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August 2008

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More Private Prison Tents in West Texas?

Are tents catching on as the latest fad in private prison construction in Texas?

It's been widely reported that Management and Training Corporation's Willacy Detention Center in Raymondville is home to 2,000 detainees contracted from Immigration and Customs Enforcement living in windowless Kevlar tent-like structures. The facility has become known as "Tent City." Another 1,000 detainees reside at the WDC in brick-and-mortar buildings the company calls "firm structures." The facility's tents had to be evacuated in the run-up to Hurricane Dolly last month.

Now comes word out of west Texas that Emerald Corrections is constructing a tent-like addition to its Hudspeth County Regional Correctional Center in Sierra Blanca. The Hudspeth facility was built as a U.S. Marshal's facility, and drew controversy over its financing mechanism, and is most likely housing immigrants being criminally prosecuted for immigration-related crimes.

I first heard that the facility was expanding from Sierra Blanca environmental and social justice activist Bill Addington, and it's now confirmed in pictures from Border Ambassador and frequent private prison protestor Jay Johnson-Castro. These structures look fairly similar to the Raymondville facility, though I've heard they may be constructed out of a foam-like structure. The facility may have to worry about failing federal reviews, as many federally-contracted private prisons have in the past several years, as reported by the Texas Observer.

It's certainly a disturbing trend in private prison development. We'll keep you posted.

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Questions Remain About Conditions for Texas Detainees Evacuated After Hurricane Dolly

We reported two weeks ago that major questions existed about conditions for immigrant detainees held in south Texas detention centers after Hurricane Dolly caused damage to the region. It appears that many of our fears may have been well founded.

While the roofs of Management and Training Corporation's "Tent City" detention center did not blow off, approximately 3,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees were evacuated from south Texas in the run-up to Hurricane Dolly - approximately 1,200 from the Port Isabel Detention Center and 2,000 from the Willacy Detention Center in Raymondville. About 1,000 detainees at Willacy who are held in "firm structures" were not evacuated. The detainees were evacuated all over the country, many to the Otero detention center in New Mexico, but also to Houston, Laredo, Huntsville, Florence, AZ, Miami, and Orlando.

We've heard reports that detainees shipped to Otero have been sleeping on the floor there, the roof is leaking, the facility has run out of food at times and that not enough food is being served to detainees, phone cards are not provided for calls, that pens and paper must be purchased from commissary, and that access to the library is denied. There are also significant concerns about access to legal representation as many detainees have been separated from their lawyers during key times in their case, and detainees are being denied confidential phone calls to attorneys.

We'll keep you updated on reports on the aftermath of Hurricane Dolly and the evacuated detainees.

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No New Private Jail in McLennan County; Will County Take Back CEC/CiviGenics Jail?

The Waco Tribune has the story today (Vote on County-Run Jail Draws Nervous Jailers' Applause, August 6) that the McLennan Couny Commission has wisely chosen not to privatize the existing county jail. According to the article,

The McLennan County Jail on State Highway 6 won’t be privatized — at least for now.

It’s just what jailers and jail employees packing McLennan County commissioners court meetings the past six weeks have been waiting to hear.

For the first time in the six weeks since county officials began debating proposals to privatize the county jail system or parts of it, Sheriff Larry Lynch attended a commissioners’ meeting Tuesday. He didn’t speak at the meeting and wouldn’t discuss the issue later with the Tribune-Herald.

Commissioners, basing their decision on a recommendation from the sheriff in a memo dated Monday, voted Tuesday to keep the overcrowded, 931-bed Highway 6 jail “under the care, custody and control” of the sheriff’s office.

Still, there's the thorny question of what to do with the existing CEC/CiviGenics downtown jail in Waco. As we've reported, the Sheriff's Officers Association and the Waco Tribune editorial board have both advocated a county-take over that troubled facility.

CEC representatives Peter Argeropulos and Mike Wilson detailed the remaining options Tuesday, including the construction and operation of a new jail on 8.9 acres adjacent to the Highway 6 jail and a new contract to operate the downtown McLennan County Detention Center, which CEC, formerly CiviGenics, has leased from the county since 1999.

Last week, Mashek said the county should take back the 329-bed jail downtown when CEC’s contract with the county expires Oct. 1. That would help ease overcrowding at the Highway 6 jail immediately and give the county three to five years to plan for future jail expansion, Mashek said.

Commissioners are expected to address Mashek’s proposal next week, said Lewis, who appears to be leaning toward renewing CEC’s downtown contract and allowing it to finance, build and operate a new jail on Highway 6.

The rest of the article introduces us to some of those pushing the construction of a new private jail in McLennan County - prison bond financier Municipal Capital Markets Group, who was last seen pushing a new family detention center in Raymondville, and Herb Bristow, the McLennan County Attorney who also advises many other counties on jail issues. Here, Bristow, who seems to always be advocating a new private jail, again sings the praises of the private prison company proposal,

Bristow, who also represents other Texas counties and advises them on jail issues, called CEC’s proposal a “very thorough, well-thought-out offer.”

“It is an opportunity for the county to have a facility built at no cost to the taxpayers,” Bristow said. “That is the bottom line. Economics, at the end of the day, will dictate the course of action.”

Of course, Bristow leaves out the important question about whether the county needs new jail capacity. As Scott over at Grits for Breakfast has pointed out and the Texas Commission on Jail Standards has apparently agreed McLennan County isn't in a major capacity crisis. Common sense solultions to jail overcrowding make more sense, both economically and as criminal justice policy, than building a new private jail in McLennan County. We'll keep you posted.

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Waco Tribune Editorializes Against New Jail

In addition to the Sheriff's Officers Association, the Waco Tribune's editorial board may be becoming one of the biggest thorns in the side of those advocating a new private jail in McLennan County. The paper already wrote against the proposed privatization effort in July. On Friday, the editorial board penned a piece titled "Why three jails?" questioning the prosed construction of an additional Waco jail. According to the article,

When the county decided to build a new jail off of Highway 6 in 2000, Community Education Centers (CEC), formerly CiviGenics, signed a contract to operate its predecessor, the 329-bed jail on Columbus Avenue. The contract for that relationship expires Oct. 1.

For much of the time the agreement has paid off. Some would have called the private jail a cash cow — netting more than $800,000 a year. But as the county has had to use space at the downtown jail, the bonanza has dwindled. Now the county is netting only a fourth of that.

If nothing else, taking back the downtown jail buys time to consider the county’s options. It also offers a graceful exit from a contretemps stirred with jail staff over proposals to have CEC build and operate a new jail.

In addition, the editorial board saved a few choice words for CEC/CiviGenics, the private prison company that operates the downtown jail and is the sole bidder for the new jail facility, and prison privatization generally (emphasis mine).

The county is investigating claims by former downtown inmates that guards at the CEC-run jail sold drugs and had sex with female inmates.

Whether or not those concerns hold water, the firm running the jail has a spotty record. Indeed, one of the county’s most notorious murders, in which inmate Sherman Lamont Fields escaped and murdered his former girlfriend, occurred under CiviGenics’ watch. He bribed a jail employee.

It’s one thing to entrust such a thing as food service or lawn maintenance to a private firm. It’s another to entrust lives, constitutional rights and the whole of what law enforcement requires.

Entrusting the county jail to a private firm is barely any different than contracting out the police force. The county should put that proposal aside. In the meantime, it should reclaim the downtown jail and consider its penal options for the future — without privatization.

We'll keep you posted on all the developments from McLennan County. For background, see our previous coverage of the McLennan County privatization debate:

Recommendations for Jail Standards Sunset Review

Every 12 years, the Texas Legislature reviews state agencies to determine whether their missions merit continuation and what changes or improvements need to be made. The process is overseen by the Texas Sunset Advisory Committee and gives advocates a chance to highlight successes and failures in the agencies. While the review of the troubled-but-improving Texas Youth Commission this year will probably dominate much of the press and advocacy interest this year, the Texas Commission of Jail Standards, the agency charged with overseeing Texas' massive county jail system, is also up for review and deserves a close look.

The Commission (commonly known as TCJS in the prison reform world) also has jurisdiction over lock-ups, both public and private, that house any out-of-state inmates. In 2003, the agency was stripped of its oversight of detention centers, overwhelmingly operated by private prison corporations, that house only federal detainees, creating a large number of facilities in Texas completely unregulated by a state agency.

I generally think the leadership of TCJS, headed by Adan Muñoz, is doing a good job, though are tremendously under-resources. See a related Grits post from last year for more analysis on this. Muñoz, a former West Texas sheriff, has noted in several contexts that mental illness is the number one issue pushing jail expansion in the state.

The Sunset Committee distributes a survey in the lead-up to the review, which I sent in for Grassroots Leadership last week. Amongst my recommendations,

1. Substantially enhance the ability of the Commission to successfully oversee jail facilities by adding at least two inspectors to Commission staff, and ehancing oversight of medical and mental health issues in jail facilities – possibly by dedicating one inspector to exclusively oversee mental health and health-related issues in jail facilities.

2. Expand membership of the Commission to include one member of the mental health community, as well as a member of a human rights organization or family organization to represent incarcerated people on the Commission.

3. Expand jurisdiction of TCJS to include:

  • Oversight of jails and detention centers housing only federal detainees. As mentioned above, this duty was stripped from the agency earlier this decade in a legislative decision.
  • Oversight of all private correctional facilities in the state not under the jurisdiction of the TDCJ or TYC monitoring
  • Oversight of municipal jails. I'm not overly familiar with municipal jails, but some towns in Texas have city-operated jails in addition to their county facilities. These facilities are not under the current purview of TCJS.
  • Out-of-state jails housing Texas prisoners such as the Louisiana private jails housing Harris County prisoners, or develop a legislative remedy to ban the exportation of Texas county detainees to other states.

If conditions in Texas jails matter to you or you simply want more information, visit and consider making a donation to the Texas Jail Project, which is one of my favorite grassroots groups and one of the only focusing on Texas jails.

Austin Events Against Prison Industrial Complex

Starting tonight, Austin's MonkeyWrench Books will be home to a series of events every this month dealing with the Prison Industrial Complex, the term referring to the institutional interests involved in the prison construction and operation.

The series is a prelude to Critical Resistance 10, happening on September 26-28 in Oakland, California, which will celebrate a decade of struggle against the Prison Industrial Complex, and of carving out a path toward "genuinely safe, healthy communities that respond to harm without relying on prisons and punishment."

The series schedule is:

Campaign to End the Death Penalty
Monday, August 4, 8pm
Family members of death row inmates tell their stories about the criminal injustice system. Featuring Sandra Reed, mother of Rodney Reed, innocent on death row; Lawrence Foster, grandfather of Kenneth Foster Jr., who came within hours of an execution before winning a commutation of his sentence; Jeannine Scott, wife of wrongly convicted Yogurt Shop defendant, Michael Scott; and Delia Perez Meyer, sister of falsely accused death row inmate, Louis Castro Perez.

Immigration, Detention, and Deportation
Monday, August 11, 8pm
Film screening of Hutto: America's Family Prison with film-maker Matthew Gossage; organizers from Grassroots Leadership will speak about organizing against private immigrant detention centers. Also, members of the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition will speak on the issue of ICE in the Travis County Jail.

Youth Incarceration and Juvenile Justice
Monday, August 18, 8pm
PODER, the east Austin environmental and economic justice organization, will address the issue of juvenile justice and current efforts to reform the Texas Youth Commission's youth prisons.

Abolitionism, Post-Racial Racism and Moving Beyond the Prison-Industrial Complex
Monday, August 25, 8pm
A discussion with Joy James, visiting Professor at UT's Center for African and African American Studies. James is the editor of several anthologies by incarcerated activists and authors, including The New Abolitionists and Warfare in the American Homeland.


See for more information on the series or to get directions.