February 2010

State Budget Problems may Lead to Private Prison Closure

There is one fact that may impact prison capacity over the coming years – like other states -- Texas is dealing with serious budget problems. The Governor has issued his typical mandate -- asking state agencies to find ways to reduce their budgets by five-percent.  Additionally, legislative leaders in the state House and the Senate have suggested that closing prisons is definitely on the table as they work to manage the state’s correction budget.

"Closing prisons? It's absolutely on the table," said House Corrections Committee Chairman Jim McReynolds of Lufkin. "As tight as our budget situation looks, we cannot unravel the fledgling system of diversion and treatment programs that are paying big dividends now for the states. And there's only one other place to look prison operations."

The state's pending budget shortfall in 2011 may result in the closure of the privately run units.  Senator John Whitmire, who chairs the Criminal Justice Committee, has specifically mentioned the Mineral Wells lockup which is managed by the Corrections Corporation of America.

In recent weeks, Whitmire has publicly suggested that the state consider closing the privately run, 2,100-bed Mineral Wells Unit and perhaps aging prisons that are much more expensive to operate and maintain than newer ones.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice submitted their plan for reducing the agency’s annual budget to the Governor.  The plan does not call for the closing of prison units – private or otherwise.  Rather the focus on cutting costs targets eliminating job positions and reallocating the community supervision funding that was appropriated in 2007 and has contributed to the flat prison population that makes closing prisons a possibility. 

However, according to an analysis by The Statesman, some $10.7 million in funding for 817 beds in privately run prisons would be eliminated, reducing the state’s prison capacity. 

Advocates that promote alternatives to incarceration are asking agency officials and state policymakers to close prisons rather than reduce community corrections funding. 

Looks like this may shape up to be quite a battle in the 2011 legislature.  Time will tell if there is political viability that will lead in the actual closing of state prison units.  We will keep y’all posted as talks develop. 

Breaking News - TX Attorney General: Sheriffs cannot accept salary enhancements from private prison corporations

In a big ruling today, the Texas Attorney General's office has ruled that County Sheriffs cannot accept salary enhancements from private prison corporations. The ruling, in response to a query by Yvonne Davis, chair of the House Committee on Urban Affairs, is summarized:

Neither the Texas Constitution nor Texas statutes authorize the person holding the office of county sheriff to be paid an administrative fee by a private organization.

Read the full ruling here.  The ruling will specifically affect the financial relationships that private prison corporation CEC has with several Texas sheriffs.  As we've reported (in our #4 Private Prison Story of 2009),

For years CEC has been paying McLennan County Sheriff Larry Lynch (and his precedessors) a "stipend" for the nominal oversight of additional prisoners in the company's downtown facility.  According to state law, Sheriffs must authorize a private detention company's presence in the county under its jurisdiction. In 2008, Waco Sheriff Larry Lynch continued to receive the kickback despite a contentious debate over whether to build a new CEC facility in McLennan County.  Former State Representative Kevin Bailey, then Chair of the Committee on Urban Affairs, requested an opinion of the Attorney General, and a bill was filed in 2009 (though ultimately wasn't successful) to outlaw the practice.  Debate flared once again this September, when Tommy Witherspoon at the Waco Tribune reported that long-standing payment practice of the Sheriff by CEC would not expand despite a new CEC lock-up opening in McLennan. Witherspoon's investigative reporting also uncovered that Limestone County Sheriff Dennis Wilson, whose county annual salary is $49,457, is paid a $24,000 stipend yearly by the county in its contract with CEC.

The ruling will certainly be seen as a victory by the McLennan County Sheriffs Officers Association and CLEAT, who fought vigorously against private jail expansion in Waco.  We'll keep you updated on the responses of today's decision.

Dan Rather Reports on Reeves County Detention Center problems tonight

Dan Rather Reports will be covering GEO Group's controversial Reeves County Detention Center on tonight's broadcast.  Here's the show's description:

What's Happening Inside Reeves? - A privately run Federal prison in a small Texas town collects millions of dollars a month but few know--or can find out--what goes on behind the walls.

As regular TPB readers will remember Reeves as it was our #2 bGEO Group protest December 10GEO Group protest December 10iggest private prison story of 2009.  The prison was the site of two major uprisings a year ago in protest of the lack of medical care amongst other conditions.  Nine immigrant prisoners have died in the facility in the last four years.  In the wake of the riots, the ACLU of Texas requested a Department of Justice review of the facility, and protests by family members, Grassroots Leadership (my organization), the ACLU of Texas, and the Southwest Workers Union continued into December.

The facility's problems have previously drawn major investigative pieces, including Forrest Wilder's Texas Observer piece ("The Pecos Insurrection," October 2, 2009) which chronicled last year's December 12th riot after the death of prisoner Jesus Manuel Galindo, and Tom Barry's Boston Review story ("A Death in Texas," November/December 2009) that puts Galindo's death and the subsequent disturbances in the context of how Pecos got into the prison-building business in the first place.  

You can watch the show tonight on HDNet or download it from iTunes.

72% of an LCS Facility's Guards are Untrained or Tested

LCS Corrections' facility, the Coastal Bend Detention Center (CBDC) in Robstown, Texas recently underwent and passed two surprise visits in accordance with their "at-risk" status. The facility recently released an inmate because they mistook the identity of the man, who is still at large.

The Caller-Times ("Robstown private prison passes two surprise inspections," Feb. 1) covered the story of the surprise inspection and fire drill and had this to say:

"The inspection did not reveal any non-compliance issues. But [state inspector] Johnson noted that of 118 officers, 85 were working with temporary state jailer licenses. All must complete training and pass a state-mandated jailer certification course within their first year of employment.

A jail commission inspector was back at the facility Friday to conduct a surprise fire drill and to check on the status of training for jailers." (Caller-Times, February 1, 2010, "Robstown private prison passes two surprise inspections.")

According to the Texas Administrative Code 37.7.255 §255.1, a temporary jailer's license can be issued to someone who applies and pays the fee. The difference between a jailer's license and a temporary jailer's license is that the temporary license "meets all the minimum standards for licensure except for training and testing." Essentially, a temporary jailer's license allows one to act as a jailer for up to a year by applying and paying the fees and without taking any testing or training.

This insight about the amount of unlicensed guards at CBDC does not seem too surprising for this facility which was plagued with staffing issues in the past. In 2009 the facility had two rounds of layoffs. The first round released 35 facility employees from their jobs in order to compensate for their high rate of vacancy (and thus lower income). Then the facility hired more employees in order to compensate for a large influx of inmates that were supposed to help fill the facility, which resulted in an over-staffing problem and subsequently a second round of layoffs to the tune of 26 employees shortly after the prison failed their inspection and had a new Warden appointed. This facility's history of rapid employee turnover paired with every private prison's drive to profit makes the fact that the facility has 72% of guards still uncertified less shocking. What is shocking, however, is how a facility can even function with such a large percentage of untrained, untested guards.

Uncertified, greenhorn jailers are going to be cheaper to hire because they lack the necessary experience that would warrant higher pay, as opposed to a more seasoned veteran guard. Paying guards less in salaries means higher profits. With so many inexperienced guards in one facility it is no surprise that an inmate could walk out of a facility without falsifying their identity. However, this situation is still an improvement upon when the facility failed its inspection on 17 counts of misconduct. One of those violations entailed 24 guards not having a jailer's license at all -- temporary or permanent -- simply hired hands without any training or authority.

This situation is also dangerous because it holds the County liable for the actions of the jailers who are acting under the color of the law. The Dallas Morning News states, "If an inmate is injured in an encounter with a rookie guard, for example, the county could be held liable for failing to properly train the guard." The longer the facility goes without training these guards, the longer Nueces County is liable for the actions of ill-prepared prison guards. These types of hidden costs of private prisons are often overlooked when governmental agents construct new private prisons and expect them to be "no cost solutions" to their prison system woes.

The CBDC was deemed "at-risk" and will remain so for 90 days after its designation in late December of last year. I would expect more inspections to come and we will relay the information here as it develops.

Hill Briefing on Private Prison Information Act

US CapitolUS CapitolLast month, a briefing was held on the Private Prison Information Act (HR 2450).  The measure was introduced by Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.  Our own Judy Greene presented at the briefing along with Joshua Miller of AFSCME, David Shapiro of the ACLU's National Prison Project, Tom Barry of the TransBorder Project, and Alex Friedman of the Private Corrections Institute.  The briefing was hosted by Corrections USA and moderated by Eric Milman

During the briefing, presenters like Judy made the case for expanding the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to all facilities detaining persons under federal jurisdiction.  This would include immigrant detention centers in addition to private prison facilities. 

According to Tom Barry's presentation, the problems with the current system include a lack of effective oversight.

A near-total absence of committed oversight has allowed the prison industry to flourish in the shadows.  Requests for the most basic information about the functioning of these prisons and detention centers routinely lead nowhere. 

Private operators like GEO Group bounce back media requests and questions from advocacy organizations to local government prison owners and to the federal outsources.  In turn, local government entities [Inter Government Agreement] IGA's refer inquiries to their contracts and subcontractors knowing that this will lead to another dead end....

Judy Greene cited several specific examples of her experience with with the lack of oversight among private prison facilities including:

In June of 2000 the BOP awarded a contract to CCA for a 2,304-bed prison they had built on speculation in California City.  Seeking to understand how CCA could acquire the legal power to operate this prison, including the power to use deadly force, in California -- a state which had not enacted legislation conferring such authority on private corporations, a colleague and I submitted a FOIA request for this critical information from [the Bureau of Prisons] BOP.  After several months time, we sere notified that under federal regulations pertaining business information, the information I was seeking was exempt from FOIA because the company had deemed it to be a trade secret.

HR 2450 specifically addresses these issues by extending FOIA to all federally contracted prisons and detention centers.  Jackson Lee's bill has garnered fifteen Congressional co-sponsors to date.

And the bill has also drawn opposition from companies with private prison interests -- most notably from the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).  Congressman Tim Holden (D-PA) is a current co-sponsor of HR 2450 and introduced a similar measure in the last Congress that also garnered opposition.  At the time Rep. Holden stated:

In recent weeks, opposition to this bill has mobilized.  Although I cannot testify on their behalf, I can reiterate my concern that opposition to this bill is opposition to reporting transparency...

According to recent reports, CCA has paid a lot of money to lobby agains HR 2450 and similar measures.  This appears to be significant since current CCA director Charles Overby is also CEO of the Freedom Forum an organization that champions the freedom of the press. HR 2450 is still in committee in the House.  We will keep y'all posted of any developments related to the measure.