That's the question that Patrick Michels at the Dallas Observer asks in his hard-hitting blog post yesterday ("Family of Diabetic Inmate Who Died at Dawson State Jail Sues Private Prison Operator," May 18). Michels reports that a lawsuit (attached) filed by Weatherby's family against CCA claims that despite her status as a "unstable insulin dependent diabetic," Weatherby was denied regular insulin shots (receiving instead oral diabetes medication) and a proper diet to control her illness while incarcerated at the Dawson State Jail. According to the article:
"Within days of her arrival at Dawson, the suit says, Weatherby was taken off her scheduled insulin shots and given oral Glyburide instead -- ushering in "three consecutive days of diabetic comas," the suit says.
Mistaking the comas for a suicide attempt, the suit says, jail officials had her transferred to a mental health unit in Gatesville, where she was put back on insulin shots and stabilized -- only to return to Dawson after a few days, where she was taken back off insulin and her comas started up again.
At 1 a.m. on June 22, the suit says, guards found Weatherby unresponsive in her cell again; she was transferred to Parkland, stabilized, and returned to Dawson the next morning. Weatherby died July 14 after "yet another diabetic crisis", the suit says; an autopsy blamed effects from her diabetes."
Furthermore, the article quotes advocates decrying the state of medical care at Dawson generally, adding weight to the story:
"...Elisabeth Holland, a local nurse practitioner who runs Project Matthew, a faith-based medical program for incarcerated women, says she isn't surprised. 'My opinion is that the health care in Dawson is worse than in a developing country,' she says. 'Any of those diseases -- HIV would be another one -- that require regular medication with regular screening gets lost.'"
As we've reported, the Dawson State Jail was one of the TDCJ-contracted facilities originally mentioned for possible closure during this legislative session. Instead, TDCJ quietly renewed CCA's contract for the facility last fall, and it now appears that no private prison funding will be cut this legislative session.
We have covered previously that Donald Dunn, a former CCA guard at the T. Don Hutto Facility, was convicted of charges related to sexual oppression of immigrant detainees. Last September, Dunn was sentenced to a year in jail--the maximum sentence for a Class A Misdemeanor in Texas--and two years of probation following his release.
Last week Federal charges were filed against Dunn who is still serving his state sentence in a Williamson County facility. According to recent reports:
A former T. Don Hutto Correction Center employee is accused of fondling female undocumented immigrants in his custody. Former residential supervisor Donald Dunn of Austin has been charged with federal deprivation of rights. He allegedly touched the victims in a sexual manner for self gratification while conducting illegal searchers from December 2009 to May 2010. He faces prison time if convicted.
We will keep y'all updated as this plays out in federal court.
"The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas has intervened in litigation concerning Reeves County’s refusal to disclose documents related to medical care, staffing, and the deaths of several prisoners at the Reeves County Detention Center (RCDC), a privately-managed prison owned by the county.
The Attorney General recently ruled that Reeves County must disclose this information pursuant to the Texas Public Information Act. In response, Reeves County filed suit to challenge the Attorney General’s determination, arguing that the County is entitled to withhold the documents. RCDC’s private prison contractors claim that the documents are their “trade secrets.” The ACLU of Texas is intervening in this suit to seek a court order releasing the requested documents.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons pays as much as $68 million annually to house approximately 3,000 prisoners at RCDC. The ACLU of Texas submitted open records requests to Reeves County after prisoners at RCDC rioted twice – in December 2008 and January 2009 – to protest poor conditions and medical care."
Access to open records is a consistent problem for advocates and members of the media attempting to attain information about privately-operated prisons in Texas and elsewhere. The ACLU's full cross-claim (attached to this post as a document) sites the influence of private prison corporation GEO Group and private health provider Physicians Network Association (PNA) in the process. Both companies filed comments with the attorney general opposing release of the disputed documents.
As Adrienna Wong at the ACLU of Texas puts it,
“The private prison industry resists transparency and accountability because huge profits are at stake. The county and its contractors are not protecting ‘trade secrets,’ they are hiding harmful secrets that should come to light."
In the world of incarceration, trade secrets should not trump information that could lead to better public policy. This is particularly true in the case of Reeves, where deaths and prisoner uprisings have brought national attention to the facility. See some of previous coverage of Reeves:
State Representative Erwin Cain's proposed amendment to study and potentially privatize all Texas state jails may have lost some steam. According to the latest copy of the amendment we've seen, the amendment would now mandate the study of the "most effecient and cost-effective" manner of running state jails, but the study would no longer automatically trigger TDCJ to privatize state jails if they were found to be cheaper.
That's certainly good news. However, the state should study more than cost-savings. Other impacts of privatization - including guard pay and benefits, turn over rates, recidivism rates of prisoners leaving the institutions, assault incidents, suicides and attempted suicides, lawsuits, guard misconduct, and drug and alcohol program completion, to name a few - should be added to the list.
TDCJ has good reason to study these other issues in addition to cost. The agency's record with state jail privatization has not always been rosy, and in at least one case was downright appalling.
Here in Austin, TDCJ partnered with Travis County and Wackenhut Corrections (now called GEO Group) in 1997 to open the Travis County Community Justice Center under the auspices of the state jail system. At the time, Wackenhut CEO George Zoley hailed the community corrections facility “as the first project of its kind in the country.” However, by September 2009, the state had seized control of the facility citing an investigation into multiple guards having sex with prisoners and Wackenhut Correction’s chronic problems staffing the facility.
Guards were reportedly paid a starting wage of $6.50 an hour, hardly enough to attract and maintain talented staff in Austin's dot-com economy. In two short years, the company had racked up a record $625,000 in state fines related to staffing levels. State investigators claimed that the company was using money intended for rehabilitation to expand another Wackenhut Texas prison.
A criminal investigation into the sexual assaults produced at least 12 sexual assault and harassment indictments against former Wackenhut Corrections employees. Travis County Sheriff Margo Frasier said the facility was "poorly run and poorly managed. Frankly, this is the result of being understaffed and underpaid." Stories like this one have been under-played in the current privatization debate, but should be taken seriously by policy-makers studying the issuing.