Today is International Human Rights Day. A day when people from across the world come together to reaffirm the basic rights that all people are entitled to, regardless of “race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” On December 10, 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. The United States played a key role in securing the adoption of the UDHR. The UDHR has since become the foundation of the modern UN human rights system, or in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt “the international Magna Carta.”
While December 10th is a day for celebration, a day where we look back on the progress we have made, it is also a day for action, a day to speak out against the injustices and depravations of basic human dignity that still occur on a daily basis. In Texas, we need not look far to see that our state and our nation have too often failed to uphold these basic rights. The numerous immigration detention facilities in Texas provide a clear case in point.
As frequent Texas Prison Bid’ness readers no doubt know, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) locks up approximately 400,000 each year at a cost of $1.9 billion. To accomplish this horrendous feat, ICE contracts many of these detainees out to the for profit private prison industry, including to a number of private facilities in Texas. The result: a massive transfer of public funds to private corporations that wastes scarce tax dollars and results in the depravation of basic human rights. Just last week, ICE transferred immigrant women out of the Jack Harwell Detention Center in Waco, a private jail operated by Community Education Centers, a for-profit private prison corporation after reports from inside the facility alleged a lack of access to medical care, including for pregnant women; spoiled food; no contact visits; and virtually non-existent access to attorneys. Allegations such as these do not signal the existence of a few bad apples, rather they clarify the structural flaw in the private prison model: the legal obligation to both ensure basic human dignity and maximize shareholder profit. These obligations are mutually exclusive.
Want to do something to stop this abuse? Join the Waco Dream Act Alliance, Hope Fellowship Church, Texans United for Families, Grassroots Leadership, and those affected by the immigrant detention system at a vigil in Waco for detained immigrants on International Human Rights Day (Saturday, 12/10). The vigil will begin at 2pm at Heritage Park at Third and Austin and will highlight the more than 10,000 immigrant detention beds (and the humans suffering in them) in Texas.
Earlier this week, Mike Ward with the Austin American Statesman reported that state prison capacity had grown in recent years despite reforms. The reporting emphasizes that continued prison growth is a policy choice that results in Texas being one of the world's biggest jailers.
"Instead of closing the other two prisons, Madden said budget writers agreed to leave them open and to set aside about $15 million for prison officials to lease additional beds if needed over the next two years." (Mike Ward, "Budget writers agree to shut old prison" Statesman, May 17, 2011)
The problem with the framework of Texas prison reform is that it is focused on back-end in measures including persons under community supervision who revocate to prison. While that initial approach has helped shift the dialogue in Texas -- it does not go far enough. Lawmakers have not paid enough attention to what triggers a prison sentence and the length of time persons spend incarcerated.
Texas policy makers and advocates, should rethink efforts to address the state's mass incarceration problem. The only true way to continue to address costs and, more importantly, change the state's criminal justice system is to minimize demand for a large supply of prison beds and permanently close them down.
The Bureau of Prisons and Management and Training Corp. of Utah (MTC) recently announced a $532 million deal to convert “tent city” in Willacy County from a facility contracted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement into a Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facility. The first wave of new prisoners have begun to arrive ("New prisoners begin arriving at 'tent city'" McAllen Monitor, October 10). Under the new agreement, the Willacy facility will continue to be managed by MTC and will house immigrant prisoners convicted of federal crimes exclusively.
This is great news for MTC. As an MTC representative stated, “[t]he Bureau of Prisons has good contract system; they need beds, we need the stability” ("New jail contract described as a win-win deal for county, MTC," Raymondville Chronicle, June 22). Unfortunately, while this may be good news for MTC, Willacy County, that funded the construction of the facility through revenue bonds issued by a Public Facilities Corporation, continues to receive the short end of the stick.
Under the Willacy County’s first contract with MTC, the facility housed undocumented immigrants under an agreement with ICE and, according to Willacy County Judge John Gonzales, “the income the county had hoped to gain from the facility fell far short of expectations.” In fact, the facility never reached 50% capacity (Monitor, October 10). To add to the county’s loss, earlier this year MTC handed out pink slips to almost 20% of its local staff. Under the new plan to convert the facility into a BOP unit, MTC will reduce its local staff by more than 32% below the number of employees it had prior to handing out pink slips (Raymondville Chronicle, June 22).
Under the new agreement, the county will receive a minimum of $104,900 a month, much more than the $970,000 the county received from ICE over the past year. While this may seem like a lot of money, it will only put a small dent in the outstanding debt obligation of $75 million (after the most recent refinancing goes through) incurred by the county to finance the facility’s construction (Raymondville Chronicle, June 22).
Things must be really bad in Willacy if this deal can be reported as a win for the county.
Last night, CNBC aired "Billions Behind Bars: Inside America's Prisons,". The special focused on the profit motive involved in various aspects of the corrections industry including prison privatization. Specifically, the CNBC show explored the relationship between the private sector and government and raised issues on whether private prison contracts are good public policy.
Shapiro's piece, For-Profit Prisons: A Barrier to Serious Criminal Justice Reform. In the article Shapiro charts the growth of the private prison population nationally,
As incarceration rates skyrocket, the private prison industry expands at exponential rates. The number of inmates in private prisons increased by roughly 1600 percent between 1990 and 2009. In 2010, the two largest private prison companies alone took in nearly $3 billion in revenue, and their top executives each received annual compensation packages worth well over $3 million.
Gilroy's article, Embrace Competition to Lower Costs, Improve Performance in Prisons, continues to support the use of private prisons and cites Texas as an example:
research by the Texas Legislative Budget Board found that, since 2003, the average cost of housing inmates in private prisons has been 3 percent to 15 percent lower than in comparable state-run prisons.
Yet we know that other researchers have concluded that the savings achieved from private prisons are not as significant as Gilroy claims. A 2001 study by the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) found that “rather than the projected 20-percent savings, the average saving from privatization was only 1 percent” and “the promises of 20-
percent savings in operational costs have simply not materialized.” The study found that these modest savings “will not revolutionize modern correctional practices.”
The CNBC special is a good overview of different issues related to the money that drives the nation's corrections industry. It airs again on October 21st at 8pm EDT and program highlights can be found here at the station's website.