November 2011

Who will stop abuse at MTC's Willacy detention center after contract change?

Last month, PBS's Frontline aired a damning exposé of the immigration detention system that focused on MTC's Willacy County Processing Center

The show, which you can watch online in its entirity, reported a pattern of sexual and physical abuse by guards at the MTC facility.  Frontline correspondent, Maria Hinojosa, highlights stories of terrifying and repetitive abuse and harrassment of immigrant detainees at the facility.

The stories come from several former detainees and employees of the facility. Consider these quotes from the show's transcript:

  • Twana Cooks-Allen, a former Willacy Mental Health Coordinator told PBS:  "Women harassed for sexual favors, guards taking detainees and beating them, running them down like they were animals."
  • A former detainee called Mary to protect her identity described a repeated pattern of sexual abuse from guards: "In my pants. And he said, “Well, do you like that? Does it feel good because you’re locked up, so you don’t know what it feels like.” And I pushed him away and I said, “Please let me go!” ... He said, “If you tell anyone, you wouldn’t come out of here alive to see your family.” So then, who do you go and tell?"
  • Andre Osborne, a former detainee told host Maria Hinojosa: "There was a lot of nights I hear screaming in the hallway. There were, like, sticks and stuff. And then I run to the door and look, and you would see them have somebody on the ground, beating them."

With this pattern of abuse, it's no wonder that ICE finally cancelled its contract with Willacy this summer.  However, the facility was not shuttered.  While one MTC employee was sent to prison for sexual assault, MTC landed a $532 million 10 year contract with the Bureau of Prisons to house immigrant prisoners, many of whom will be incarcerated for re-entering the country without proper documentation. 

So, the question remains - who will be ensuring that the abuse alleged in the Frontline exposé actually is stopped and not just transferred to another classification of immigrant prisoner?

GEO Group hiring in anticipation of opening Karnes Civil Detention Center

The GEO Group is hiring in anticipation of opening its Karnes County Civil Detention Center in Karnes City, according to an article in the South Texas usiness Journal (James Aldridge, "GEO Group to hire 400 positions in South Texas," November 17):

"Workforce Solutions Alamo is hosting a job fair in Floresville, Texas, to help GEO Group  to fill 400 jobs just south of San Antonio.

The company is building a new facility in Kenedy, Texas, and needs to fill open and available positions. Interested applicants should visit www.workintexas.com to see a list of available jobs. The job fair will be held at the Floresville Workforce Center on Nov. 29 from noon to 7 p.m. The pay range for the positions ranges from $9 per hour to $70,000 per year."

The facility is actually under construction and is just outside of Karnes City, and not Kenedy. It would be interesting to see which of the positions pay $9 an hour. 

As we've reported, the choice of GEO Group - perhaps Texas' most troubled private prison corporate - to operate Immigration and Custom's Enforcement's new model immigration detention center has raised eyebrows and opposition, including from my organization.  This opposition included a letter sent from 15 Texas-based civil and immigrant rights organizations to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano expressing opposition to the facility. 

We'll keep you posted on developments from Karnes County. 

Was CCA letter sent to Governor's office attempt to lessen worries about cell phones at Mineral Wells?

For years, a steady stream of reports have plagued Corrections Corporation of America's Mineral Wells Pre-parole Transfer Center.  They have included prisoner injuries requiring hospitalization to reports of inappropriate sexual behavior between guards and prisoners, excessive use of force (including chemical spray) by guards, and at least one prisoner uprising.

By far the most common report coming out of the facility was the introduction of contraband - specifically cell phones - being thrown over the prison gates.  In fact, in 2008 alone, we reported four separate arrests of individuals throwing cell phones into the prison.  Mineral Wells was floated as a possible facility closure back in 2010, but avoided the ax and in fact was awarded a new contract in August of this year.

We've now received documents (attached) that show that CCA contacted the Governor's office in an attempt to assuage concerns about cell phone smuggling, and to push a piece of national legislation that would give states more power to block cell phone signals near prisons. 

According to CCA President and CEO Damon Hininger's cover letter (accompanied by pages of company propoganda):

"Cell phones are quickly surpassing tobacco and drugs as the number one contraband item in our nation's prison and jail system today.  We need to look no further than the several recent examples of how contraband cell phones have played roles in serious criminal activity.  These include threats to judicial and government officials, escape incidents and the furtherance of gang related crime, both inside and outside correctional facilities.  Unfortunately, even the best operational security protocols within correctional facilities have been unable to deter 100 percent of this cell phone contraband.

As a leading correctional provider, CCA fully supports national efforts to combat prison cell phone contraband.  In that regard, we wanted you to be aware that we are encouraging elected officials to support the Safe Prisons Communications Act of 2009 (S. 251), authored by U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison.  This legislation would enable correctional agencies to utilize existing technology to block cell phone signals within prisons, jails, and detention centers."

The full documents are certainly worth a thumb through to see what kind of materials CCA is sending elected officials in Texas. 

LCS's Coastal Bend stops taking local prisoners, escapes Jail Commission oversight

LCS CorrectionsLCS CorrectionsThis story in the Nueces County Record Star  (Mauricio Julian Cuellar Jr., "Coastal Bend Detention Center moves county inmates," November 4) caught my eye over the weekend:

"Texas Commission on Jail Standards officials recently said the organization is powerless to oversee any changes at the Coastal Bend Detention Center in Robstown, after center officials decided to move out all of their county prisoners.

Adan Munoz Jr., Executive Director of the TCJS said he was notified last week that LCS Corrections Services Inc., owners of the CBDC, asked for the detention center to be pulled off the state's inspection rolls, as they would no longer house county inmates."

As we've reported, major problems at Coastal Bend, LCS's "flagship facility," have drawn scrutiny from TCJS in the past.  In fact, the facility failed inspection as recently as July of this year after TCJS found that it didn't have enough staff to maintain the required guard-to-prisoner ratio.  Last year, a 27-year old man who was detained at the Coastal Bend Detention Center died from a brain tumor after going to the doctor for high blood pressure.  Earlier that year, the Coastal Bend Detention Center was found to have not known that the facility was supposed to report deaths of inmates while in custody.  The facility has also failed inspection before, most recently in 2010 after a prisoner was accidentally released.

Now, the facility is no longer regulated by the state, thanks to HB 3517, the 2003 law that took away the agency's purview to oversee county-owned facilities holding only federal prisoners.   We'll keep you posted on developments from Coastal Bend, and anyone with access to the full story, please send it my way.

Time to Stop Drinking the Privatization Kool-Aid

In 1990, there were 7,771 prisoners held in private prison facilities in the US.  By 2009, that number had jumped to 129,336, a 1664 percent increase.  Along the way, private prisons became a multi-billion dollar industry.  This growth was fueled, in part, by the “pitch” that privatizing prisons would save tax dollars. Banking on BondageBanking on Bondage As the ACLU documented in its new report, Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration, the private prison industry’s narrative is in need of serious revision.

Last spring, the myth of cost savings through prison privatization was shot down by the head of Texas prisons, Brad Livingston, who testified before the House Corrections Committee that non-salary operating costs of public and private facilities are almost identical (Texas House Committee on Corrections, 4/13/11, at 1:31:08).   The ACLU report also found that private prisons may fail to save tax payer money, and furthermore, in order to maximize profits, they are strongly incentivized to cut corners which can result in poorly trained employees, and affect the wellbeing of prisoners.

So, if private prisons aren’t cheaper, aren’t more efficient, and aren’t run in a better manner why do we have them?  A major reason, as the report documented, is that beginning in the 1990s the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization that brings together state legislators and corporations to discuss public policy and draft model legislation, began to push legislation that would result in mass incarceration and promote private prisons.  Some of this legislation, such as “truth in sentencing” and “three strikes” laws may sound familiar. During this time, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the leading private prison company, played a lead role on the ALEC task force developing some of this legislation.  In addition to ALEC, the private prison industry employs an army of lobbyists throughout the country.  CCA and The GEO Group, Inc., the two largest private prison corporations, hired 271 lobbyists in over 32 states between 2003-2011.  Between 1999 and 2009, CCA alone spent over $18 million on lobbying, just at the federal level. 

Mass incarceration is the natural by-product of a powerful industry whose bottom line requires incarcerating as many people as possible, regardless of the impact. And, the private prison companies don’t try to hide their goals. For example, this is what GEO stated in its filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) (The report shows that CCA had a similar statement in its SEC filing):

“reductions in crime rates could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences requiring incarceration at correctional facilities. Immigration reform laws which are currently a focus for legislators and politicians at the federal, state and local level also could materially adversely impact us.”

This model is broken because it is based on incarceration instead of crime prevention. For-profit private prisons are not the answer to making our streets safer and our society more productive. Instead, we must focus on creating a system that is less is harmful to our pocketbooks, protects our safety, and respects basic human dignity.  Read the full ACLU report here.

Commission on Jail Standards holds hearings this week; Webcasts now available

Diana Claitor at the Texas Jail Project forwarded us an email stating that the Texas Commission on Jail Standards will begin broadcasting its workshops and quarterly meetings as live webcasts.  The first such workshop is this afternoon at 2pm.  According to the email from TCJS, the purpose of today's hearing is:

"The Texas Commission on Jail Standards will re-engage its initiative to update some changes to minimum jail standards. We want as much interaction with all stakeholders throughout the process, and so the TCJS Commission will begin meeting in workshop session on November 2, 2011 at 2pm in the John Reagan building, room 120 to discuss proposed changes.  The initial workshop session will be to discuss procedures and process."

Tomorrow morning, the Commission will hold its quarterly meeting to review jail compliance and other issues tomorrow, November 3, 2011 at 9am.  Both hearings will be viewable via webcast at http://www.capitol.state.tx.us/.