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April 2015

Two prisoners dead in one week at Liberty County Jail

Two prisoners have been reported dead in a single week at the privately operated Liberty County Jail. 

Liberty County Jail courtesy of CEC
Liberty County Jail courtesy of CEC

 

According to reports, the body of 57-year-old Beverly Mooring was found “in medical distress and non-responsive in a detox cell” on April 15. She was later pronounced dead at the Liberty-Dayton Regional Medical Center.

Three days later the sheriff’s office received notification that 32-year-old Jeremy Keith Shomo was found dead in his cell after he allegedly hanged himself with a shoelace attached to a shower hook. Shomo’s case is currently under investigation by Sheriff’s Sgt. Chris Ungles and the Texas Rangers.

The fate of Liberty County Jail, managed by private company Community Education Centers (CEC), is currently under debate. The county hired a firm to consult on whether it should continue its partnership with CEC to run the jail. The firm, MGT of America, Inc., told Commissioners back in February that the way to save money was to reduce the jail's population to allow for staffing cuts.  

Time to decide is running out. The county’s contract with CEC expires at the end of the month.

 

Three sentenced in Big Spring prison smuggling case, including a GEO guard

Big Spring
Big Spring

Three people were sentenced this week in connection to what KFYO News Talk Radio in Lubbock is calling "prison smuggling ring" at the Big Spring Correctional Center (BSCC). The three include a former GEO Group employee.

Eva Bermea, who was working for GEO as a recreational specialist at Big Spring, was found guilty of smuggling tobacco and creatine to inmate Jonas Cruz, 34, who was selling the products to other inmates. Bermea, 42, was sentenced to three years probation, eight months of which she will serve under house arrest. Cruz had two years added to his 17-year sentence for methamphetamine distribution, to be served concurrently.

Cruz and Bermea also pleaded guilty to bribery of public officials and aiding and abetting.

The third party, Kami Nicole Bennet, 32, who recieved money from Cruz’s brother and packaged the contraband, was sentenced to one year probation after pleading guilty to misprision of a felony and superseding information.

Big Spring Correctional Center is a "Criminal Alien Requirement" prison for immigrants contracted by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to for-profit, private prison corporation the GEO Group. Big Spring was recently in the news and was covered here by Texas Prison Bidn'ess blogger Marlon Saucedo over complaints from prisoners and their families about a lack of medical care in the prison.

KFYO reports that neither the BOP nor GEO Group have returned their reporter's calls. 

BOP operates 12 CAR prisons, all of which are contracted out to private prison companies. As of earlier this year, there were 13 CAR prisons, but an inmate uprising at the Willacy County Correctional Center left the facility uninhabitable and BOP canceled that contract with Management and Training Corporation (MTC) and moved the prisoners to other facilities around the country. 

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Willacy warden is the only MTC employee left after prison uprising

Willacy County
Willacy County
KRGV.com reports that the warden is the last Management and Training Corporation (MTC) employee left at the Willacy County correctional facility.

MTC laid off nine staff members on April 17 after an uprising there two months ago left the facility uninhabitable and the Bureau of Prisons canceled MTC's contract for the federal prison for immigrants.

Officials told KRGV.com that the cleanup is complete, and there will be an effort to try and reopen the facility. A total of 363 employees at the prison were laid off. All 2,800 prisoners were moved to other federal facilities.

Paralegal says ICE banned her from Karnes County Detention Center over Texas Observer article

A letter banning Victoria Rossi from entering Karnes as a paralegal.
A letter banning Victoria Rossi from entering Karnes as a paralegal.

An Austin-based attorney and paralegal team claims that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has banned the paralegal from entering the Karnes County Residential Center after The Texas Observer published an article she wrote that was critical of the family detention center.

 

Paralegal and former Observer intern Victoria Rossi told the Observer that she thinks the timing of her banishment from working as a paralegal at the Karnes family detention center is suspicious because it comes after she published an article that detailed what she saw inside Karnes.

 

“I’m hoping it’s just a technical error, but the timing of it, I worry that it’s reactive to the article,” Rossi said.

 

Attorney Virginia Raymond, who employs Rossi as a paralegal, agrees. “It’s straight-up interference with access to counsel. It’s an intimidation tactic.”

 

The story begins in October 2014, when, Raymond submitted a security clearance application for Rossi which was approved by ICE. From then on, Rossi says she faxed the required intent-to-visit notices to Karnes, 24 hours in advance to any future visit to the facility.

 

Then, on January 15, Rossi arrived at the Karnes facility where officers stopped her from entering and questioned her about the purpose of her visit.

 

ICE officials told Raymond that there had been a clerical error on Rossi’s initial application and that Rossi only had permission to work in the facility as an interpreter, not as a paralegal.

 

Rossi and Raymond decided to reapply for paralegal access.

 

After completing a lengthy re-application for clearance process, Rossi and Raymond were denied once again on March 23. This time, the letter received from ICE gave no reason except that Rossi could not enter, “in the capacity of a paralegal.”

 

Rossi’s article for The Observer was published in February and, described her experience working at the Karnes family detention center:

We’d driven to Karnes because a family we represent—Reza and her daughters, Julie and Dalia (not their real names)—was scheduled to be released that night. Though a judge had set their bond impossibly high—impossible, that is, for an impoverished Honduran woman—we’d cobbled together the funds from individual donations and the San Antonio-based Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services. An $8,000 money order had been deposited at an ICE office in San Antonio that morning. Now it was 3 p.m.; if everything went smoothly, Reza, Julie and Dalia would be free by nightfall.

Growing up, I always heard that immigrants came to this country “in search of better lives,” for “more opportunities.” They wanted to make money and to educate their kids, I was told. But the people in Karnes are scared. They’re running from something. And they’re not running just to the United States. According to the U.N., asylum applications to countries surrounding violence-torn El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala increased by 712 percent between 2008 and 2013. What happened on the U.S. border last summer was not, as some have said, an immigration crisis. It was a refugee crisis.

I could understand Virginia’s urge to see Reza. Karnes seemed like the sort of place where things could go wrong. Phones weren’t allowed past the metal detectors. There is no Internet access inside, and all the walkways and buzzers and antechambers separating the receptionist’s desk from the visiting area meant that communication with the outside world was difficult.

The Karnes detention center was at the center of two hunger strikes this month. In the first, 78 women refused to eat or use any services in the facility from March 31 to April 4. Ten days later, 10 women restarted the fast to protest their detention.

 

This isn’t the first time that ICE has been accused to retaliating against legal service providers. Raymond also told truth-out.org that another paralegal, RAICES' Johana De Leon, was banned from working inside Karnes after ICE accused her of organizing the hunger strike.

 

The Karnes facility holds 532 beds and cribs for refugee women and children and is operated by GEO Group.

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Hunger strike and use of solitary confinement reported at the Reeves County Detention Center

Reeves County Detention Center
Reeves County Detention Center
According to News West 9, a hunger strike broke out at the Reeves County Detention Center on March 4. Prisoners and their families say they were put into solitary confinement as retaliation for talking to an attorney.

 

The wife of a prisoner at Reeves said her husband was among those placed in solitary. "They're punishing them. Those who spoke with a lawyer, or were wanting to speak with one, they put them in solitary confinement," she said.

 

William McBride, an attorney who says he had a meeting with 56 prisoners at Reeves on March 2, told News West 9 that prison officials suddenly prevented him from speaking with clients on March 3. McBride says prison officials gave no explanation for why he couldn’t meet with clients.

 

“[The warden] didn’t give me a reason why. He just said, “We’re not going to let you see them today, tomorrow or in the future,” McBride said.

 

McBride also told reporters that the prison blocked prisoners from calling his phone number from inside.

 

The reports of retaliation and a hunger strike at Reeves come just weeks after McBride announced that he would pursue a $15 million lawsuit against the Willacy County Correctional facility. The Reeves and Willacy facilities are two of the nation’s 13 segregated, federal “Criminal Alien Requirement” (CAR) prisons for immigrants. Most of those incarcerated in CAR prisons have been convicted of crossing the border. McBride said he wants to include all five of the CAR prisons in Texas in the lawsuit. McBride told NewsWest 9 that prisoners say they only eat rice and beans and that 4 computers must be shared among the 2,300 prisoners, making it nearly impossible to look for legal representation.

 

McBride also said medical care is withheld at Reeves. He says a diabetic prisoner who lost all of his five toes and part of his foot because of an infection went untreated.

 

The hunger strike allegations at Reeves come just days after a major two day uprising where 2,000 immigrant prisoners at the Willacy County Correctional Center last month. Willacy is operated by the Management and Training Corporation (MTC) and, according to an ACLU report, is home to the same abuse and poor medical care.


News West 9 contacted GEO Group to comment on McBride’s access to the inmates. In a statement, they said, “As a matter of policy, our company cannot comment on operational and legal matters."

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Plans to Privatize Terrell State Hospital Scrapped After Release of State Audit

Last week plans for GEO Care/Correct Care Recovery Solutions' to take over the Terrell State Hospital were scrapped after the release of a state audit. This effort was a privatization scheme that was part of GEO Care's, a subsidiary of private prison company GEO Group, expansion ambitions into state hospital and civil commitment centers.  This decision was instigated by a large contracting scandal in the state and a critical state audit.

 

Last week, the State Auditor’s Office released a seething audit of Texas’ Health and Human Service Commission’s (HHSC) attempt to privatize Terrell State Hospital last year.  The audit acknowledges that some procurement processes were followed. Yet, significant breaches to protocol occurred. According to the audit “the Health and Human Services Commission (Commission) did not ensure that its decision to tentatively award a contract to GEO Care, LLC to manage selected operations at Terrell State Hospital provided the best value to the State. The Commission and the Department of State Health Services (Department) did not fully comply with the Commission’s contract planning and procurement processes.”

 

The results of the audit included a list of mishaps on the part of HHSC. This included  failure to conduct a preliminary needs assessment and a cost-benefit-analysis, tardy purchase requisitions, and failure to adequately verify the background, qualifications, and experiences of vendors. In addition, there were a number of discrepancies in the bid evaluation process including inconsistencies in scoring, lack of a minimum qualifying score, and failure to receive non-disclosure agreements prior to negotiations.

 

In 2012, Texas Department of State Health Services attempted to offer a contract with GEO Care to operate the Kerrville State Hospital. In the end, Commissioner Dr. David Lakey rejected GEO Care’s bid to privatize the Kerrville State Hospital on the grounds that savings in the proposal were achieved “primarily through reductions in staffing and benefits to a degree that would put both our patients and the State of Texas at risk.” Even with this conclusion, HHSC chose to move forward with solicitation to privatize Terrell State Hospital in 2014. Nevertheless, the audit has rendered current attempts to privatize Terrell State Hospital momentarily dead.

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Immigrant mothers on hunger strike in Karnes family detention center say they face intimidation and retaliation

Last week immigrant mothers detained at Karnes Detention Center near San Antonio told reporters that they faced retaliation after declaring a hunger strike to demand their release and protest the conditions in which they and their children are being held.

Advocates say that although 40 to 45 women initially began participating in the hunger strike, that number decreased after three women perceived as leaders were placed in isolation in a dark medical clinic with their children overnight on Monday.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties is expected to investigate these allegations.

There are also reports that facility guards threatened women participating in the strike with deportation or having their children taken away. Additionally, there are anecdotal reports that all food was cleared from the fridges, even for those women who were not fasting, and that facility officials tightly monitored calls and cut off any conversation that mentioned the hunger strike.

One San Antonio paralegal was accused of inciting the protest and has been banned from the facility, despite multiple statements from both the women inside and advocates that the detained mothers are acting of their own accord. The hunger strike spanned 4 days, from the morning of Tuesday March 31 to Saturday April 4.

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