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March 2014

A Community Conversation on Race, Mass Incarceration, and the Private Prison Industry

Grassroots Leadership, in partnership with Huston-Tillotson University and Pi Gamma Mu, will host a community conversation with Nicole D. Porter and Christopher Petrella on Race, Mass Incarceration, and Private Prisons. We are eager to welcome Nicole and Christopher to Austin, to learn from their research, and to dialogue together about how we organize to address these issues locally. See speakers' bios below. 

Light refreshments will be available. Huston-Tillotson University will host the event in the Dickey-Lawless Auditorium from 6:30 pm until 8:00 pm. For more information please contact Grassroots Leadership at 512-499-8111. 

Nicole Porter co-chairs Grassroots Leadership’s board and is the Director of Advocacy for the

Sentencing Project in Washington, DC, Nicole is the former director of the Texas ACLU's Prison & Jail Accountability Project (PJAP). PJAP's mission was to monitor the conditions of confinement in Texas jails and prisons. Nicole’s policy focus is on mass incarceration and state sentencing policies she and recently published a paper on state prison closures. Her research was instrumental in supporting organizing and advocacy in Texas during the 2013 legislative session to close two privately operated prisons. Porter graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a Master's Degree in Public Affairs from the LBJ School. Her master’s thesis addressed exploring self employment as an economic strategy among formerly incarcerated African Americans. Porter received her BA in International Affairs from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD. She also studied African Politics at the University of Ghana, West Africa.

Christopher Petrella is a doctoral candidate in African American Studies at the University of

Christopher Petrella
Christopher Petrella
 California, Berkeley currently writing a book-length manuscript entitled Courts, Contracts, and Corporate Corrections: The Paradox of the Private Prison State. He is eager to share the findings of his most recent research on racial disparities in private prisons, which has earned significant press coverage, including on Tavis Smiley’s radio broadcast, NPR, and Mother Jones. He's also co-directing a national campaign aimed at bringing transparency and accountability to the for-profit, private corrections industry. Christopher has collaborated with organizations including the ACLU's National Prison Project, Harvard Law School's Institute for Race & Justice, Southern Poverty Law Center, and Prison Legal News. He holds degrees from Bates College and Harvard University.

Tacoma Hunger Strike spreads to Texas

Inspired by the hunger strike in Tacoma, two days ago immigrants detained at the Joe Corley detention center in Conroe, Texas began a hunger strike. 

An attorney who spoke with the detained men on March 17 confirmed the following demands: that deportations be halted; detainees be treated justly; stop overcrowding in the cells; end to double judgement for old cases; more nutritious food; better medical care; lower calling prices and better prices in the commissary. 

The strikers' demands at both facilities show the sytemic abuse and neglect on the part of GEO Group, which operates both prisons, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). They also wish to emphasize the inhumane nature of the industry in which they are trapped, which places profits ahead of human rights and welfare. Those striking at Joe Corley are facing denial of their asylum cases and force feedings. In spite of that, those at Tacoma have issued words of encouragement for their friends in Texas. 


CEC Snatches Contract with Burnet County Jail

The Burnet County and those involved with the operation of the Burnet County Jail have entered into a verbal agreement with New Jersey’s Community Education Centers (CEC). CEC will begin operating the facility on April 1. 

County officials, bondholders and the Public Facility Corporation, which provides funding for the jail, and CEC negotiated the contract on Wednesday at the Burnet County Courthouse. The official process of signing contracts could begin on Friday, provided that there is no dissent.

CEC has employees who are observing procedures at the jail. The facility has been run  by Southwest Corrections since 2008. Southwest Corrections’ contract expires on March 31.

Navy Flight School grad dies at Coastal Bend Detention Center

young man’s death  at the LCS-operated Coastal Bend Detention Center is causing quite a stir among law enforcement officials. 26-year old Trevor Nash, who allegedly committed suicide at the facility, had recently graduated from the Navy’s flight school at NAS -Corpus Christi. 

Sheriff Jim Kaelin received a call on Saturday, March 1, from the warden at the LCS facility. The warden reported that an incarcerated man, Nash, attempted suicide by hanging himself with a bedsheet. Nash was then transported to Christus Spohn Memorial Hospital. Nash was due to transfer to helicopter training school when he was arrested and charged with piracy.The death, currently ruled a suicide, is being investigated by the Nueces County Sheriff’s office. Detectives working for the sheriff’s office were refused entry into the facility by the U.S. Marshals Service, who claimed that the Texas Rangers would investigate the young man’s death.Sheriff Jim Kaelin had this to say:"The private prison LCS is under our charge, and we're responsible for the things that go on out there," Kaelin said. "Meaning that the U.S. Marshals service mandate that we make sure that we comply with rules, regulations and law." The Sheriff contacted the U.S. Marhsals in Houston in an attempt to find out why The Texas Rangers will be leading the investigation and not the sheriff’s office. No response has been received as of yet.

CEC: Officer Allegedly brings Contraband into Jail

A correctional officer at the Liberty County Jail, operated by Community Education Centers (CEC), was arrested on March 15 for allegedly bringing contraband into the facility, according to the Liberty County Vindicator ("Jailer Arrested for Allegedly Bringing Contraband into the Jail" 3/17). 

Following a routine "shakedown," or search of prisoners' cells and correctional officers for contraband items, which only resulted in minor violations, officer Tyree Richards, 26, came into work late. Before being searched to allow him entrance into the jail, Richards visited the restroom, which had already been searched for contraband. CEC Seargant Luther Burks, upon entering that same restroom, discovered five packages of tobacco in the trash. A joint investigation by the Liberty County Sheriff's Department and the facility determined that Richards had indeed brought the tobacco into the jail, a delivery for which he would have been paid $100. 

Liberty County Sheriff Bobby Rader weighed in on the situation as well: 

Contraband is an issue for every jail facility. I commend Warden Carnes and her supervisors for staying on top of the issue. While the tobacco itself might not seem like a big concern to some, the fact that a jailer's integrity had been compromised and he could then be made to bring in other items, including safaty threats, is a major issue that needed to be dealt with immediately. 


Hidalgo Co. Sheriff: Expand Jail, not payment to LCS Corrections

In Hidalgo County, once the public jail no longer has space for additional prisoners, the overflow is allocated to two private facilities operated by LCS Corrections. The county then pays LCS $45 per day per incarcerated person in their facilities. That costs the county a whopping $212,000 per month. That rate could increase by 20 percent next month, when LCS's contract with Hidalgo expires and the two parties begin renegotiations for a new contract. 

Jail dollar
Jail dollar

The executive vice president of LCS corrections, Richard Harbison, proposed a new daily rate of $55 per incarcerated person, claiming that "the cost of housing inmates is going up dramatically."

Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino, however, would rather expand the public jail than continue to funnel money to LCS:

We need something that we can move on right now, because it’s costing the people of this county a bunch of money every year,” he said. “There’s a solution to it. The question is: Do we really want to bite the bullet and do what we want to do?

The public jail expansion -- the addition of 768 beds -- would cost the county at least $60 million upfront, not including hiring more prison staff to supervise prisoners and day-to-day costs. Trevino claims that this expansion would pay itself off in 20 years, and is cheaper than paying $3 million per year to LCS. Having the US Marshals Service use the 300 excess beds in the public jail could offset the cost in 12 years. 

The county, namely County Judge Ramon Garcia, is not keen on Trevino's proposed expansion: 

"I’m very reluctant to get involved in any project that’s going to increase our tax rates...We’re trying to do what we can with the resources we have to work with. Presently we’re better off paying $2 million a year."

Garcia is heading an effort to build a new county courthouse, which is supposedly the reason he is unwilling to move forward with the public jail expansion. Trevino, who also recognizes the need for a new courthouse, claims that jail cost and overcrowding must be prioritized.

Contrary to both Garcia and Trevino, Astrid Dominguez, an advocacy coordinator with the Texas ACLU, opposes both the public jail expansion and a new contract with LCS. Rather, she suggests investigating why the jail is so full: two thirds of county jail prisoners haven't been convicted of a crime, and usually remain incarcerated because they can't afford post bail prior to their trials.