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.
As I mentioned above, there was little movement on these measures during the 81st Session. We received word that lobbyists working for private prison companies were roaming the Capitol in an effort to undermine these very reasonable reforms. It is unfortunate that even reasonable changes to the law, such as extending open records statutes to cover private jails, generated opposition from elected officials.
Navigating the legislature is just one avenue to improving oversight and accountability at Texas private prison facilities. We will continue to monitor developments that use this process. It may take additional public education and support to balance the interests of elected officials who serve the private prison industry with those who are interested in reasonable and responsible correctional reform.
Previous posts on legislation that impacted Texas private prisons:
The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) held it's investor's call for the first quarter of 2009 earlier this month. During the call, CCA officials emphasized a positive outlook that drove stock prices to increase by 19% following the conference call.
According to CCA, 9,300 new beds were brought online during 2008 and 2009, and the average daily compensated population increased for the quarter to 4.2% from the the previous year. CCA remains the nation's largest owner and operator of privatized correctional and detention facilities, managing 64 facilities, 44 of them CCA-owned, designed to house approximately 86,000 prisoners.
On the call, company officials informed investors of a 10,000 bed vacancy among current capacity. However, folks at CCA implied the for profit business strategy of building prisons on speculation in anticipation of demanded capacity would positively impact investment.
Specifically, CCA officials mentioned the federal stimulus package's assistance in helping states avoid budget shortfalls should help attract new demand to fill currently vacant beds.
CCA reps are projecting the potential demand may come from the 19 states -- including Texas -- the company currently does business with. According to the company's analysis those states' prison populations will grow in excess of planned capacity past 2013.
It will be interesting to see if CCA's projections bear out. We will keep following the company's contracts particularly those in Texas. Stay tuned...