“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

Prison in a box --- just unpack, assemble, and fill with people

Raymondville PrisonRaymondville Prison

I was fascinated to discover Sprung.com, the website of a company that's proud to display its catalog of ready-made prisons. Sprung is one of the companies assembling these insta-prisons across the country: domes made of fabric stretched over an aluminum frame, that are becoming more widely used as jails, immigrant detention centers and private prisons. For example, the Willacy immigrant detention center in Raymondville, operated by MTC Corporation, (pictured here) was constructed in 90 days, although not necessarily by Sprung.

The Sprung website boasts of their ability to build prisons quickly and "efficiently." Their web gallery of industries they serve includes churches, global military use, retail use, and a corrections gallery. The most telling photo in the corrections gallery is of a group of male prisoners eating at a long dining room table in one of these shiny white domes, with a whole table next to them sitting empty, waiting to be filled. The caption of the photo reads "Businesses can open ahead of schedule or expand production quickly."

Right, because in the private prison business, locking up more people = "expanding production." Just unpack the prisons, assemble them, fill them with people, and don't ask too many questions about why we're spending this money and who is winding up locked up in there.

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One Proposal to Get More Prison Beds Fast: Toss Out Health and Safety Requirements

At a recent Corrections Committee hearing, private prison lobbyists explained they could provide the state with hundreds of new prison beds if some standards for health and safety were eliminated. Committee chairman Jerry Madden has filed HB 1354, legislation that repeals part of the government code instituted after a landmark case establishing standards for prison conditions, the Ruiz case.

HB 1354 would eliminate standards that prevents the Texas Department of Criminal Justice from housing prisoners in tents, cellblock runs, hallways, laundry rooms, converted dayroom space, gymnasiums, or any other spaces not specifically built for housing.

Additionally, the bill would prevent the Texas Department of Criminal Justice from requiring in contracts with private prison companies more square footage per inmate than the least amount of square footage per inmate contained in any existing facility operated by the department. In other words, they want any new contract to be held to the lowest possible standard.

Prison beds built after 1991 are all at a minimum 40sq. feet, which is not the case with the old construction. Private prison beds must meet the standard of new prisons that have been designed to comply with Ruiz requirements, but this bill would allow them to comply to older standards that led to numerous problems and culminated in a lengthy, expensive lawsuit.

HB 1354 would set Texas back years in terms of standards achieved after the Ruiz lawsuit. The standards in place today were instituted to bring Texas in compliance with the Constitution. Federal and State laws require Texas to operate a constitutional prison system and assure the safety of prisoners and workers. If the only way that private prison companies can deliver new prisons is to ignore standards for health and safety, that's just another argument for why we can't afford any more private prisons.

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Lawmakers Seek to expand Private Prison Capacity

The ACLU recently opposed legislation (HB 198 by Corrections Chairman Jerry Madden) that expands private contract capacity in Texas prisons. Today, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice can only contract 4,580 beds in state prisons. A current piece of legislation raises that cap by 1,000 beds to 5,580. Recently, the ACLU published Texas: Tougher than Ever, But are we Safer? a report that emphasizes the answer to prison capacity pressure is sentencing reform not 1,000 new private beds.

Legislators questioned why the ACLU and others opposed a mere 1,000 bed capacity increase. We stated that even incremental increases in the privatization of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice are not the best policy option, and allow private interests to inject themselves in the sentencing policy debate that will undermine sentencing reform efforts like prison diversion for low level drug offenders.

Instead of focusing on expansion, state lawmakers can implement policy changes that would free up bed space quickly enough to avoid expansion measures.

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Improved Oversight Needed for Private Jails

Lawmakers are trying to identify mechanisms for oversight of Texas correctional facilities in light of recent prison sexual assault scandals. Officials recently settled with the family of a raped prisoner who committed suicide in the private Val Verde County Jail, managed by GEO Corp. Recently, Michele Deitch suggested Texas needs to create an independent agency responsible for conducting regular inspections of all correctional facilities.

According to Deitch, an independent oversight agency should have a "golden key" that gives it access to any institution at any time without prior notice. Inspectors should be able to meet confidentially with juvenile and adult prisoners; interview employees; and examine official records.

The type of oversight Deitch is suggesting is different from anything currently operating in Texas today. After all, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards did not successfully monitor the Val Verde County Jail.

LeTisha Tapia was raped after being labeled a snitch. Tapia, who died at the Val Verde County Jail in July 2004, was housed in the same cell block as male inmates and reported that guards allowed male and female inmates to have sex with each other. An independent monitor with the ability to maintain Tapia's confidentially and prevent retaliation could have saved her life.

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