“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

Idaho May Fling Open Its Doors (and Wallets) to Private Prisons

One might think that Idaho would have had its share of private prison woes thanks to Texas --- the escapes, the nationally-recognized squalor, the suicide of an Idaho prisoner, the embarrassment of praising a private prison mere days before the state health division announces a major mobilization to identify an illness there that has killed prisoners... but instead, Idaho is forming a committee to plan for private prison companies in their state to rake in millions (assuming they can avoid lawsuits).

The Boise Weekly has covered this story with a very thorough article, quoting a wide range of folks, including a marketing director from Corrections Corporation of America, a spokesperson from to Governor Otter's office, and our allies at the Private Corrections Institute and the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. It's worth reading the whole article, but here's one point I must comment on:

"We have a critical need right now to do something immediately to address the [prison] population crisis that we're seeing," said Jon Hanian, Otter's press secretary. "When you're talking about a private prison vs. a state-run one, building one, you're talking about up to four years on the state-run side vs. 18 to 24 months. The private side is going to be a more immediate impact."

Want an even faster impact? How about if Idaho reduced "re-admissions" to their state prison system? Take a look at the numbers on the August 2007 prison admissions: of just over 200 people admitted to the Idaho prison system, less than 50 were new to the system. Three out of four people entering prison were revocations of probation, parole, or the rider program. Lowering the recidivism rate would reduce the demand for prison beds, which has been on the rise for a while. Is this news to anyone?

Idaho's prison population has been growing by roughly 6.5 percent annually, and Reinke estimates it will take an additional 2,000 to 3,000 beds to meet the state's short-term needs.

"What I'm concerned with right now is bed capacity," Reinke said. "This is not a new need."

No, it's not a new need for Idaho. In early 2006, IDOC released Understanding Growth, a one-pager that re-iterated key factors for recidivism: low educational achievement and addiction. But instead of forming a committee to figure out where to pump money into reducing recidivism, Idaho officials have formed a committee and invited "industry representatives" to sell their wares. Wow, how did this committee get the green light?

According to campaign finance reports filed with the state, both CCA and GEO Group, the two largest private prison operators, donated $5,000 to Otter's 2006 campaign for governor.

As one might expect, there is a stern rejection from the Governor's spokesperson that money could have any effect on the political process. I'm sure they're right, that money couldn't have any effect on any of this... although, wait a second, how much money are we talking? Well, by the end of the year, IDOC could easily have 1,500 prisoners in "contract" beds (1,000 in out-of-state private prisons, 500 in county jail beds), and director Rienke mentions needing 2,000 to 3,000 beds. Reinke's estimate of fees is $40-$50 per day per person. So let's take take a very low estimate of the money that might be involved in a private prison expansion into Idaho:

1,500 new prison beds x $45 per day per prisoner = $2 million per month

These millions for the companies will come with other things too, just for the state of Idaho. All anyone in Idaho has to do is glance at Texas: the scandals, the deaths, the lawsuits. As Ken Kopczynski of PCI asks, "Why does your governor think having a private prison in Idaho is going to be any different than the mess they had in Texas?"

Why indeed. 

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Finding Information on Texas Prisoners

A family member recently contacted us asking for help on finding information on a prisoner incarcerated in a private prison. I pointed her to the information that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) must release on prisoners confined in a public or private facility.

Texas' Public Information Statute, Sec. 552.029 requires TDCJ to disclose the following information on state prisoners:

  1. The prisoner's name, identification number, age, birthplace, department photograph, physical description, or general state of health or the nature of an injury to or critical illness suffered by the prisoner;
  2. The prisoner's assigned unit or the date on which the unit received the prisoner, unless disclosure information would violate federal law relating to the confidentiality of substance abuse treatment;
  3. the offense for which the prisoner was convicted or the judgment and sentence for that offense;
  4. the county and court in which the prisoner was convicted;
  5. the prisoner's earliest or latest possible release dates;
  6. the prisoner's parole date or earliest possible parole date;
  7. any prior confinement of the prisoner by TDCJ; and
  8. basic information regarding the death of a prisoner in custody, an incident involving the use of force, or an alleged crime involving the prisoner.

Folks might also be interested in other public information that TDCJ, the Texas Youth Commission or any county jail that incarcerates people in Texas must provide. Texas Government Code, Chapter 552, gives anyone the right to access government records from state and local governments in Texas, excluding the judiciary. However, certain exceptions may apply to the disclosure of the information. For example, information that the government claims is pertinent to an ongoing criminal investigation is exempt from disclosure.

Below is a general outline of the open records process in Texas. In the past, advocates have used the procedure to obtain information on unit lockdowns, number of prisoner deaths, and in-prison sexual assault incidents.

PROCEDURE

The Request

  • Submit a request by mail, fax, email, or in person according to a governmental body’s reasonable procedures. The “reasonable procedures” of each governmental body may be different. Therefore, it is necessary to research those procedures online or to call the governmental body directly.
  • Include enough description and detail about the information requested to enable the governmental body to accurately identify and locate the information requested. For help on constructing the proper description, see the following records request example.
The Government’s Response
  • The governmental agency is required to produce requested information within 10 business days of your request.
  • If the requested information cannot be produced within 10 working days, the agency must notify the requestor and set a date and time to provide it within a reasonable time.
Additional information on the Texas Open Records Act can be found at www.oag.state.tx.us/opinopen/og_faqs.shtml.

Premier Private Commissary Scandal Keeps Growing

In recent months we covered the scandal out of Bexar County that involved the Sheriff and his aide accepting gifts from the private firm based in Louisiana managing the commissary contract.

The Advocate and WBRZ news recently reported that Bexar County prosecutors say now-resigned Bexar County Sheriff Ralph Lopez and his long-time campaign manager John Reynolds received money and a golf and fishing trip to Costa Rica in exchange for awarding Premier Management the contract to run the county jail’s commissary.

Premier Management's owners, Louisiana brothers Michael and Pat LeBlanc, also own LCS Corrections, a private prison firm that operates several private jails in Louisiana and Texas.

Grits for Breakfast also covered recent reports in the San Antonio Express News that the scandal extends to Kleberg and Nueces counties where Premier staff cultivated relationships with elected officials in order to reap the benefits of privatized county jail commissary contracts and private detention centers developed by LCS Corrections.

According to Grits, the Texas Rangers are investigating the details of these relationships. We will continue to monitor this scandal as events unfold. Our previous coverage can be found below:

  1. Bexar County Sheriff Indicted
  2. Private Commissary Contracts Lead to Corruption in Bexar County
  3. Sheriff's Aide Accused of Taking Bribes by Commisary Private Contractor
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Reactions to Hutto Settlement: A Good First Step, Much More To Go…

Last week’s settlement between the ACLU, University of Texas Immigration Law Clinic and other lawyers representing children in CCA’s T. Don Hutto family detention center and the Department of Homeland Security has brought a variety of reactions.

Vanita Gupta, a lead lawyer from the ACLU said of the settlement, "Though we continue to believe that Hutto is an inappropriate place to house children, conditions have drastically improved in areas like education, recreation, medical care, and privacy."

The settlement improves conditions at the facility and installs a Federal Magistrate to monitor the prison, amongst other changes.

Barbara Hines of the UT Immigration Law Clinic said "We are hopeful that by limiting the population at Hutto to families in expedited removal except in exigent circumstances, and adopting more meaningful release procedures, that the length of stay for children will be significantly reduced.

Still, most advocacy groups and media observers think the settlement is only a first step, with the ultimate issue of incarceration of innocent children and their families at Hutto still a pressing concern. Some of the reactions have included:

The Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, who together with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, issued the important Locking Up Family Values report in February on family detention called the settlement “a good first step” but the agency “remains concerned that finding alternatives to detention for families is not a priority.”

LIRS’s Annie Wilson was “proud that our report has led to concrete results at Hutto,” but added that “now it's time to take the next steps. We've demonstrated time and again that there are more humane alternatives that work.”

Taylor activist Jose Orta noted that the dozen protests outside the prison had an impact, but that “the facility retains its essential character as a medium security prison. The rights of children simply must come first. Simply put, you don't put innocent children in prison. The settlement agreement is a good first step but our work as concerned citizens has only just begun. We will continue to hold vigils and protest the detention of innocent children. T. Don Hutto as a residential center is flawed, inconsistent, and in violation of national and international standards.”

Less enthusiastic was Ralph Isenberg, the Dallas businessman who had been influential in the release of several Hutto families. Isenberg, in an interview with Dallas’s WFAA, argued that “had this thing gone to court I believe the judge would have shut this facility down because the fact still remains, you don't put children in prison."

Lisa Falkenberg of the Houston Chronicle had possibly the most pointed commentary on the settlement. “A limited settlement may be good news for many Hutto detainees. But it isn't the answer,” she wrote. “It will take an act of Congress to ensure humane treatment for immigrant children. As we've seen, we can't count on ICE officials to act on their own. It took federal litigation to persuade them to allow teddy bears.”

Texans United for Families, an advocacy coalition that I work with, applauded the settlement, while vowing “to increase its advocacy for closure of the prison and for more humane alternatives to detention of immigrant children and their families.”

The next vigil at Hutto is planned for September 29th.

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