“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

Texas private prisons take center stage at U.S. Commission on Civil Rights hearings

At the end of January, I was invited to testify before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights about abuses in U.S. immigrant detention system.  My testimony was part of a day full of panels on civil rights violations in immigrant detention centers.  I was joined by fellow Texans Marisa Bono from MALDEF and Sister Norma Pimental, a leader in the refugee relief effort in the Rio Grande Valley this summer. National advocates from the ACLU, National Immigrant Justice Center, and Human Rights Campaign along with government officials joined the panels.

The resurgence of the detention of immigrant families at two remote Texas prisons and violations in private detention centers, including facilities here in Texas often covered by Texas Prison Bid'ness, took center stage.  Notably, Corrections Corporation of America sent a representative to the hearing while rival private prison corporation GEO Group decided not to, eliciting remarks from Committee Chair Marty Castro that he may have to use the Commission's power of subpoena to force the company to come testify.  

My comments focused on the massive and largely for-profit detention system that has dramatically expanded in Texas over the past decade.   I noted that sexual assault has been far from uncommon in Texas' detention centers, including allegations or prosecutions at a half dozen different detention centers.  Even when the same facility has had multiple cases of demonstrated sexual assault, ICE remains unwilling or unable to cut contracts with the facilities or private prison corporations responsible.   I also noted the rise of family detention — a major profit center for private prison corporations — and my recent trip the new Karnes County family detention center.   There I saw small children detained with their mothers who reported that their children are suffering weight loss and that they were threatened with separation from their children if they did not sign their deportation papers.  

Across the board, the recommendation from advocates was to use detention sparingly if at all and dramatically scale back the system.  I'm looking forward to the Commission's final recommendations.  You can watch the full testimony online and read my written testimony here.   

Former guard at Jack Harwell pleads guilty to improper sexual relationship with inmate

A former guard at the Jack Harwell Detention Center, Melissa Corona, has pled guilty to charges of sexual misconduct with one of the inmates. Ms. Corona was indicted in March 2014, after allegations that she began a relationship with a male inmate in 2013 by kissing him more than 10 times.

Ms. Corona was the fifth person to be arrested in 2013 after an investigation into improprieties between staff and inmates. Three other female guards were arrested on charges of sexual misconduct, and a male guard was charged with bringing contraband into the facility.

This is not the first investigation into sexual misconduct at the facility. In fact, Community Education Centers (CEC), the private corporation responsible for the maintenance and staffing of Jack Harwell, is currently facing a lawsuit alleging that the company was grossly negligent by failing to screen, hire, train and supervise its employees to maintain a secure and safe facility. In this case, the allegation is that prolonged sexual misconduct occured between a male guard and a female inmate from November 2012 to March 2013.

The Jack Harwell facility was run by CEC until June 2013, when LaSalle Corrections took over management. Although LaSalle may have won the contract from CEC, the small Louisiana based company doesn’t have a clean record either.

Troubles at the Jack Harwell center are not confined to those held on local charges, either. Until last year, the facility also had a contract to hold detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), but was at the center of controversy and protests over substandard conditions for those federal detainees as well. ICE pulled their detainees from the facility shortly after news broke of the conditions. 

The GEO Group acquires LCS Corrections, expanding their reach in Texas

The GEO Group is set to acquire a smaller corrections corporation, LCS Corrections. The merger could cost GEO up to $350 million dollars—borrowed from their $700 million revolving line of credit—and will add eight new facilities, and 6,500 new beds to GEO’s existing 79,000 bed capacity.

GEO is looking forward to an estimated $75-80 million extra in annual revenue. On LCS's end, the deal will bail them out of nearly $302 million in debt. The deal will reportedly be finalized by the end of this February. 

A Louisiana based company, LCS, while small in comparison, is no stranger to GEO-sized gaffes and scandals. LCS has a long history of not taking proper care of the people in their facilities, racking up a number of wrongful death and corruption suits. Most recently, a former LCS warden was indicted for attempting to bribe a Justice of the Peace in Texas.

The acquisition will expand GEO Group's reach in Texas, where LCS Corrections currently operates the Brooks County Detention Center, the East Hildago Detention Center, and the Coastal Bend Detention Center. 

Former Texas private prison warden arrested in bribery scandal

The former warden of the privately operated East Hidalgo Detention Center, Elberto E. Bravo, was arrested last Friday in a complex bribery scandal. According to local reports, Bravo participated in a scheme to bribe former Hidalgo County Justice of the Peace Melo Ochoa to lower the bond for a Mexican drug trafficker, Luis Martinez-Gallegos . 

Private prison operator LCS Corrections removed Bravo from his post as warden in February 2012 amid a federal investigation, but it is unclear if it is related to this case. 

The complex case began when Martinez-Gallegos was stopped by Hidalgo County law enforcement officers and arrested for possession of 89 kilograms of cocaine in his vehicle. 

According to Breitbart Texas, "Bravo, another woman, and a local attorney worked to get Martinez’s bond lowered so that federal authorities could deport him before the case went federal, the criminal complaint shows."

Ochoa took the cash and decreased the bond from $2.5 million to $50,000. Martinez-Gallegos was subsequently released and deported. What did former private prison warden Bravo have to gain from deporting a drug trafficker? That remains a mystery.

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