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February 2016

South Texas officials working to reopen scandal-ridden Willacy County prison

Tent City
Tent City
Willacy officials are working to reopen the troubled Willacy County Correctional Center by winning a new federal, state, or local contract, according to a report by KRGV.

The prison, known as Tent City because of its construction out of Kevlar tents, was destroyed last year after an uprising by immigrant prisoners in protest of conditions at the privately operated facility in February. The prison, run by Management & Training Corporation (MTC), was closed due to significant structural damage causing the relocation of 2,500 federal prisoners and nearly 400 employee layoffs. The economic ripple effect in the area didn't end there, with job losses in the private and government sectors following the prison closure. 

The facility had been operating under "Criminal Alien Requirement" to incarcerate immigrants for the Bureau of Prisons.  

In June of last year, The Nation published a detailed exposé on the uprising describes a peaceful protest that was caused by widespread medical neglect.  The peaceful protest was followed by the what the Nation called an "avoidable escalation" caused by MTC's guards.   

This was not the first time that MTC had run afoul of a federal agency after allegations of abuse at the facility.  In 2011, the facility lost its Immigration and Customs Enfrocement (ICE) contract following an expose by PBS' Frontline detailing sexual and physical abuse at the prison.

Given this history, it would seem almost unbelievable that this facility would win any new contract, let alone a federal one.  We'll keep you posted on developments.   

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City devastated after Walmart and private prison closures

The financial fallout from a prison uprising that led to it's closure continues in one Texas town. 

Residents of Raymondville, TX are stunned after the closure of Walmart just 10 months after the Willacy County Correctional Center shut down, according to a report in the Valley Morning Star that links the Walmart job losses to the prison closure. After Walmart closed its doors at the end of January, 110 Walmart employees were left without jobs. This adds to the 400 who lost their jobs at the prison after the Management & Training Corporation pulled out of the facility last year.

Willacy County Correctional Center
Willacy County Correctional Center

Willacy County Correctional Center, a privately operated prison for immigrants, was destroyed after fire and damage left the facility uninhabitable. What began as a peaceful protest against poor conditions, turned into an uprising sparked by violent retaliation from prison guards. 

Local government also saw job losses after the prison was shut down. According to media reports"The prison’s closure plunged Willacy County into a financial crisis, slashing a third of the county’s $8.1 million general fund budget. As county commissioners tried to offset a monthly $220,000 shortfall, budget cuts eliminated about 25 jobs, forcing 16 layoffs."

GEO hoping to keep strong ties in Montgomery County

The Houston Chronicle recently reported on some interesting developments in the Sheriff’s race in Montgomery County.

 

The county is a longtime supporter of big private prison profiteers like the GEO Group, which runs three facilities in the county — the Joe Corley Detention Center, a federal immigration detention facility and the state’s only privately run mental health hospital. In 2013, County Commissioner Mike Meador stated that the company intended to make their community a GEO hub. Considering such an intimate history, it is no surprise that the GEO Group is paying to keep things the way they are in Montgomery County.  

 

As the Republican primary approaches in March, two candidates are vying for the Montgomery County Sheriff’s seat, as there will not be a Democratic opponent. Rand Henderson is a long-time employee of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department, serving under out-going Sheriff Tommy Gage, who has endorsed Henderson. His opponent, Jim Napolitano, has a background in the Secret Service and private security and is backed by Montgomery County tea party groups.

 

Henderson’s platform consists of continuing the status quo and the GEO Group has donated $5,000 to Henderson’s campaign. Interestingly, tea party groups in Montgomery County have often been vocal dissenters of private prison contracts in Montgomery County and support Napolitano. We will continue to monitor this race and its outcome.

Limestone County hopes to re-open private prison

Limestone County’s 1,000-bed private prison has been closed since 2013, but local officials are hoping to change that. Limestone County Judge Daniel Burkeen is working with Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to fill the prison once again with immigrants. 

According to KWTX, the facility closed in 2013 because federal immigration policy shifted to more deportations rather than detention. Community Education Centers ran the prison until March that same year, exiting the contract for unknown reasons. Management and Training Corporation took over, but only operated it for a few months before firing all employees and leaving it empty. The prison will continue to be run by Management and Training Corporation if the feds agree to renew the contract. 

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Debate continues on controversial effort to license family detention centers as child-care facilities

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services is expected to decide in the next few weeks whether to license two federal family detention camps in the south Texas towns of Karnes and Dilley. In November 2015, Grassroots Leadership won an injunction that prohibited the state from passing an emergency rule to license the centers and mandated that the public be given an opportunity to comment on the licensing. At the public hearing held on December 9, more than 40 people testified against licensing including legal service providers, immigrant rights groups, faith leaders, and a former psychologist at the Karnes family detention camp. Over 1000 people also submitted written comments to TDFPS in opposition to the licensing.

At the time of the hearing, state officials including Governor Greg Abbott stated that the purpose of the licensing was to ensure the well-being of the children held at the Texas family detention centers. However, the state initiated its attempt to license the facilities after Federal District Court Judge Dolly Gee issued a decision that these family detention camps violate multiple of the standards set by the Flores Settlement for the detention of children by federal immigration officials. One of these standards is that children must be held in licensed childcare facilities.

As the agency and advocates prepare for another licensing hearing on February 4, state officials now admit that the decision to pursue licensing of the facilities stems from this federal court decision. “The (judge’s) decision left Texas and the federal government with an option to regulate the facility, or have these illegal immigrants released into Texas communities without regard for the federal government’s immigration disposition process,” Department of Family and Protective Services spokesman Patrick Crimmins told the American-Statesman. “The federal government therefore requested licensure to prevent this and Texas agreed.”

Grassroots Leadership says that state officials’ new position confirms that the well-being of immigrant children was not the motive for licensing. The organization’s Executive Director Bob Libal told the American-Statesman, “This is not about the welfare of children...This is a desperate attempt for the state to bail out the federal government’s immigrant detention regime.”

The State of Private Prisons: Where does Texas stand?

In September 2015, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) released their annual analysis of our nation's prison population, Prisoners in 2014In addition to providing data on total state and federal U.S. prison populations, the report also shows the number of prisoners held in private prisons and local jails by jurisdiction.

So, how does Texas compare to other states when it comes to private prisons?

Texas ranked #1 in the nation for the highest total number of prisoners in private, for-profit prisons by far at 14,368 — roughly 2,000 more than the runner up, Florida.

The report also found that Texas locks up nearly 9% of its total prison population in private prisons. 

Grits: Texas should consider closing more (private) prisons in 2017

Grits for Breakfast had an intriguing post over the weekend on the possibility that the Texas legislature may move to close more prisons or state jails, including private facilities, when it meets again next spring.  Here's an excerpt:

"Texas famously closed three prison units in recent years. Could we close more?

After the Legislature raised property-theft thresholds to $2,500 last session, Grits expects downward prison-population trend lines to descend even further. And with legislators seriously discussing possible reductions in sentences for low-level drug possession, the possibility arises that Texas could close even more prison units in 2017, particularly so-called "state jails" (which in essence house people convicted of fourth-degree felonies, known in Texas penal-code parlance as "state jail felonies")."

Grits asked TDCJ for a list of private facilities with contracts expiring in 2017 that could be natural targets for closures.  All four facilities are operated by Corrections Corporation of America.

Grits notes that two of the three facilities TDCJ closed in recent years - the Dawson State Jail and the Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility - were private (and both CCA facilities as well).  Grits attributes the closure of Dawson and the Central Unit in Sugarland at least in part to development interests. While Dawson's location in prime real estate territory in downtown Dallas certainly bolstered the case for closing it, so did the preventable deaths of several women at the facility, an advocacy campaign by Grassroots Leadership, my organization, and others, and some stellar reporting by Ginger Allen at CBS 11.

Grits ends with this quote, which I couldn't agree with more:

"In an era when the United States has 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of its prisoners, with Texas incarcerating more people by far than any other state, Grits doesn't care much which prisons the state closes, or why. I just want them to close more. We can debate later how much deincarceration is too much. Right now, we're a long way from that particular fork in the road."