“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

Legislature Fails to Improve Oversight of County Jails

During the 80th Legislative Session, Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) filed several unsuccessful bills that would have increased accountability over the state’s county jail systems. The measures included:

  • HB 2244 – would have standardized the correctional officer-prisoner ratio
  • HB 2699 – would have required county jails that failed 3 annual inspections to acquire a special monitor to oversee jail operations and security protocols

The Texas county jail system is regulated by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS). We have previously written about the need for improved oversight of private jails where companies like GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) historically have poor hiring practices and weak track records regarding public safety.

HB 2244 established in statute a prisoner supervision rate of 1:48 (1 corrections officer for every forty-eight prisoners); this was to ensure that county jail detainees and employees work and live in a safe and humane environment. During the committee hearing it became apparent that Bexar County correctional officers, who overwhelming supported HB 2244, are very concerned about their safety.

HB 2699 authorized the executive director of TCJS to place any correctional facility that fails three consecutive annual inspections due to management-related deficiencies under a special monitor. This has been a huge issue in Texas, where some of the largest facilities -- including Dallas County and Harris County -- chronically fail state inspections.

Primary opposition to both measures came from Dallas County whose jail is currently under review by the US Department of Justice. The Texas Conference of Urban Counties mobilized strong opposition and worked successfully to defeat the measures.

Both bills were heavily debated on the floor, and Turner was a strong champion – not surprising since Harris County has received significant attention over the years due to chronic overcrowding.

Yet the bills failed to pass. It’s unfortunate, particularly when the legislation received such strong support from not only correctional officers but also TCJS. Hopefully, advocates lead by the Bexar County Deputy Sheriff’s Association will continue to work during the interim. Momentum can be built since TCJS will be under sunset review during the 81st Session.

Former GEO Group Guard Convicted of Providing Contraband

A former GEO Group guard has been convicted of providing contraband to an Idaho prisoner in GEO's Dickens County Correctional Center, and has been implicated in another prisoner's escape. He's facing five years of probation, 1,200 community service hours, and a fine for an ongoing illegal business running contraband into the GEO Group prison in Spur, Texas.

The guard, John Ratliffe, was fired after the escape from Dickens County Correctional Center last December. There's no indication that he'll face additional charges for his possible role in the escape. Tragically, the prisoner who escaped, Scot Noble Payne, was put in isolation for weeks as punishment for his escape, and committed suicide in March. He was part of a group of Idaho prisoners that had been previously incarcerated at another GEO Group prison in Texas and were moved to the Dickens County prison following reports of abuse by guards.

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Is the Government Rethinking Hutto Prison in Light of Lawsuits and Bad Publicity?

The US House has proposed funding more immigration detention options that are less like a prison and specifically noted that children should not be in jail-like settings. Examiner.com reports:

The $36.3 billion House Homeland Security spending bill would increase spending for immigrant detention alternatives to about $55 million.

The measure directs ICE to give families priority in alternatives to detention programs that use electronic monitoring, telephone call-ins and supervision to ensure people show up for detention hearings. The Intensive Supervision Appearance Program recently reported 93 percent appearance rate at court hearings, the House spending bill says.

The committee says in the bill that families with children should not be housed in jail-like settings, denied access to recreation or basic education instruction. (emphasis added)

This call to move children out of prison-like detention may be in light of the protests, lawsuits and bad publicity that the Hutto prison, run by Corrections Corporation of America, is amassing. The Texas Observer reports that the lawyers representing the Hutto families have filed 10 new complaints, since the government has released most of the people originally involved in the lawsuits.

The Hutto families' case goes to trial in August.

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Protesters Outside the Gate, Problems Inside the Gate at Hutto Prison

On top of the reports of possible sexual misconduct at the T. Don Hutto prison, two separate protests of the prison have hit the news in the last week. Protests last week and this week are calling attention to concerns about the inhumanity of the T. Don Hutto prison, which holds people awaiting their asylum hearings, including hundreds of children.

Last week's protest was in Houston but this Saturday protesters were right outside the gate. Criticism is mounting against the prison, which has rejected oversight, abruptly canceled a visit by a UN human rights expert, and recently fired a guard after catching him leaving a prisoner's cell in the middle of the night. The inquiry has been dropped without charges, but CCA (Corrections Corporation of America) has not rehired the guard. It's not clear what happened to the prisoner involved in the sexual assault, and of course ICE and Corrections Corporation of America are not interested in seeing the sort of negative publicity that a sexual assault inside Hutto could produce.

You may have noticed that many news reports about the sexual contact have specified that it was an "adult" prisoner. This is an important detail since roughly half the prisoners in Hutto are children -- children who are awaiting their immigration hearings to determine their status.

As flowtv.org has pointed out, the last time we jailed entire families was the internment of Japanese people during World War II. They link to an eerie promotional video of the inside of Hutto that ICE has provided showing the children in their little jail uniforms.

Another protest is scheduled for June 23 at the prison.

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