“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

Despite Problems, GEO Attains Contract for Maverick County Detention Center

Despite a string of operational problems at its Texas facilities, the GEO Group announced this week that it has signed a contract to build a 654 bed detention facility in Eagle Pass, Texas.

As readers of Texas Prison Bid'ness might remember, GEO has made headlines in the last few months after an Idaho inmate’s suicide at the GEO’s Dicken’s facility led the AP to report on the prison's “squalid conditions," a San Antonio inmate took hostages in GEO’s lock-up there using a paper gun, and GEO drew fire in Laredo over an apparent quid-pro-quo deal to build a 1,500 bed USMS contracted prison.

According to GEO’s statement, the prison will be financed using revenue bonds issued by a Public Facility Corporation, a quasi-governmenal agency that will hold liability for the facility’s financial success.

The GEO statement also quotes Maverick County Judge Jose Aranda as saying "This new facility will bring good paying jobs and economic development to our community. We look forward to the many benefits this project will provide our citizens over the coming years."

However, research by Dr. Greg Hooks at Washington State University has shown that prisons do not contribute to long-term economic development in rural areas. In fact, in slow-growing counties, prisons actually harm economic growth efforts. 

Maverick County officials might want to think twice before they mortgage the county's future to the GEO Group.

Harris County Searching for Juvenile Detention Beds

Today's Houston Chronicle reported that the Harris County juvenile board authorized using millions of dollars to place youth in private detention facilities throughout Texas.

It seems the county is working hard to find new beds for juvenile prisoners now that the state's kiddy prison system -- the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) -- has changed its policy on which prisoners it will and won't accept, focusing on youth who have been convicted of serious crimes rather than misdemeanors.

According to reports, county officials could send more than 140 juvenile detainees to a Colorado County lockup as the Juvenile Probation Department tries to find a place for hundreds of young prisoners.

The lockup that county officials are considering is more than an hour outside of Houston and defeats the purpose of the juvenile detention lockups that are supposed to be near detainees' homes to keep them in their community in order to maintain relationships with families and friends. It ignores the lessons of California, which has similar youth crime rates to Texas but is using lock-ups far less than Texas for youth.

The fact that local officials primarily focus on building new prisons for youth is flawed and fruitless. Now they have plans in the works to ask voters for $76 million to convert an adult prison to a youth prison. If only officials spent the same amount or more on alternatives to incarceration, than surely we could get better results and safer communities.

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Thank you, Harmon Wray

We're sad this week at Texas Prison Bid'ness at the departure of Harmon Wray, noted activist and a leader in the restorative justice movement. Harmon was also an early leader in the fight against private prisons, as you can see by this article he wrote in 1986, when Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) was just beginning to eye the prison industry and see dollar signs. Harmon correctly foresaw that mixing prisons and profits was a recipe for mistreatment, abuse and disaster. From his paper:

Perhaps the most critical flaw in the privatization move is that it is inherently expansionist. A corporation paid per prisoner and per diem will look to lock up more and more people for longer and longer stretches.

Harmon bought a small amount of stock in CCA in the 1990s (as Prison Realty Trust) so that he could vote and protest at shareholder meetings.

Fighting prison privatization was one of many parts of Harmon's work. Harmon frequently visited prisons and also traveled the country to spread his gospel that we expect more from our criminal justice system. We could see the humanity of every person, we could demand that programs exist to really prepare people to return to the community, we could have a world in which we all were cared for after acts of violence. Harmon saw this future and made it his business to create this future. Many people in the movement saw him as a resource and an inspiration, and many called him friend.

Among the many tributes to Harmon on the web:

http://tennessean.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070725/OBITS/70725032

http://tcask.blogspot.com/2007/07/passing-of-abolitionist.html

http://www.flickr.com/photos/rugdesigner/875532639/in/photostream/

http://www.interfaithalliance.org/site/pp.asp?c=8dJIIWMCE&b=3034025

http://realcostofprisons.org/blog/archives/2007/07/in_memory_of_ha.html

Our thoughts are with his surviving family members and his many allies, mentees, and friends.

Nicole, Bob, Judy and Kathleen

Louisiana Residents Pose Questions About Harris County Jail Transfers

We recently posted about Harris County's decision to transfer more than 400 prisoners to northern Louisiana -- about 6 hours away from Houston -- to deal with jail overcrowding.

The residents of Epps, Louisiana town are bothered by the recent transfers of more than 100 Harris County Jail detainees to a private prison. And they should be. Officials can't answer basic questions about the Texas prisoners that will be housed in a facility managed by the Emerald Corporation.

As a result, local residents are demanding answers that should have been answered before county officials agreed to the transfer. Epps residents recently questioned elected officials about the training standards for the private prison guards, the total number of prisoners arriving, and their risk level. It appears that city leaders could not answer those questions and put residents' fears to rest.

This latest story represents the poor policy decisions officials are making at all levels to control jail populations in the local jails. The Harris County Jail has experienced chronic overcrowding that in recent years forced as many as close to 2,000 prisoners to sleep near the floor in low-rider bunk beds. The county chose to transfer prisoners to the Epps lock-up because it could not comply with the 48:1 staffing ratios mandated by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards for safety of workers and prisoners.

According to a Houston Chronicle article, a 2004 Louisiana Department of Corrections audit of the Epps facility described its staffing as "adequate."

Before officials agree to such policies that bring in prisoners from other jurisdictions they should be able to answer basic questions.

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