Following a suicide at a for-profit jail in Waco, three private prison guards have been arrested and charged with tampering with records that tracked how often they checked on the prisoner, Michael Martinez, who hung himself in his cell on November 1st.
The prison — the Jack Harwell Detention Center operated by private prison corporation LaSalle Corrections — was also found non-compliant by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) following a review of the facility. The TCJS review (attached) found that private jailers violated the standard mandating that potentially suicidal or mentally ill prisoners be checked on every 30 minutes.
The Jack Harwell facility has long and troubled history dating back to before its construction. The facility was publicly financed and built on speculation that it would win federal contracts to detain or incarcerate immigrants, but has largely failed to generate the revenue needed to make the facility financially profitable. (Of course, in this case financial profitability relies on more people behind bars.) The jail has also been plagued with allegations of abuse and mismanagement, including sexual assault allegations. Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed detainees from the facility last year following an outcry from attorneys and activists.
Suicides in county jails have endured more public scrutiny in recent months following the suicide of Sandra Bland and state legislators are currently looking into policy proposals to reduce the risk of suicide.
A for-profit prison that houses hundreds of immigration detainees has failed an inspection by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.
The Rolling Plains Regional Detention Center is operated by Louisiana-based private prison corporation Emerald Corrections and detains 485 federal contract detainees and only 12 local prisoners. Those 12 local prisoners put it under the purview of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, which found the lock-up non-compliant during a September inspection. TCJS standards are considered base-line standards for operating a jail in Texas.
According to the Commission's audit (attached), the facility failed on a number of accounts including misclassification of prisoners, employees operating without a jailer's license, and that the facility was not operating at the required 1 officer per 48 prisoners ratio.
The review should be of particular concern to immigration advocates as immigration detention standards generally are suppose to meet or exceed jail standards.
The national debate over private prisons may soon heat up a San Antonio court room sometime soon, according to a WOIA from this morning:
"A national debate over for-profit prisons has boiled over in San Antonio, where the warden of a unit run by The GEO Group was hauled before a federal judge and dressed down in open court over accusations that defendants were not receiving adequate health care.
"Your company gets millions and millions and millions and millions of dollar and we should get quality care," Judge Orlando Garcia sternly noted, announcing that a federal hearing would be held, where prison leaders would have to answer questions about the healthcare provided.
Companies like the GEO Group have recently been under fire for everything from poor conditions to cronyism to, in San Antonio's case, a lack of medical care. The warden, in court, said a doctor was only on staff Monday through Thursday. On Fridays and weekends, there were physician assistants available. The day before, Federal Judge Fred Biery lashed out at the lockup, saying he believes some of the problems are because the prison is privately owned. Assistant Federal Public Defender Donna Colthorp agrees.
"It appears that decisions are made based in how much things cost."
The debate is part of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders platform. This year, he authored the Justice Is Not For Sale Act."
Certainly, cutting corners at for-profit prisons in Texas is nothing new and has real and sometimes deadly consequences. As we reported way back in 2009, state-contracted private prisons had an astounding 90% annual staff turnover rate. These cost-cutting measures can lead to volatile facilities and Texas has sure seen its host of them, including in federally-contracted facilities like the Central Texas Detention Facility, the GEO Group facility in question.
Social worker Olivia Lopez spoke to media and House Democrats in late July about the troubling inner workings of the GEO-operated Karnes family detention camp near San Antonio, Texas. She called what was happening at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility “tantamount to torture” and said that she was shocked when she began working at the facility to find that it was “really a prison.”
Lopez revealed that she was rebuked for attempting to provide basic social services such as showing the families the geographic location of the facility and creating better ways to document their concerns. In December, Lopez received this directive from her boss: “ICE: We don’t tell them anything.” She recalled that psychologists were encouraged to falsify records in order to leave a clean paper trail, and that they reported families’ stories to ICE agents.
She also observed severe medical neglect inside the facility, including instances where GEO staff ignored severe abdominal pain and cranial bleeding in toddlers and infants until the emergency became so severe that they were flown to a hospital to undergo major operations. Additionally, Lopez said during one chicken pox outbreak, each “resident” was forced to submit to a blood draw in a way that terrorized children and left many with heavy bruising.
Lopez also confirmed reports of retaliation against leaders of a hunger strike that took place inside the facility earlier this year. She says that leaders of the strike were placed in isolation, sometimes being separated from their children, who were placed in the care of guards with no childcare license. Children were not told of their mothers’ whereabouts and were left to sleep alone without protection.
At various points, Lopez observed that ICE officials condoned and participated in the environment that GEO created, which isolated and terrorized the detained mothers and children. Lopez stated that she was compelled to resign from her position in April after being asked to withhold information from federal officials and follow policies that violated her social work license. Her full testimony the the Congressional Progressive Caucus is available here.