“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

Can Texas Politicians Say No To Private Prison Money?

Students at Florida Atlantic University, where GEO Group tried to buy naming rights to the football stadium, have started a campaign to get Florida Democrats to pledge not to accept money from the for-profit prison company.  The Democratic Hispanic Caucus of Palm Beach County has put their support behind and released an official statement:

"Whereas, the GEO Group, a private prison contractor headquartered in Boca Raton, FL, has a history of human rights violations and abuses at its detention facilities in the U.S. and abroad, including sexual abuse, negligent deaths, and solitary confinement of minors [...]

Be it resolved, that the Democratic Hispanic Caucus of Palm Beach County urges the Florida Democratic Party and Democratic Party elected officials and candidates to not accept any campaign donations from the GEO Group or its business and political affiliates."

Nearly half of GEO Group's lobbying dollars have gone to Florida candidates and PACs (about $2.1 million out of $4.5 million).  However, the lions share of that -- $1.9 million, to be exact -- have gone to the Republican Party of Florida, and about $80,700 to former governor Charles Crist.  The Florida Democratic Party has received $229,100; only one Democratic candidate, State Representative Bobby Powell, has received money from GEO Group, to the tune of $500.  The pledge would largely be a symbolic move for Florida Democrats, but as Michael Sotelo, Vice President of the Democratic Hispanic Caucus of Palm Beach County, said in a statement, the boycott would

"send a message to the Democratic Party that if they're serious about immigration reform and the Hispanic vote, they should not be taking money from a company that profits off the incarceration and persecution of immigrants."

Texas candidates have received much less -- a little over $100,000 since 2003 -- according to a search on FollowTheMoney.org.  Sixty seven candidates have taken money from GEO; Governor Rick Perry received the most, at $11,000.  Corrections Corporation of America, GEO's largest competitor, gave Perry $20,000 out of the $23,000 it's given to four Texas candidates (all Republicans) since 2004.  As we covered earlier this year, both GEO and CCA also have spent hundreds of thousands paying lobbyists to shill private prisons to Texas legislators.

As momentum behind the pledge picks up, we have to ask: if Florida politicians are willing to turn their back on private prison money, can Texans follow suit?

Contraband indictments at Mineral Wells

The Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility, a Corrections Corporation of America-run jail that will be closed by the end of next month, is the site of a new contraband scandal.  

The Weatherford Democrat reports eighteen indictments for bringing in or possessing contraband items like cell phones and tobacco were handed down on July 25th by a Parker County grand jury.  It's not the first time these kinds of charges have come from Mineral Wells, but it may well be the last.

Along with the Dawson State Jail, the Mineral Wells facility was targeted for closure during the most recent Texas legislative session.  Dawson and Mineral Wells are two of five contracts that CCA lost nationally in June.

What should Ellis County know about Community Education Centers?

Yesterday, Piper reported that Ellis County was considering turning over its county jail operations to a for-profit corporation.  The County's jail management evaluation and feasibility committee has received bids from two-companies - Community Education Centers and LaSalle Southest Corrections.

CEC's bid was rated 65 points out of 100 while LaSalle's received only 53 points out of 100.  We aren't sure what the evaluation criteria was, but 65 out of 100, a D grade for most schools, doesn't seem too impressive.

We thought that Ellis County should know a little more about its top bidder, New Jersey-based Community Education Centers.  CEC was the subject of a New York Times front page series last year exposing the company's operation of halfway houses in its home state.  The problems the Times uncovered including escapes, widespread violence, and rampant drug use.  The company's executives used connections with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to win halfway house contracts, the Times wrote, despite the fact that the company was in such bad financial shape in 2010 that it defaulted on its debt and contemplated bankruptcy.

The company has run into its fair share of problems in Texas as well.  Here are some highlights:

- CEC was dumped by McLennan County earlier this year after failing to win a federal contract to fill its detention center.  CEC also walked away from its contract with Bowie County in November 2012 leaving the county "high and dry" according to the Bowie County Citizen

- CEC's Polk County Detention Center has been the subject of protests (including by my organization, Grassroots Leadership) after being named amongst 10 of the worst immigrant detention centers in the country in a national report by the Detention Watch Network.

- In May of this year, a 22 year-old CEC guard was arrested and accused of smuggling drugs into the company's Liberty County Jail.  The same facility was under investigation in September 2012 by the Texas Rangers for alleged sexual misconduct involving a male guard and an incarcerated woman.  And, in June of this year, eight former CEC guards at the company's Ector County Detention Center were sentenced to federal prison after being accused of delivering contraband to incarcerated people in exchange for cash.  

-  The Liberty County lock-up was also one of our Big Stories of 2012 after a plan to reduce jail costs by diverting some prisoners away from jail was thwarted because of the county's contract with CEC.  75th District Court Judge Mark Morefield, who supports the inmate reduction plan, stated at the time: “One (private prison) bid said that if the inmate population goes below 200, the cost per inmate goes from $63 to $68 per day. If we work really hard to decrease the inmate population, the cost will go up to $70 per day, … [t]hey are taking all the incentive out of it."

Ellis County should do some hard thinking to do before moving ahead with it's "top bidder" in Community Education Centers.  We'll keep you posted on developments from Ellis County.  

Ellis County Commissioners studying proposals from CEC, LaSalle

We first heard wind that Ellis County was considering privatizing its county jail earlier this year, when the Waxahatchie Daily Light reported that county officials had been holding "exploratory meetings" with Community Education Centers and LaSalle Corrections.  The county issued a Request for Proposals and accepted bids until July 1st.

On Monday, Ellis County Commissioners heard from the "jail management evaluation and feasibility committee," the group tasked with appraising bids from the RFP.  Of the two proposals submitted -- from CEC and LaSalle Corrections -- CEC's held up better, scoring 65 points out of 100 to LaSalle's 53.  However, County Auditor Mike Navarro pointed out that the committee's function was to choose the better of the proposals, not to recommend privatization.

The Waxahatchie Daily Light notes that many community members who attended the meeting expressed opposition to privatizing the county jail, including detention officers citing good work relationships and bad reports from other privatized facilities.  Ultimately, the meeting was inconclusive: the commissioners court decided not to move without first hearing from the sheriff, who was unable to attend.

If Sheriff Brown is concerned for the employees and incarcerated people he's responsible for, he'll think twice before getting behind privatization.  For-profit prison companies like CEC cut costs by cutting corners on things like salaries and medical care, leading to unsafe conditions.  At least one county commissioner would be on his side: Paul D. Perry of Precinct 6 posted one of our presvious articles on his Facebook page saying "I don't like giving for profit entities the power of government, especially when they can interfere with civil rights."

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