“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

Organization of American States Investigates Hutto; Williamson Commission Challenger Opposes Hutto

Last Thursday, the Austin American-Statesman ran a story ("Rights group looks into care of immigrants at Taylor center," October 2) on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights' investigation into the treatment of detained families at CCA's T. Don Hutto family detention center. IACHR is a division of the Organization of American States, to which the United States is a member. According to the article,

A delegation of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was in Austin on Wednesday on a fact-finding mission on the treatment of immigrant families and asylum seekers at the T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor and other Texas facilities.

The commission, a body of the Organization of American States, monitors compliance by members, including the U.S., with human rights obligations established by international law.

The mission marks the first time the human rights commission has visited Texas to examine detention issues, said Denise Gilman, a professor at the University of Texas Law School's immigration clinic. She said the clinic and other organizations requested the visit during a hearing last year in Washington.

"It's a very important opportunity to raise some of these human rights issues taking place in our back yard before an international forum," Gilman said of the delegation's Austin visit. "The hope would be that the commission's findings and recommendations would lead the U.S. government to make changes in the way it handles immigrant detainees and asylum seekers."

A spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement, ICE, which oversees detention of illegal immigrants, could not be reached late Wednesday.

The story does not make it clear whether ICE or CCA allowed access to the facility for the OAS inspectors to investigate the conditions at the center. As we've reported, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Human Rights of Migrants was denied access to the facility on a trip last year.

In related news, the Statesman is also reporting ("Two seats up for grabs on Commissioner Court,"" October 2) that Round Rock real estate broker Greg Windom, the Democratic challenger to Williamson County Commissioner Valerie Covey, would work to end the county's contract with private prison operator Corrections Corporation of America.

The issue came to a pass last October when County Commissioners unanimously voted to continue the Hutto contract after initially expressing concerns about liability in the wake of a sexual assault incident at the facility.

TDCJ Unable to Expand Treatment Capacity Due to lack of Private Prison Space

According to Scott at Grits for Breakfast, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), reports they are unable to expand in prison treatment ("Lack of private beds shouldn't stop Texas from using treatment, diversion strategies", Oct. 1).

The reason, money for treatment authorized by the state legislature in 2007, depends on private capacity to provide in prison treatment beds. We have mentioned previously and Scott reasserts that a primary factor in supposed 2007 criminal justice reforms depended on private capacity. According to Scott:

I'm not an inherent critic of privatization and tend to consider its merits on a case by case basis. But when that strategy can't meet the state's needs, there's nothing wrong with the state operating those beds itself just like the government owns most Texas' prison facilities. If private capacity has all dried up, that's exactly what they should do.

Scott is certainly right there. But of course the state relying on private capacity to meet it's needs is one of the problems with private prisons period. If Texas was constrained by current capacity and conservative fiscal policy, discussions to expand any prison beds would be very different.

With private prison companies always available to provide beds -- though they aren't bidding for private treatment contracts-- begs the question: Why do Texas officials fall for these failed incarceration policies?

I am quite certain that one of the primary reasons private contractors aren't bidding for the new contracts is due to the cost of providing treatment. They have probably run the numbers and figure they wouldn't make an actual profit.

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.”

There are over 256 counties in Texas. Each elects a sheriff that runs and manages the county jail. There is extremely limited oversight these sheriff's actions and their management of the jail. So, further clarification by the AG would be helpful. We will keep you posted on the AG's opinion.

For related coverage see the following posts:

AP on Idaho Inmates in Texas Private Prisons

Via Grits for Breakfast, The Associated Press's Andrea Jackson has an excellent expose ("Idaho's out-of-state prison population grows," September 21) on the state of Idaho's "Virtual Prison Project," the practice of sending its inmates to out-of-state private prisons, including a number here in Texas. The results of sending prisoners thousands of miles away from family members, support networks, and attorneys has been, predictably, not good:

Drashner, convicted of repeat drunken driving, is one of three Idaho inmates who have died in the custody of private lockups in other states since March 2007. He was the first this year.

On Aug. 18, Twin Falls native Randall McCullough, 37, was found dead in his cell at the Bill Clayton Detention Center in Littlefield, Texas. McCullough was serving time for robbery and authorities believe he committed suicide.

State Department of Correction officials say he left a note, although autopsy results.

His family says he shouldn't have been in Texas at all.

Two of the three deaths in out-of-state private prisons were suicides occuring in GEO Group facilities in Texas. Scot Noble Payne died tragically in the GEO Group's Dickens County Correctional Center after complaining of squalid conditions at the facility. A subsequent report from the Idaho Department of Correction's Health Director called the prison the worst facility he'd ever seen. This summer, Randall McCullough took his own life after spending more than a year in solitary confinement at the Bill Clayton Detention Centerin Littlefield, Texas after a fight in which no criminal charges were filed. According to the story, conditions at Bill Clayton are fairly appalling:

During recent visits to the Bill Clayton Detention Center in Littlefield, Texas — where about 371 Idaho inmates are now held — state inspectors found there wasn't a legal aid staffer to give inmates access to courts, as required by the state contract. Virtual Prison monitors also agreed with Aragon's assessment of the facility.

"No programs are offered at the facility," a state official wrote in a recently redacted Idaho Virtual Prison report obtained by the Times-News. "Most jobs have to do with keeping the facility clean and appear to be less meaningful. This creates a shortage of productive time with the inmates.

"Overall, recreational activities are very sparse within the facility — Informal attempts have been made to encourage the facility to increase offender activities that would in the long run ease some of the boredom that IDOC inmates are experiencing," according to a Virtual Prison report.

The prison has since made improvements, the state said.

Only one inmate case manager worked at Bill Clayton during a recent state visit, but the facility did increase recreation time and implemented in-cell hobby craft programs, Virtual Prison reports show. Other inmate complaints center around the way they the were transported out of state.

Clearly, Idaho is making a mistake in sending prisoners to private prisons out-of-state. The state has options, including investing in drug treatment programs and alternatives to incarceration programs that might have a better success rate than sending folks to lock-ups across the country. As Kathleen reported last year here at Texas Prison Bid'ness, an enormous amount of Idaho's prison population is addicted to drugs or alcohol:

A more rational system would actually look first at whether or not these folks need to be incarcerated, and especially how many of them would benefit from drug treatment in the community. Both Montana and Idaho are stuffing their prisons with folks who are addicted to drugs and alcohol. Idaho's Understanding Growth report from 2006 explained that over 85% of their offenders have substance abuse issues. Montana's in similar boat: they reported last fall that 93% of folks in pre-release have a substance abuse problem. Investments in treatment will get us more of the results we want, and stop the relentless swing of the "revolving door" on state prisons. But instead we get higher prison budgets and less money for drug treatment in and out of prison.
In addition to being poor policy on the part of Idaho's state lawmakers, it's also bewildering that the state of Texas, which has its share of private prison problems, would allow an out-of-state entity to continue to ship prisoners into the state. This especially true when at Texas agency, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, is charged with overseeing these facilities. It may be time for state lawmakers to revisit this policy. In the words of Randall McCullough's sister:

"Idaho should step up to the plate and bring their prisoners home," said his sister, Laurie Williams.

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