“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

Protests of MTC's "Tent City" detention center continue

Protests of Management and Training Corporation's "Tent City" detention center have continued over the past month.  "Tent City," officially called the Willacy County Processing Center, is the nation's largest immigrant detention center and earned its nickname because 2,000 of its 3,000 detention beds are made out of Kevlar tents.

Photo by Jason Cato
Photo by Jason Cato

On March 30, I was part of a Dignity Not Detention protest in Georgetown, Texas at MTC's corporate offices.  The Austin American-Statesman ("Protesters wage war on detention center from afar," March 30) covered the event like this:  

The protesters, members of Grassroots Leadership and WilCo Family Justice Alliance, point to reports of substandard living conditions, detainee abuse and the lack of adequate physical or mental health care as reasons the facility should shut down. The protesters also objected to the housing of detainees in what they have dubbed a "tent city," a set of 10 large dome-like structures made of steel beams covered with tough synthetic fabric. A representative for Management and Training Corp. was not available for comment Tuesday.

Two weeks later, students from the University of Texas and the University of Houston led a protest at the Tent City detention center in Raymondville that was joined by community members from the United Methodist Church, Southwest Workers Union, and other groups.  Houston Indymedia has a great photo review of the event, and the Valley TV station KGBT 4 ("Dozens Rally at Willacy Processing Center," April 10) covered the story like this:

Dozens of students and community groups gathered Saturday afternoon in front of Tent City in Raymondville to demand its closure. "Coming down here and seeing all these tents in the middle of the field you know, we knew it was here but just seeing it is just really shocking that that happens in the U.S," student Rob Block said.

Block was one of a handful of students that drove from Houston to the rally. Here they met up with students from the Valley and the University of Texas at Austin, as well as a few community and faith groups.

They chose to rally against the Willacy Processing Center, also known as Tent City, because of what they call "abuses” going on inside. "We're appalled at the condition and human and civil rights abuses that are happening in these tents,” Gislaine Williams, a student for UT-Austin, told Action 4 News. “So we decided to organize and come here today to speak out against that."

The students also received support from local groups like the Methodist Church. Cindy Johnson is a deacon in the Valley, and said she is glad to see young people taking up a cause that hits close to home for her. “We can see the families there we've talked to, the families we know,” she said. “Families in our own area that are going through very terrible problems because of the broken immigration system we have."

In the meantime, they said they will keep pushing for change, until detention centers like Tent City are closed.

We'll keep you posted on future protest to Tent City and other detention centers in Texas.

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Breaking News: GEO Group buys private prison company Cornell

In big private prison industry news, the GEO Group is buying a large competitor, Houston-based Cornell Companies, according to a story by Reuters ("UPDATE 2-Geo Group to buy rival Cornell for $374 mln," April 19),

Prison operator Geo Group Inc (GEO.N) agreed to buy rival Cornell Cos (CRN.N) for about $374 million in cash and stock as it expands to meet an increasing demand for private correctional and detention facilities.

The deal, which values Cornell at $24.96 a share, a 35 percent premium to the stock's close Friday, will create the sixth largest adult correctional organization in the United States, Geo's Chief Executive George Zoley said. The enterprise value of the deal is $685 million, including assumption of $300 million of debt, Geo said.

"(The deal) will give us a presence in a number of new states, including Illinois, Pennsylvania, Alaska, Colorado and Ohio," Zoley said on a call with analysts. While private prison operators currently house about 9 percent of the states' and federal government's inmates, growing inmate population and prison overcrowding have led to more than half of new inmates being housed in private prisons in some states.

Budget constraints have seen U.S. states increasingly outsource a part of their corrections systems to private operators like Geo and larger rival Corrections Corp of America (CXW.N).

We'll keep readers updated as details and analysis emerge. 

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Fitch gives Littlefield bonds a "Negative Outlook" after GEO pulls out

We've often cautioned against cities and counties financing speculative prisons and detention centers.  Here is another example why it's a bad idea ("Fitch Affirms Littlefield, Texas' COs at 'BB'; Outlook Negative," April 14), 

The speculative grade rating and Negative Outlook reflect the uncertainty as to when and if the city can secure an operator or buyer for the detention center as well as the city's limited financial resources to repay the detention center debt. To the surprise of city officials, the state of Idaho announced their plans to leave the Littlefield facility in January 2009, citing the need to consolidate all of its out-of-state prisoners into a larger facility in Oklahoma.

In addition, the detention center's private operator, the Geo Group, unexpectedly announced termination of their agreement to manage the facility effective January 2009. The move to leave Littlefield by the Geo Group is significant, given that the established private operator had made sizable equity investments in the detention center reportedly totaling approximately $2 million. In the past, the ability of the Geo Group to quickly replace prisoners with little disruption in operations, as well as their investment in the Littlefield detention center were cited as credit strengths.

While it's true that GEO pulled out of the Bill Clayton Detention Center, it may be a bit of a stretch to say it was unexpected.  As we reported, GEO had lost its contract with Idaho to house prisoners.  Idaho pulled out after the suicide of Idaho prisoner Randall McCullough, who killed himself after the GEO Group held him in solitary confinement for more than as a disciplinary measure.  McCullough's death followed the tragic death of Idaho prisoner's Scot Noble Payne a year prior at another Texas GEO facility - the Dickens County Correctional Center

Now it appears that Southwestern Correctional has a non-exclusive aggrement with the Littlefield in its attempt to find prisoners and avoid further bond devaluation.  However, the search for prisoners isn't going well.

The agreement with Southwestern Correctional is not exclusive and the city continues to seek discussions with other operators. Exacerbating city efforts is the current national recession, cuts in governmental spending, and a reduced jail population.

Officials have indicated, rather than drawing upon the debt service reserve fund, that the city is considering levying an interest and sinking fund tax to pay a portion of the detention center debt service, with the balance of detention center debt service requirements coming from expenditure reductions and available surplus funds. The city would have to almost double the property tax rate to pay for the entire detention center debt, which is not feasible.

It may seem dumbfounding that the city is going to reduce spending in other areas to pay a debt service on an empty jail that previously generated a profit for a private prison corporation.  But that's the situation in Littlefield, Texas, and should be a warning to other counties in a similar situation. 


Private jail backer loses primary in McLennan County

A prominent backer of CEC's new Jack Harwell Detention Center in McLennan County has lost his Republican primary run-off in a landslide, according to an article in today's Waco Tribune ("Perry knocks off longtime incumbent Meadows in commissioners court runoff," April 14). 

Ray Meadows was defeated by Ben Perry by a 2-1 margin. Meadows, a 24 year County Commission veteran, was a supporter of the county's efforts to build a new private detention facility. Perry, in contrast, earned the backing of the Combined Law Enforcement Agencies of Texas (CLEAT) by supporting civil service for Sheriff's employees. 

Meadows claims that he'll spend his remaining 8 months in office trying to convince government agencies to bring prisoners to the Jack Harwell facility, which was built on speculation that federal agencies would fill the facility.  As of March 1st's Texas Commission on Jail Standard's population report (PDF), the facility remained empty.  We'll keep you posted on developments related to Jack Harwell.


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