Scandals

ACLU intervenes in suit for documents related to GEO's Reeves County detention center

The ACLU of Texas intervened in a suit to attain access documents related to the GEO Group's troubled Reeves County Detention Center in west Texas.  According to the ACLU's press release Monday,

"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:

TDCJ should study history, all aspects of state jail privatization, not just costs

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.

CEC's Liberty County Jail fails TCJS inspection; Warden is not properly licensed

Via a tip from Diana Claitor at the Texas Jail Project, CEC's Liberty County Jail failed its Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) inspection (attached) on March 16 under some fairly interesting circumstances. TCJS is the state agency charged with ensuring that county jails maintain basic standards, and the agency keeps a list of non-compliant facilities.   

The jail had numerous violations dealing with plumbing (including leaking toilets, non-functioning toilets, showers not draining, and a lack of hot water in certain cells) and light fixtures, as well a non-functioning intercom system in the old jail facility and parts of the new facility. 

In addition, the report contains this piece of information:

During a random reviewof staff jailer licenses, it was revealed that the Jail Administrator, Warden Tim New does not have a TCLEOSE Jailer's License

From my understanding, a Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education Jailer's License is the basic certification that one must have to work in a jail, so it's a bit troubling that the Warden of this facility hasn't attained one. 

NPR covers financial problems with speculative lock-ups in Texas, and the background is even more troubling

NPR's John Burnett has an excellent piece today ("Private Prison Promises Leave Texas Towns In Trouble," March 28) about several Texas communities that have been left high and dry by private prison deals gone bad.  The story is the second part of a two-part series on private prisons - Friday's story chronicled the GEO Group's extremely troubled Walnut Grove youth prison in Mississippi.

Today's story follows the fortunes of Littlefield, home to the Bill Clayton Detention Center, formerly operated by GEO Group.  That community has been paying back loans it floated to build the prison facility before its closure in 2008.  According to the story:

"For the past two years, Littlefield has had to come up with $65,000 a month to pay the note on the prison. That's $10 per resident of this little city.

...  To avoid defaulting on the loan, Littlefield has raised property taxes, increased water and sewer fees, laid off city employees and held off buying a new police car. Still, the city's bond rating has tanked.

The village elders drinking coffee at the White Kitchen cafe are not happy about the way things have turned out. 'It was never voted on by the citizens of Littlefield; [it] is stuck in their craw,' says Carl Enloe, retired from Atmos Energy. 'They have to pay for it. And the people who's got it going are all up and gone and they left us...'

'...Holdin' the bag!' says Tommy Kelton, another Atmos retiree, completing the sentence."

The backstory to the Bill Clayton Detention Center is no less troubling. The state of Idaho pulled its prisoners after the suicide of Randall McCullough, who, according to news reports, had spent more than a year in solitary confinement.  GEO was later hit with a massive lawsuit over in the McCullough case. Since the facility's closure, Littlefield has had its bond ratings dropped and turned to two different private prison companies in an effort to fill the prison beds.   Idaho had pulled its prisoners from another GEO-operated facility in Texas - the Dickens County Correctional Center - in 2007 after an investigation of the suicide of Idaho prisoner Scot Noble Payne found "squalid" conditions.

And Littlefield is certainly not alone in troubles brought about after private prison deals went bad.  The NPR story today tells of how the CEC-operated Jack Harwell Detention Center in McLennan County sits half-empty after county spent $49 million to build it.  The sitting McLennan County Sheriff was on the payroll of CEC at the time the county voted to finance the construction of the facility. 

And, Scot Henson over at Grits for Breakfast recently chronicled a long list of privately operated jails that are seriously under-capacity due to a declining prison population.  Of course, there is an obvious public interest in declining prison populations and low crime rates.  However, private prison corporations are always looking for new groups of people to put behind bars.  Right now, companies like CCA and GEO Group are betting on increased immigrant detention, but the trend hasn't carried far enough to save towns with speculative prisons like Littlefield.

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