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March 2011

NPR covers financial problems with speculative lock-ups in Texas, and the background is even more troubling

NPR's John Burnett has an excellent piece today ("Priv

ate Prison Promises Leave Texas Towns In Trouble," March 28) about several Texas communities that have been left high and dry by private prison deals gone bad.  The story is the second part of a two-part series on private prisons - Friday's story chronicled the GEO Group's extremely troubled Walnut Grove youth prison in Mississippi.

Today's story follows the fortunes of Littlefield, home to the Bill Clayton Detention Center, formerly operated by GEO Group.  That community has been paying back loans it floated to build the prison facility before its closure in 2008.  According to the story:

"For the past two years, Littlefield has had to come up with $65,000 a month to pay the note on the prison. That's $10 per resident of this little city.

...  To avoid defaulting on the loan, Littlefield has raised property taxes, increased water and sewer fees, laid off city employees and held off buying a new police car. Still, the city's bond rating has tanked.

The village elders drinking coffee at the White Kitchen cafe are not happy about the way things have turned out. 'It was never voted on by the citizens of Littlefield; [it] is stuck in their craw,' says Carl Enloe, retired from Atmos Energy. 'They have to pay for it. And the people who's got it going are all up and gone and they left us...'

'...Holdin' the bag!' says Tommy Kelton, another Atmos retiree, completing the sentence."

The backstory to the Bill Clayton Detention Center is no less troubling. The state of Idaho pulled its prisoners after the suicide of Randall McCullough, who, according to news reports, had spent more than a year in solitary confinement.  GEO was later hit with a massive lawsuit over in the McCullough case. Since the facility's closure, Littlefield has had its bond ratings dropped and turned to two different private prison companies in an effort to fill the prison beds.   Idaho had pulled its prisoners from another GEO-operated facility in Texas - the Dickens County Correctional Center - in 2007 after an investigation of the suicide of Idaho prisoner Scot Noble Payne found "squalid" conditions.

And Littlefield is certainly not alone in troubles brought about after private prison deals went bad.  The NPR story today tells of how the CEC-operated Jack Harwell Detention Center in McLennan County sits half-empty after county spent $49 million to build it.  The sitting McLennan County Sheriff was on the payroll of CEC at the time the county voted to finance the construction of the facility. 

And, Scot Henson over at Grits for Breakfast recently chronicled a long list of privately operated jails that are seriously under-capacity due to a declining prison population.  Of course, there is an obvious public interest in declining prison populations and low crime rates.  However, private prison corporations are always looking for new groups of people to put behind bars.  Right now, companies like CCA and GEO Group are betting on increased immigrant detention, but the trend hasn't carried far enough to save towns with speculative prisons like Littlefield.

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Rep. Armando Martinez files two private jail transparency bills

Representative Armando "Mando" Martinez has introduced two bills intended toi increase transparency and public participation when the a county attempts to privatization a jail:

  • HB 2072 is set for a hearing today in the County Affairs Committee.  The bill would require that County Commissioners consult the local collective bargaining unit in communities where Sheriff's officers have been granted collective bargaining power by voters. The bill will receive a hearing today at 10:30am or upon adjournment.  
  • HB 2569, is very similar to last session's HB 3903 which was dubbed the private jail accountability bill and was effectively killed on the House floor.  HB 2569 would similarly subject private jails to the same open records law as public facilities, mandate that counties hold hearings before privatizing their county jails, and make it illegal for public officials such as sheriffs to be on the payrolls of private prison corporations.  The bill has been referred to County Affairs, but has yet to be scheduled for a hearing. 

We'll keep you posted on developments on these bills.

Lawsuit against GEO's Central Texas Detention Facility alleges guards smuggled heroin to prisoner who overdosed

The San Antonio Express-News Guillermo Contreras had an article yesterday ("Heroin overdose in federal jail prompts lawsuit," March 21, 2011) about a new federal lawsuit against the GEO Group's Central Texas Detention Center in San Antonio. 

In the suit, the parents of Albert Gomez, Jr. seek information into their son's death, of an apparent heroin overdose, and allege that he may have died after being smuggled heroin by a GEO Group guard.  According to the article,

"The suit alleges guards are improperly trained to handle people with drug addictions and can freely participate in “black market sale of drugs to prisoners."

One of the Gomez couple's lawyers, Matt Wymer, said he has been informed that a criminal investigation has been launched, but the Marshals Service declined comment because the matter is in litigation. The GEO Group did not respond to a request for comment, but denied the allegations in a court-filed response."

The Central Texas Detention Facility is a Bexar County-owned detention center operated by the GEO Group that primarily incarcerates pre-trial detainees for the US Marshals Service and has also held immigration detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

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GEO Care opens Montgomery County facility

The GEO Group has opened its Montgomery County mental health facility, according to a press release from the company issued today:

"GEO’s wholly-owned subsidiary, GEO Care will manage the county-owned Facility under a management contract with Montgomery County, Texas (the “County”) with an initial term effective through August 31, 2011 and unlimited two-year renewal option periods. The County in turn has an Intergovernmental Agreement with the State of Texas for the housing of a mental health forensic population at the Facility. GEO expects the Facility to generate approximately $12.4 million in annualized revenues for GEO."

As we've reported, GEO's state contract to operated this mental health facility raised eyebrows and concerns from mental advocates back in 2009.  Mental health advocates were upset about what appeared to be an allocation of money behind closed doors and without Department of State Health Services requesting funding for the contract.  See our previous coverage of the issue:

And see Grits for Breakfast's excellent coverage of the issue:

Opposition grows to GEO's Karnes County detention center

Last week, Grassroots Leadership (my organization and a co-sponsor of this blog) was one of 15 Texas-based civil and immigrant rights organizations to send a letter (PDF) to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano expressing opposition to the new GEO Group "civil" immigration detention center in Karnes County.  Here's an excerpt from the press release that accompanied the letter:

A year ago, ICE announced sweeping reforms to its immigration detention system and a desire to move away from isolated detention centers. The advocacy groups expressed disappointment that ICE had used its reform mandate to construct new detention facilities for people who could be released on bond or into alternatives programs.

The letter also criticized the choice of for-profit prison corporation GEO Group as a partner for the new immigration detention center.  ...

A number of GEO Group contracts were terminated in Texas in recent years after serious allegations of abuse and neglect. The suicides of Scot Noble Payne and Randall McCullough and subsequent investigations into squalid conditions preceded the closure of GEO’s Dickens County and Bill Clayton detention centers. In 2007, the Texas Youth Commission shuttered the GEO Group-run Coke County Juvenile Justice Center after a damning investigation into conditions at the youth detention center.

The coalition includes the ACLU of Texas, American Gateways, Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition, Council on American Islamic Relations-TX, San Antonio, Grassroots Leadership, La Union del Pueblo Entero, People Organizing in Defense of Earth and her Resources, Redes Cuidadanas of Texas, Southwest Workers Union, Texans United for Families, Texas Civil Rights Project, Texas Indigenous Council, Texas Jail Project, WilCo Justice Alliance, and the Workers Defense Project.

As we reported last year, GEO was awarded an Intergovernmental Service Agreement to operate this new "civil" detention center on the same day it was sued by the ACLU over the death of Jesus Manuel Galindo at the company's Reeves County Detention Center.  We'll be following this story closely and will keep you updated.

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State Budget Deficit Might Result in Termination of 2,000 Private Prison Beds

Texas' current budget deficit might result in a termination of private prison contracts.  According to the Financial Times:

The Texas budget plan includes closing 2,000 places in private prisons and more than 1,500 job losses.

And according to Scott at Grits for Breakfast, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) budget summary outlines 1.3% of spending in the current fiscal year. However, according to the TDCJ budget summary, it seems that these cuts may be to treatment prison beds and not hard prison beds.  The cuts mentioned involve beds in substance abuse and intermediate sanction facilities.  

These are still prisons that require many low-level, non-violent prisoners to be away from their families and communities. However, if law makers really want to reduce corrections spending they should be exploring opportunities for sentencing reform that continue to reduce the number of people who enter into Texas prisons and their length of stay.

We will continue to monitor the budget's impact on private prison capacity as it develops.

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