“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

Idaho DOC Director to Visit GEO’s Troubled Val Verde Detention Center Before Sending Prisoners There

In what you’d think would be normal common-sense procedure, the Idaho Department of Corrections Director will actually visit GEO’s Val Verde Detention Center this Thursday before his state sends 56 prisoners there in September.

As we’ve reported, Idaho’s experience with Texas private prisons has been troubled, to say the least. Last August, Idaho moved prisoners from the Newton County Correctional Center, a GEO Group-run prison in east Texas, after reports of inmate abuse included prisoners being forcibly cuffed and maced. From Newton, the Idaho prisoners were transferred to GEO’s Dickens unit where an inmate escape and eventual suicide led to scrutiny and withdrawal of some of the prisoners from the “squalid” jail last month.

Now GEO is scheduled to move 56 prisoners to the Val Verde Detention Center, which has already been subjected to two well-documented lawsuits. In a 2005 suit, an employee reported that his superior displayed a hangman’s noose in his office and took pictures in his prison uniform donning KKK garb.

The second lawsuit was brought by a civil rights organization on behalf of the family of a detainee, LeTisha Tapia, who committed suicide after reporting that she had been sexually assaulted and denied medical care. GEO settled both suits.

After the problems with GEO facilities came to light in a series of stories by the AP’s John Miller, the Idaho DOC has announced its pre-transfer visit to the facility and the creation of a 13-member “virtual prison” team of Idaho DOC employees to oversee the more than 2,400 Idaho prisoners in county jails and out-of-state private prisons.

How effective these new oversight mechanisms will be is anyone’s guess. As Kathleen has pointed out, Idaho DOC’s own data shows that more effective substance abuse programs and paroling could largely reduce the state’s need to ship inmates to out-of-state private lock-ups. But instead, current plans are for them to ship yet more people to Texas.

TYC has Interesting Definition of What is a "Problem" at Youth Private Prisons

In today's Houston Chronicle article (also available here) about neglect, physical and sexual abuse in private prisons for youth, Paula Morelock claims problems have never resulted in fining TYC contractors because, "If it comes to that, we'd just stop the contract." Yet when Morelock was responsible for contracting at the Texas Youth Commission (TYC), one of the worst cases of prisoner abuse in the history of privatization in Texas resulted in rewarding the contractor with a larger contract.

GEO Group (then called Wackenhut) hired Rufino Garcia, a man who’d been arrested in 1974 for a sex offense against a child, to work as a "lead careworker" at its Coke County prison, which then held young girls.

When Garcia met Sara Lowe at Coke County in 1994, he was 39 years old. Sara Lowe was just 15. In 1996, when he pleaded guilty to two counts of indecency with a child and two counts of sexual assault of a child (all second degree felonies), Garcia admitted that two weeks after he first sexually assaulted Sara Lowe—touching her breasts and making her perform fellatio—he submitted a “level change” request slip for her, writing that “Ms. Lowe has been very positive and has been improving every day.”

After Sara was released from the Wackenhut lockup, Garcia began telephoning her at her home. He told her family that he wanted to know how she was doing. When asked about his calls, Sara confided to her sister that she had been raped and molested repeatedly by Garcia, who had threatened that he would kill her sister and her mother if she told anyone about the abuse. Her family went into action and contacted TYC, who investigated the charges.

Horrified to learn of the sexual abuse of their daughter by a Wackenhut staffer, the Lowe family filed a lawsuit against the company. Eventually Wackenhut’s executives decided to settle the lawsuit for an undisclosed amount of money. But Sara was highly distraught because Wackenhut’s top managers had been allowed to avoid any admission of responsibility for her rapes. The day the settlement was finalized, Sara committed suicide.

Even before Garcia was convicted for his crimes, auditors had catalogued serious program deficiencies at Coke County. They determined that Wackenhut had failed to meet standards for medical care, casework services, recreation, education, and therapeutic interventions.

Yet even after receiving evidence of shocking abuse and contract failure, TYC’s top managers never closed their contract with Wackenhut. They did not take conclusive steps to prevent the abuse of girls placed at Coke County until 1998, when they switched the facility’s juvenile confinement population from girls to boys. They increased the number of contracted beds at the Coke County lockup from 104 to 200.

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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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