December 2011

Big Stories of 2011 - #1 - CCA Take-over Could Make Harris County Jail Largest Private Prison

To round out 2011, Texas Prison Bid'ness is highlighting the top five private prison stories of the year. Looking forward to the new year, our #1 story of 2011 is the current proposal to privatize the entire Harris County Jail system.

Over the summer, Nicole reported that Harris County issued a request for proposals in June seeking proposals for the management of the entire jail system of approximately 10,000 beds. At the time, the Houston Chronicle ("Harris County leaders consider privatizing the jail," April 18) speculated that the proposal was merely political sparring between County Commissioner Steve Radack, a privatization proponent, and Sheriff Adrian Garcia, who opposes privatization.  

However, recent reports indicate that the proposal may be much more serious.  As our friend Scott Henson over at Grits for Breakfast reported last week, Corrections Corporation of America has already submitted a bid to manage the entire Harris County Jail system.  (Scott also kindly posted the RFP that he obtained from and Open Records Request). Scott asks some tough questions about the process thus far:

"Why is the process "confidential" (read: secret) in the first place? Why are privatization schemes being hatched in private instead of in public discussions? Why do CCA investors know more about privatization plans for the Harris County Jail than local media and the taxpayers? The Harris County Jail is bigger than the prison systems in half the states; should something this big really be done in a back-room deal before the public even knows it's happening?"

If privatized, the Harris County Jail - a massive system of more than 10,000 beds - could be the largest for-profit private prison in the country, and obviously a huge boon for Corrections Corporation of America.  The proposal will undoubtedly draw opposition from community groups and the Sheriff's officers union.  The fight over privatizing the Harris County Jail could very likely be our big story of 2012 as well.

Big Stories of 2011 - #2 - Resistance to Private Immigrant Detention Centers Grows

Over the next several days, Texas Prison Bid'ness will be highlighting the top five private prison stories of 2011, and looking forward to the new year.   Our #2 story is the growing resistance amongst immigrant rights organizations and media to the for-profit private detention system.

In October of 2010, NPR reported that through its membership in ALEC, private prison corporation Corrections Corporation of America was able to help draft model anti-immigrant legislation like Arizona's noxious SB 1070.  The story would be a precursor to a host of organizing efforts, research initiatives, and media campaigns by immigrant rights groups around the country to expose the private prison industry's role in immigration detention policy.  Here are some of the highlights:

1) In May, the Detention Watch Network (with the support of Grassroots Leadership, my organization) published data outlining that 47% of all immigration detention beds are operated by private prison corporations and that CCA and GEO Group have poured millions of dollars into federal lobbying expenditures over the last several years.

2) Enlace, an international coalition of worker and migrant organizations, launched a national prison divestment campaign with allies across the country.  The campaign got an immediate boost when Pershing Square head Bill Ackman dumped his company's stocks in the Corrections Corporation of America.  Since then, the movement has taken off with protests in front of GEO-investor Wells Fargo in around the country including here in Austin with actions taken by the Texans United for Families coalition.

3) Perhaps the most visually inspiring campaign has been the series of "Immigrants for Sale" videos produced by Cuentame and the Brave New Foundation.  This series highlights the role of the private prison industry in benefiting from and propelling the growth of immigration detention.  Check out the first video for an overview of what was to come:

 

Here's hoping for a 2012 filled with similar kinds of creative protests of the private prison industry.

 

Big Stories of 2011 - #3 - ALEC and Private Prison Lobbying Exposed

Over the next several days, Texas Prison Bid'ness will be highlighting the top five private prison stories of 2011, and looking forward to the new year.   Our #3 story is the increased exposure of the American Legislative Exchange Council and the role of private prison lobbyists in influencing legislation.

Earlier this year, The Nation and The Center for Media and Democracy released ALEC Exposed.  ALEC Exposed brought to light the actions of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization that unites corporations with state legislators to “discuss” public policy and draft model legislation.  One of the most concerning areas of this public/private partnership is in the realm of criminal justice and prisons.  In fact, criminal injustice may be a more appropriate phrase.  Thanks to ALEC, the for-profit prison industry has a lot to be thankful for during this holiday season.

As The Nation reported, “ALEC helped pioneer some of the toughest sentencing laws on the books today, like mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders, ‘three strikes’ laws, and ‘truth in sentencing’ laws.”  According to the proponents, these laws are designed to reduce crime.  In reality, as California saw first hand, instead of reducing recidivism these laws lead to severe overcrowding.  In the end, public safety is undermined (at the expense of taxpayers) while the for-profit prison industry makes out like a bandit.  Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company, played a lead role on the ALEC task force developing some of this legislation.  NPR reported last year that through its membership in ALEC, CCA was actually able to help draft model anti-immigrant legislation like Arizona's noxious SB 1070.   

Unfortunately, the negative influence of the for-profit prison industry is not limited to ALEC.  As the ACLU reported, CCA and The Geo Group, Inc. have engaged in a multi-state lobbying effort to fight smart on crime reforms.  These two 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.  To understand their need for this army of lobbyists you do not need to read any further than Geo’s Securities and Exchange Commission filings (CCA’s is similar):

“Our growth depends on our ability to secure contracts to develop and manage new correctional, detention and mental health facilities, the demand for which is outside our control …. [A]ny changes with respect to the decriminalization of drugs and controlled substances could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, sentenced and incarcerated, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them. Similarly, 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.”

 The U.S. has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world, and the private prison industry clearly wants to make sure it stays that way. While taxpayer and civil rights advocates have been working to reform archaic and ineffective criminal justice laws, working to ensure that our laws reflect current research on effective ways to reduce crime and protect human rights, for-profit prison corporations are headed in the opposite direction.  To these corporations, societal impact and public safety don’t matter.  The only thing that is relevant is maximizing the bottom line.

GEO lands ICE contract renewal for Pearsall detention center

The GEO Group has landed a contract renewal for its massive South Texas Detention Center in Pearsall, according to a story at Government Security News ("GEO Group lands $236 million contract to house 1,800 ICE detainees in South Texas," December 27):

"The ICE unit of DHS has issued a $236.2 million contract to The GEO Group to provide detention services for 1,800 male detainees who have been taken into custody pending removal proceedings at the company-owned and company-operated South Texas Detention Center (STDC) in Pearsall, TX."

According to GEO investment calls that I've listened to in recent months, the bid for this contract was essentially non-competitive because it required an existing facility within a geographic area that essentially precluded other facilities from wining the re-bid.  That said, one wonders if ICE paid much attention to the problems GEO has had operating this facility, including alleged sexual assaults, poor mental health care, and ongoing labor issues at the facility.

Big Stories of 2011 - #4 - ICE's "Detention Reforms" Benefit Private Prison Corporations

Over the next several days, Texas Prison Bid'ness will be highlighting the top five Texas private prison stories of 2011, and looking forward to the new year.   Our #4 story of the year is Immigration and Customs Enforcement's "detention reforms" and their benefit to private prison corporations.

Back in 2009, many immigration reform advocates - including this author - were heartened when the Obama administration announced widespread reforms to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention system.  Those reforms were kicked off with the end of family detention at the T. Don Hutto detention center.  In fact, that change was our #1 story of 2009.

However, the promised broader reforms to the detention system - largely laid out in document called the Schriro report after its author Dora Schriro (who quickly left the agency) - have largely been a bust. 2011 was marked by record levels of detention and deportation.  The far-flung ICE detention now holds more than 33,000 immigrants on any given day.  Nearly half of those detention beds are operated by private prison corporations like Corrections Corporation of America, the GEO Group, and Management and Training Corporation.  These companies pour millions of dollars into federal lobbying and campaign contributions. 

That lobbying is apparently paying off.  This month, Congress increased Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s budget by more than $50 million from last year, including an allocation for 34,000 daily immigration detention beds, up from 33,400 last year.  Here in Texas, troubled private prison corporation GEO Group was awarded a contract to operate ICE’s first new “civil” detention center in Karnes County, Texas, despite opposition from immigration and civil rights advocates.  (Similarly, Corrections Corporation of America is trying to win a contract for a new "civil" facility in South Florida, and private prison company Community Education Centers was just featured in a report about the role of campaign donations in winning an ICE-contracted detention center in New Jersey.)

Problems in ICE-contracted detention centers continue to be prevelant.  In October, the ACLU of Texas filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of women immigrants seeking asylum from sexual abuse and violence who have suffered sexual assault at the hands of detention officers.  Also in October, Human Rights First documented the continued widespread use of jails to house immigration detainees in civil custody.  PBS's Frontline outlined horrific conditions of confinement in ICE detention centers in its program "Lost in Detention." 

Even some of the bright spots in the reforms have been bitter-sweet.  When ICE announced that it would be ending its contract with MTC's notorious "tent city" detention center in Raymondville (the facility highlighted in the Frontline episode), the facility was immediately repurposed as a Bureau of Prisons-contracted facility for immigrants.  Many of those immigrant prisoners in BOP custody are serving federal prison time for nothing more than re-entering the country after deportation under Operation Streamline.

Despite all this, 2011 saw some major resistance to for-profit immigration detention centers.  More on that later in the week as we continue our top stories of 2011.

Big Stories of 2011 - #5 - Lawmakers Attempt to Privatize State Jails

Over the next several days, Texas Prison Bid'ness will be highlighting the top 5 private prison stories of 2011, and looking forward to the new year.   The 2011 Texas legislature's attempt to increase privatization of state jails and prisons is our #5 story of the year.  

Texas lawmakers met in 2011 and considered legislation that had major implications for private prisons in the state.  According to the Texas Tribune, one such measure could have privatized all of Texas' state jails for low-level felony offenders. While ulitmately rescinded, the proposal was representative of bad policies that may be seen again in Texas in the future.

Nationwide there has been some success in moving state law makers to reconsider policies that have contributed to mass incarceration.  This year, conservative stakeholders led by the Texas-based Right on Crime coalition, cemented a foundation of support among lawmakers in Texas and around the country to support criminal justice reforms.

But as that foundation was laid, a space was also created that strengthened opportunities for prison privatization.  In Texas, lawmakers that supported privatization continue claims that private companies can manage state services better, despite evidence to the contrary.  One lawmaker filed an amendment to the House budget bill (page 272) earlier this year that sought private bids for the operation of all state jails.  The Texas Department of Criminal Justice would have been required to turn over jail operations to private if the result is at least 10 percent savings to the state, regardless of long-term savings or operations outcomes.  

We reported earlier this year that while recent policy reforms have stabilized the prison population, lawmakers have also increased private contract capacity.  The relationship between reform and privatization is something that lawmakers and advocates should pay close attention to and was definately a top story of 2011.

CCA Holds 2011 Third Quarter Conference Call -- Reports Excess Bed Capacity

The Corrections Corporation of America held its third quarter invCCA LogoCCA Logoestor call in early November.  The company reported an increase in revenue primarily due to an increase in federal contracts with various agencies.

"revenue for the third quarter of 2011 increased 1.9% to $433.5 million from $425.3 million during the third quarter of 2010, primarily driven by a 2.3% increase in average daily inmate populations... The increase in federal revenue primarily resulted from per diem increases associated with certain management contracts, higher populations primarily from the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) as well as the commencement in October 2010 of a new contract with the USMS at [the] Nevada Southern Detention Center. These increases were partially offset by the September 30, 2010 expiration of the contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) at [the] California City facility, which contained a 95% guarantee through the expiration date."

The company is adding capacity to it’s overall system -- none in Texas -- at the Lake Erie Correctional Institution (Ohio), Jenkins Correctional Center (Georgia), and is expanding capacity under its McRae Correctional Facility (Georgia) with the BOP.  The prison profiteers reported an increase in  daily compensated population by 2.3% to 80,851 in the third quarter of 2011 from 79,053 during the same time last year. 

Despite expanded contracts and new capacity, company officials reported an excess inventory of 10,500 beds.  The excess capacity has the private prison profiteers looking for new contracts.  One potential customer is Harris County (Houston) where there are have been discussions about privatizing the jail system.  While we know there are better approaches that county officials can look too, it’s important to keep an eye on CCA and any negotiations that company is engaging in the bayou city.  Something to pay attention to in 2012. 

 

Cuentame video highlights conditions at CCA's T. Don Hutto detention center for Human Rights Day

Cuentame's Immigrants for Sale program has been putting out damning videos highlighting the private prison industry's role in the immigration detention and enforcement system.  For International Human Rights Day on Saturday, they issued this short video featuring one woman's experience at Corrections Corporation of America's T. Don Hutto facility in Taylor, Texas.  Check it out:

 

Human Rights and Private Prisons - They Don't Mix

Today is International Human Rights Day.  A day when people from across the world come together to reaffirm the basic rights that all people are entitled to, regardless of “race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”  On December 10, 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly.  The United States played a key role in securing the adoption of the UDHR.  The UDHR has since become the foundation of the modern UN human rights system, or in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt “the international Magna Carta.” 

 

While December 10th is a day for celebration, a day where we look back on the progress we have made, it is also a day for action, a day to speak out against the injustices and depravations of basic human dignity that still occur on a daily basis.  In Texas, we need not look far to see that our state and our nation have too often failed to uphold these basic rights.  The numerous immigration detention facilities in Texas provide a clear case in point. 

 

As frequent Texas Prison Bid’ness readers no doubt know, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) locks up approximately 400,000 each year at a cost of $1.9 billion.  To accomplish this horrendous feat, ICE contracts many of these detainees out to the for profit private prison industry, including to a number of private facilities in Texas.  The result: a massive transfer of public funds to private corporations that wastes scarce tax dollars and results in the depravation of basic human rights.  Just last week, ICE transferred immigrant women out of the Jack Harwell Detention Center in Waco, a private jail operated by Community Education Centers, a for-profit private prison corporation after reports from inside the facility alleged a lack of access to medical care, including for pregnant women; spoiled food; no contact visits; and virtually non-existent access to attorneys.  Allegations such as these do not signal the existence of a few bad apples, rather they clarify the structural flaw in the private prison model: the legal obligation to both ensure basic human dignity and maximize shareholder profit.  These obligations are mutually exclusive.    

 

Want to do something to stop this abuse?  Join the Waco Dream Act Alliance, Hope Fellowship Church, Texans United for Families, Grassroots Leadership, and those affected by the immigrant detention system at a vigil in Waco for detained immigrants on International Human Rights Day (Saturday, 12/10).  The vigil will begin at 2pm at Heritage Park at Third and Austin and will highlight the more than 10,000 immigrant detention beds (and the humans suffering in them) in Texas.

TX Prison Capacity Continues to Grow. Private Contract Authority Remains Strong.

Earlier this week, Mike Ward with the Austin American Statesman reported that state prison capacity had grown in recent years despite reforms.  The reporting emphasizes that continued prison growth is a policy choice that results in Texas being one of the world's biggest jailers. 

Earlier this year, Texas closed it's first state run prison but added capacity in other facilities.  Reports left open the option open for contracts with private companies.

"Instead of closing the other two prisons, Madden said budget writers agreed to leave them open and to set aside about $15 million for prison officials to lease additional beds if needed over the next two years." (Mike Ward, "Budget writers agree to shut old prison" Statesman, May 17, 2011)

The problem with the framework of Texas prison reform is that it is focused on back-end in measures including persons under community supervision who revocate to prison.  While that initial approach has helped shift the dialogue in Texas -- it does not go far enough.  Lawmakers have not paid enough attention to what triggers a prison sentence and the length of time persons spend incarcerated. 

Texas policy makers and advocates, should rethink efforts to address the state's mass incarceration problem.  The only true way to continue to address costs and, more importantly, change the state's criminal justice system is to minimize demand for a large supply of prison beds and permanently close them down.