“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

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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More protests at CCA's Houston Processing Center

This Monday, I attended a Labor Day demonstration hosted by Houston Sin Fronteras outside the Houston Processing Center, a CCA-operated immigrant detention center that was the first private prison in the world.

The protest was held in solidarity with recently deported immigrant rights activist Elvira Arellano and other immigrant families torn apart by detention and deportation. The event brought out several media outlets, including Houston’s KHOU. XicanoPwr has more photos of the demonstration.

The protest was the fourth protest this summer, including a June demonstration in which two activists were arrested for civil disobedience. The activists faced felony charges until a Houston grand jury refused to indict them. They have recently settled the misdemeanor charges, but are still in need of financial support. More protests are being planned.

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Yet Another GEO Group Lawsuit Filed Friday: Pearsall Detention Lockup

The latest civil suit against GEO Group for mistreatment of a prisoner in Texas was filed Friday by attorneys for Miroslava Rodriguez-Grava, a legal permanent resident of Mexican descent who was held in GEO's Pearsall lockup, the South Texas Detention Center. The prison is about 45 minutes from downtown San Antonio in Frio County, and holds people who are awaiting their immigration status hearings or in some cases are awaiting deportation.

From the filing document: (I have changed the "Defendant" and "Plaintiff" references to make for easier reading).

Although aware that [Rodriguez-Grava] required special treatment and reasonable accommodations due to her mental disability, [GEO Group] failed to provide such treatment and accommodations.
[GEO Group] also failed to provide [Rodriguez-Grava] with her prescribed medication.

[GEO Group] also failed to provide adequate and regular psychiatric treatment to [Rodriguez-Grava].

As a result of [GEO Group's] failures to address [Rodriguez-Grava's] medical needs, [Rodriguez-Grava's ]physical and mental condition deteriorated requiring that she be placed in segregation and isolation.

Despite numerous requests for medical treatment and reasonable accommodations by [Rodriguez-Grava] and her immigration lawyer, [GEO Group] refused to remedy the situation. Instead, [GEO Group] retaliated by purposefully misdiagnosing her condition, denying her adequate treatment and reasonable accommodations, removing her crutches and stripping her naked and placing her in an isolation room.

During the course of [Rodriguez-Grava's] confinement at [GEO Group's] facility, [GEO Group's] agents ridiculed [Rodriguez-Grava] on a regular basis because of her disability. [GEO Group's] employees taunted [Rodriguez-Grava] by telling her she is not truly sick, that she is faking her illness, that she has no rights in the United States, and that she will soon be deported to Mexico.

The Pearsall lockup was built in 2005, originally by Corrections Services Corporation, which was later acquired by GEO Group. Although the company paid $40 million for construction of the prison on "donated" land, the original agreement locked the city of Pearsall into picking up the tab for utilities to the prison: water, sewer, and gas, along with a tax abatement. No word yet if the city will be on the hook for any payouts to settle civil suits... what seems to be a standard business expense in the private prison business.

More on this as we learn more.

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