GEO Group's Laredo "Superjail" continues to draw fire from local opponents and the South Texas press, and it looks like Laredo decision-makers may finally be starting to take notice. As Kathleen reported back in May, GEO Group CEO George Zoley visited Laredo and distributed $250,000 checks to the city and county governments, a visit that coincided with zoning permits and utility hookup awards.
An article in last Wednesday's Laredo Morning Times outlines how Webb County Commissioners rejected the $250,000 "donation" from the GEO Group after it was criticized by local attorney Ron Rodriguez, who has represented several victims of abuse in GEO prisons, amongst others. From the article:
"Commissioners, this is not a donation, this is a payment," said Ron Rodriguez, who represents the families of Guillermo De La Rosa, an inmate who died while serving time in a Geo Group facility in Willacy County.
"This transaction is dirty, the money is dirty and everybody that touches it will have dirty hands," Rodriguez continued.
The Commissioners then voted unanimously to reject the "donation." Word from Laredo is that the Laredo City Council, who was also offered a $250,000 "donation," will likely vote tonight on a proposal to reject the money as well.
The "superjail" proposal has also been drawn continued criticism from LareDOS, the award-winning alternative monthly. The latest issue (caution - giant PDF!) features three articles about the "superjail" - including pieces about last month's Senate Committee on Criminal Justice hearings sparked by the scandal at GEO's Coke County juvenile facility, a story about about a protest at GEO's Val Verde prison, and a piece by yours truly about GEO's ongoing operational problems in Texas. We'll keep you updated on the status of the Laredo "superjail" and its opposition.
A conference today in New York billed as "The Future of Prison Services and Privatization" will bring together executives from the major private prison industry to plot the future of the industry (or, in the words of the conference organizers, to "discuss this important and developing market").
The conference is hosted by Avondale Partners, an Nashville-based investment bank, and appears to be a who's who in the private prison industry with presentations by the CEO's private prison corporations Corrections Corporation of America, The GEO Group, and Houston-based Cornell Corrections. Privatized prison medical service providers will also be present.
At least two of the companies, Cornell and CCA, will be web-casting their presentations, so we'll be able to let you know what they're saying about private prisons in Texas.
Texas voters approved prison expansion this week as Proposition 4 passed among the state's various constitutional amendments. Despite opposition to the initiative, including from Grits for Breakfast, voters approved prison construction by a margin of 58% to 42%.
While Prop. 4 included other measures like funding state parks and a new facility for the mentally ill, the measure also obligates Texas taxpayers to fund the construction of three new prison units, the largest expansion since the 1990s.
We previously covered the expansion authorized by elected officials during the 80th Legislature. The budget that state policymakers passed in May authorized general revenue funding for new prison construction of nearly 4,000 beds. And while the recent vote authorizes general obligation bonds to fund new construction, correctional officials must get approval from the Legislative Budget Board before the building begins.
We will continue to monitor the developments of the expansion and let you readers know if private prison companies will operate any of these new beds.
Previous Coverage on the 80th Legislature:
I've been interested in the issue of criminal prosecution of border-crossers since Grassroots Leadership, the organization I work for, issued a report on the subject called Ground Zero: The Laredo Superjail and the No Action Alternative (PDF).
Then, we found that the spike in criminal prosecutions of first-time border-crossers was rapidly increasing the need for U.S. Marshals bed space in South Texas, and particularly the Laredo district. Now, Laredo has gone to a "zero tolerance" policy where every border-crosser will be criminally prosecuted, instead of processed in immigration court and quickly deported. The policy is modeled after a policy in the Del Rio sector. The policy may expand to the Rio Grande Valley next.
Who are the major beneficiaries of this policy? As Scott Henson at Grits for Breakfast points out, the impacts of tighter border security, while possibly decreasing the number of crossings, can be deceiving. Without meaningful immigration reform, such policies appear to cause two phenomena:
A third impact, as described by Forrest Wilder over at the Texas Observer blog is a drastic increase in the need for prison bed space. From Wilder's post,
In a nutshell, that means the agency will try to throw every single immigrant they catch into jail. Doing so will require yet more detention centers, jails, and prisons. Zero tolerance likely won’t stop in Laredo. Border Patrol assistant chief Ramon Rivera was quoted in the Houston Chronicle as saying, “We’re hoping it goes nationwide.” The courts in Laredo are already swamped.
Public defenders I talked to two years ago for a story said it was all they could do to provide a basic legal defense for their clients. The courts then were corral-like, with dozens of defendants coming before the magistrate on a daily basis. Laredo had to build a new 1,500-bed detention center to hold them all.
Guess who benefits from that? Yup, the private prison companies. In Del Rio, GEO will benefit from a recently-completed expansion the troubled Val Verde Correctional Center. In Laredo, GEO is set to benefit from a contract to operate the 1,500-bed U.S. Marshals "superjail," a project that has been increasingly controversial. And, in the Valley? Well, maybe Willacy County wants another private prison?
The policy question should be, does spending hundreds of millions of dollars to lock up non-violent border crossers make sense if it doesn't decrease the number of undocumented immigrants and may be empowering the smuggling cartels?
Of course, that doesn't ensure successful political grandstanding like "Lock up the illegals! Zero tolerance!" does. But maybe it's time to look past the political sloganeering, and try something new.