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February 2009

GEO Prisoner Riots Could Cost Reeves County More Than $1 Million

The two riots in past two months at the GEO Group's Reeves County Detention Center that have injured inmates, resulted in guards being taken hostage, and destroyed much of the the facility were apparently sparked by lack of medical care at the facility and several inmate deaths. Now, the county may be on the hook for over $1 million in repairs to the prison, according to an article for KRISTV.com ("West Texas prison riots cost county $1.1 million),

A pair of destructive prison riots in the span of two months at a county-owned but privately managed West Texas prison have cost more than $1.1 million in repairs, according to Reeves County records.

The Reeves County Commission unanimously approved more than $948,000 in repair bills from the riots during a regular meeting Monday and previously OK'd about $320,000 in repair costs.

Reeves County Judge Sam Contreras said it may be some time before officials know the total cost of the riots. The first incident was sparked by an inmate's death in December, and the second incident erupted Jan. 31. But insurance officials have estimated its repairs could exceed $20 million, Contreras said.

"They said we won't know until all the bids come in," Contreras said Wednesday.

In the latest incident, which relatives of inmates said was sparked by poor medical care and other conditions inside the sprawling prison complex, inmates caused widespread damages, even setting fire to one building.

Contreras said two recreation buildings suffered substantial damage in the second riot and one may be demolished.

The Reeves County Detention Center is owned by the county, but Boca Raton, Fla.-based GEO Group Inc., manages the facility that houses about 3,000 federal criminal immigrant inmates. The American Civil Liberties Union has called for a federal probe of the compound.

In fact, no state agency can enter the facility to inspect it. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards, the agency which until the passage of HB 3517 in 2003 had oversight of county-owned facilities holding federal prisoners, is charged with helping counties avoid liability problems. Adan Muñoz, the head of TCJS, expressed support for reversing 3517 at Monday's meeting of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal Justice. As Nick posted last week,

Expanding TCJS to additional county-owned facilities like Reeves would force the affected prisons to meet basic minimum standards set for other county-owned jails in Texas, positively impacting public safety by decreasing riots and hopefully eliminating hostage situations, and better protecting guards
by forcing observation of a 48-1 inmate-staff ratio. It would also insulate Reeves County from some of the liability for problems at the facility.

It would also hopefully eliminate some of the atrocious conditions we continue to hear from families with loved ones detained at places like Reeves. For background information on the Reeves situation, see our previous coverage:

Family Members Protest GEO Group in Reeves County, February 14, 2009

Reeves County Denies Access to GEO Prison to Attorney Juan Guerra, February 12, 2009

Reeves County Detention Center on Fire Again, February 6, 2009

Second Riot in Two Months Leaves Injuries, Significant Damage, February 4, 2008

Riots and Mysterious Deaths at GEO's Reeves County facility, December 22, 2008

Burnet County Opening New Private Jail

Via our friend Scott at Grits for Breakfast, Burnet County has moved forward with the construction of a new private jail that is an outrageous five times the size of it's current jail, according to an article in the Central Texas Business Journal ("Private jail to relieve Burnet County," January 23rd),

Relief is coming to the overcrowded Burnet County Jail in the form of a new $27 million privately operated correctional facility.

Work should wrap up in April on the new 90,000-square-foot jail on Ellen Halbert Drive, which will hold 587 beds — more than five times as many as the county’s current jail.

Due to overcrowding, the county has had to transport overflow inmates to a jail in the nearby community of Crystal City and pay to keep them there. With the opening of the new jail, inmate movement will be reversed and Burnet County will begin taking in overflow from other corrections facilities. The county will start by leasing out about 100 beds in the jail.

Southwestern Correctional LLC, based in Rayville, La., is managing the private jail. But the Burnet County sheriff remains responsible for the inmates and will have a liaison on site daily to monitor operations. Southwestern Correctional operates one other Texas correctional facility and eight in Louisiana.

I reported in November 2007 that local opposition to the jail project was large and informed, but it looks like the public officals ignored that opposition and went with the prison developers plan. Burnet County will be on the financial hook for the facility - they've issued revenue bonds, which taxpayers were not allowed to vote on, for the facility meaning the prison must remain full for the county to meet its debt obligations. How will they do that? According to the story, by bringing in federal inmates.

Revenue bonds from the Public Facilities Commission paid for the new jail and those bonds will be paid off through the fees the county collects by housing inmates from other counties and correctional departments that may contract for space, such as the U.S. Marshals or the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

It's not clear whether a contract with ICE or the Marshals has been secured. We'll keep you posted.

Sunset Recommendations for TCJS

As the 81st Regular Session swings into gear, legislators will consider statutory changes to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) recommended by the Texas Sunset Advisory Committee. Bob submitted Grassroots Leadership's recommendations to Sunset last August, and the Commission adopted the recommendation that TCJS should receive better funding and more staff. Recommendations for TCJS, revealed in the Sunset Commission's January report, seek to improve operations at TCJS and make the agency run more effectively.

These are most of the Sunset Commission's recommendations for TCJS:

  1. Increase funding for TCJS, specifically for technical assistance, inspection staff, and training programs for guards, including training on mental health and physical health issues.
  2. Require TCJS to develop a list of risk factors affecting jails, such as a jail’s compliance history, population figures, complaints, escapes, recent turnover among sheriff s and jail staff, and to use those factors to determine the overall risk level of each jail under its jurisdiction.
  3. Require TCJS to use identified risk factors to guide the allocation of agency resources, so that the agency's 248 jails aren't necessarily divided among four inspectors. Instead, inspector assignments, travel schedules, and use of technical assistance and training would be set according to a TCJS risk assessment plan that includes each facility's risk level.
  4. Require the agency to increase its use of unannounced inspections, and to target unannounced inspections towards facilities with elevated risk factors.
  5. Require the agency to disseminate best practices
  6. Require the agency to better use technology, like email list-serves, electronic newsletters, and its existing website to disseminate valuable information, such as updates in case law, best practices, and notes from Commission meetings that would be valuable
  7. Require the Commission to develop clear, regularly updated internal policies and procedures, so staff understand their unique job responsibilities
  8. Require the Commission to develop complaint procedures, track and analyze complaints, and provide better information about how to file a complaint.
  9. Require the Commission to provide the public with easily accessible information on the compliance status of jails, through newsletters, the agency's website, or press releases
TCJS oversees all of the county and municipal jails in the state with just four inspectors, and the agency is miraculously able to inspect each of the 248 jail facilities every fourteen months. If you don't read the report (you should; it's a quick read), take some time to absorb these other impressive numbers relayed be the Sunset Staff:
"The Commission inspects each jail on an annual basis to determine compliance with standards. An inspection lasts between one day and a week or more, depending on the size of the facility. In fiscal year 2008, the agency completed 350 inspections, including 250 annual inspections, 85 repeat inspections, and 15 special inspections. Thirty-six percent, or 91, of the annual inspections were unannounced." pg. 38

"In fiscal year 2008, the Commission received 1,129 complaints from inmates, family members, and others regarding jail conditions. Th e agency employs a full-time complaint investigator who receives complaints in writing, over the internet, by email, or by telephone, and conducts investigations as necessary." pg. 40
Of the 248 facilities TCJS currently oversees, 19 are private. Only one of the private facilities, Community Educational Centers' Limestone County Detention Center, was listed as noncompliant as of August 31, 2008.

We hope the legislature will consider allowing the agency to oversee other county-owned jails, like GEO Group's Reeves County Detention Center. As Nicole and Bob wrote, prisoners rioted and set fires to Reeves in late December of last year and early this February to protest poor medical care and a mysterious inmate death at the facility.

Expanding TCJS to additional county-owned facilities like Reeves would force the affected prisons to meet basic minimum standards set for other county-owned jails in Texas, positively impacting public safety by decreasing riots and hopefully eliminating hostage situations, and better protecting guards by forcing observation of a 48-1 inmate-staff ratio. It would als insulate Reeves County from some of the liability for problems at the facility. 
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Business of Detention Nominated for SXSW Interactive Awards

The Business of Detention website, a project of Columbia University journalism students Renee Feltz and Stokely Baksh which analyzes CCA's growing business in immigrant detention, has been selected as a 2009 Finalist in the "Student" category at the South by Southwest Interactive Web Awards.  The website also features interviews from TPB founder Judy Greene and myself.

Here's a sample:

 

The website will also compete for a People's Choice Award, which you can vote fore here.  Winners are announced March 15, 2009.

Emerald Corrections Building New ICE Detention Center in Mineral Wells

Emerald Corrections appears to be fast-tracking a proposed immigrant detention center in Mineral Wells, according to an article in the Mineral Wells Index ("ICE facility project heating up; Federal detention facility plans moving forward," February 13),

Emerald Companies will be submitting permitting and zoning plans to the city this week as the next step toward building an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement detainee facility in Mineral Wells.

“I see no stumbling blocks or hindrances at this point,” Steve Afeman, chief operating officer of Emerald Companies, said.

The Mineral Wells Industrial Foundation and Emerald Companies entered into an option agreement Jan. 15.

“Basically, they’ve got 90 days to exercise their option … or they don’t get the land,” Industrial Foundation’s Steve Butcher said. “This makes us [feel the project] is moving ahead.”

Mineral Wells is already home to a state-contracted Corrections Corporation of America pre-parole and transfer facility that was the site of four smuggling arrests last year and at least one riot.  See Nick's three part investigative series for more information. This facility also seems to spark considerable interest in our readers, with many family members commenting on conditions at the facility and many defenders of the prison posting lengthy rebuttals of our posts.

The major questions that jump out to me on the current Emerald proposal are:

  1. Is there a need for yet another ICE detention facility in Texas?  See the Detention Watch Network's map of detention facilities in Texas for a graphic illustration of the growing system of immigrant detention in Texas.  Is there any guarantee that the Obama administration will continue the policy of ever-expanding detention capacity?
  2. Who will pay for the financing of this facility?  Several counties have floated substantial debt to build federal detention centers, often to mixed results.  More information on this practice available at PublicBonds.org
  3. Is there already a contract for ICE detainees to be held at the facility or is this a speculative prison in a place where Emerald is hoping for a contract.  These are certainly different propositions. 

We'll let you know if we discover the answers to these questions and more news from Mineral Wells.  

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Family Members Protest GEO Group in Reeves County

Family members of immigrant prisoners held at the GEO Group's troubled Reeves County Detention Center protested on Thursday against conditions at the prison, according to a video post at Permian Basin 360 ("Family Members of Inmates at the Reeves County Detention Protest," February 12),

Family members started protesting outside the Pecos Courthouse early this morning. They denounced the prison’s management by chanting shut GEO down, and holding signs up.

Then, they moved their protest to the Reeves County Detention Center to see if they could get any word on their family members inside. But, it didn’t go the way they wanted. “We want GEO out completely out. We want the federal government to run our prisons,” protester Maria Reynaga said. These protesters came to Pecos on Thursday with questions. “They pay more attention to dogs in the animal shelter. How come they can't do that to our prisoners? There not animals...there prisoners...they're human beings," a protester said.

Some traveled as far as Oklahoma City to in Pecos today to be the voice outside, of the prisoners inside. "Things are pretty bad inside they have him in cells that still have odor of the smoke and everything and they have them with out clothes. They are giving them cold food," Reynaga said.

Juan Angel Guerra an attorney representing about 200 of the inmates was hired by all people protesting today. But, Guerra still hasn’t been allowed inside the prison to meet with his clients. "We are just asking them to let Juan Guerra in and so he can see our prisoners so he can bring us news about them. We are very worried about them, “Reynaga said. “This would of never happened in a government run prison or state run prison. This is what happens when a private prison like GEO is making billion of dollars," Guerra said. 

For more news from Pecos, check out Tom Barry's excellent coverage of the issue over at Border Lines Blog

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Speaker Appoints House Committees

Speaker Joe Strauss (R-Bexar) appointed House Committees today. There was a change in the House Corrections Committee. During the 81st session, Jim McReynolds (D-Lufkin) will chair the Corrections committee. Other committee members include:

  • Jerry Madden (R- Collin) -- former chair
  • Terry Hodge (D-Dallas)
  • Kirk England (D-Dallas)
  • Harold Dutton (D-Houston)
  • Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham)
  • Marisa Marquez (D-El Paso)
  • Armando Martinez (D-Hildalgo)
  • Sid Miller (R-Stephenville)
  • Solomon Ortiz, Jr. (D-Corpus Christi)
  • Ralph Sheffield (R-Temple)

From my experience at the lege, McReynolds is a strong appointment to chair the committe. And with Madden serving has Vice-Chair, many of the strong reforms instituted in previous sessions under his leadership should influence the committee going forward.

Kolkhorst's appointment should temper any bad legislation that private prison profiteers will attempt to push this session. Kolkhorst has Huntsville in her district -- home to many of the state's prisons including the Prison Museum. Further, her prison guard constituents will work with her to represent their interests.

And Hodge and Dutton are strong supporters of criminal justice reform efforts. Both have a long history of iniatiating and supporting policy solutions that result in a more humane and fair system.

On the Senate side, the appointments were made a few weeks ago. The only new appointment to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee committe this year was Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) The committee continues to be chaired by Senate Dean John Whitmire (D-Houston). Other committee members include:

  • Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo)
  • John Carona (R-Dallas)
  • Rodney Ellis (D-Houston)
  • Glenn Hegar (R-Katy)
  • Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa (D-El Paso)

We have covered previously that Senator Hinojosa raised concerns about private prison oversight. See also, Grits for Breakfast's analysis of the committee assigments.

With committee leadership in both chambers appointed, the work can begin. We will monitor closely any developments regarding private prisos this session and post developments as they happen. Stay tuned...

Reeves County Refuses Access to GEO Prison to Attorney Juan Guerra

Former Willacy County attorney Juan Guerra is holding a rally today in Pecos, home to the GEO Group's Reeves County Detention Center, where two riots in the past two months were allegedly caused by protests of poor medical care and deaths at the facility. Guerra is representing several hundred inmates at the facility, and the rally was meant to highlight concerns of families of those prisoners, many of whom will be joining him at the prison today.

However, the Reeves County Attorney has denied access Guerra access to the troubled facility and his clients, according to an article in the Valley Morning Star ("Guerra denied access to Pecos prisoners," February 11),

County lawyers in this West Texas city have told attorney Juan Angel Guerra that he cannot meet with his clients inside a prison plagued by riots.

In a letter sent to Guerra, Willacy County's former district attorney, Reeves County officials state that his visit would be unsafe. "We are doing everything possible to meet your request," Reeves County Attorney Alva Alvarez wrote. "However, since the facility was destroyed, there is no secure place for you to meet with your clients at this time."

Before receiving notice of the county's decision, Guerra headed to the Reeves Detention Center in Pecos, which is managed by the GEO Group. Guerra said he would file a request to a federal judge to gain access to nearly 200 clients. In her letter, Alvarez said the county hopes to accommodate Guerra in the near future.

See our previous coverage of the Reeves County Detention Center:

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Strike Averted at GEO's South Texas Detention Center in Pearsall

A strike at GEO Group's Pearsall immigrant detention center was narrowly averted this week after close vote of union members, according to an article from KRIS TV ("Strike averted at South Texas detention center," February 11),

Guards at one of the nation's largest immigrant detention facilities have approved a new labor contract rather than strike.

Union workers at the South Texas Detention Facility in Pearsall ratified the new deal late Wednesday that union leaders say promises improved equipment and increases the likelihood of wage increases. Chief union negotiator Howard Johannssen said the new three-year contract passed by a slight margin but declined to release the vote.

Negotiations with The GEO Group Inc. had been ongoing for months. Guards threatened to walk off the job unless a deal was reached this week, and brought about 100 picketing signs to the negotiating table.

About 1,400 detainees are being held at the South Texas facility because of their immigration status, and more than 300 workers there are union members.  A strike would have been the latest problem in Texas for GEO, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based private contractor disrupted by two recent inmate riots at a West Texas federal prison.

The Pearsall facility was rocked last year by allegations of sexual assault by guards on detainees as well as persistent accusations that health care at the facility is dismal.  Guards at the prison are organized under the Security, Police, and Fire Professionals of America, and are the only union staff at a GEO prison in the United States, according to an article in the Associated Press ("Accord may avert guard strike," February 11),

Union workers said the safety of detention officers had been compromised by poor equipment and new guards who have not received proper training.

Located about 60 miles south of San Antonio, the Pearsall detention center is the only unionized GEO facility in the nation, union officials say. Workers sought increased wages, more affordable health benefits and improved working conditions.

We'll keep you posted on the latest from Pearsall.  

McLennan CEC/CiviGenics Jail Put on Remedial Order by TCJS

The McLennan County CEC/CiviGenics facility has been put on remedial order by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards at that agency's February 5th meeting, according to an article in the Waco Tribune ("McLennan County Detention Center warden says jail will be back in compliance soon," February 7), 

The warden of a privately operated jail in Waco says his staff had corrected all but one deficiency noted in a December inspection before he met this week with the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Despite the improvements, the commission still placed the downtown McLennan County Detention Center under a remedial order until officials from Community Education Centers, which leases the jail from McLennan County, take further corrective measures and another inspection is conducted.

Of course, McLennan County has been home to a fierce battle over the creation of a new private jail.  CEC/CiviGenics was the lone bidder for an RFP to take over the county jail in McLennan, an effort that was beat back primarily by opposition from the McLennan County Sheriff Officer's Association.  Within months, a new proposal for a new contract jail, to be operated by CEC/CiviGenics was passed by a divided court. 

Opponents may have had good reason to object.  According to the Waco Tribune article, there were several reasons why the existing CEC/CiviGenics jail was placed on remedial order,

The most serious issue cited in the remedial order was that CEC officials failed to properly maintain a 1-to-48 staff-to-inmate ratio. The order limited the number of inmates the facility could house before it hired more guards, thus cutting profits from CEC’s contracts with federal agencies to house prisoners.

Wilson said the order stemmed from several weekends on the night shift in October and November when the jail was short-staffed. Additional officers were hired immediately to fill the void, putting the jail back into compliance, the warden said.

Last month, an 18-year-old former CEC guard was indicted for providing contraband to inmates for reportedly allowing two of his former high school buddies who landed in jail to use his cell phone.

Other citations that have been corrected, Wilson said, was a determination that inmates were placed in cells before they were properly classified to assess their threat levels and that water pressure and water temperature were insufficient in certain areas of the jail. 

See our previous coverage of the CEC/CiviGenics fight in McLennan County:

 

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