It has only been about two weeks since the Montgomery County scandal regarding budget shenanigans providing an under the table contract for The GEO Group to open a new psychiatric hospital to shadow the County jail. However, the jail is in the news again, this time because of reports from the counsel of R. Allen Stanford ("Stanford feels the heat in Conroe cell," Houston Chronicle, July 27):
"Lawyers for R. Allen Stanford want him moved from a private prison in Montgomery County because there's no air conditioning, and at times no lighting, in the cell he shares with up to 10 other inmates... [he] has been held at Joe Corley Detention Facility in Conroe since he was arrested and brought to Texas from Virginia last month. He and other Stanford executives are accused of running a multi-billion dollar fraud through an offshore bank and a Houston financial services firm. He has pleaded not guilty. Although other defendants are free on bail, a Houston federal judge ordered that Stanford remain in custody, saying he is a flight risk. In court filings, attorney Dick DeGuerin says the cell Stanford shares was without power for part of last week when temperatures topped 100 degrees and 'has been without air conditioning for at least a week. There are no windows for light or ventilation and the conditions are intolerable."
Another report claimed one of Stanford's cellmates is an elderly diabetic and another man has a heart condition, each person spending a "week in total darkness" and in the Texas heat without air conditioning (or presumably fans if the electricy is off) ("Stanford in the dark," WaToday.com.au, July 28). Additionally, local weather reports for Conroe, TX have only reported three days this month where temperatures have broken 100 degrees, so these allegations of temperatures going higher than 100 last week were most likely exaggerated. Below is the observed temperatures in Conroe for the week prior:
While the temperatures were below 100, the added factors of no electricity and high population cells would certainly add to the heat. The GEO Group did not comment on the condition of the facility, so there was no indication that the problems have been solved. Since The GEO Group plans to open a psychiatric hospital in this very same city, citizens and skeptics hope that they will fix the existing problems before creating a facility that will create more problems.
On January 14th, a 41 year old man named Mario A. Garcia was found dead in his cell in LCS Corrections' Brooks County jail, leaving behind a widow and 10 year old son. Garcia had only been in jail a couple weeks after pleading guilty to charges of bid-rigging on December 31st, 2008 while working with the Corpus Christi Army Depot. Despite his detention, Garcia was never formally sentenced prior to his death.
Before his processing into the jail, Garcia had a documented health condition that required he take antidepressants and seizure medication. Because of this medical condition, Garcia was not allowed to live freely outside of prison before his sentencing (as most inmates serving time for similar crimes are allowed to do) for fear that he might kill himself. However, once imprisoned, Garcia was not given access to his medication, and a seizure is the major side effect of the medications if withheld.
On July 23rd, Garcia's family filed a lawsuit against LCS Corrections, according to an article in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times ("Family sues private prison for inmate's death in Brooks County," July 23rd):
"The lawsuit claims [Garcia] was denied access to medication, despite warnings from family members about his condition. An autopsy by the Nueces County medical examiner found that Garcia died of the seizure disorder. The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages. It names prison owner LCS Correction Services, the prison’s former warden and former doctor as defendants."
Not only does LCS have this looming lawsuit on their hands, they also just went through a period of laying off prison employees shortly after the time of Garcia's death in their Coastal Bend Detention Center in Robstown, TX. The CBDC had just opened in November of 2008, but by January 2009 LCS had to lay off 40 prison guards due to financial troubles. The facility would not be fully staffed again until March of 2009. It is not clear whether or not Garcia's death contributed to the cause of the LCS layoffs in Robstown, TX but the correlations show it could be a possibility.
We will do our best to follow this lawsuit and its consequences for LCS Corrections. Meanwhile, feel free to take a closer look at LCS Corrections.
Matte Pulle at Texas Watchdog published another excellent investigation on the private prison industry's work in the Texas Capitol last month. In his previous reporting on the private prison industry, Pulle detailed the personal and financial links between state legislators and GEO Group. This time, he details the role lobbyists played in sinking common-sense reforms to laws governing private prisons during the 81st legislative session.
In his report, Pulle explains that GEO Group's lobbying team is particularly well-equipped to defeat even modest improvements to oversight of the private prison industry because of its large lobbying expenditures and the close personal relationships its lobbyists have to Texas Legislators. From Pulle's investigative piece:
"...it’s not just the GEO Group’s expense account that makes it noteworthy. A lot of companies pay top dollar for a crew of lobbyists. But few of them can match GEO’s well-connected team, a team that, over the last two sessions, have helped the outfit expand their business and beat back efforts to regulate their operations."
Pulle interviewed TPB's Bob Libal for his latest expose of the private prison industry, and he and referenced Watch Your Assets, a 2008 report from Texans for Public Justice and Grassroots Leadership which includes a list of private prison lobbyists from 2007. From Pulle's report:
"In the 2007 legislative session–before the GEO Group’s troubles made headlines– lawmakers passed a bill that essentially allowed private prison companies to house more inmates, enabling them to make more money off their contracts with the state.
During that session, two of the company’s lobbyists had close ties to then-House Speaker Tom Craddick.
Bill Miller once served on Craddick’s transition team and as his consultant while fellow GEO lobbyist Michelle Wittenberg had served as the speaker’s general counsel. Both were also on hand for the company this session with each slated to make up to $50,000 this year, according to state ethics records.
Also in the 2007 legislative session, the GEO Group enlisted the services of former House Republican Ray Allen, who resigned in the middle of his seventh term a year earlier to become a lobbyist for the company.
He certainly had all kinds of experience. In 2003, Craddick appointed the Grand Prairie Republican to serve as the chairman of the House Corrections Committee even though at the time Allen was lobbying for a private prison company outside Texas."
The GEO Group’s top lobbyist is Lionel “Leo” Aguirre, a former executive with the state comptroller’s office. Aguirre is the widower of Lena Guerrero, who became the first Latina chair of the Texas Railroad Commission in 1992 after serving three terms in the state House. A state and federal lobbyist for the GEO Group, Aguirre topped the list of the state’s highest compensated prison lobbyists with a maximum salary at $250,000 in 2007. This year, Aguirre’s compensation remained unchanged."
Pulle also traced the role at lest one lobbyist played in killing HB 3903 in his investigative piece. As Nicole reported in May, we received word that private prison lobbyists were in the halls of the capitol undermining a series of reasonable reforms, including HB 3903. HB 3903 was a bill filed by Representative Solomon Ortiz, Jr. which would have subjected private prisons to the same open records law as public facilities, mandated public hearings before privatization of county jails, and made it illegal for a public servant such as a Sheriffs to be paid by a private prison corporations in addition to their regular salaries.
Pulle writes that Representative Jerry Madden, former chair of the House Corrections Committee, admitted to Texas Watchdog that he talked with GEO Group Lobbyist Michelle Wittenburg before joining with six other legislators to remove the bill from consideration by the full body of the Texas House:
"...the Richardson Republican says that just because he talks to lobbyists doesn’t mean he listens to them alone. In this case, though, he agreed with Wittenberg’s position that Ortiz’s bill would have singled out prison companies to comply with open records laws when other private firms have no such mandate."
Madden's logic misses the point a bit. Ortiz's bill merely would have subjected private prison companies, which perform a governmental function, to the same open records requirements as public prisons. It is difficult to understand how the former chairman of House Corrections, who examined problems at the the GEO-managed Coke County facility, wanted to kill a bill that would have provided badly needed sunlight to the private prison industry in Texas. Texas doesn't even collect basic information on their privately-managed facilities, as Lauren Reinlie of Texans for Public Justice noted in Watch Your Assets:
In response to requests for records under the Texas Public Information Act, however, the TDCJ acknowledged that it does not collect basic statistics about private facilities, numbers that it routinely gathers for facilities that it operates itself. TDCJ officials say that its inspectors monitor some employment information during site visits but the agency could not provide staffing numbers for its private facilities. The requested data that the agency did not provide were records on: the number of guards each facility employs, the guard-to-prisoner ratio, guard disciplinary data, and enrollment in drug-treatment programs.9 Such lax oversight is remarkable given that the state spends $200 million a year on these facilities, which control the lives of 16,000 people.
Pulle's report is essential reading for those interested in the role private prison lobbyists played in the last legislative session.
Texas Prison Bid'ness would like welcome our newest blogger Andrew Strong to the site. Andrew is a recent graduate of St. Edward's University where he studied ethics and the philosophy of cognitive science. He initially became interested in the private prison industry through researching for his senior thesis regarding the ethical arguments for and against the privatization of prisons.
Andrew has also helped to research for and update Grassroots Leadership's 2009 version of "Considering a Private Jail" resource guide and has started the excellent watchdog site Private Prison Watch. See Andrew's full bio here, and you'll be hearing from Andrew himself soon.
The Herald Democrat reported ("Grayson County Jail to be run by private company," July 13) last week that Grayson County commissioners will negotiate a deal with Southwestern Correctional LLC to build and operate a new 747-bed private jail. This decision by the commissioners means Grayson voters will be denied the opportunity to put the issue of jail expansion to a vote. By deciding to negotiate a deal with Southwestern Correctional, commissioners ignored calls for a bond election by Grayson Sheriff J. Keith Gary, Sherman Mayor Bill Magers, Former Grayson County Commissioner Carol Shea, Former Grayson County Democratic Party Chair Tony Beaverson, the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas, and dozens of Grayson residents.
Grits for Breakfast did an excellent job covering the proposed Grayson Privatization scheme offered up by County Judge Drue Bynum (see links at the bottom of this post), and he argues compellingly that the over-reliance by Grayson Judges on pretrial detention continues to unnecessarily fill the county jail and fuel the perception that a larger facility is needed. (The numbers as of June 1, 2009 show 51% of inmates in Grayson County Jail are pretrial detainees).
Judge Bynum was trying to sell Grayson residents a larger facility than the county needed for its inmates, arguing that a private company would need the extra space to profit from incarceration and offset the county's per diem rate. In spite of the cost-saving rationale offered by Bynum, it doesn't seem that Grayson County was made a very good first offer by Southwestern Correctional.
From the Herald Democrat article (July 13th):
The deal presented Monday by the Southwestern staff said the county will pay between $32.50 and $46.50 per inmate housed per day, depending upon variables including the percentage of beds filled, income from the jail phone system and other fees and income. It could also depend on the final negotiations between the county and Southwestern.
So Southwest Correctional's current proposal doesn't even guarantee 6% cost savings from the county's current per diem of $49.35. And as Grits contributed:
Whether the county or a private contractor operates the facility, it still must meet minimum standards set by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, so it won't be any cheaper to operate (except to the extent that a private company pays its employees less than deputies make - a marginal benefit at best in the scheme of things that's wiped out if the company takes a profit).
And what happens if Grayson isn't able to contract with outside jurisdictions, or if prisoners don't make expensive phone calls to their families? County tax payers would end up paying for construction and operation costs in addition to Southwest Correctional's profit through increased per diem rates.
Sheriff Gary presented commissioners with a less expensive, less risky alternative to privatization before they made a decision. The Herald Democrat (July 13th):
"The best, safest, most economical option is an expansion of the existing jail in downtown Sherman, near the courtrooms it serves. I have reviewed the 2002 plan, and with some updating and modernization it can service our needs. Ironically, it can actually be downsized slightly if you decide that you prefer to limit the number of federal prisoners in our jails as I have been required to do during the last several years," he told commissioners.
Sheriff Gary was called on to oppose privatization by the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas (CLEAT), which called on him to, "stop the takeover of the county jail by a company out of Louisiana." CLEAT continued in a press release, "Private county jails are a bad idea for the citizen-taxpayer, a bad idea for the deputies and even a bad idea for the prisoners detained there. These fast and loose privatization deals never work out well for the local citizens who are left holding the bag."
As Grits mentioned, it seems increasingly likely that counties could have trouble filling extra beds with state inmates, because TDCJ's population is declining and forecasted budget deficits will force Texas lawmakers to put corrections costs under a microscope. That may leave federal contracts as the only revenue target for private contractors, and those contracts are likely to be a bit more competitive with planned state prison population reductions across the United States. If Southwestern Correctional eventually decided to cancel its contract with Grayson, the county would be held responsible for the cost and operation of the facility, as its public facility corporation would be the bond holder.
For a quick dissection of public facility corporations, see Bob's post.
Counties have been sucker-punched by the effects of large private prison contract cancellations before. In 2003, the north-Texas town of Littlefield had its tax and revenue obligations downgraded (October 24, 2006, Yahoo.com) as a result of the city's weakened financial position after a pullout of the Texas Youth Commission's prisoners. Fitch ratings agency wrote:
"If the city had to levy an interest and sinking fund tax to meet detention center related debt obligations, officials estimate that the overall tax rate would have to double over the current operations and maintenance tax rate, which Fitch believes would be extremely difficult to impose.”
In my judgment, Judge Bynum seems aware of the risk of financing the facility with a Public Facilities Corporation. He skirted a question about the riskiness of using public facility corporations to finance private jails when asked by a former Grayson County commissioner who would be responsible for the bond if the enterprise failed. Bynum said, "the bondholder" would be responsible. Bynum's answer strikes me as less than straightforward, as Grayson County and its tax payers would essentially be saddled with the debt if the new county jail beds aren't filled.
Check out these other sources for background:
An attorney claimed in a statement Wednesday that an inmate who died here in June was denied the use of his asthma pump.
Thomas Detric Adderson, 32, an inmate at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Willacy Unit in Raymondville, died on June 10 because "his asthma pump was not provided to him," according to a statement released by attorney Juan Angel Guerra, who is representing Adderson's family.
But TDCJ officials and an incident summary released Thursday state that Adderson was given an Albuterol inhalation treatment by nurses using a special breathing machine and was also allowed to use his personal oral inhaler before he went into shock and died about two hours later.
Although the jail is a state prison in the TDCJ system, it is operated by Corrections Corporation of America, a private prison company. The TDCJ summary stated that Adderson's preliminary cause of death was "severe asthma attack."
While Mr. Guerra states in the story that he hasn't seen an autopsy, we'll do our best to obtain one and publish it here.
Via Grits' excellent post ("Geo Group secretly snagged forensic psych hospital contract in budget conference committee," July 11), we find out that the GEO Group has won a contract for a new state psychiatric hospital in Montgomery County, through it's medical subsidiary GEO Care.
Here's how the Dallas Morning News's Emily Ramshaw ("Troubled prison firm's deal for new psychiatric hospital raises questions," July 11) starts that paper's Saturday story on the scandal,
A private prison company's history of filthy conditions, sexual abuse, suicides and riots in some of its Texas lockups isn't stopping the state from paying it $7.5 million to run a new psychiatric hospital near Houston.
Lawmakers inserted an earmark into the state budget to fund the future Montgomery County facility starting in 2011. But they said they didn't know until this week that the county had selected the GEO Group to operate it, although GEO lobbyists were pushing for it as early as February.
The new facility came as a post-session shock to mental health advocates, who acknowledge the need for it. But they say they weren't informed about it and never would have signed off if they knew Florida-based GEO was operating it.
Mental health advocates are rightly pissed off about what appears to be an allocation of money behind closed doors and without Department of State Health Services requesting the funding.
"Why would we want to use an entity that hasn't had a stellar reputation?" asked Monica Thyssen, children's mental health policy specialist with Advocacy Inc. "If the process had been more transparent, there probably would have been other state officials who would've said, 'I don't know if GEO is the best use of state dollars.' "
GEO officials, who run more than 50 facilities in the United States, including five mental health facilities in Florida, declined to comment, saying in an e-mail that they don't discuss "specific business development efforts and/or contracts."
Grits proposes an interesting theory on why the GEO Group may have been pushing so hard for the psychiatric contract in Montgomery County:
UPDATE: A commenter points out that Montgomery County commissioners last year made a conscious decision to substantially overbuild their jail beyond current needs on the assumption that the facility, to be run by the Geo Group, would make enough profit from immigration detention to "spare taxpayers additional costs." One supposes that immigration detention is no longer paying the bills if the county and Geo are seeking to use the Montgomery County Jail for competency restoration beds! I wonder if that's the facility they're talking about?
Clearly, if the state agency, mental health advocates, and elected officials were unaware of this contracting process, it should be reviewed. We'll keep you posted.
As I mentioned above, there was little movement on these measures during the 81st Session. We received word that lobbyists working for private prison companies were roaming the Capitol in an effort to undermine these very reasonable reforms. It is unfortunate that even reasonable changes to the law, such as extending open records statutes to cover private jails, generated opposition from elected officials.
Navigating the legislature is just one avenue to improving oversight and accountability at Texas private prison facilities. We will continue to monitor developments that use this process. It may take additional public education and support to balance the interests of elected officials who serve the private prison industry with those who are interested in reasonable and responsible correctional reform.
Previous posts on legislation that impacted Texas private prisons: