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September 2008

Lawmaker Requests AG Opinion

State Represenative, Kevin Bailey (D-Houston), requested an Attorney General (AG) opinion on whether it is legal for a sheriff to accept a fee for work with a private prison company, according to the Waco Tribune ("Texas House member asks state to rule on whether sheriff's pay from work with private detention company is legal," September 21).

Bailey currently chairs the House Committee on Urban Affairs. His AG requests comes after several private contract scandals surfaced. Over the last year, sheriffs in Bexar County and McLennan County have come under scrutiny.

McLennan County officials have rationalized why they believe the payments from private contractors are acceptable. According to an attorney that represents McLennan County, Sheriff Lynch receives a $12,000 salary supplement -- paid to the county from CivicGenics -- for administrative services associated with leasing the county's downtown jail to the private prison company.

Bailey's request asks for certain clarifications in current law.

“Although the sheriff may not actually be a shareholder of the private organization and hold a shareholder’s interest in the private organization, there can be no doubt that the sheriff would have a ‘financial interest’ in the private organizations’ contract with the county if the sheriff receives a sizable administrative fee after approving of the contract if the contract includes such an administrative fee to the sheriff,” Bailey wrote in his letter. “Thus, such an arrangement would violate the spirit and intent, if not the language of the law.”

There are over 256 counties in Texas. Each elects a sheriff that runs and manages the county jail. There is extremely limited oversight these sheriff's actions and their management of the jail. So, further clarification by the AG would be helpful. We will keep you posted on the AG's opinion.

For related coverage see the following posts:
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AP on Idaho Inmates in Texas Private Prisons

Via Grits for Breakfast, The Associated Press's Andrea Jackson has an excellent expose ("Idaho's out-of-state prison population grows," September 21) on the state of Idaho's "Virtual Prison Project," the practice of sending its inmates to out-of-state private prisons, including a number here in Texas. The results of sending prisoners thousands of miles away from family members, support networks, and attorneys has been, predictably, not good:

Drashner, convicted of repeat drunken driving, is one of three Idaho inmates who have died in the custody of private lockups in other states since March 2007. He was the first this year.

On Aug. 18, Twin Falls native Randall McCullough, 37, was found dead in his cell at the Bill Clayton Detention Center in Littlefield, Texas. McCullough was serving time for robbery and authorities believe he committed suicide.

State Department of Correction officials say he left a note, although autopsy results.

His family says he shouldn't have been in Texas at all.

Two of the three deaths in out-of-state private prisons were suicides occuring in GEO Group facilities in Texas. Scot Noble Payne died tragically in the GEO Group's Dickens County Correctional Center after complaining of squalid conditions at the facility. A subsequent report from the Idaho Department of Correction's Health Director called the prison the worst facility he'd ever seen. This summer, Randall McCullough took his own life after spending more than a year in solitary confinement at the Bill Clayton Detention Centerin Littlefield, Texas after a fight in which no criminal charges were filed. According to the story, conditions at Bill Clayton are fairly appalling:

During recent visits to the Bill Clayton Detention Center in Littlefield, Texas — where about 371 Idaho inmates are now held — state inspectors found there wasn't a legal aid staffer to give inmates access to courts, as required by the state contract. Virtual Prison monitors also agreed with Aragon's assessment of the facility.

"No programs are offered at the facility," a state official wrote in a recently redacted Idaho Virtual Prison report obtained by the Times-News. "Most jobs have to do with keeping the facility clean and appear to be less meaningful. This creates a shortage of productive time with the inmates.

"Overall, recreational activities are very sparse within the facility — Informal attempts have been made to encourage the facility to increase offender activities that would in the long run ease some of the boredom that IDOC inmates are experiencing," according to a Virtual Prison report.

The prison has since made improvements, the state said.

Only one inmate case manager worked at Bill Clayton during a recent state visit, but the facility did increase recreation time and implemented in-cell hobby craft programs, Virtual Prison reports show. Other inmate complaints center around the way they the were transported out of state.

Clearly, Idaho is making a mistake in sending prisoners to private prisons out-of-state. The state has options, including investing in drug treatment programs and alternatives to incarceration programs that might have a better success rate than sending folks to lock-ups across the country. As Kathleen reported last year here at Texas Prison Bid'ness, an enormous amount of Idaho's prison population is addicted to drugs or alcohol:

A more rational system would actually look first at whether or not these folks need to be incarcerated, and especially how many of them would benefit from drug treatment in the community. Both Montana and Idaho are stuffing their prisons with folks who are addicted to drugs and alcohol. Idaho's Understanding Growth report from 2006 explained that over 85% of their offenders have substance abuse issues. Montana's in similar boat: they reported last fall that 93% of folks in pre-release have a substance abuse problem. Investments in treatment will get us more of the results we want, and stop the relentless swing of the "revolving door" on state prisons. But instead we get higher prison budgets and less money for drug treatment in and out of prison.
In addition to being poor policy on the part of Idaho's state lawmakers, it's also bewildering that the state of Texas, which has its share of private prison problems, would allow an out-of-state entity to continue to ship prisoners into the state. This especially true when at Texas agency, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, is charged with overseeing these facilities. It may be time for state lawmakers to revisit this policy. In the words of Randall McCullough's sister:

"Idaho should step up to the plate and bring their prisoners home," said his sister, Laurie Williams.

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Wednesday: T. Don Hutto Forum in Georgetown

I'll be speaking at a forum this Wednesday in Georgetown on the T. Don Hutto detention center.  Here are the details:

Immigration Reform Effort sponsors this forum on the controversial T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility in Taylor, run by the for-profit Corrections Corporation of America.

Panelists include Barbara Hines, clinical professor of law and director of the Immigration Clinic at UT School of Law and co-counsel in the lawsuits challenging conditions at T. Don Hutto; Scott Medlock, Attorney; Prisoners' Rights Advocate in the Austin office for the Texas Civil Rights Project; Bob Libal, Texas Coordinator, Grassroots Leadership, which works to abolish for-profit private prisons; and Jose Orta, President, LULAC Council 4721, longtime Taylor resident and critic of T. Don Hutto.

Location: Georgetown Public Library, 402 W. 8th St.

Originally, the forum had been envisioned as a debate between critics of Hutto and public supporters of the prison, including representatives of Corrections Corporation of America, U.S. Representative John Carter, and Williamson County Judge Dan Gattis.  However, as the Austin Chronicle pointed out last week, supporters of the forum have chosen not to participate in the forum:

Immigration Reform Effort founder MaryEllen Kersch, former mayor of Georgetown, conceived the forum to allow the public to confront Hutto authorities. However, as Kersch told the Chronicle, a three-hour conversation with U.S. Rep. John Carter's aide, Jonas Miller, was futile. "Miller related that the congressman is completely supportive of Hutto in every aspect," Kersch said. Another lengthy meeting with WilCo Judge Dan Gattis offered hope. Though afraid of an "ambush," according to Kersch, Gattis "was still open to a discussion." Sweetening the pot, Kersch offered to scrap the "pro" and "con" format and screen audience questions. Still, no dice – Gattis would skip the forum and stand by ICE and CCA, whose officials sent apologies that they wouldn't attend.

Laredo Superjail Grand Opening

The GEO Group's Laredo Superjail, a 1,500 bed federal detention center that attracted opposition in Laredo and around the state, held it's grand opening Wednesday. As someone involved in the organizing against the prison, which will hold mostly immigrants being held under criminal immigration charges under the Orwellian-titled Operation Streamline, I was especially sad to see this prison open. 

I attended the opening, and have to admit it was even more surreal than I could have imagined - complete with a high school mariachi band singing in Spanish, a cake in the shape of the GEO Group's corporate logo, and a slew of new GEO Group prison guards (many of whom looked to be 18 or 19) wearing desert camo style uniforms.

GEO Group executives George Zoley and Wayne Calabrese mingled with local politicos, including Laredo mayor Raul Salinas and Webb County judge Danny Valdez, who apparently have forgotten their respective councils' rejection of GEO's "blood money" a little over a year ago.

The prison will hold pre-trial federal detainees for the U.S. Marshals - many of whom will be immigrants prosecuted for criminal violations under the program Operation Streamline. The facility was proposed back in 2003, and even before the official launch of Streamline, the U.S. Marshals' federal detention capacity was being pushed almost exclusively by expanded criminal prosecution of immigration violations (PDF), a departure from the old style of dealing with immigration issues in the immigration court system.

Simply put, this $100 million gift to the GEO Group comes because the government is holding border-crossers in criminal jail for 30-90 days before transporting them to deportation proceedings. What doesn't seem very "streamline" about this process?

Another Attempted Drug Smuggling Incident at CCA's Mineral Wells Unit

For the second time in a month, a youth has been caught attempting to smuggle drugs into Correction's Corporation of America's Mineral Wells facility, according to a story in the Mineral Wells Index ("Teen Caught Trying to Toss Contraband Into Prison Yard," September 17).

Mineral Wells police were summoned to the Corrections Corporation of America facility early Monday morning after a juvenile was discovered attempting to throw a duffel bag over the fence, officials reported.

According to police officials, they were dispatched at 2:23 a.m. to the pre-parole facility in the 700 block of Heintzelman Road where CCA guards had a 15-year-old boy detained.

The juvenile was reportedly attempting to throw a black duffel bag over the facility's north fence. Inside the bag, police said, were 200 packs of Bugler cigarettes, three bottles of cologne, four cigarette lighters and eight prepaid cell phones. Police officials said some of the devices had phone numbers already programmed in.

The youth allegedly told authorities someone from Houston paid him $1,000 to throw the bag across the fence; despite his reported attempts, he said the bag was too heavy.

Upon the guards' arrival, a woman driving a gray vehicle allegedly left the scene and law enforcement issued a bulletin on the vehicle. The driver was later stopped by the Parker County Sheriff's Office on a traffic stop and identified as a Houston resident. She was then released, police reported.

The juvenile was taken to the Mineral Wells police station where his mother was contacted at a motel in Weatherford, according to officials. The teenager was released and CCA kept the duffel bag “for their evidence,” police reported.

This is the second incident in recent weeks where a juvenile was found allegedly attempting to throw items over the facility's fence.

CCA's Mineral Wells facility has developed quite the reputation, and Grassroots Leadership is currently examining Open Records documents obtained about incidents at the facility. It also appears that our posts about the facility seem to generate more reader comments than posts on other facilities . See our previous coverage of incidents at the facility:

Teen Uses Football to Smuggle Drugs into CCA Prison (8/25/2008)

A Riot at CCA's Mineral Wells Facility? (7/29/2008)

What's Happening at CCA's Mineral Wells Facility? (3/28/2008)

Mineral Wells Still on Lockdown After Two Days of Disturbances (8/17/2007)

Prisoners Escape from CCA Prison (5/31/2007)

Major Incident at Cornell's Big Spring Unit

A major disturbance apparently occurred over the weekend at Houston-based Cornell Companies' Flightline Correctional Center in Big Spring. According to a story on News West 9,

Questions still remain unanswered after a prisoner fire and riot on Friday night. Facility officials are being very cautious of what information is being disclosed.

Big Spring authorities rushed to the scene of a riot and fire from the Flightline Correctional Center near the Big Spring airport. The facility takes prisoners from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services, but since it is a privately owned facility the plan for police was to secure a perimeter.

"The only reason we are here, our only purpose is if spills outside of the fenced facility," Sergeant Tony Everett, with the Big Spring Police Department, said.

In total, about 15 police officers stayed outside managing traffic while Big Spring firefighters went inside.

"My understating is that may be one or two buildings were on fire," Everett said.

Several ambulances left the scene towards Scenic Mountain Medical Center where family members were advised not to disclose any information. But the mother of one of the injured employee was thankful to hear her son was doing better.

"I feel a whole lot better, I feel relieved that he is O.K. Like I said earlier, I just left it in the hands of God and he is the one who pulled me through," Inez Heins, Mother of a facility Employee, said.

NewsWest 9 also received a couple of calls from relatives who say that seven facility staff were injured and were treated for minor injuries. According to officials from the correctional center the riot never posed danger to the public. (emphasis mine)

Three things strike me about this story. First, what were the conditions issues that sparked this disturbance? Private immigrant detention facilities all over Texas have been dogged by allegations of mismanagement, negligent or absent medical and mental health care, sexual assault, and abuse. It would be very interesting to hear what was behind this incident.

Second, the fact that it's operated by a private prison corporation is shielding the facility from public view and accountability, one of the inherent problems with private prison corporations.

Third, this story should be a warning to communities that finance or allow the construction of private prisons in their communities. When private prisons have problems, the use local public resources to fix them. In this case it took 15 additional police officers outside, firefighters inside, the ambulance and hospital costs, etc. It's unclear whether Cornell is offering to reimburse the community for the costs associated with this incident. We'll keep you posted.

Grits Covers Jail Commissary Contract Scandal

Our pal Scott at Grits for Breakfast recently discussed the Potter County jail commissary contract scandal ("Commissary vendor pleads guilty to organized crime charges," September 12).

This latest development emphasizes that as elected officials, Sheriffs, are quite susceptible to corruption and bribery. This is particularly troubling since Sheriffs are the public officials that manage jails and contribute a great deal to local criminal justice policies.

Sheriffs directly impact who comes into their jails and how long they stay. As a result, the fact several sheriffs including those in Bexar and Potter county are known to have taken bribes from private contractors is disgusting.

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Emerald Prison Guard Allegedly Murders Girlfriend

According to an article in the Midland Reporter-Telegram ("Official says shooting victim died instantly," September 10), an Emerald prison guard and the company's Sierra Blanca unit has been arrested under suspicion of shooting his girlfriend to death. According to the story,

A 26-year-old Midland woman did not suffer much, if any, when shot in the lower throat with a heavy caliber pistol in her mother's home last week, a Midland County justice of the peace said Tuesday.

While 30-year-old suspect Benjamin Franklin remains incarcerated in lieu of a $500,000 bond, funeral services are being held at 1 p.m. today for Monica Sandra Beasley at True Lite Christian Fellowship, which she and her three small children attended. ...

... he is charged with killing Beasley with one shot from the Smith & Wesson Sigma semi-automatic pistol that MPD SWAT officers and U.S. Marshals found in his car when he was arrested at 1:30 a.m. last Friday in a Motel 6 parking lot at Grant Avenue and Interstate 20 in Odessa, where he was sleeping.

Franklin told officials he was a prison guard in Hudspeth County near the Texas-Mexico border, according to jail records.

West Texas Detention Facility Warden Barbara Walrath of Sierra Blanca told the Reporter-Telegram Tuesday she was aware of Franklin's incarceration in Midland County Detention Center.

Walrath said her private prison houses 1,000 men and referred additional questions to Emerald Correctional Management Chief Operating Officer Steve Aspman in Scott, La., a Lafayette suburb. Efforts to contact Aspman Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Jauz did not know if any of the victim's children, 2 weeks and 1 and 3 years old, saw the shooting. She said it was not known if Franklin had fathered any of the children.

As we reported last month, Emerald has been expanding this west Texas facility using controversial tent-like structures, such as those damaged used at MTC's Raymondville facility which were damaged in Hurricane Dolly this summer.

More Opposition to MTC's Nacogdoches Prison

There appears to be a growing movement to stop a federally-contracted private prison in Nacogdoches. According to a recent article ("Anti-prison group plans protests; NEDCO CEO, police chief address meeting of nearly 100," September 9) in the Daily Sentinel.

Nearly 100 people attended the third meeting of Citizens Opposed to the Prison Site, which was held Monday night at Liberty Hall.

The group opposes a proposed privately owned prison, which would be built inside Loop 224 on Northwest Stallings Drive. The city commissioners, county commissioners and Nacogdoches Economic Development Corporation unanimously backed the proposal, which would be built and operated by Management and Training Corporation (MTC). Mayor Roger Van Horn said the prison, which would be operated by MTC, could bring in nearly $1 million per month in salaries and up to 300 jobs.

Bill King, CEO of the Nacogdoches Economic Development Corporation, was at the meeting to answer questions from the public. King met with MTC officials who told him that the "vast majority" of employees at the prison would be hired from within the community, though members of the group presented research showing MTC has a history of hiring from within their company. King also said that bringing a prison to the area is a good way of diversifying the economy.

"It offers good-paying jobs to about 300 people," he said. King said NEDCO did quite a bit a of research before supporting the prison, though much of the research was focused on how the prison might negatively affect the community, as opposed to whether or not the prison would have a positive impact.

Daily Sentinel reporter Andrew Goodridge, the author of this article, is giving his readers a rare look at both sides of the "prisons-as-economic-development" debate. As Nicole reported in July, Goodridge published a balanced look at the issue, including the numerous studies (PDF) that show that prison construction hurts long-term economic growth in struggling rural communities.

It appears that opponents of the MTC prison are done with their opposition. According to the article, the group plans yard sign distribution and three upcoming protests:

The COPS group had modified its upcoming organized protest plans and locations prior to Monday night's meeting, according to an agenda posted Monday at the meeting. The group plans to protest on the downtown square beginning at 5 p.m. Sept. 16, just prior to the city commission meeting. A second protest is planned for 11:30 a.m. Friday, Sept. 19, at the corner of North and East Main streets. A third protest is planned at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 20, at the corner of North Street and Northwest Stallings Drive.

See the Citizens Opposed to the Prison Siting (COPS) website for more information on the organizing against this private prison proposal.

Grayson County Moving Ahead with Private Jail Plans Despite Opposition

Grayson County appears to be moving ahead with plans for a new controversial private jail proposal. According to a story in the Herald-Democrat ("Commissioners accept vendors for jail proposals," September 8), the County Commission has issued an RFP to three private prison corporations for the facility.

Grayson County commissioners accepted Monday a list of three vendors as those from whom the county will request proposals for the construction of a new jail.

Commissioners cleared Corrections Corporation of America, Community Education Centers (CiviGenics) and Southwestern Correctional as vendors who would be asked to submit proposals. The proposals will be due by Oct. 1.

Commissioners decided not to seek a proposal from a fourth vendor, Southwestern Correctional. Grayson County Purchasing Agent Jeff Schneider said he recommended commissioners go with Corrections Corporation of America based on the fact that it scored highest on the county's list of requirements. Commissioners accepted that information and also discussed the county's long-standing relationship with CiviGenics, which currently houses inmates the county has to send out of county.

In answering questions from residents who addressed the Court during the public discussion period for the jail issue, County Judge Drue Bynum said there is no timetable for how long the county will take to decide which of the vendors it will use.

The proposal is not without substantial opposition, however. According to the article,

Commissioners also heard from a previous member of their ranks. Carol Shea, three times elected to the commissioner's post for Precinct 3, addressed the Court. She is not in favor of the plan to build a new jail in the location near Sher-Den Mall and said she hasn't talked to anyone who is.

Shea said this is her third round with jails in Grayson County. She said the last time commissioners put the matter to the county residents for a vote, they turned down the idea. She said a citizen's committee also recommended against building a jail. She asked if the construction of a jail in a private public partnership goes forward, who would be responsible if the enterprise fails?

Bynum said the bond holder would be held responsible.

Shea then urged commissioners to make sure that they let the people have a say in the decision about the jail. She said doing so would allow people to "keep their confidence in their elected official."

See our previous coverage of the Grayson County private jail controversy as well as some excellent coverage from Grits for Breakfast.

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