to assist ICE with this pressing need, ICE and CCA began working together to renovate the facility to meet the needs of its new population. While extensive media coverage has implied that reforms were the result of litigation, ICE maintained a deliberate and systematic program for the development of the Hutto facility throughout the period of the contract. That contract and that development process are still ongoing.

I'm not sure that I believe that, seeing as none of the improvements to Hutto were apparently made before the facility was condemned in a series of protests and news articles starting in December 2006. Regardless, this new CCA website should give private prison opponents an interesting look into the company's public relations machine.

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CCA Spends $240K on Federal Lobbying Last Quarter

We reported last week that Corrections Corporation of America was still betting on the trend of increasing immigration detention after the change in presidential administration next year. It appears that CCA isn't waiting to see if the trend continues. According to the Associated Press ("Corrections Corp. spent $240K lobbying in 2Q," August 15), CCA spent $240,000 on federal lobbying in the second quarter of 2008.

That doesn't quite keep up with the breakneck lobbying pace CCA exhibited in 2007, when the company spent $2.5 million on lobbying Congress and federal agencies such Immigration Customs and Enforcement, the Justice Department, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

OpenSecrets.org which operates a terrific lobbying database, puts CCA's total 2008 lobbying number a bit higher at $480,000, while GEO Group has spent $120,000 thus far in 2008 and Houston-based Cornell has spent $60,000 in federal lobbying.

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Grassroots Protests in Opposition to Private Prisons Sitings

Our pal Scott Henson at Grits for Breakfast posted last week a roundup of grassroots campaigns against private prison sitings. According to Scott:

It's surprising how many acrimonious local debates are going on right now in Texas over jail and prison privatization.

Scott also highlights the grassroots strategies employed by a private prison opposition group in Nacogdoches, Citizens Opposed to the Prison Site (COPS). The community organization is calling for citizens to move their money out of local banks and to boycott the businesses of public officials that are supporting the private prison construction.

Scott goes on to offer additional analysis regarding private prison debate in Nueces County and why the construction of a new prison has a complicated history.

The grassroots actions taking place in Nueces and McClennan Counties are some of the most interesting in the state. The opposition of local citizens to private prison construction proves that this issue continues to resonate with folks in all communities throughout the state and that incarceration policy impacts us all.

CCA Still Betting on Increasing ICE Detention in New Presidential Administration

I just read the Corrections Corporation of America Second Quarter Earnings Conference Call transcript (one can listen to the call online here). While Texas prisons didn't specifically come up in the call, I found several statements by CCA chiefs enlightening.

When asked by an investment analyst representing Avondale Partners what a change in immigration policy in a new McCain or Obama administration might mean for company's interests, CEO John Ferguson answered with this statement:

When it comes to the two candidates I am not sure that to be a great deal of difference then go back to because if you member back in April a year ago when there was an attempt to try to have some kind of comprehensive plan. The plan that was structured and was being considered was in fact support by Bush. So I think Congress is probably going to have more to do with driving the public policy. Then whoever is the new President and as I remember, I think McCain was supported of the compromising some way. So, I don't know about Obama but I am sure he is supporting those some of the comprehensive approach.

They are saying, that we tried to evaluate, when then was what affect would it have and one of the interesting thing was that, compromise was going to benefit those who had not, entered the United States illegally after January 1, 2007. So, if you had entered the country illegally from January 1, 2007 going forward then you would not benefit from the compromise.

So, one of the first thing we do, was to check and see how many of the 6,000 did it take of inmates that we have that have done that and I think we identified 750 would have benefited from the legislation. So what happens is that there are some who will continue to have the attempt to secure the borders, which means that, there will still be folks trying to enter the country illegally after, whatever compromises pass and those will need to be detained.

And then if you remember, we talk about that lots of different sources of illegals that would be dealt with, there was to be the requirement of maybe returning to Mexico or other country. If that happened, then we would make… could make criminals or folks that are here in a different ways than just being here legally. Based on that there was… they are also numerous folks that are here with criminal records. A lot of the inmates that we receive in our Arizona facilities for example, I guess all of our facilities or people who are being released from either the state, federal or local corrections systems.

And so, they are being released because they have committed a crime in some cases beyond just being here illegally, and their sense to let's say the inmates that we house that any of our CAR facilities, once they serve their time, then they are not releasing out in state, they are turned over to ICE, ICE then detains them and then ICE, then they go to their deportation here and they get deported. So, fair amount of the ICE detainees that we have responsibility for any day or people who have been released from serving from being [inaudible] or even being detained in a jail, before they leave.

So, there are still just lots of folks and like I said, if it's 12 million, 20 million whatever the number, there are still going to be folks that are going to be defined as being, needed to be detained, whatever the compromise is. And then you will also continue to have folks, who will still try to enter the United States and they will not be getting any benefits from the new legislation. So, it is hard to forecast other than I would say that 32,000 or 33,000 or 33,400 whatever the funding ends up being, is still not funding for a lot of beds, when you look at the needs of the ICE and border patrol.

While there's no smoking-bullet quote in Ferguson's statement, it's clear that the company is relying on no real immigration reform to continue to boost profits.

McLennan County Votes for New Private Jail

Just over a week after McLennan County voted not to privatize their existing jail and only two days after the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas asked for an investigation into suspicious dealings between the county and private prison company CEC/CiviGenics, the McLennan County Commissioners Court has voted to authorize a new 871-bed jail to be operated by CEC/CiviGenics. According to the Waco Trib blog,

A split McLennan County commissioners court voted Wednesday to renew its contract with Community Education Centers of New Jersey to operate the downtown McLennan County Detention Center and authorized CEC to finance, build and operate a new 871-bed jail adjacent to the one on State Highway 6.

With Commissioners Lester Gibson and Joe Mashek voting against the proposal, County Judge Jim Lewis and Commissioners Ray Meadows and Wendall Crunk voted during a budget work session Wednesday to allow the private company to build the new jail at no cost to the taxpayers.

Commissioners recessed their regular Tuesday morning meeting instead of adjourning it, which allowed them to take action at Wednesday’s session.

The fact that this decision was reached in a special session, outside the watchful eye of the law enforcement officers that have opposed privatization, against the advice of the local paper, and with a split Commission will not make this decision any more popular. I have a feeling this isn't the last we've hear on the McLennan County private jail fight.

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More Heat for CEC/CiviGenics in McLennan County; CLEAT Calls for Investigation

McLennan County is shaping up to be the biggest private prison fight in the state right now, and the rhetoric keeps getting hotter. We've reported that a CEC/CiviGenics proposal to take over the existing county jail was defeated last week. Now, a proposal for a new 1,000 bed private CEC/CiviGenics jail is under fire as well.

The Combined Law Enforcement Agencies of Texas or CLEAT, the union representing jailers in McLennan County, is calling for an investigation into potentially improper dealings between county officials and the private prison corporation. According to another good article by Waco Tribune writer Tommy Witherspoon,

A spokesman for the state’s largest law enforcement association is calling for state and federal investigations into dealings between McLennan County officials and a private detention corporation as the county continues to negotiate jail contracts.

“First of all, we don’t believe anything that officials in McLennan County say anymore,” said Charley Wilkison, political and legislative director for the 16,500-member Combined Law Enforcement Agencies of Texas. “The credibility gap in this county is incredible.”

According to the article, the CLEAT's concerns center around Sheriff Lynch's acceptance of additional money from the private prison corporation on top of his county salary, and whether that relationship has tainted his ability to objectively decide on the issue of privatization.

Wilkison said he will ask Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to investigate whether Lynch violated the Texas Public Information Act by failing to respond to CLEAT’s open-records requests for all correspondence between Lynch and CEC officials.

He said he also is seeking state and federal investigations about whether Lynch lawfully and ethically can accept money from the private vendor or whether it is a conflict of interest when he helps decide the fate of the jail system.

“The sheriff has taken $91,000 of personal money that goes into his bank account, and then he says: ‘I am still able to decide. I am still OK deciding whether it is in our best interest to privatize.’ That old dog won’t hunt. Nobody here believes that.”

Even more damningly, the allegations from CLEAT also include that the Sheriff has manufactured an overcrowding crisis as an excuse for privatization and expansion of the county jail - an account which, if true, is certainly well beyond the pale.

"We think inmates are being kept in jail to create an artificial public safety crisis so the hue and cry for a new jail can come and the new jail can be privatized and built by CEC,” Wilkison said.

Lewis scoffed at that notion and said Wilkison’s claims are off-target. He said Lynch is paid the same in the contract with CEC whether there are 300 prisoners or none.

“It is still his responsibility to oversee that jail,” Lewis said. “By statute, it is the sheriff’s responsibility, whether it was Jack or Larry. That contract has not changed, and up until 20 months ago, we didn’t have a prisoner in that jail. So does that logic make any sense?”

Wilkison also charged that Lewis’ office is using “stalling tactics” by asking for an attorney general’s opinion about whether his office has to release 170 pages from CLEAT’s open-records request that Lewis claims are attorney-client privilege. Wilkison said Lewis’s office has released 1,300 pages to CLEAT pursuant to the

“We believe somewhere in that 170 pages will be some of the information that will tell the tale about how you get only one bid on a private prison,” Wilkison said. “If they have nothing to hide, then they have nothing to worry about. If they have done nothing wrong, then they should release it anyway."

The dispute has apparently spilled over into today's County Commission meeting. According to the Waco Trib blog,

McLennan County commissioners debated for two hours this morning without resolution on whether a private company should operate the downtown jail, and Precinct 3 Commissioner Joe Mashek said that County Judge Jim Lewis violated federal antitrust laws by allowing a Houston contractor to visit the county jail in August 2007, a year before the county requested proposals for construction of a new jail.

The county received one proposal from Community Education Centers, which has had a contract to operate the downtown county jail since 1999.

The contractor that visited, Hale Mills Construction Ltd., was named by CEC as a contractor/builder on the proposal it submitted for the new jail.

Mashek said the visit allowed Hale Mills representatives to have an unfair advantage in the county’s request-for-proposal process.

We'll keep you updated as this dramatic story from McLennan County continues...

GEO Group Reports on Expanding Capacity in Texas

The GEO Group, Inc. (GEO) held a conference call for investors earlier this month. During the call, GEO reported on policy developments that will impact private prison capacity in Texas and beyond. GEO officials stated that the company's private prison capacity is scheduled to increased by 5,900 beds during 2008, representing a 12% year-to-year increase in bed space. During 2007, the prison profiteer had a capacity of 48,260 and grew to 54,160 beds in 2008.

Several private prison units owned or managed by GEO opened for business in recent weeks, with more prison beds on the way. According George Zoley, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of GEO, continued demand from federal clients are driving private prison expansion in Texas and other states. Zoley stated that client demand among the agencies of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), United States Marshals Service (USMS), and the Bureau of Prissons (BOP) will lead GEO to open three new major facilities in Texas for an increase of 3,200 beds in the lone star state.

According to Zoley, the desire of federal clients to consolidate prison populations into the same facilities drove the company to construct new prisons that could accommodate customer needs. As a result GEO is bringing online the three new facilities in Texas.

During the call, Zoley mentioned that this would free up approximately 1,000 beds in Texas as the private prison company shifts federal prisoners and detainees to the new facilities it is bring online. Apparently, ICE, USMS, and BOP are coordinating their prison populations so that some of their prisoners can be held in the same facilities.

Investors questioned GEO's decision to construct new private prisons that would result in 1,000 empty beds in Texas. Zoley assured his investors that despite temporary population reductions at certain facilities, new inflows of detainees as a result of current policy will result in normalizing occupancy levels at older prisons once the new private prisons are at capacity.

It is incredibly troubling listening to the exchange between Zoley and GEO investors regarding the profitability of the company's given the empty 1,000 beds that result from new construction and the consolidation of federal prison populations. After all, each bed does represent a human being for a period of time, many of whom have families and ties to their communities. We encourage everyone to listen to the GEO conference call, it is incredible how criminal justice policy can be reduced to dollars and cents for prison privateers. 

Read more about GEO Group's ongoing problems with prisons in Texas

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