Emily Ramshaw at the newly-launched Texas Tribune has a series of three stories this week on the state of health care and mental health care in private immigrant detention centers in south Texas, including the GEO Group's South Texas Detention Center in Pearsall and MTC's Willacy County "Tent City" lock-up in Raymondville.
Ramshaw's first article ("Mental Hell," November 16) details the lack of mental health providers at the many large south Texas immigrant detention centers:
[GEO's] South Texas facility, one of several federally monitored Texas lock-ups for immigrants awaiting deportation hearings, is hardly the only one with mental health staffing problems. A Texas Tribune review of five of these facilities found just three had a staff psychiatrist, despite housing a combined 5,500 detainees.
In part two ("Health Scare," November 17), Ramshaw tackles health care and staffing problems at both GEO's South Texas facility in Pearsall and MTC's notorious Willacy "Tent City" prison in Raymondville, the country's largest immigrant detention centers.
A 2007 review of medical care at the Willacy Detention Center in Raymondville found medical staffing was “barely adequate,” and that the facility’s clinic was too small to care for its 1,800 detainees. Twenty of the facility’s 46 health care positions were vacant. The detention center had no clinical director, dentist, pharmacist or psychiatrist. Half of Willacy’s licensed vocational nurses hadn’t even completed new employee orientation.
In part three (Andre's Story, November 19), the Tribune lets a former detainee, Andre Osborne, tell his own story in the form of a video. Check it out:
Over all, this coverage is very promising from Ramshaw and the Texas Tribune. We'll keep you posted on developments.
The GEO Group has pulled out of a contract to operate a Beaumont jail, according to KBMT ("Downtown Beaumont Jail Shuts Doors, Temporarily," November 12)
The private company that operated a downtown Beaumont jail facility has ended it's contract with Jefferson County.
Officials say the facility has been temporarily closed.
The Geo Group announced the move on Monday, November 9, 2009 and county officials are now seeking bids for a replacement company. The jail has earned the county more than a million dollars a year in revenue, and sheriff Woods says there could be repercussions for a county contract to house Harris County inmates.
We'll keep you posted on developments.
The GEO Group recently held their Quarter 3 investor conference call for the year. As usual, the call started off with the basic financial information. Their quarterly revenue went up from last quarter, $276 million to $295 million, with a projected Q4 revenue of $313-318 million. However, their average domestic U.S. per-diem fell from last quarter, down 24 cents to $53.73 from $53.97. The executives were eager to reassure their investors that with their average of $67.00 for their international per-diem rates that the drop was not a problem for them overall. Most of the conference call was centered about the next topic: that the company is suffering drops in occupancy rates. The average occupancy rate for Q3 was 95%, down from 97% last year at this time. Their initial response was that this rate had fallen because the company just added a lot of additional beds. However, investors were not taking the bait on this one, as empty new beds are just as detrimental to profit as old empty beds. This comment was odd, because an investor asked about the company's view of speculatively building prisons, to which GEO Group CEO George Zoley replied, "we will not proceed with any speculative building in advance of any contract award...that's not to say we are not prepared for any future opportunities." If the company wasn't interested in speculatively building, why would they have brand new empty prison beds that are hurting their occupancy rates? When one investor asked what the real problem was, Mr. Zoley replied:
"Our ten state customers have had budget cutbacks this year that we are already living with. From my view, I really just see a continuation of that same situation. Our performance this year has already been impacted to some extent by state economic difficulties and if you look at our occupancy, where it has historically been at 97% it's only 95% so if the states weren't having their current problems our performance would be even higher than it presently is by virtue of the occupancy. But it is what it is, and I really just see a continuation of the current situation."
It was interesting that he claims that he foresees a continuation of State hardships during an investor meeting. Honesty may be the best policy in this case though. State hardships can open the door for desperate state-owned facilities to go up for sale, as in the case of Arizona, even though privatizing the state's corrections department ultimately saves little (if any) money in the long run. An investor asked Zoley about Arizona and their tentative proposals and whether or not The GEO Group had plans to contract with the state:
"There's certainly a lot of movement towards that direction. The state has a severe budget deficit and a recent public article has indicated that all the departments would have to take almost a 15% cut unless new money is found, and the sale/leaseback initiative as well as the concession agreement initiative are a means of which to provide that additional funding. And if this process is successful in the state of Arizona, it could be a game-changer for our industry because I think it will be quickly emulated by several other states around the country."
The sale/leaseback initiative is a way for Arizona to essentially sell an asset (in this case their entire prison system) to a private entity (say, The GEO Group) and then the state would lease the asset back over time (until the budget has leveled itself out, ideally). Arizona would receive an initial lump sum from the sale of the asset from The GEO Group, which would help their deficit, and then Arizona would slowly buy back the asset over a contractually specified amount of time. This may sound like a good idea for Arizona at first, but over a long period of time it is likely that they will have to pay back more money to The GEO Group than they received in the original lump sum in order for the deal to be of interest for GEO.
If Arizona does this, it would indeed be a game changer for The GEO Group. Deals like this allow prison companies to obtain property quickly, without having to construct a facility; as well as easy ways for a State to receive significant revenue without permanently selling off their assets. When the asset has been leased back from the state, GEO can move on their merry way, having made a fortune from the per-diem rates and the leaseback (with interest) and with minimal upkeep cost. Arizona has already started this procedure with some office buildings, but not yet for prison facilities.
Overall, The GEO Group's Q3 call was not as positive as the Q2 conference call. The executives gave off a confident presence but had an underlying tone of skepticism towards the prison market. This might be why GEO's COO Wayne Calabrese sold 31,000 shares of company stock at $18.83 a piece on September 10th and the CEO George Zoley sold 45,000 shares of GEO stock at $21.71 a share on November 9th ("The GEO Group Inc. (GEO) Chairman and CEO George Zoley Sells 45,000 Shares," Guru Focus, 11/09/2009). Either these men know something we don't, or their mortgages were past due. Regardless, whatever is said by the chairmen during these quarterly meetings does speak louder than these actions.
Tom Barry continues his excellent coverage of the growing system of private prisons detaining immigrants for ICE, the U.S. Marshals, and the federal prison system in a new article in the Boston Review ("A Death in Texas: Profits, Poverty, and Immigration Converge," November/December 2009) online this week.
Barry, whose excellent blogging over at the Border Lines Blog, has covered the growing immigrant detention industrial complex in the context of the mess that is the Reeves County Detention Center out in Pecos. In this new article, Barry takes a comprehensive look at the policies and poverty that have driven poor rural Texas towns into the prison industry, and what some of the disasterous results have been. Here's a brief sample:
Debbie Thomas, curator of the West of the Pecos Museum (commonly known as the cowboy museum), sighs when asked about the town’s only steady business over the past two decades. “Well, we don’t want to be known as a prison town, but it’s better than being a ghost town,” she says. Pecos was once a busy crossroads and hub of industry. Today, the downtown is dead. In 1985 Reeves County became the first of a few dozen Texas counties to get into the speculative prison business, when Judge Jimmy Galindo (no relation to Jesus Manuel Galindo) persuaded the County Commissioners Court to take a bold step for Pecos’s economic future. At the time, Judge Galindo and other county leaders argued that Pecos could cash in on the surge in incarceration rates that accompanied the war on drugs. Years later, for the prison’s two expansions, the county and the private operators would rely on the federal government to send them immigrant inmates.
Indeed, immigrant detention has been central to the growth of the “privates” for more than two decades. The Immigration and Naturalization Service’s (INS) 1983 decision to outsource immigrant detention to the newly established Corrections Corporation of America gave birth to the private-prison industry; GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut) got its start imprisoning immigrants in the late 1980s.
While the nation’s nonimmigrant prison population has recently leveled off, the number of immigrants in ICE (formerly INS) detention has increased fivefold since the mid-1990s, and continues year after year to reach record highs. Assuming current trends hold, ICE will detain more than 400,000 immigrants in 2009.
The federal government’s escalating demand for immigrant prison beds saved CCA and other privates that had overbuilt speculative prisons. Over the past eight years, the prison giants CCA ($1.6 billion in annual revenue) and GEO Group ($1.1 billion) have racked up record profits, with jumps in revenue and profits roughly paralleling the rising numbers of detained immigrants.