“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

Prison in a box --- just unpack, assemble, and fill with people

Raymondville PrisonRaymondville Prison

I was fascinated to discover Sprung.com, the website of a company that's proud to display its catalog of ready-made prisons. Sprung is one of the companies assembling these insta-prisons across the country: domes made of fabric stretched over an aluminum frame, that are becoming more widely used as jails, immigrant detention centers and private prisons. For example, the Willacy immigrant detention center in Raymondville, operated by MTC Corporation, (pictured here) was constructed in 90 days, although not necessarily by Sprung.

The Sprung website boasts of their ability to build prisons quickly and "efficiently." Their web gallery of industries they serve includes churches, global military use, retail use, and a corrections gallery. The most telling photo in the corrections gallery is of a group of male prisoners eating at a long dining room table in one of these shiny white domes, with a whole table next to them sitting empty, waiting to be filled. The caption of the photo reads "Businesses can open ahead of schedule or expand production quickly."

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One Proposal to Get More Prison Beds Fast: Toss Out Health and Safety Requirements

At a recent Corrections Committee hearing, private prison lobbyists explained they could provide the state with hundreds of new prison beds if some standards for health and safety were eliminated.

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Lawmakers Seek to expand Private Prison Capacity

The ACLU recently opposed legislation (HB 198 by Corrections Chairman Jerry Madden) that expands private contract capacity in Texas prisons. Today, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice can only contract 4,580 beds in state prisons. A current piece of legislation raises that cap by 1,000 beds to 5,580.

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Improved Oversight Needed for Private Jails

Lawmakers are trying to identify mechanisms for oversight of Texas correctional facilities in light of recent prison sexual assault scandals. Officials recently settled with the family of a raped prisoner who committed suicide in the private Val Verde County Jail, managed by GEO Corp. Recently, Michele Deitch suggested Texas needs to create an independent agency responsible for conducting regular inspections of all correctional facilities.

According to Deitch, an independent oversight agency should have a "golden key" that gives it access to any institution at any time without prior notice. Inspectors should be able to meet confidentially with juvenile and adult prisoners; interview employees; and examine official records.

The type of oversight Deitch is suggesting is different from anything currently operating in Texas today. After all, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards did not successfully monitor the Val Verde County Jail.

LeTisha Tapia was raped after being labeled a snitch. Tapia, who died at the Val Verde County Jail in July 2004, was housed in the same cell block as male inmates and reported that guards allowed male and female inmates to have sex with each other. An independent monitor with the ability to maintain Tapia's confidentially and prevent retaliation could have saved her life.

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