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.
The San Antonio Express-News Guillermo Contreras had an article yesterday ("Heroin overdose in federal jail prompts lawsuit," March 21, 2011) about a new federal lawsuit against the GEO Group's Central Texas Detention Center in San Antonio.
In the suit, the parents of Albert Gomez, Jr. seek information into their son's death, of an apparent heroin overdose, and allege that he may have died after being smuggled heroin by a GEO Group guard. According to the article,
"The suit alleges guards are improperly trained to handle people with drug addictions and can freely participate in “black market sale of drugs to prisoners."
One of the Gomez couple's lawyers, Matt Wymer, said he has been informed that a criminal investigation has been launched, but the Marshals Service declined comment because the matter is in litigation. The GEO Group did not respond to a request for comment, but denied the allegations in a court-filed response."
The Central Texas Detention Facility is a Bexar County-owned detention center operated by the GEO Group that primarily incarcerates pre-trial detainees for the US Marshals Service and has also held immigration detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
A report surfaced Tuesday about another escape from the Houston halfway house operated by The GEO Group's GEO Care division. According to the report, two inmates have escaped the facility in a little over a month.
The 39-year-old sex offender fled from the Beaumont Highway facility around 6:15 Monday night, according to the Department of Public Safety. He's considered armed and dangerous. And, like Arthur William Brown, the rapist who escaped in late December, he was able to remove his electronic monitoring ankle bracelet...
[Another inmate,] Anthony Ray Ferrell escaped from Reid and allegedly shot and killed a 24-year-old good samaritan who intervened in a gas station purse-snatching. Another rapist split the Reid facility a few weeks before Ferrell slipped out. (Craig Malisow, Houston Press Blogs, "Timothy Rosales Jr.: Yet Another Escapee from a Houston Halfway House," January 25, 2011).
The article doesn't detail strain on the county and/or municipal police department that could be exacerbated by the escape of prisoners. Community resources are going to be expended to find and re-capture people who escape. The cost of using local police efforts is a hidden cost not disclosed in the private prison company's proposals.
The goals of GEO Care and The GEO Group in general lean towards rehabilitation. If the company seeks to rehabilitate mental issues including drug addiction, they must certainly have the basic ability to keep people around. We will update you with any developments in this story in the future.
Earlier this month, reports surfaced over a lawsuit was filed against The GEO Group for Cornell's past actions in July 2009 for allegedly illegally videotaping female residents of a Dallas-area drug treatment facility. The facility is now operated by Phoenix House, but was operated by Cornell at the time, before the Cornell-GEO Group merger. You can read our original coverage of this story here. Since the time of our publishing the original story, more details about the extent of the allegations have surfaced.
The lawsuit alleges that the treatment facility videotaped 36 female residents without their permission and distributed DVDs of these recordings.
"The Dallas Morning News reports, for its Monday editions, that the DVDs were distributed as promotional material for Cornell Companies Inc. The lawsuit, filed last week, says residents were told that the January 2009 videotape would only be seen by judges who sent the women to the Dallas County Judicial Treatment Center in Wilmer. The lawsuit says the DVD was instead used to raise money for the program and obtain contracts for other treatment facilities." (AP, The Houston Chronicle, "Lawsuit over videotaping at Texas drug facility," January 10, 2011).
The Dallas Morning News also covered the story:
"One of 36 women complainants in the suit, Theresa Watkins, a heroin addict with a criminal record, said she feels violated. She said she blames the taping and distribution of the video for anxiety and panic attacks she says she has suffered since her release from the Dallas County Judicial Treatment Center in Wilmer...
...'You pretty much go in at your lowest point,' Watkins said. 'We had no choice but to trust these people...'
...As part of the project, 45 female residents were videotaped in treatment sessions and while performing in a talent show called 'Cornell Idol.' Watkins said that the women were also told to march and sing while being taped, and that the marching and singing had never been a part of the treatment.
Those who saw the video include Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, probation officials and a group that donated clothes to women going on job interviews, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit says the material was also shown to other residents and resulted in male patients taunting women who appeared in it.
Price said he doesn't recall seeing the video but said he has toured the facility and has seen presentations about the program.
The attorney who filed the lawsuit, Charles Paternostro, said state and federal laws require a written release to videotape the residents. Paternostro said the taping itself constitutes a privacy violation since there was not written consent.
'To me, it's a clear-cut case,' he said.
The lawsuit asks for $100,000 for each plaintiff and another $100,000 in attorney fees." (Jennifer Emily, The Dallas Morning News, "Company being sued over alleged privacy violation in DVD," January 20, 2011.)
As usual, no officials from GEO are willing to comment on pending litigation. We will keep an eye on this story and relay any further developments in the case.