“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

80th Legislative Session: Mixed Results on Private Prisons

Well folks, the 80th Texas Legislative Session ended this week. This year, overall private prison capacity grew by more than 1,000 beds and lawmakers provided additional funding for more privately-managed treatment prisons. But, it could have been worse.

As previously mentioned on this blog, Jerry Madden, Chairman of House Corrections, passed HB 198 through both houses. This legislation authorizes additional private prison capacity with 1,000 more beds and increases the limit on the size of private prisons. Despite efforts by the ACLU, Texas Civil Rights Project, and AFSCME, the legislation passed through. The bill originally called for an expansion allowing 1,500-bed private prisons, but before it passed out of the House, Rep. Lois Kolkhorst amended that down to 1,150 beds per private prison. However, the overall statewide cap has increased by 1,000 new beds.

But those numbers are deceptive. HB 198 only pertains to state prison beds in the Institutional Division that are capped by law. As many of you watching Texas corrections may know, prison officials have adopted a complicated terminology that hides how large the Texas prison population actually is.

For example, Texas also has lock-up facilities known as "state jails," "substance abuse felony punishment facilities" (SAFPs), and "intermediate sanction facilities." Some of these lock-ups are publicly run, while others are managed by private companies. According to the latest numbers provided by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 17,500 prisoners are currently incarcerated in private facilities in Texas.

Reports on how the Texas prison system is expanding remain unclear as experts examine the state budget to figure out exactly how many prison beds are coming online and how many are public and private. What is clear is that the budget that was recently approved authorizes the second largest expansion of the state prison system since the 1990s. Although the numbers could've been worse, this is not good news for Texas. 

We'll have more analysis of the legislative session over the next two weeks.  

Another Private Prison Escape, But the Big Holes are in the Texas Parole System, Not the Fence

The Austin Statesman has reported a second escape from a Texas private prison in a two-week span. What do these escapes have in common? Apart from the fact that both escapes involve minimum-security private prisons, they are also both private prisons that are part of the broken yet highly lucrative Texas parole system.

On May 14th, it was 2 people escaping from CCA's Mineral Wells "pre-parole" prison described by one prisoner as "the abyss." This post by Grits for Breakfast is a great summary of one big problem with the Texas pre-parole system. The men who escaped briefly from Mineral Wells may have served most of their time, but that doesn't mean they were close to release. The Texas pre-parole system can keep them locked up past their "earned time" date, which undermines people's faith in the system and can mean that the resources they've lined up to support a successful transition just sit on hold.

A pre-parole system that holds people in prison too long doesn't make public safety sense or financial sense, but it creates an artificial need for a bigger prison system: a profitable problem for companies like Corrections Corporation of America to offer to solve.

Another pressure on the prison system happens when we send people back to prison for minor parole infractions. Grits for Breakfast has an excellent recent post on this issue as well, citing legislation to reduce the number of people returning to prison for minor technical violations. That legislation didn't pass, but it would've reined in the number of people being locked up for technical parole violations, which is now in the thousands. A prison system that grabs people for technical parole violations and locks them back up quickly has a questionable impact on public safety, but a clear impact on companies whose business it is to rent prison beds to the crowded Texas prison system.

Changes to the parole and pre-parole system will fix big holes that are leaking millions of public dollars every year. That's money that could be better spent on community settings that get people back on their own, prepared to live crime-free lives. But for now, we'll have to settle for these private prison companies fixing the holes in their fences.

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The "Smart Money" May Be in Misery, Unless Texas Gets Smart First

Where some folks see growing prison systems as a serious problem that we can fix, others see dollar signs.

The Wall Street Journal's "Smart Money" feature observed this weekend that the nation's three largest private prisons stand to rake it in with the rise in prison populations projected for the next few years (Profits for Private Jailers). The article mentions a national study that has projected more prison beds across the country. Corrections Corporation of America, GEO Group, and Cornell Corrections, the nation's three largest private prison companies, are all poised to profit if this dire trend continues. If, true to the trends of the last two decades, private prison companies are able to take up close to 8-10% of the "market," that's possibly $2 billion in income.

But the Pew study that the article mentions doesn't just report on more prison beds to predict a gold rush. It points out that if we move quickly and wisely, we can reverse this trend. They estimate that at current rates, our country is looking at over 192,000 more prison beds over the next five years and over $25 billion in increased prison spending. That money will come out of federal, state and local budgets and away from other needed services. Or, as they point out, we can start using our heads -- look at the facts to set policy and spend money on true public safety.

The Pew study has a great two-page summary of how Texas can get a grip on its growing prison spending (PDF). They specifically list opportunities for smart changes that could lower prison spending and redirect money to public safety. Texas, for example, is holding thousands of people for non-violent offenses but is not providing enough drug treatment in the community, a reasonable and effective alternative. And lengthy parole sentences mean not enough parole supervision and more likelihood that people will return to prison on a technical violation.

But, if Texas looks at the facts and makes some smart changes, it could cause a problem: the private prison companies that are hoping to build new prisons in Texas may have to look elsewhere to boost their bottom line.

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GEO Guards Arrested for Burglary and Sneaking Cheap Wine Into GEO Prison

According to the Del Rio News Herald, two former private prison guards are back in the jail where they once worked, but now confined there as prisoners. One was arrested for burglarizing one of her neighbors last year, and the other for sneaking a bottle of MD 20/20 with two love letters taped to it under the fence of the GEO Group contract jail earlier this month. They both face felony charges.

This is the sort of story that you'll find on our recently updated "Problems and Scandals" pages. This incident is on the Problems and Scandals in Texas Private Prisons 2006-2007 page, and we also have a 1990s Problems and Scandals page, and a 2000-2005 Problems and Scandals page.

If you think we're missing any stories about problems at specific private prisons that have been in the news, contact us to let us know.

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