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Recommendations for Senate Criminal Justice Committee

On November 13th, I testified to the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee at its interim charge hearing looking into how private prisons are complying with state law.  You can watch the entirity of the hearings online here

Like last year's committee hearings in the wake of the Coke County detention center fall-out, the most memorable moments were the testimony by Shirley Noble, mother to Idaho inmate Scot Noble Payne, who committed suicide at the GEO Group's Dickens County lock-up in Spur, Texas. 

Ms. Noble was joined by the sister and son of Randall McCullough, an Idaho inmate Randall McCullough who committed suicide at GEO's Bill Clayton lock-up in Littlefield, Texas. McCullough had been held in solitary confinement for over a year as administrative punishment for a fight that was not criminally prosecuted.  Their testimonies certainly put a powerful human voice to the debate over private prisons.

I focused my testimony on concrete, common sense proposals that the legislature could make to improve oversight and accountability in Texas' vast system of private prisons, jails, and detention center.  The recommendations included:

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Idaho Removes Some Prisoners from Texas Private Prisons

This story is a few weeks old at this point, but it certainly is worth a mention.  Idaho, the state with the most out-of-state prisoners held in private lock-ups in Texas has decided to bring some of its inmates back to prisons within its borders.  According to the Associated Press ("Idaho brings 80 inmates back from Texas, Oklahoma," October 1),

For a decade, Idaho has been shipping some of its prisoners to out-of-state prisons, dealing with its ever-burgeoning inmate population by renting beds in faraway facilities.

But now some groups of prisoners are being brought back home. Idaho Department of Correction officials are crediting declining crime rates, improved oversight during probation, better community programs and increased communication between correction officials and the state's parole board.

The number of Idaho inmates has more than doubled since 1996, reaching a high of 7,467 in May. But in the months since then, the population has declined to 7,293 -- opening up enough space that 80 inmates housed in the North Fork Correctional Facility in Sayre, Okla., and at Bill Clayton Detention Center in Littlefield, Texas, could be bused back to the Idaho State Correctional Institution near Boise. The inmates arrived Monday night.

Of course, shipping inmates over 1,000 miles away to a largely unregulated private prison system can create pretty gruesome consequences.  Idaho's "virtual prison program" and Texas' private prison system more generally came under scrutiny after the tragic suicide of Scot Noble Payne, who died at GEO's Dickens County Correctional Center in 2007. 

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Lawmaker Requests AG Opinion

State Represenative, Kevin Bailey (D-Houston), requested an Attorney General (AG) opinion on whether it is legal for a sheriff to accept a fee for work with a private prison company, according to the Waco Tribune ("Texas House member asks state to rule on whether sheriff's pay from work with private detention company is legal," September 21).

Bailey currently chairs the House Committee on Urban Affairs. His AG requests comes after several private contract scandals surfaced. Over the last year, sheriffs in Bexar County and McLennan County have come under scrutiny.

McLennan County officials have rationalized why they believe the payments from private contractors are acceptable. According to an attorney that represents McLennan County, Sheriff Lynch receives a $12,000 salary supplement -- paid to the county from CivicGenics -- for administrative services associated with leasing the county's downtown jail to the private prison company.

Bailey's request asks for certain clarifications in current law.

“Although the sheriff may not actually be a shareholder of the private organization and hold a shareholder’s interest in the private organization, there can be no doubt that the sheriff would have a ‘financial interest’ in the private organizations’ contract with the county if the sheriff receives a sizable administrative fee after approving of the contract if the contract includes such an administrative fee to the sheriff,” Bailey wrote in his letter. “Thus, such an arrangement would violate the spirit and intent, if not the language of the law.”

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Grits Covers Jail Commissary Contract Scandal

Our pal Scott at Grits for Breakfast recently discussed the Potter County jail commissary contract scandal ("Commissary vendor pleads guilty to organized crime charges," September 12).

This latest development emphasizes that as elected officials, Sheriffs, are quite susceptible to corruption and bribery. This is particularly troubling since Sheriffs are the public officials that manage jails and contribute a great deal to local criminal justice policies.

Sheriffs directly impact who comes into their jails and how long they stay. As a result, the fact several sheriffs including those in Bexar and Potter county are known to have taken bribes from private contractors is disgusting.

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