“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

Report Sites Sexual Abuse at GEO's Pearsall Immigrant Detention Center

San Antonio reporter Brian Collister, of the WOAI news station, has reported horrendous accounts of what appears to be widespread sexual abuse and cover-up at the GEO Group's South Texas Detention Center, located in Pearsall. According to the first of two stories run this week ("Claims of Sexual Assault at Immigration Facility," May 6),

A former detainee, who asked us not to identify her told us, "It was going on a lot. It was going on almost all the time, the sexual abuse."

She claims sexual abuse came from the guards. She said while she was there she rejected advances by one of the guards, but said other girls were too scared to put up a fight.

"Some of the guards actually tried to force themselves on the girls and that they've told them that if they ever said anything about it, that they have the power with ICE to deport them," explained this former detainee.

The guards work for a private company called GEO, hired by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to run the prison. Sexual contact with detainees is not allowed. In fact, it's a crime.

The former detainee said, "Some of the girls ended up pregnant by some of the officers there."

In fact, it appears that one detainee may have become pregnant due to the abuse.

She added one of those who got pregnant was a girl from Guatemala, named Marley. Marley's case is mentioned in an incident report obtained by the News 4 Trouble Shooters.

It details how last may a guard reported being told by another guard that he'd had sex with a Marley, who has already been deported back home.

That guard accused of having sex with Marley was Joseph Canales. The Trouble Shooters tracked him down, but he told us he didn't get anyone pregnant, then added:
"Whatever happened, happened a long time ago."

And, possibly as disturbing as the abuse, there appears to be a systematic cover-up of the assaults by GEO Group staff and ICE. According to the story,

After the incident report, Canales was fired, but ICE will not tell us if they referred the case for prosecution. The US Attorneys Office told us it has no case against Canales. Still, there are other sexual assaults we've uncovered.
We obtained an email sent by an ICE officer to his supervisors notifying them that a detainee had told him about a GEO sergeant who was having sex with one of the female detainees.

The ICE officer who wrote that e-mail sat down with us, but asked us not to identify him. He said some of the GEO guards prey on the female detainees by lying to them and promising they can help them stay in the United States.

"If they had the opportunity," he explained, "some of the guards were just touching, groping, but if they had the opportunity they had sex with them. The female detainees, a lot of them, were willing because they thought it was...somehow their chances of staying were going to increase. That's not the case whatsoever. If ICE can keep it under wraps, they will keep it under wraps."

To keep it under wraps, he said he was fired for reporting what was going on. And he is not alone. We've also talked to a former GEO guard who said she, too, was fired after reporting sexual abuse.
We obtained an email sent by an ICE officer to his supervisors notifying them that a detainee had told him about a GEO sergeant who was having sex with one of the female detainees.

Clearly, this story is immensely disturbing. It falls on the heels of a New York Times report detailing possible medical neglect and deaths at a series of Immigration and Customs Enforcement-contracted facilities around the country.

Furthermore, it is unfortunately not surprising that these kind of allegations are coming from a GEO Group facility in Texas. The Pearsall detention center was sued for mistreatment of a prisoner last year. Abuse and poor conditions at GEO Group's Coke County Juvenile Justice Center and Dickens County Correctional Center drove the Senate Criminal Justice Committee to look into to private prison oversight last fall and created the need for an interim charge on private prison oversight this spring.

Despite the abuse and mismanagement, GEO continues to win contracts with counties and the federal government, as Nicole reported last month. It's high time we stop contracting with private companies that cover-up physical and sexual abuse of prisoners and detainees. We'll keep you updated on developments from this growing scandal.

Harris County to Move More Jail Detainees to Private Facilities in Louisiana

The local ABC affiliate in Houston reported this morning that the Harris County Commissioners Court will approve a measure to send more Harris County Jail detainees across state lines. The detainees will be housed in a private lockup in Louisiana.

The county already pays out millions of dollars a year to the center in Louisiana. Some 600 inmates were moved there because of overcrowding issues in the past.

We have reported recently why this is a bad public policy and negatively impacts communities in the Houston area.

It is clear that Harris County leadership focuses on expanding capacity, rather than alternatives to incarceration that would decrease the jail population. The Houston Chronicle is also reporting that the Commissioners Court will send as many as 1,130 jail detainees out of the state.

The choice of county officials to send jail detainees out of state is in response to chronic overcrowding. Voters did not approve bonding authority last Novemer that would expand the jail, in no doubt because of negative publicity that has surrounded the jail including escapes and horrible amount of deaths.

Yet, the county continues to rely on expanding capacity as a solution to jail crowding rather than alternatives. Harris County officials have received recommendations from multiple sources including our friend Scott Henson at Grits for Breakfast and Mark Levin with the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation to no avail.

Grits states in his post today that the in order to change way the county does it's business there needs to a leadership change. Harris County residents will have an opportunity later this year to change leaders who contribute to those who enter the jail and for how long they stay.

But there is another issue in Harris County as well. Currently, there is no capacity in the area to counter jail officials and other leaders in their drive to increase jail capacity. Opposition to such policies has been found in the Chronicle editorials and the blog posts of criminal justice policy watchers - including this one.

But I know of no organized effort, currently underway, to engage public officials in a dialogue around jail capacity that would reduce their reliance on incarceration. Until one emerges, public officials -- old ones and new - will more likely to continue to rely on expanding capacity to solve crowding issues.

CiviGenics Guard Resigns After Sexual Incident at Liberty County Jail

The Houston Community Newspaper ("Liberty County jailer expected to be charged with sex crimes," May 4, 2008) is reporting that a female guard at CiviGenic's Liberty County Jail has resigned after accusations of an inappropriate sexual relationship with an inmate:

A female employee of CiviGenics who works as a guard in the Liberty County Jail resigned Tuesday, April 29, after being questioned by Liberty County Sheriff’s Office investigators about having sex with an inmate, according to Liberty County Sheriff Greg Arthur.

The case has been accepted by the Liberty County District Attorney’s Office and will be presented to a grand jury.

The grand jury could return an indictment for Violation of Civil Rights of a Person in Custody By Having Sex With That Person.

This is a State Jail Felony, punishable by confinement for a period of 180 days to two years in a state jail and a fine not to exceed $10,000.

Earlier this year, two guards at the facility were arrested for delivering marijuana, esctasy, and cash into the jail.

CiviGenics guards have been indicted on sexual assault charges at other Texas jails as well, including civil rights charges at the company's bi-state jail in Texarkansas and similar charges at the McLennon County jail in Waco.

Second Emerald Detention Center Rejected in Caldwell County

A private Emerald Corrections detention center proposal in the Caldwell County town of Mustang Ridge has been defeated, according to a local source who tells me that local officials did not think that the proposal would bring economic growth and worried about the impact of the detention center on property values. These concerns might be well-founded. As I wrote in a post last month, prisons can have a negative impact on long-term economic growth in slow-growing rural economies.

This isn't the first Emerald detention center to be defeated by residents of Caldwell County. After a groundswell of opposition, a similar proposal was defeated in January.

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