Last month, a briefing was held on the Private Prison Information Act (HR 2450). The measure was introduced by Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. Our own Judy Greene presented at the briefing along with Joshua Miller of AFSCME, David Shapiro of the ACLU's National Prison Project, Tom Barry of the TransBorder Project, and Alex Friedman of the Private Corrections Institute. The briefing was hosted by Corrections USA and moderated by Eric Milman.
During the briefing, presenters like Judy made the case for expanding the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to all facilities detaining persons under federal jurisdiction. This would include immigrant detention centers in addition to private prison facilities.
According to Tom Barry's presentation, the problems with the current system include a lack of effective oversight.
A near-total absence of committed oversight has allowed the prison industry to flourish in the shadows. Requests for the most basic information about the functioning of these prisons and detention centers routinely lead nowhere.
Private operators like GEO Group bounce back media requests and questions from advocacy organizations to local government prison owners and to the federal outsources. In turn, local government entities [Inter Government Agreement] IGA's refer inquiries to their contracts and subcontractors knowing that this will lead to another dead end....
Judy Greene cited several specific examples of her experience with with the lack of oversight among private prison facilities including:
In June of 2000 the BOP awarded a contract to CCA for a 2,304-bed prison they had built on speculation in California City. Seeking to understand how CCA could acquire the legal power to operate this prison, including the power to use deadly force, in California -- a state which had not enacted legislation conferring such authority on private corporations, a colleague and I submitted a FOIA request for this critical information from [the Bureau of Prisons] BOP. After several months time, we sere notified that under federal regulations pertaining business information, the information I was seeking was exempt from FOIA because the company had deemed it to be a trade secret.
HR 2450 specifically addresses these issues by extending FOIA to all federally contracted prisons and detention centers. Jackson Lee's bill has garnered fifteen Congressional co-sponsors to date.
And the bill has also drawn opposition from companies with private prison interests -- most notably from the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Congressman Tim Holden (D-PA) is a current co-sponsor of HR 2450 and introduced a similar measure in the last Congress that also garnered opposition. At the time Rep. Holden stated:
In recent weeks, opposition to this bill has mobilized. Although I cannot testify on their behalf, I can reiterate my concern that opposition to this bill is opposition to reporting transparency...
According to recent reports, CCA has paid a lot of money to lobby agains HR 2450 and similar measures. This appears to be significant since current CCA director Charles Overby is also CEO of the Freedom Forum an organization that champions the freedom of the press. HR 2450 is still in committee in the House. We will keep y'all posted of any developments related to the measure.
Another year has passed here at Texas Prison Bid'ness, and what an exciting year it has been. As we have done in the past, the bloggers here at TPB would like to recap our favorite or perhaps the most memorable stories/topics over the past year. Over the next few days, we'll be posting 2009's top five stories related to private prisons.
We would like to thank the loyal and casual readers who gather their information from our website. We have great plans for 2010, including a new interactive Texas map that has information on each private prison facility and we are looking into the plausibility of branching out in to video podcasting. We would like to wish all our readers a happy new year in 2010, and good fortune in the days to come.
-- Judy, Bob, Nick, Nicole, and Andrew
#5 - The 81st Legislative Session ends without increased oversight of private lock-ups
Despite several bills filed that would have provided some much-needed oversight to the private jail and detention systems in Texas, the 81st legislative session ended without much in the way of increased accountability of the private prison industry. We chronicled the role that private prison lobbyists most likely played in killing a number of these bills. Here's the run-down.
HB 1714: This bill filed by Rep. Harold Dutton would have prohibited counties from contracting with private prisons. The bill did not get a hearing this session and died in committee.
HB 3903: Filed by Rep. Solomon Ortiz, Jr, the bill subjected private jails to the same open records laws as public facilities, mandated public hearings before privatization of county jails, and made it illegal for a public servant such as a Sheriffs to be paid by a private prison corporations in addition to their regular salaries. The bill was voted out of the County Affairs committee only to be killed on the House floor by Rep. Tracy King, whose district includes several private jails and detention centers, Rep. Jim McReynods, chair of the House Corrections Committee, and Rep. Jerry Madden former chair of the House corrections committee.
SB 1680: This bill filed by Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa would have required voters to approve bonds used in the financing of constructed correctional facilities. This bill did not receive a hearing and died in committee.
SB 1690: Also filed by Sen. Hinojosa, this bill which died in committee as well. The bill would have exteneded oversight to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards to monitor county jails that only house federal prisoners, a reversal of 2003's HB 3517, a bill that stripped the Commission from such authority.
We'll be back with Top Private Prison Story #4 soon.
Tommy Witherspoon at the Waco Tribune is documenting unsavory practices between county sheriffs and private prison profiteers. According to recent reports, McLennan County Sheriff Larry Lynch will not take additional money from Community Education Centers (CEC) ("Sheriff will not receive additional stipend when new jail opens" Waco Tribune, September 26, 2009).
A known practice in Texas is the payment of funds to county Sheriffs by private prison companies. According to state law, Sheriffs must authorize a private detention company's presence in the county under its jurisdiction.
Lynch had been on the private prison payroll for years; CEC paid him and his predecessors a monthly stipend of $1,000 in addition to their annual salaries. The kick-back paid to county sheriffs has been a source of tension in McClennan County for years. McClennan County sheriffs collect private prison profits through the contract agreement between the county and private prison companies. CEC acquired CivicGenics.
In 2008, local officials debated whether to authorize the construction of a new privately operated jail in the area. And former State Representative Kevin Bailey, then Chair of the Committee on Urban Affairs, requested an opinion of the Attorney General. Bailey's request can be found here. It seems that the AG never issued an opinion.
While not all county sheriffs who contract with private prison companies receive an addtional stipend, Witherspoon's investigative reporting has uncovered that CEC operates a 1,000-bed facility in Limestone County. Sheriff Dennis Wilson, whose county annual salary is $49,457, is paid a $24,000 stipend yearly by the county in its contract with CEC, Wilson said.
Perhaps now is a time for another request from an elected official interested in holding county sheriffs and private prison companies accountable.
Witherspoon is doing a good job of tracking this information. A bill introduced last session that outlawed such practices died on the House floor. If such a policy gets resurrected in 2011 it will be interesting to see what the AG has to say.
Matte Pulle at Texas Watchdog published another excellent investigation on the private prison industry's work in the Texas Capitol last month. In his previous reporting on the private prison industry, Pulle detailed the personal and financial links between state legislators and GEO Group. This time, he details the role lobbyists played in sinking common-sense reforms to laws governing private prisons during the 81st legislative session.
In his report, Pulle explains that GEO Group's lobbying team is particularly well-equipped to defeat even modest improvements to oversight of the private prison industry because of its large lobbying expenditures and the close personal relationships its lobbyists have to Texas Legislators. From Pulle's investigative piece:
"...it’s not just the GEO Group’s expense account that makes it noteworthy. A lot of companies pay top dollar for a crew of lobbyists. But few of them can match GEO’s well-connected team, a team that, over the last two sessions, have helped the outfit expand their business and beat back efforts to regulate their operations."
Pulle interviewed TPB's Bob Libal for his latest expose of the private prison industry, and he and referenced Watch Your Assets, a 2008 report from Texans for Public Justice and Grassroots Leadership which includes a list of private prison lobbyists from 2007. From Pulle's report:
"In the 2007 legislative session–before the GEO Group’s troubles made headlines– lawmakers passed a bill that essentially allowed private prison companies to house more inmates, enabling them to make more money off their contracts with the state.
During that session, two of the company’s lobbyists had close ties to then-House Speaker Tom Craddick.
Bill Miller once served on Craddick’s transition team and as his consultant while fellow GEO lobbyist Michelle Wittenberg had served as the speaker’s general counsel. Both were also on hand for the company this session with each slated to make up to $50,000 this year, according to state ethics records.
Also in the 2007 legislative session, the GEO Group enlisted the services of former House Republican Ray Allen, who resigned in the middle of his seventh term a year earlier to become a lobbyist for the company.
He certainly had all kinds of experience. In 2003, Craddick appointed the Grand Prairie Republican to serve as the chairman of the House Corrections Committee even though at the time Allen was lobbying for a private prison company outside Texas."
The GEO Group’s top lobbyist is Lionel “Leo” Aguirre, a former executive with the state comptroller’s office. Aguirre is the widower of Lena Guerrero, who became the first Latina chair of the Texas Railroad Commission in 1992 after serving three terms in the state House. A state and federal lobbyist for the GEO Group, Aguirre topped the list of the state’s highest compensated prison lobbyists with a maximum salary at $250,000 in 2007. This year, Aguirre’s compensation remained unchanged."
Pulle also traced the role at lest one lobbyist played in killing HB 3903 in his investigative piece. As Nicole reported in May, we received word that private prison lobbyists were in the halls of the capitol undermining a series of reasonable reforms, including HB 3903. HB 3903 was a bill filed by Representative Solomon Ortiz, Jr. which would have subjected private prisons to the same open records law as public facilities, mandated public hearings before privatization of county jails, and made it illegal for a public servant such as a Sheriffs to be paid by a private prison corporations in addition to their regular salaries.
Pulle writes that Representative Jerry Madden, former chair of the House Corrections Committee, admitted to Texas Watchdog that he talked with GEO Group Lobbyist Michelle Wittenburg before joining with six other legislators to remove the bill from consideration by the full body of the Texas House:
"...the Richardson Republican says that just because he talks to lobbyists doesn’t mean he listens to them alone. In this case, though, he agreed with Wittenberg’s position that Ortiz’s bill would have singled out prison companies to comply with open records laws when other private firms have no such mandate."
Madden's logic misses the point a bit. Ortiz's bill merely would have subjected private prison companies, which perform a governmental function, to the same open records requirements as public prisons. It is difficult to understand how the former chairman of House Corrections, who examined problems at the the GEO-managed Coke County facility, wanted to kill a bill that would have provided badly needed sunlight to the private prison industry in Texas. Texas doesn't even collect basic information on their privately-managed facilities, as Lauren Reinlie of Texans for Public Justice noted in Watch Your Assets:
In response to requests for records under the Texas Public Information Act, however, the TDCJ acknowledged that it does not collect basic statistics about private facilities, numbers that it routinely gathers for facilities that it operates itself. TDCJ officials say that its inspectors monitor some employment information during site visits but the agency could not provide staffing numbers for its private facilities. The requested data that the agency did not provide were records on: the number of guards each facility employs, the guard-to-prisoner ratio, guard disciplinary data, and enrollment in drug-treatment programs.9 Such lax oversight is remarkable given that the state spends $200 million a year on these facilities, which control the lives of 16,000 people.
Pulle's report is essential reading for those interested in the role private prison lobbyists played in the last legislative session.