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January 2011

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Texas 2011 budget plan includes private prison cuts at TDCJ

With the new year comes the newly proposed Texas budget plans. While seemingly no department or sector was spared from the widespread cuts, we were surprised to hear that private prison cutbacks were on the table in this tough-on-crime state:

In public safety and corrections programs, the budget report recommends shutting down a unit in Sugar Land, three Texas Youth Commission lockups and 2,000 private prison beds, a move that could close at least two additional lockups. About 1,562 prison jobs were also chopped.

Probation programs would see funding cut by 20 percent, parole supervision would be cut by almost 9 percent, and the agency's construction and maintenance funding could be cut by 83 percent, along with 90 jobs. The Victims Services Division would be eliminated. (Kate Alexander, Austin American-Statesman, "Spartan budget plan calls for broad cuts," January 19, 2011).

When browsing around the actual budget plan document itself, the Legislative Budget Board looks to other states that, in an attempt to balance the state budget, have also cut private prison contracts:

Other states, including New York, Colorado, North Carolina, and Kansas, closed units with excess capacity, left correctional positions vacant, reduced correctional staffing levels, reclassified facilities and ofenders, and terminated contracts for private facility operations. In most cases, decisions on prison closures, reclassifications, and changes in staffing levels necessary to achieve the desired level of savings were made by the chief executive leadership of the states’ Department of Corrections under direction by the Legislature or governor. North Carolina and Kansas both experienced savings of approximately $23 million from the realignment decisions, while New York’s changes resulted in savings of $8.4 million per year. (page 337)

We will continue to monitor the 2012-2013 budget plans while trying to find more specific information regarding which private prison contracts (if any) are on the chopping block.


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GEO Care's Reid halfway house having problems

A report surfaced Tuesday about another escape from the Houston halfway house operated by The GEO Group's GEO Care division. According to the report, two inmates have escaped the facility in a little over a month.

The 39-year-old sex offender fled from the Beaumont Highway facility around 6:15 Monday night, according to the Department of Public Safety. He's considered armed and dangerous. And, like Arthur William Brown, the rapist who escaped in late December, he was able to remove his electronic monitoring ankle bracelet...

[Another inmate,] Anthony Ray Ferrell escaped from Reid and allegedly shot and killed a 24-year-old good samaritan who intervened in a gas station purse-snatching. Another rapist split the Reid facility a few weeks before Ferrell slipped out. (Craig Malisow, Houston Press Blogs, "Timothy Rosales Jr.: Yet Another Escapee from a Houston Halfway House," January 25, 2011).

The article doesn't detail strain on the county and/or municipal police department that could be exacerbated by the escape of prisoners. Community resources are going to be expended to find and re-capture people who escape. The cost of using local police efforts is a hidden cost not disclosed in the private prison company's proposals. 

The goals of GEO Care and The GEO Group in general lean towards rehabilitation. If the company seeks to rehabilitate mental issues including drug addiction, they must certainly have the basic ability to keep people around.  We will update you with any developments in this story in the future.

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More details on "Cornell Idol" videotaping lawsuit

Earlier this month, reports surfaced over a lawsuit was filed against The GEO Group for Cornell's past actions in July 2009 for allegedly illegally videotaping female residents of a Dallas-area drug treatment facility. The facility is now operated by Phoenix House, but was operated by Cornell at the time, before the Cornell-GEO Group merger. You can read our original coverage of this story here. Since the time of our publishing the original story, more details about the extent of the allegations have surfaced.

The lawsuit alleges that the treatment facility videotaped 36 female residents without their permission and distributed DVDs of these recordings.

"The Dallas Morning News reports, for its Monday editions, that the DVDs were distributed as promotional material for Cornell Companies Inc. The lawsuit, filed last week, says residents were told that the January 2009 videotape would only be seen by judges who sent the women to the Dallas County Judicial Treatment Center in Wilmer. The lawsuit says the DVD was instead used to raise money for the program and obtain contracts for other treatment facilities." (AP, The Houston Chronicle, "Lawsuit over videotaping at Texas drug facility," January 10, 2011).

The Dallas Morning News also covered the story:

"One of 36 women complainants in the suit, Theresa Watkins, a heroin addict with a criminal record, said she feels violated. She said she blames the taping and distribution of the video for anxiety and panic attacks she says she has suffered since her release from the Dallas County Judicial Treatment Center in Wilmer...

...'You pretty much go in at your lowest point,' Watkins said. 'We had no choice but to trust these people...'

...As part of the project, 45 female residents were videotaped in treatment sessions and while performing in a talent show called 'Cornell Idol.' Watkins said that the women were also told to march and sing while being taped, and that the marching and singing had never been a part of the treatment.

Those who saw the video include Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, probation officials and a group that donated clothes to women going on job interviews, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit says the material was also shown to other residents and resulted in male patients taunting women who appeared in it.

Price said he doesn't recall seeing the video but said he has toured the facility and has seen presentations about the program.

The attorney who filed the lawsuit, Charles Paternostro, said state and federal laws require a written release to videotape the residents. Paternostro said the taping itself constitutes a privacy violation since there was not written consent.

'To me, it's a clear-cut case,' he said.

The lawsuit asks for $100,000 for each plaintiff and another $100,000 in attorney fees." (Jennifer Emily, The Dallas Morning News, "Company being sued over alleged privacy violation in DVD," January 20, 2011.)

As usual, no officials from GEO are willing to comment on pending litigation. We will keep an eye on this story and relay any further developments in the case.



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More problems for CEC in central Texas

Amid the recent news that CEC dropped it's contract with Falls County, the company also has concerns with the Jack Harwell Detention Center in Waco -- about a 45 minute drive from the Falls County facility -- creating more suspicion that CEC is not performing well in Texas. Since CEC is not a publicly-traded company, I was unable to find any SEC filings that could confirm these suspicions. However, the company has made significant spending cuts in Texas, suggesting a financial lagging.

According to Grits for Breakfast, the Jack Harwell facility in Waco is still failing to raise enough revenue to pay for itself:

"'McLennan County extended Tuesday an agreement to keep its downtown jail closed for another six months, but the arrangement will yield a substantially lower financial reimbursement than the original deal.' 'Lower' is relative, though. The county was supposed to receive $240,000 over the last six months and got nothing. Now they're supposed to receive $60K from the contract over the next six months, but could easily again wind up with nothing.

Regular readers will recall that McLennan County (Waco is the county seat) used the county's credit to issue bonds to build a large detention center, one not needed for their own purposes but built as a speculative venture to house inmates on contract, partnering with private prison company CEC to manage the facility. But the contracts never came, so McLennan actually closed their perfectly good, already-paid-for jail in order to move all the inmates into a pay per head contract facility, just so there'd be some revenue to pay the bonds. I found this mind-bogglingly irresponsible - a veritable doomsday deal, it's been called - but for several years before the recent economic bust the practice was all the rage.

Regrettably, the private prison company appears to hold all the cards in the negotiations and is threatening to walk away from the deal entirely, leaving county taxpayers holding the bag." 

The escape plan for CEC is similar in both Waco and Marlin. In both cities, CEC has no consequences for failure as the company can get up and leave, footing the bill of the jail to the county's taxpayers, all the while keeping the money they earned from facility they didn't have to pay for. Even if the jail operates at a loss, CEC can cut their losses and walk away whereas McLennan County will still owe the $49 million on the bonds. As stated by Grits:

Without the public really understanding the magnitude of what was happening, commissioners bet the economic farm on this deal. Said one commissioner, "What people have to understand is that so goes that jail, so goes McLennan County." Readers may recall that County Judge Jim Lewis claimed earlier this year that CEC, not the county, was on the hook to pay off the jail bonds. Now it's clear to everyone this was a pure corporate subsidy: The company profits if it succeeds, but if it fails they walk away and taxpayers must pony up for the debt or default and ruin the county's bond rating. 

While this situation appears as the story of a company taking advantage of a Texas County, it is also the story of a Texas County allowing it to happen. The best advice that any Texas County commissioners can receive is (1) to seriously question the need for a new jail or prison in the first place, rather than speculatively building one and hoping for a profit, and (2) if a jail or prison is absolutely necessary, manage the county budget in such a way that private prison companies need not get involved in the first place in order to avoid these types of financial meltdowns.

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CEC drops the Falls County jail contract

Last week, Community Education Centers (CEC) decided to not renew their contract to manage the Falls County Detention Center in Marlin, TX. According to the Marlin Democrat:

"CEC has chosen not to renew the contract with Falls County and the detention center will come under the direction of Falls County, sometime in April. CEC, which has personnel in many jail facilities in many towns, has moved inmates to other facilities at a lower cost and couldn’t afford to pay the inmate cost at the Falls County facility...

...[County Judge Steven] Sharp said that at the last meeting of the Commissioner’s Court, “We are working on creating a budget so we can provide all services at the jail as well as amending the Sheriff’s budget to cover such expenses. We won’t loose [sic] all the outside inmates and will still be able to provide services for the local ones. One good thing to come out of this is that we keep all the profits and not have to pay private contractors." Jail capacity is 94 – 95 inmates.

Originally, the plan projected that it would take 20 years to pay for the construction of the $3.5 million structure with funds from housing prisoners to defray that cost, but the county was paying thousands of dollars each month to CEC, therefore making no profit. The county has eight more years to repay the cost of building." ("CEC does not renew contract for jail services," Marlin Democrat, January 18, 2011.)

Without a renewal of the CEC contract, it looks like Falls County is going to provide the same services for holding out-of-county inmates as CEC was contracted to do, except now the county will not pay a company to perform a function that Falls County could have performed itself. This realignment begs the question: if the county can and will continue profiting from holding outside inmates, why did the county sign a contract with CEC in the first place?

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Littlefield bets on Avalon and TDCJ to save Bill Clayton Detention Center

The city of Littlefield, saddled with debt for its emtpy Bill Clayton Detention Center,

has turned to a new operator and a new potential client base in an effort to save its troubled facility.  According to an article in the Lubbok Avalance-Times ("Prison Hope: Littlefield starts new year with possible new tenant for empty detention center," January 3), the facility is now contracting with Avalon Corrections:

The city of Littlefield comes into 2011 hoping it will have a new tenant renting the Bill Clayton Detention Center in a few months. The prison, which closed in January 2009 after the Idaho Department of Corrections canceled a contract with private operator GEO Group and moved its prisoners from Littlefield to Oklahoma.

Since then, the city has stretched itself financially to keep making payments on revenue bonds it issues to build the facility, which opened in 2000 as a juvenile detention center. The present ray of hope comes with Avalon Correctional Services, which has applied to TDCJ to operate an Intermediate Sanction Facility, which is a short-term facility that houses offenders who violate terms of their community supervision or paroles.

As the article mentions, the facilty was closed in 2008 after the state of Idaho pulled its prisoners from the then-GEO operated facility.  The cutting of this contract followed the suicide of Randall McCullough, an Idaho prisoner who killed himself after being reportedly being held in solitary confinement for more than a year. The GEO Group was sued in a massive suit by the family of McCullough. 

Since Idaho pulled its prisoners and the GEO Group dropped the facility, the city has struggled to pay its debt on the facility and had turned the facility's operation over to Southwestern Correctional. The present ray of hope may not be a big one.  The state legislature is facing a an estimated $27 billion deficit, and the closure of private prison facilities has been floated by key legislators. I have a hard time believing that Avalon would be able to secure a TDCJ contract.  The company does not have any contracts with the agency, though it has pumped some money into Texas lobbying recently.  We'll keep you posted on developments. 

Justice Strategies releases "Children on the Outside" report

Justice Strategies, one of the sponsors of the Texas Prison Bid'ness blog, has just released a report on the impact of prisons on the children of the incarcerated.  While it doesn't directly deal with private prisons in Texas, Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration elegantly expresses one of the many collateral consequences of the U.S.'s astronomically high rates of incarceration.  Here is a description of the report:

This new Justice Strategies report provides first-hand accounts of the harm experienced by some of the 1.7 million minor children with a parent in prison, a population that has grown with the explosion of the U.S. prison population.

When they do time we also do time.  Just because we’re not in there doesn’t mean we don’t do time.  Because you’re not with us, we also do time[.]

            - Araya, a teen girl with an incarcerated father.

The report details the challenges faced by children of incarcerated parents whose experience of grief and loss is compounded by economic insecurity, family instability, a compromised sense of self-worth, attachment and trust problems, and social stigmatization when their parents are incarcerated.  The report outlines the ways in which parental incarceration can influence negative outcomes for youth, including mental health problems, possible school failure and unemployment, and antisocial and delinquent behavior. 

As with the punitive consequences of our mandatory sentencing and mass incarceration policies, the impact of parental incarceration falls disproportionately on children of color.  African American children are seven times and Latino children two and half times more likely to have a parent in prison than white children.  The estimated risk of parental imprisonment for white children by the age of 14 is one in 25, while for black children it is one in four by the same age.

The whole report is definitely worth a read.  Check it out here.

Former Cornell treatment center's alleged privacy violations lead to lawsuit

When the GEO Group acquired Cornell Companies for $374 million last year, it not only took over some of the company's more troubled corretional facilities, it also took on some lawsuits-in-waiting.  Or, so it would appear, based on this Robert Wilonsky's article at his Dallas Observer blog ("Thirty-Six Sue Private Operator of Dallas County Judicial Treatment Center For Privacy Invasion," January 7):

Cornell Companies, the private operator of correctional facilities 'cross the country, has a motto: "People Changing People." A lawsuit filed this week in Dallas County District Court proposes an alteration: "People Filming People." At least, so suggest 36 former inmates of the Dallas County Judicial Treatment Center in Wilmer, a 300-bed facility to which men and women convicted of drug- and alcohol-related crimes in Dallas County are sent to get clean and sober rather than spend time behind bars.

Says the suit, in January 2008 Cornell Companies employees began filming the inmates without their consent. Caught on film were their often intense drug treatment sessions, scenes from their daily routines and a talent show called, but of course, Cornell Idol. The suit says the inmates, who were already uncomfortable about the filming, were told the footage would be transferred to DVD and shown only to the Drug Court judges who send prisoners to the treatment center. But the complaint alleges it was "turned into a publicity and promotional film" -- shown to, among others, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price and Attitudes & Attire -- and used as a fund-raising vehicle and "to obtain future contracts for supervision and operation of other treatment facilities in Texas and locations in other states."


Cornell Companies no longer exists, technically: In August of last year, it was bought out by The GEO Group, the same Florida-based company that announced last month it's building a 600-bed Civil Detention Center for immigration detainees down in Karnes City. This morning, via e-mail, Pablo E. Paez of The GEO Group told Unfair Park the company has no comment: "As a matter of policy, our company cannot comment on litigation related matters."

It doesn't appear that GEO still operates this facility, and we've taken it down from our list of privately-contracted facilities.  We'll keep you updated on developments from this suit. 

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GEO buys electronic monitoring company BI Incorporated

Just befo

re the holiday break, the GEO Group reported the purchase of electronic monitoring company BI Incorporated for $415 million.  Formerly known as Behavioral Interventions, the Boulder, Colorado based company has major state and federal contracts. The GEO Group will incorporate the company into its growing GEO Care arm.  According to the company press release:

BI is the largest provider of comprehensive electronic monitoring services, tracking more than 60,000 offenders on behalf of approximately 900 federal, state and local correctional agencies located in all 50 states. BI applies a full continuum of technologies including radio frequency and global positioning system equipment, voice identification, and remote alcohol detection systems. BI also provides community-based re-entry services for approximately 1,700 parolees on behalf of state and local correctional agencies at 26 non-residential day reporting centers across the United States.

Significantly, BI Incorporated has the lucrative contract (PDF) to operate Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s controversial ISAP monitoring program.  While heralded as an alternative to detention program by ICE, ISAP has been strongly criticized by immigrant rights organizations as an overly-punitive system often given to longtime permanent residents and asylum-seekers who otherwise wouldn't be on supervision.  We'll keep you posted on how this acquisition effects GEO's operations in Texas.