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May 2011

Grits for Breakfast: Lege to Reinvest Money from Prison Closure into more Private Prison Beds

Following up on the state's continuing contract with the Dawson State Jail more details regarding the decisions of lawmakers to close state prisons is coming to light.  Mike Ward at the Austin American Statesman reported earlier this week that:

Senate and House budget negotiators have agreed to close the 102-year-old Central Unit near Sugar Land to save $50 million, the first such closure of an entire maximum-security lockup in state history.

Our pal Scot Henson at Grits for Breakfast found news in the recent events to be disapointing:

Savings from prison closures should go to diversion programming, not private prisons. The goal should be to reduce incarceration levels, not to plan for failure.

The reality is that lawmakers do have different choices and even setting asside $15 million of limited state funding because of the anticipated need of private prison beds.  State lawmakers have achieved some policy reform that has resulted in lowering the state's incarceration rate, reducing recidivism while not compromising public safety.  And in some respect that spirit of reform has contributed to not only a culture change in Texas but nationally.

Yet the anticipation of lowered expectations continues to plague the Texas Legislature and results in a lack of investment in communities and people.  This is disappointing.  The questions as we move forward is will there ever be a moment when Texas lawmakers who commit to finding alternatives to incarceration also plan for the day when they might not need so many prison beds.  Rather they make the choice to prioritize state resources on in ways that strengthen opportunity for all Texans.

Did CCA's medical negligence contribute to Pamela Weatherby's death at the Dawson State Jail?

That's the question that Patrick Michels at the Dallas Observer asks in his hard-hitting blog post yesterday ("Family of Diabetic Inmate Who Died at Dawson State Jail Sues Private Prison Operator," May 18).  Michels reports that a lawsuit (attached) filed by Weatherby's family against CCA claims that despite her status as a "unstable insulin dependent diabetic," Weatherby was denied regular insulin shots (receiving instead oral diabetes medication) and a proper diet to control her illness while incarcerated at the Dawson State Jail.  According to the article:

"Within days of her arrival at Dawson, the suit says, Weatherby was taken off her scheduled insulin shots and given oral Glyburide instead -- ushering in "three consecutive days of diabetic comas," the suit says.

Mistaking the comas for a suicide attempt, the suit says, jail officials had her transferred to a mental health unit in Gatesville, where she was put back on insulin shots and stabilized -- only to return to Dawson after a few days, where she was taken back off insulin and her comas started up again.

At 1 a.m. on June 22, the suit says, guards found Weatherby unresponsive in her cell again; she was transferred to Parkland, stabilized, and returned to Dawson the next morning. Weatherby died July 14 after "yet another diabetic crisis", the suit says; an autopsy blamed effects from her diabetes."

Furthermore, the article quotes advocates decrying the state of medical care at Dawson generally, adding weight to the story:

"...Elisabeth Holland, a local nurse practitioner who runs Project Matthew, a faith-based medical program for incarcerated women, says she isn't surprised. 'My opinion is that the health care in Dawson is worse than in a developing country,' she says. 'Any of those diseases -- HIV would be another one -- that require regular medication with regular screening gets lost.'"

As we've reported, the Dawson State Jail was one of the TDCJ-contracted facilities originally mentioned for possible closure during this legislative session.  Instead, TDCJ quietly renewed CCA's contract for the facility last fall, and it now appears that no private prison funding will be cut this legislative session.

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NY Times: Private Prisons Offer Little in Cost Savings

NY Times
NY Times
In a front-page article in today's New York Times ("Private Prisons Found to Offer Little in Savings," May 19th), reporter Richard Oppel lays out a fairly  devastating case against the claims by the private prison industry that it offers states significant cost-savings.  According to the article,

"The conviction that private prisons save money helped drive more than 30 states to turn to them for housing inmates. But Arizona shows that popular wisdom might be wrong: Data there suggest that privately operated prisons can cost more to operate than state-run prisons — even though they often steer clear of the sickest, costliest inmates.  ...

Despite a state law stipulating that private prisons must create “cost savings,” the state’s own data indicate that inmates in private prisons can cost as much as $1,600 more per year, while many cost about the same as they do in state-run prisons.

The research, by the Arizona Department of Corrections, also reveals a murky aspect of private prisons that helps them appear less expensive: They often house only relatively healthy inmates."

This is pretty damning evidence in Arizona.  The article goes on to say that results in other states have also not found much in the way of cost-savings. 

 

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Update on Hutto Guard Convicted Charges Related to Sexual Oppression

We have covered previously that Donald Dunn, a former CCA guard at the T. Don Hutto Facility, was convicted of charges related to sexual oppression of immigrant detainees.  Last September, Dunn was sentenced to a year in jail--the maximum sentence for a Class A Misdemeanor in Texas--and two years of probation following his release.

Last week Federal charges were filed against Dunn who is still serving his state sentence in a Williamson County facility.  According to recent reports:

A former T. Don Hutto Correction Center employee is accused of fondling female undocumented immigrants in his custody.  Former residential supervisor Donald Dunn of Austin has been charged with federal deprivation of rights.  He allegedly touched the victims in a sexual manner for self gratification while conducting illegal searchers from December 2009 to May 2010.  He faces prison time if convicted.

We will keep y'all updated as this plays out in federal court.

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Detention Watch Network releases date on private prison influence on immigration detention

T

Source: Detention Watch Network
Source: Detention Watch Network
he Detention Watch Network has released some terrific data and graphs on the private prison industry's role in the United States' immigrant detention system.  (Full disclosure: I'm on the Steering Committee of DWN, and Grassroots Leadership helped compile this research).  Amongst the interesting findings, 49% of all immigrant detention beds in the United States are operated by private prison corporations. That is higher percentage of privatized beds than nearly any other state or federal agency.

Texas has more private immigrant detention beds - more than 10,000 - than any other state.  Furthermore, some of the largest immigrant detention centers in the country are in Texas, including MTC's Willacy County Processing Center and GEO Group's South Texas Detention Center. The report includes a complete breakdown of every major private detention center by average daily population.

Furthermore, the report tracks the federal lobbying and influence exerted by the private prison industry to ensure its  interests are met.  According to the report:

"Between the five corporations with ICE contracts for which official federal lobbying records are currently available, the total expenditure on lobbying for 1999-2009 was $20,432,000.(1) In general, corporations lobbied both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Most companies also lobbied the Department of Homeland Security, the agency that oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The larger corporations (CCA and GEO) lobbied a variety of entities related to immigration policy, including the Department of Justice, the Bureau of Prisons, and the Office of Management and Budget. Both CCA and GEO reported lobbying ICE directly."

The full report and data are well worth a read.  Check them out here.

Around the web: Stories TPB readers will want to read

Here are some stories from around the criminal justice web that may be interesting to Texas Prison Bid'ness readers:

  • Scott Henson at Grits for Breakfast has been covering the simmering debate over privatization of prison medical services at the Texas legislature. Grits persuasively argues that privatizing prison health care wouldn't save the state money in the long-term, despite the claims of vendors with an interest in the matter.
  • The GOP's Jail Sell - Mother Jones covers the nationwide effort by GOP lawmakers to sell off prisons to private companies.  From Arizona to Florida to Louisiana to Ohio, it's a trend happening all over the country.
  • Grassroots Leadership has launched a petition to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano opposing the construction of GEO Group's new immigrant detention center in Karnes County, Texas. 

ACLU intervenes in suit for documents related to GEO's Reeves County detention center

The ACLU of Texas intervened in a suit to attain access documents related to the GEO Group's troubled Reeves County Detention Center in west Texas.  According to the ACLU's press release Monday,

"The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas has intervened in litigation concerning Reeves County’s refusal to disclose documents related to medical care, staffing, and the deaths of several prisoners at the Reeves County Detention Center (RCDC), a privately-managed prison owned by the county.

The Attorney General recently ruled that Reeves County must disclose this information pursuant to the Texas Public Information Act. In response, Reeves County filed suit to challenge the Attorney General’s determination, arguing that the County is entitled to withhold the documents.  RCDC’s private prison contractors claim that the documents are their “trade secrets.” The ACLU of Texas is intervening in this suit to seek a court order releasing the requested documents.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons pays as much as $68 million annually to house approximately 3,000 prisoners at RCDC.  The ACLU of Texas submitted open records requests to Reeves County after prisoners at RCDC rioted twice – in December 2008 and January 2009 – to protest poor conditions and medical care."

Access to open records is a consistent problem for advocates and members of the media attempting to attain information about privately-operated prisons in Texas and elsewhere.  The ACLU's full cross-claim (attached to this post as a document) sites the influence of private prison corporation GEO Group and private health provider Physicians Network Association (PNA) in the process.  Both companies filed comments with the attorney general opposing release of the disputed documents. 

As Adrienna Wong at the ACLU of Texas puts it,

“The private prison industry resists transparency and accountability because huge profits are at stake.  The county and its contractors are not protecting ‘trade secrets,’ they are hiding harmful secrets that should come to light."

In the world of incarceration, trade secrets should not trump information that could lead to better public policy. This is particularly true in the case of Reeves, where deaths and prisoner uprisings have brought national attention to the facility.  See some of previous coverage of Reeves:

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Positive alternatives to privatization and jail overcrowding in Harris County

Last week, we wrote about Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack's proposal to study privatization of Harris County's massive jail system.  Harris County already has more than 1,000 prisoners in private jails in Louisiana and east Texas. (According to statistics provided by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, the county currently ships 1027 prisoners out-of-county, including 575 males 27 females to CEC's Newton County Correctional Center, 33 females to a jail Epps, Louisiana and 392 males to a jail in LaSalle, Louisiana).

Harris County officials have repeatedly sited overcrowding to justify these transfers and proposals for further privatization.  However, a terrific op-ed in the Houston Chronicle (Marcia Johnson, Janis Bane, and Nicole DeBorde, "Let’s reduce jail crowding," April 30) on Saturday debunks some of these arguments and shows how the county could safely reduce its jailed population:

"Harris County has made strides to safely reduce the jail population. Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos has changed the way her office prosecutes drug possession cases by no longer jailing anyone caught with trace amounts of drugs. This policy change has had a significant positive effect on reducing the jail population without an increase in crime. Sheriff Adrian Garcia has adopted pilot projects for low-risk offenders sentenced to jail. Harris County also created a public defender office, which hopefully can curtail the mass guilty pleas that principally occur because the defendant just wants to get out of jail.

We strongly urge implementation of the strategies recommended in 2009 and expounded on in a Houston Ministers Against Crime report earlier this year, such as:

 Revising the bail schedule and allowing for flexibility in determining who gets a bond;

 Utilizing the pretrial services risk assessment; and

 Increasing the use of personal bonds.

Use of the county jail during the pretrial stage should be limited to those who pose a threat to public safety. Harris County no longer has the resources to continue present pretrial practices."

The cost of the current out-of-county transfers is $17 million annually, according to the article. These recommendations would not only save taxpayers far more money than privatization and could reduce the strain on prisoner's families by making it more reasonable for them to visit loved ones. Grits for Breakfast, per usual, has more insight.

GEO will hold 2011 Q1 earnings call on Wednesday

GEO Protestor at Val Verde
GEO Protestor at Val Verde
Readers of Texas Prison Bid'ness are well aware of the some of the major problems that private prison contractor GEO Group has had in Texas.  Still, the company has continued to expand by winning contracts, buying competitors, and expanding into new markets. The company holds quarterly conference calls to discuss its earnings and outlook.  The next GEO call will be this Wednesday, May 4, at 2pm EST/1pm in most of Texas.  According to the company's press release:

The GEO Group, Inc. (NYSE:GEO) ("GEO") will release its first quarter 2011 financial results on Wednesday, May 4, 2011 before the market opens. GEO has scheduled a conference call and simultaneous webcast for 2:00 PM (Eastern Time) on Wednesday, May 4, 2011.

Hosting the call for GEO will be George C. Zoley, Chairman, Chief Executive Officer and Founder, Brian R. Evans, Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, John M. Hurley, President, GEO Detention & Corrections, and Jorge A. Dominicis, President, GEO Care.

To participate in the teleconference on Wednesday, May 4, 2011 at 2:00 PM (Eastern Time), please contact one of the following numbers 5 minutes prior to the scheduled start time.

1-800-659-2056 (U.S.)
1-617-614-2714 (International)
Conference Call Participant Pass-code: 65944659

Anyone can call in to listen to the call, and it's often archived online after it occurs.  It's well worth listening to these calls to get a glimpse of how the private prison industry views increased incarceration and detention as a business opportunity.  We'll provide analysis of the call on Wednesday.

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