“What happens if you privatize prisons is that you have a large industry with a vested interest in building ever-more prisons.” -- Molly Ivins, 2003

Freezing Overnight Temperatures at Brooks County Detention Center

During a bitter cold spell in Texas, prisoners at Brooks County Detention Center lacked heating in the first days of the new year. According to KRGV, the conditions at the facility “are improving” after the facility lacked heat and blasted air conditioning instead. The facility, operated by GEO Group, detains immigrants under custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Marshals Service.

“People are walking around with boxes on their heads, socks on their arms just trying to keep themselves warm. We don't have no sweaters,” a detainee told KRGV. The article also stated that some people refused to eat because the cafeteria further exposed people to the cold, though ICE would not comment on the hunger strike. 

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The U.S. Marshals Service issued the following comment: "Some inmates had expressed grievances about the temperatures by refusing to eat breakfast Wednesday morning. The facility confirms all inmates are safe and eating their issued meals." 

This news comes at the heels of Hurricane Harvey, when media could not confirm that the facility evacuated detainees in the path of the storm. Rep. Lloyd Doggett has since filed an inquiry with the Bureau of Prisons about the treatment of prisoners in Texas following the hurricane.

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Guards Charged by Federal Agencies for Smuggling Contraband in San Antonio Prison

News broke in late December that guards from a privately run San Antonio federal prison is under investigation by the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration for contraband and drug smuggling. The San Antonio Express News reported that two guards of the Central Texas Detention Facility were indicted by both agencies for smuggling drugs to inmates. “The jail, which is run by the GEO Group of Florida, has had a rash of contraband in recent years that includes cellphones, drugs and other prohibited items, court records show,” the article states.

The two guards, Abigail Jolynn Abrego and Jewel Roberto Jefferson, both pleaded not guilty to the charges. They were indicted with other non-employees, including two prisoners. “According to court records, Abrego and Belmares met Nov. 12 with an undercover FBI agent and agreed that Abrego would smuggle crystal methamphetamine to a GEO inmate in exchange for $1,500,” Express News reported. Jefferson also agreed to smuggle heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine.  

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 U.S. Marshals Service and has also held immigration detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

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This is not the first case of smuggling at the facility, operated by private prison company in GEO Group. In 2011, the parents of Albert Gomez, Jr. sued the facility when their son overdosed of heroin smuggled into the prison. In December 2016, a grand jury indicted GEO Group employee Ray Alexander Barr of providing methamphetamine and alcohol to prisoners.

Asylum seekers detained and separated from families, driven to despair

The detention industry has profited in Texas from a recent shift in immigration enforcement: families with children as young as two years old are being separated and sent to different facilities and prisons. Women’s Refugee Commission and several coalition partners filed a complaint on December 11 to the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) on behalf of individuals who were separated from their families at the southern border of the United States with Mexico. The complaint followed a number of cases of family separation that has had a devastating emotional toll on those incarcerated within detention centers.

The report lifted the challenges that families experience when separated in different detention centers, including privately-owned facilities in Texas. For instance, Camila is an asylum seeker who was detained with her 17-year-old daughter at the South Texas Family Residential Center, a CoreCivic detention center in Dilley. Texas. Her husband was transferred to the Port Isabel Detention Facility, while her U.S. citizen son was sent to live with Camila’s sister-in-law. With the family spread throughout the state, Camila said, “It has been very traumatic for our family to be separated in this way. It is difficult for my daughter and I to discuss it without crying. It has been very difficult for my daughter to be separated from her father and brother. I have never been separated from my son and I worry about him every day. We fled Mexico as a family and I believe we should have been kept together as a family, especially because my children are still underage.”

The detention facilities have responded to the separation by limiting contact between families. When Sofia, an asylum seeker from Guatemala, was separated from her husband and five-year-old son Rodrigo at the border, she learned that her husband Luis was in custody of the U.S. Marshals to be charged for illegal re-entry, a felony, though he came seeking asylum. Detained with her one-year-old son in South Texas Family Residential Center (STFRC) in Dilley, Texas, Sofia had no way to contact Luis or Rodrigo. The lack of communication negatively impacted Sofia’s legal case with no way to contact her husband from within detention.

The lack of communication between families has had negative impacts on detainees’ psychological health. Valentina, an asylum seeker from El Salvador, fled with her husband Hilario  and one-year-old son. While Valentina and her son were detained in Dilley, her husband was sent to Arizona. The facility in Arizona required a marriage certificate in order for the couple to exchange a phone call. Unable to access their marriage certificate, the family has been unable to communicate while detained for several months.

While the threat of family separation has existed in the past, it has been used sparingly with preference to the “catch and release” system. The increased use of the practice in recent months reflects the Trump Administration’s attempt to deter immigrants, though advocates warn it will punish rather than dissuade those who risk their lives to cross the border.

How will the private prison industry respond to family separation? While families are denied communication and access to visits from their loved ones, the detention centers retain power over detainees’ health and legal resources. Texas Prison Bid’ness will continue to monitor this change in enforcement practice and its impact on the detention industry of Texas.

Image Source: Detention Watch Network

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Women Incarcerated to Bring Burnet County Out of Debt

The Dallas Morning News reported on the growing trend of a rising women’s jail population in Burnet County following the facility’s turnover from state and private ownership to county ownership. When Burnet County decided to build a new jail in 2007, the private corporation LaSalle Southwest Corrections ran the facility by housing prisoners for the U.S. Marshals Service and a drug treatment program with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.


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The contract cost the county $40 million in bonds and had been “pitched as a revenue generator that posed no risk to county taxpayers.” The burden of the cost, however, led both LaSalle and Texas Department of Criminal Justice to withdraw from the contract after five years. According to the article, LaSalle lost $4 million in revenue. The article revealed the aftermath of private corporations withdrawing from contracts, leaving local officials to scramble for solutions.

In 2014, Burnet County owed $14 million in debt of bonds to a finance agency. To recover this debt, the county opened space for female prisoners, and by doing so, “inadvertently managed to capitalize on a trend,” the Dallas Morning News reports.  Across Texas, county jails have sought space to house female prisoners as the population of women imprisoned has increased. As a result of the changes at Burnet County jail, the population of women has increased to 76 in a month.

The Dallas Morning News also reported on the increased women’s population in Texas jails, though arrests are down, reflecting national trends of women’s state prison growth. The article recounted a disturbing trend of women incarcerated with both mental health and social needs, often held in jail prior to trial. Women’s populations have most notably increased in rural counties: “Brooks, Burnet, Galveston and Harrison county jails had gained enough pretrial female inmates to make them stand out from other similar counties. Of this group, Burnet county jail had the most unusual increase over time.”

The facility’s detention of women at increasing rates seems to reflect the need for profitability in a county left with a large jail and millions in debt, bolstered by the criminal justice system’s failure to account for the needs and rights of women who have likely experienced trauma and criminalization.

Burnet County Jail has a history of rights violations of prisoners and negative press attention. Texas Prison Bid’ness reported on the facility’s troubled history: LaSalle Southwest Corrections failed a security review in 2012 following a prisoner escape and received rebuke for failure to provide adequate medical care in 2009.

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