As part of a series of changes to the civil commitment program in Texas, Littlefield will serve as the new home for nearly 200 individuals convicted of a sexual offense who have served their time, but who have been indefinitely civilly committed. Although federally required to be a treatment program, not a punitive one, a company with roots in the private prison industry will operate the facility. Correct Care Recovery Solutions (CCRS), formerly known as GEO Care, is a spin-off corporation of GEO Group, the same corporation that operated the facility until 2009. This contract seems a consolation prize for CCRS, who lost the bid to take over Terrell State Hospital earlier this year.
The remote Bill Clayton Detention Center has lain empty for six years. Owing 13% of their budget in bond payments each year, this is not the first time the city of Littlefield has tried to repurpose the facility. In 2014, the city hoped that locking up children fleeing Central America could fix their financial troubles.
The opening of the new facility comes alongside numerous changes for the program. Attempting to get ahead of the feds after a federal court decision in June which ruled Minnesota’s civil commitment program unconstitutional because it held participants indefinitely, Senator Whitmire introduced Senate Bill 746 during the 84th legislative session. Signed by Gov. Abbott on June 16 and effective immediately, the legislation accomplished a number of reforms. Unfortunately, the bill also removed the outpatient requirement from statute, allowing the state to confine all program participants in a more restrictive lockdown facility, rather than in halfway houses in various parts of the state.
According to Sen. Whitmire, the new program is designed to allow participants to move through the five-tiered system, with prison-like confinement only at the front end. In theory, if someone follows the rules and makes strides in their treatment, they will move through the tiers and eventually leave the program. Unfortunately, treatment components and policies governing length of time spent in each tier remain undefined and “graduates” will continue to remain under state supervision through ankle monitoring.
Although some program participants are hopeful about the changes, others are skeptical. The state asked program participants to sign a waiver to voluntarily enter the new program - 97 refused. The distrust of the new program may stem from the program’s constitutionally dubious history. In the 16 years it operated as an outpatient program, no one was ever released from the program. Although there is now a process for individuals to move through the program and potentially be released, the state’s contract with CCRS incentivizes keeping the Littlefield facility full. The state will pay $128.70 per person per day initially, but once the population increases to over 250 individuals, the state gets a break and will pay only $100 per person per day. Similarly to private prison and immigrant detention contracts, the state now is incentivized to keep the number of individuals confined in Littlefield high, rather than encouraging rehabilitation and release. This perverse incentive is especially troublesome because oversight for the program will come only from the agency itself. With such a poor track record on the part of the agency and the private corporation running the facility, skepticism seems completely warranted.
Look for more to come on Correct Care Recovery Solutions and civil commitment in Texas.
Two stories about the economics of for-profit prisons in Texas have caught our attention this month. Both talk about a recent spate of communities in Texas defaulting on bonds that were issued to pay for private, for-profit prisons intended to detain or incarcerate immigrants.
The basics of the stories - one by Bloomberg's Lauren Etter ("Border jails facing bond default as immigration boon goes bust," August 2) and the other by the San Antonio Express-News John MacCormack ("Prison bust spreads across rural Texas," August 22) - cover the boom in private prisons financed by local Texas communities on the promise that federal contracts would come rolling in.
Bloomberg's Etter summarizes the issue:
"In Texas, the heart of a jail-building boom over the past decade, nine of 21 counties that created agencies to issue about $1.3 billion in municipal bonds to build privately run correctional facilities largely for migrants have defaulted on their debt. A dozen other facilities from Florida to Louisiana to Arizona, many that housed immigrants, have also defaulted, according to figures from Municipal Market Analytics, a bond-research firm based in Concord, Massachusetts."
Several other Texas facilities are in danger of defaulting as well. The story covers the incredible boom in facilities being built between 2000 and 2010 on county-issued debt (largely through quasi-governmental entitites often called Public Facilities Corporations or PFCs) through the lense of La Salle County, just north of Laredo. In La Salle, county officials issued more than $20 million in debt to build a detention center that won a U.S. Marshals contract for private prison corporation Emerald to detain pre-trial federal prisoners, mostly immigrants being charged with entering or re-entering the country without authorization.
But other prison companies were pitching similar deals in other parts of the state and soon the "demand" for immigrant prisoners couldn't keep up with supply of prison beds. Counties were left on the hook - with more than $700 million in outstanding debt around the state, according to Bloomberg, mostly for jail contruction. In La Salle, the company simply pulled out of the deal last winter and left the county's PFC with more than $20 million in debt and a jail with a leaking roof.
The side of the story that isn't, in my opinion, detailed sufficiently in either piece is that the private prison companies have emerged largely unscathed because of these lost contracts. Companies like Emerald in La Salle or GEO Group in Eagle Pass made money on these deals while the getting was good and then walked away from the contracts when the bottom fell out of the market. This is a classic case of privatized profit for the prison companies and socialized risk for the taxpayers of small, often struggling, counties. And, to make it even more scandalous, in many of these deals, the bond issuers, prison developers, and prison pitchmen got paid up front. In La Salle, former Webb County Commissioner Richard Reyes reportedly got paid $700,000 to put the deal together. I bet that's $700,000 La Salle County wishes it had now.
What's even more remarkable is that Emerald, the same private prison corporation that walked away from the facility in La Salle because it couldn't find enough prisoners to make it profitable, is still out pitching similar schemes in other parts of the state - recently in Alvarado and Cleveland.
Note to Texas counties - If a jail financing deal seems too good to be true, it most likely is.
Columbia University this month became the first college in the U.S. to divest from private prisons, as the result of the student organizing campaign, Columbia Prison Divest.
Could the University of Texas be next for a divestment campaign? It's possible.
According to their publicly available filings, the UT Investment Management Corporation indirectly invests in the two largest private prison companies through its more than 18,000 shares in the Vanguard REIT Exchange Traded Fund. (REIT stands for Real Estate Investment Trust.) In turn, this fund in has nearly $300 million invested in the Corrections Corporation of America and more than $200 million invested in the GEO Group.
This wouldn't be the first time the University of Texas has been at the center of controversy over university ties to private prison companies. UT students, faculty, and alumni called out the McCombs School of Business in December over namesake Red McCombs' deal with CCA and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to open the nation's largest family detention camp since Japanese internment. The family detention camp in Dilley, Texas, was leased to CCA and ICE by his real estate firm, Koontz McCombs.
Students, alumni and their supporters staged a sit-in at the off of the dean of the McCombs School of Busness demanding a meeting. About 50 UT faculty members also signed a letter to University President William Powers asking him to put pressue on McCombs to reconsider the deal.
In December, news broke that McCombcs had sold his stake in the firm.
There are several job openings at the Lindsey State Jail in North Texas as a result of a "rough year." And Security Chief Jim Cochran thinks local teenagers should apply.
Cochran said it has been a rough year for the facility, with three correctional officers being lost for various reasons. Correctional officers are needed at the facility right now, which Cochran said would be a perfect job for those teenagers needing a job. The facility is also in need of a horticulture instructor and substitute teachers.
“Most teenagers won’t be making $10 an hour and that’s what we start at,” Cochran said. “We also offer health benefits for under $100 a month to our employees, which are pretty good.”
The Lindsey State Jail is run by the for-profit, private prison company Corrections Corporation of America. Anyone looking to work for CCA would do well to read up on the company's history. A report released by Grassroots Leadership in 2013 details CCA's track record of "Keeping Costs Low and Profits High Through Employee Mistreatment."
The report explains that CCA's cost-cutting initatives include low pay, little benefits, forcing employees to work without pay, and underpaying female staff. Perhaps the nearby Jackboro Country Club is hiring caddies.