“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

Mass Firing of Texas Youth Commission Staff Makes National News --- But What about GEO Group's Past Record?

It's not the sort of national news story that any state agency wants --- the firing of 66 staffers of the Texas Youth Commission with previous felony convictions. But it reflects a typical double standard, as individuals are dealt with harshly, while a corporation gets to keep on with business as usual, in spite of their horrible record of problems and abuse.

Geo Group's Coke County Juvenile lockup may not be the absolute worst of the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) scandal, but their problems reach back far and pretty deep, and it would be a shame for TYC to not address them while they are in the public eye.

Geo Group already had a notorious record when it won the contract with TYC. Then GEO Group was allowed to keep its contract even after the horrible 2000 lawsuit for sexual abuse of a girl named Sara Lowe in their custody that revealed widespread problems at Coke County Juvenile. An employee with a past sex offense conviction had abused and then stalked the girl, 11 other girls reported abuse, and in other incidents, two employees pled guilty to sexual assault. As a result of the suit, Coke County Juvenile stopped housing girls. But the story ended tragically, with Sara Lowe's suicide the day of the settlement.

With a record like that, you would think GEO Group would be worried about how they're going to weather this shake-up at TYC that's dealing with the employees of Texas Youth Commission so harshly. But with thousands of reports of abuse, misconduct and poor conditions at youth prisons across Texas, Coke County Juvenile is managing to stay out of the headlines (sometimes), maybe because they are not the absolute worst Texas youth prison.... For example, of over 2,000 reports of medical care problems across the state, Coke County Juvenile ranks sixth in complaints, with 95 reports of poor medical care, -- more than most, but again, not the absolute worst of the bunch. And Coke County Juvenile has only made recent headlines for firing one employee with a previous felony conviction --- an employee with a juvenile conviction for exposing himself to another child. So, yes, there are other now-former TYC employees with more serious charges, but some of their past convictions are not clearly ones that should get them fired.

And maybe some of those folks with 20-year old felony convictions were well-suited to do corrections work. Many people who turn their lives around after a felony conviction can make outstanding role models and advocates for people in conflict with the law. But Jay Kimbrough, the conservator of TYC right now, only agreed to temper his "no felons: period" approach after legislators pointed out that some previous felony convictions don't always present a problem for working in corrections. It makes sense to take into account the circumstances of their past and their overall performance in the workplace. Once you've done an evaluation like that, sure, some of these folks should not be working in corrections, especially not with youth.

And similarly, corporations like GEO Group, and their Coke County Juvenile lock-up, should also be evaluated based on their record. Geo group's Coke County Juvenile may not be the absolute worst right now, but it has a lengthy record and it's right in the middle of the scandals at TYC. Maybe there are concerns about cancelling GEO's lucrative contract, since they have been known to sue you if you cancel their contract. But given their long history of poor conditions and scandalous abuse, maybe it's time to get GEO Group out of the Texas youth prison business, and get Coke County Juvenile prison cleaned up along with the rest of TYC.

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UN Human Rights Expert to Take His Own Look at Hutto Prison

A United Nations human rights expert will be visiting the US to review our treatment of immigrants, and will make a stop at the T Don Hutto prison in Texas. Jorge Bustamante, an independent expert for the Human Rights Council, will visit for over two weeks, visiting the border region along with Florida, Washington DC and New York. The U.S. government is facilitating the visit.

Bustamante will present his findings to the 47-member rights council in June.

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Geo Announces New Private Prison in Laredo

This week, the GEO Group, Inc. ("GEO") announced that it has signed a contract with the Office of the Federal Detention Trustee for the development and operation of a 1,500-bed Detention Facility to house U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) prisoners in Laredo, Texas. The new private prison is scheduled to open in 2008. The contract has an initial term of five years with three five-year renewal option periods, for a total contract term of 20 years.

Currently, Texas operates more than 12,000 proposed or recently constructed private prison beds. The majority of these beds are intended to house federal detainees from the USMS or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). There are a few exceptions including the Reeves County Detention Center, a facility that received a contract to house incarcerated immigrants from the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) under a Criminal Alien Requirements (CAR) contract. Many of these beds are being built or proposed as speculative prison beds, but several thousand are being built on contract from the ICE and USMS.

The expansion of immigrant detention facilities significantly increased in Texas due to changes in federal immigration policy. The number of unauthorized immigrant detainees has exploded from 6,785 in 1994 to over 22,000 in 2006.

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The Children in the Prison Aren't Wearing Uniforms, They Just All Have the Same Clothes

Earlier this year, the news media took the guided tour of the T Don Hutto prison, which holds children while they and their parents await their immigration hearings. Media members were allowed to film a few areas, but not allowed to interview anyone imprisoned there. But they were allowed to talk to someone from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) about what a good idea it is to lock up entire families.

Strangely, the ICE spokespeople (and the ICE website) say that the children being held at the Hutto prison are not forced to wear "prison garb," but in the video (carefully shot so that no faces are shown), it's plain that all the kids are wearing the same clothing --- the medical-style "scrubs" that are familiar to us from other prison settings. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement web page for Hutto explains, "Residents are provided with t-shirts, sweat shirts and/or medical-style scrubs. (“Jail uniforms” are not worn)." So even though 400 people who are confined there wear the same clothes, and they're not the same clothes as the people who work there, we shouldn't call them "uniforms."

Not that the clothes are the worst part of this, compared to the reports from the some of the parents and children in the prison. You can read the profiles of some of the families imprisoned at Hutto at the ACLU website. Parents have reported being separated from their kids (in separate cells), the lack of access to medical care, and that some of their children are not eating enough (due to short mealtimes and poor quality food), so have lost weight. One recurring theme is staff threatening the children with being separated from their parents if they don't behave. Not only does it sound like a prison, it sounds like the worst kind of prison. How much longer can this go on?

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