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December 2013

Big Stories of 2013 - #1 - Closure of Dawson State Jail & Mineral Wells Pre-parole Transfer Facility

As we say goodbye to 2013, Texas Prison Bid'ness is highlighting the top private prison stories of the year, based on stories covered by our blog.  Our number one story of the year is the state's closure of two notorious Corrections Corporation of America prisons - the Dawson State Jail and the Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility.   

The story mirrors our biggest story of 2012, the growing momentum to close the Dawson State Jail.  State lawmakers had pushed for the closure of Dawson and the Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility, another CCA-contract prison, arguing that the state had extra bed capacity thanks to a declining prison population.  

In August, advocacy organizations celebrated the closure of these two privately operated prisons.  Over the preceding year, a broad coalition of faith, criminal justice reform, prisoner families, correctional officers, and civil rights groups had call for the closure of Dawson.  Dallas CBS 11 reporter Ginger Allen ran a series of damning reports interviewing former Dawson prisoners and former guards at the facility.     

Dawson's history was fraught with human rights violations. As Piper Madison reported in May of this year, The Texas Civil Rights Project and and Prison Legal News filed a lawsuit against the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) for witholding information regarding the deaths of several women in the facility and a premature infant whose mother's cries for help were ignored by facility staff. TCRP filed requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act to compel CCA to disclose information regarding the deaths. 

Autumn Miller, whose baby girl died four days after her birth at Dawson, filed a lawsuit against the facility "alleging cruel and unusual punishment." Miller spoke with Ginger Allen of CBS 11 in Dallas and NPR of North Texas, saying that her requests for help were ignored througout her pregnancy and, ultimately, while she was giving birth. Her daughter was born on a toilet in a holding cell. 

Ulitmately, Texas legislators reduced TDCJ's budget by the exact operating amount of Dawson and Mineral Wells, and TDCJ then closed the facilities in August.  Dallas Morning News reporter Scott Goldstein toured the facility after it closed and found some haunting messages left on the walls:



“Surrender to death or to life.”


“Don’t be afraid. Soon you will pass out of darkness.”



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Big Stories of 2013 - #2 - City of McAllen rejects GEO Group prison for immigrants

As we say goodbye to 2013, Texas Prison Bid'ness is highlighting the top private prison stories of the year.  Our second biggest story of 2013 was the City of McAllen's rejection of a GEO Group prison for immigrants. 

This summer, a battle broke out in McAllen, Texas over the possibility of the city partnering with private prison corporation GEO Group to open a 1,000 bed facility to detain individuals charged with federal crimes for the U.S. Marshals Service. (Full disclosure: my organization, Grassroots Leadership, was involved in the effort to stop the deal).  Under the proposal, the city would have expanded its existing contract with the U.S. Marshals service, and the private company would in turn pay McAllen a portion of the government's daily per-inmate payment.

As Piper reported back in July, the local paper, McAllen Monitor, learned more than year before that city officials had been talking to GEO Group behind closed doors, but agreed not to report it to avoid "tipping off potential competitors and skunking the deal."  The paper later editorialized against the proposal citing concerns about the GEO Group's human rights record, as well as the facility's cost to taxpayers, claiming that private prisons have cost other Texas communities millions of dollars. 

Advocacy organizations and McAllen residents quickly also mobilized opposition to the proposal, citing GEO Group's record and the fact that more than 90% of those detained in the U.S. Marshals custody in the McAllen are being charged with immigration crimes under the controversial Operation Streamline program.  Rio Grande Valley organizations including La Union del Pueblo Entero and Proyecto Azteca allied with statewide groups including the ACLU of Texas, the Texas Civil Rights Project, and Grassroots Leadership to deliver a letter signed by 50 national, state, and local organizations.  

Rio Grande Valley residents also organized a petition signed by 500 community members, turned out overwhelming resident opposition at the city’s public forum, and put together a film screening and private prison panel discussion hosted by the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network. 

In the end, the city voted against opening GEO's bid and sent the proposal back to the company unopened (thwarting the possibility that it could have been released to the press or an advocacy group as part of an open records request).   The vote effectively killed the deal for now, though McAllen City officials have raised the possibility that they could revisit the idea of a private prison in the future.  

Big Stories of 2013 - #3 - The campaign to Expose and Close the Polk Detention Center

As we say goodbye to 2013, Texas Prison Bid'ness is highlighting the top private prison stories of the year.  Our third biggest story of 2013 was the growing campaign to close the privately-operated Polk County Detention Center in Livingston, Texas. 

About 90 miles northeast of Houston is what many advocates call one of the worst immigration detention centers in the U.S. The Polk County Detention Center in Livingston, Texas is notorious for its substandard conditions, poor quality food and discriminatation against immigrant detainees.  The facility is operated by private prison corporation Community Education Centers.

Protest at Polk
Protest at Polk

In fact, the Polk Detention Center has been attracting the attention of human rights activists in Texas for some time. In November of 2012, Grassroots Leadership and Texans United for Families released a report on the conditions at Polk and recommended it's immediate closure.

That set the stage for 2013, when the campaign to close Polk ramped up with several actions targeting the facility. One such action came in April when 37 national and Texas-based organizations sent a letter to then-DHS Sec. Janet Napolitano calling for the immediate closure of Polk. The letter read in part: 

"ICE should prioritize release of immigrants into alternatives to detention and community support programs that are far more humane, less costly, and are effective at ensuring immigrants are able to appear at their hearings.  As a first step toward ending inhumane detention, we call for the closure of the IAH Polk County Secure Adult Detention Center." 

And on Father's Day (June 15), a caravan of protestors traveled from Austin and Houston to Polk to hold a vigil for the fathers detained at Polk. The event drew extensive media coverage and even the attention of Representative Lloyd Doggett, who said in a statement:

"I commend you for your efforts in highlighting the mistreatment in some detention centers and support you in your campaign to expose the truth and bring justice to this situation."

Grassroots Leadership and Texans United for Families also returned to Polk in 2013 to interview detained immigrants about conditions. Unfortunately, they found that nothing had improved since their previous visit in July 2012, and in fact, some things were much worse. 

This prompted the release of a second report on Polk, called "The Top Ten Reasons the Polk County Detention Center Still needs to be Closed." The report cites 10 serious human and civil rights abuses reported by multiple detained immigrants and renews the demand from Texas advocates to close the facility.

The on-going campaign to close Polk was intensified in 2013, setting the stage for advocates and communities to apply more pressure in 2014. 

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Big Stories of 2013 - #4 - Two North Texas counties stand tall, reject jail privatization

As we say goodbye to 2013, Texas Prison Bid'ness is highlighting the top private prison stories of the year.  Our fourth biggest story of 2013 was the rejection of jail privatization from two North Texas counties this summer.  

Ellis County Sheriff Johnny Brown
Ellis County Sheriff Johnny Brown
This year, two conservative North Texas counties — Ellis County and Kaufman County — entertained and ultimately rejected jail privatization proposals after opposition from law enforcement professionals, public officials, and community members.  

We first heard that Ellis County was considering privatization of the Wayne McCollum Detention Center back in March when the county received responses to an RFP from LaSalle/Southwestern Correctional and Community Education Centers.   Neither bid scored well — CEC's receiving 65 points out of 100 to LaSalle's 53.  

Former Ellis County Republican Precinct Chairman Dave Vance penned an op-ed in the Waxahatchie Daily Light highlighting problems with jail privatization including reduced staff benefits and decreased performance.  Ellis County Commissioner Paul D. Perry posted one of Texas Prison Bid'ness' previous articles on his Facebook page saying "I don't like giving for profit entities the power of government, especially when they can interfere with civil rights."  In the end, it was opposition from County Sheriff Johnny Brown that killed the deal.  

The jail privatization debate quickly moved to neighboring Kaufman County where a similar story unfolded.  Commissioners there also entertained proposals by Community Education Centers and LaSalle Southwestern Correctional, and those proposals were ultimately rejected after Kaufman Sheriff David Brynes ended negotiations following an amendment to the RFP that would have allowed privatization without any employee guarantees.

Coupling these stories with last year's rejection of jail privatization in Harris County, one has to believe the tide may be turning against county jail privatization in Texas.  

Big Stories of 2013 - #5 - Troubles persist at McLennan County's speculatively built private jail

As we say goodbye to 2013, Texas Prison Bid'ness is highlighting the top private prison stories of the year, based on stories covered on our blog.  Our number five story of the year is continued problems at the Jack Harwell Detention Center, McLennan County's speculatively built private jail. 

Back in May, we reported that McLennan County Commissioners had voted to end the county's contract with private prison corporation Community Education Centers to run the Jack Harwell Detention Center, deciding instead to team up with LaSalle Corrections.

The detention center had been a strain on McLennan County since before construction began in 2008.  The county was hoping to pay off $49 million in bonds floated by its Public Facilities Corporation and generate revenue by holding federal prisoners but never saw the numbers they anticipated.  

However, by 2012, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards found the facility non-compliant and ICE dropped their contract at the time altogether, citing substandard care.  At the time of the operations transfer the facility is at less than half capacity and housing overflow from the county jail.

This August, plans to bring immigration detainees back to Jack Harwell continued fell through, leaving the facility still dramatically undercapacity.  

As Lauren reported in October, McLennan County officials approved a new budget in August that included a five cent increase in the tax rate and $4.5 million in budget cuts.

Seeking to streamline jail costs, the McLennan County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee proposed reducing the jail population by ten percent.  Unfortunately, any savings from that reduction in population would be countered by a deal that McLennan County made with LaSalle Corrections that would house 325 prisoners at Jack Harwell, whether or not the cells are actually in use.

McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said at the time the deal allowed taxpayers to avoid paying the entire bill, including bond payment that LaSalle makes on the facility.  "Having LaSalle as operator and us having to guarantee a threshold is better than not having anyone at all." 

McLennan County continues to pay for its decision to float debt for a speculative private jail it didn't need.  Hopefully, other communities are taking note.  

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Did corruption follow private prisons to Montgomery County?

Hat tip to Grits for Breakfast who reported on Monday that the Montogmery County Commission would be disccusing whether a former County Commiss

ioner improperly received a loan from a firm that the county had contracted with to develop two GEO Group operated facilities - the Joe Corley Detention Center and the Montgomery County Mental Health Treatment Facility.   

Catherine Dominguez at the Conroe Courier reported on Monday ("County demands repayment for construction of facilities" December 14):

"In three separate letters, Montgomery County Attorney J D Lambright has demanded the repayment of almost $13 million he says are the financial damages to the county due to a “breach of fiduciary duty” relating to the construction of two county facilities.

The letters, sent Dec. 6, allege former Precinct 3 Commissioner Ed Chance, former county employee/consultant Linda Breazeale and Jim Galloway, with Conroe-based developer Alliance Development LLC, all benefited from the overcharges related to the Joe Corley Detention Center and the Montgomery County Mental Health Facility. They further state that Chance and Breazeale, along with Alliance’s “schemes, fraud and misrepresentations” knowingly caused the financial damages.

The letters demand Chance pay the county $500,000, Breazeale pay $242,275 and Galloway pay $12.2 million. Each was given 30 days to pay the debt or risk a civil suit. As of Friday afternoon, Lambright said he had not heard from any of the parties regarding the letters."

On Monday, the court rejected an effort by Commissioner Mike Meador to rescind the letters, moving the county forward in its attempts to recoup its costs.  According the Courier's Dominguez,

"Silence fell across the room during Monday’s Commissioners Court meeting after Precinct 1 Commissioner Mike Meador made a motion to rescind demand letters to former Precinct 3 Commissioner Ed Chance and former county auditor/consultant Linda Breazeale because Meador believes there isn’t enough proof the two caused financial damages to the county.

The motion, which came after a lengthy executive session Monday during the commissioners’ regular meeting, died due to a lack of second by a fellow court member."

We'll keep you posted on the latest developments from Montgomery County.   

Long time LCDC warden will run prison after MTC backs out

After seeing mixed signals from the Limestone County Detention Center operator back in July, Management and Training Corporation (MTC) has officially backed out of their contract with the county.

In response, county officials have opted to allow Mike Sutton to step in and run the prison on an interim basis. Sutton served as the warden and administrator of Limestone County Detention Center for 13 years before CEC lost their contract in March 2013.

We reported back in May 2013 that Sutton actually put in a bid to run the prison under a company named Detention Management Services after CEC's exit, but he was beat out by MTC.

Now with MTC's departure, Sutton will run the prison afterall, at least for now. 


Polk Top 10 Reasons for Closure Released

On December 4, Grassroots Leadership and Texans United for Families released a report lsiting the reasons why the Polk County Detention Center in Livingston, Texas still needs to be closed. The report was released at the Federal Building in downtown Austin. 

During our organizations' tour of Polk in September, we were able to interview 24 men who are detained at Polk by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Based on the men's responses, we were able to compose a list of the top ten reasons why Polk should be closed, including lack of access to basic medical care, legal services and recreation. A copy of our report can be viewed here

More updates will follow in the near future about our campaign to close Polk. Please stay tuned for how you can support us as we stand in solidarity with our incarcerated community members.

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