Last month, private prison corporation Community Education Centers won a new contract to operate the troubled Liberty County Jail, according to a press release from the New Jersey-based company earlier this month. The contract has a three year term and a two year option, according to the company, and followed a report by jail consultants MGT America. CEC has operated the facility since 2006, though the company's tenure at the facility has anything but smooth.
This past April, two prisoners were found dead at the 285-bed lock-up in a single week prompting a review by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards that found what the Houston Chronicle described as "a slew of deficiencies at the facility, including infrequent inmate observations, incomplete suicide prevention screening and improper distribution of medication."
The deaths followed a spate of other problems at the facility including a long string of contraband smuggling and at least two allegations of sexual abuse in the facility. The facility has repeatedly run into problems with the Jail Commission, the agency charged with overseeing basic standards at county jails. In 2011, a Jail Commission failed the facility for a series of infractions including that the warden of the facility was not properly licensed.
Beyond operational problems, the facility has made headlines as an example of for-profit incarceration incentivizing high rates of incarceration. Back in 2012, Liberty County made our "big stories of the year" list after 253rd District Court Judge Chap B. Cain initiated a plan to reduce the number of non-violent individuals housed in the jail. The plan was successful, but the contract for the jail stipulated at the time that if the jail population dipped below 200, the cost per inmate went up, reducing the financial incentive to keep jail populations low. It's unclear if the new contract with CEC retains this counter-incentive to sound criminal justice policy or not.
Senator John Whitmire, D-Houston, sent a warning to city officials in Shepherd, TX after they voted in favor of contracting with private corrections company, Emerald Correctional Management LLC, to build a new lockup for immigrants awaiting deportation.
Whitmire, Chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, sent a two-page letter to the Shepherd Mayor Pro Tem Sherry Roberts to tell her history has shown that partnering with private prison companies to build local lockups is a bad idea. In the letter, Whitmire cited Littlefield and Jones County, both small communities in Texas where partnerships with private companies have gone belly up and left local taxpayers with the burden of paying off the bonds.
According to reports from the Houston Chronicle, Whitmire's letter stated:
"I hope you are aware that many cities and counties in Texas have gone down the failed path of partnering with private correctional entities to build both prisons and immigration detention facilities."
"Many of these thousands of beds now sit empty, leaving the public partner (city or county) responsible for paying off the debt issued to build the facility."
"Texas has closed three, privately run state jails or prison facilities, while our state inmate population continues to decline," Whitmire said.
"If the expected immigration population dwindles or disappears altogether, the state will have no part in filling the empty beds with state inmates. Again, thousands of beds built through speculation projects now sit empty, with public entities on the hook.
"I understand and appreciate the desire to provide economic development within your community, but gone are the times of using prisons and correctional facilities for that purpose," the senator stated.
"I am hopeful that you will take under consideration the failed speculative projects elsewhere in Texas and the potentially significant financial liabilities your community would assume if a similar scenario were to play out in Shepherd."
Well said, Senator! Officials in Shepherd did not immediately respond to the Houston Chronicle on this issue.
The national debate over private prisons may soon heat up a San Antonio court room sometime soon, according to a WOIA from this morning:
"A national debate over for-profit prisons has boiled over in San Antonio, where the warden of a unit run by The GEO Group was hauled before a federal judge and dressed down in open court over accusations that defendants were not receiving adequate health care.
"Your company gets millions and millions and millions and millions of dollar and we should get quality care," Judge Orlando Garcia sternly noted, announcing that a federal hearing would be held, where prison leaders would have to answer questions about the healthcare provided.
Companies like the GEO Group have recently been under fire for everything from poor conditions to cronyism to, in San Antonio's case, a lack of medical care. The warden, in court, said a doctor was only on staff Monday through Thursday. On Fridays and weekends, there were physician assistants available. The day before, Federal Judge Fred Biery lashed out at the lockup, saying he believes some of the problems are because the prison is privately owned. Assistant Federal Public Defender Donna Colthorp agrees.
"It appears that decisions are made based in how much things cost."
The debate is part of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders platform. This year, he authored the Justice Is Not For Sale Act."
Certainly, cutting corners at for-profit prisons in Texas is nothing new and has real and sometimes deadly consequences. As we reported way back in 2009, state-contracted private prisons had an astounding 90% annual staff turnover rate. These cost-cutting measures can lead to volatile facilities and Texas has sure seen its host of them, including in federally-contracted facilities like the Central Texas Detention Facility, the GEO Group facility in question.
A GEO Group supervisor has been charged with sexual assault of a detainee in the company's Val Verde Correctional Center in Del Rio, according to a report in the San Antonio Express-News ("Supervisor at detention facility indicted," October 15) last week:
"A federal grand jury on Wednesday charged a supervisor at the federal detention center in Del Rio with having sex with one of her prisoners. Leticia Martinez Garza, 58, of Del Rio is charged with one count of sexual abuse of a ward. She faces up to 15 years in prison if she’s convicted.
Martinez Garza was the laundry, property and supply supervisor at the facility, which is operated by the Geo Group Inc.
In an affidavit for her arrest filed last week, an FBI agent alleged that in September 2014, a prisoner at the detention center told officials he’d had sex with Martinez Garza. Witnesses, surveillance video and Martinez Garza herself backed up the claim, the affidavit alleges."
This is certainly not the first scandal in a GEO Group facility, nor even at the Val Verde Correctional Center. Back in 2007, when the state of Idaho moved prisoners to Val Verde, the facility had been plagued with scandal including employee who sued claiming racial discrimination after a superior displayed a hangman’s noose in his office and took pictures in KKK garb while posing in GEO Group (then called Wackenhut) uniform, and another lawsuit brought on behalf of the family of a detainee who committed suicide after reporting that she had been sexually assaulted, beaten, and denied medical care.
In 2009, two former GEO gaurds ended back in the facility on smuggling charges and in 2012 another guard was indicted on smuggling charges as well.