by C. C. Simmons
In June, 2002, the Texas state prison system was finally released from 29 years of federal court oversight. The longest running civil rights class-action lawsuit in the history of the United States came to an end when Texas prison officials and the attorneys for the prisoner-plaintiff class grudgingly agreed that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) was thereafter capable of running their 150,000-prisoner system without violating the United States Constitution. Or so they said.
Well before the end of federal court oversight and in anticipation of the new era of self-rule, the TDCJ contracted for the services of the American Correctional Association (ACA) of Lanham, Maryland. The ACA is a non-governmental private agency that offers a veneer of respectability to those client correctional institutions that comply with the association's volumes of published standards. After payment of the obligatory and substantial fees, the ACA's audit teams visit client prisons and, finding at least the appearance of compliance, the ACA declares the prison to be "accredited." Prison officials hope that ACA accreditation will thwart lawsuits over conditions of confinement by prisoners. That some of the worst, most brutal, violent and decrepit prisons are "accredited" by the ACA should cast doubt on whether the accreditation has any real world meaning. The ACA will not disclose if any prison or jail, after having paid the requisite fees, has failed to be accredited.
Accreditation does not come cheap. The state of Texas has delivered hundreds of thousands of dollars to the ACA in exchange for a few cursory walk-through audits of selected Texas prisons and, thereafter, the award of the lurid Certificates of Accreditationsuitable for framing, of course.
While the ACA's operations have the appearance of legitimacy, close examination of the Association's activities in Texas raises several troubling questions.
First, the results of the ACA's prison audits are secret. Although the audit fees are paid with public funds, the general public is not allowed to know what the audit team found, nor which ACA standards were met and which were not. If deficiencies were found, the taxpayers are not informed.
In a recent exchange of e-mails between a concerned Texas citizen and Robert Verdeyen, the ACA's Director for Standards and Accreditation, Verdeyen wrote on April 2, 2004: "There is a confidentiality clause in every contract that we sign with our client agencies. We are not permitted to disclose any audit report without the express written authorization of the client agency."
The Texas taxpayers are thus denied access to the very same information that their tax dollars were spent to purchase. [Editor's Note: Presumably the reports can be requested and obtained from the government agency under each states public records laws.]
Auditors Ignore Prisoners
Second, the ACA's auditors rarely solicit comments from prisoners. During a typical audit, the ACA team moves briskly through a prison while surrounded by a phalanx of officials and guards. The ostensible purpose of this arrangement is to shield the auditors from unruly prisoners. The more likely purpose is, however, to obstruct the prisoners from interacting with the auditors and reporting the unadorned truth about prison conditions.
On those rare occasions when auditors are permitted to interview prisoners, only the prisoners' favorable comments are reported. Early in 2004, for example, four ACA auditors visited the Eastham State Prison, a decrepit 2,300-man maximum security facility at Lovelady, Texas. When asked about the prisoners' recurring written complaints of substandard food and health care at Eastham, the ACA's Verdeyen responded in an April 1, 2004, e-mail: "The four auditors were able to interview 111 inmates. Some interviews were brief, others were more involved. Inmates were interviewed individually and in groups at various locations. No complaints were voiced about medical or food service. Inmates were satisfied with services from those areas." Is Verdeyen so naive that he expects Texas taxpayers to believe that not one of the 111 interviewees had a single complaint about prison food or health care?
Questionable Payments to the ACA
Third, a number of unexplained irregularities appear in the record of payments to the ACA. A detailed report recently obtained from the Texas State Comptroller of Public Accounts shows each and every payment made by the state to the ACA over the past few years. Among the many questionable payments, the following are particularly troubling:
On January 5, 1998, the TDCJ made five separate payments of $2,303.75 to the ACA, all on the same day.
On April 24, 2001, the TDCJ made five separate payments to the ACA, each for $3,973.75, all on the same day.
On August 28, 2001, the TDCJ made four separate payments to the ACA, each for $3,842.00, all on the same day.
On October 8, 2002, the TDCJ made four separate payments to the ACA, all for $3,973.75, all on the same day. On the following day, the TDCJ made two more payments to the ACA: the first was for $55,930.00 while the second was for $37,995.00. In six separate payments made to the ACA over a 2-day period in October 2002, the TDCJ paid the ACA more than $108,000.
On November 27, 2002, the TDCJ made 40 separate payments to the ACA, each for $21.55, all on the same day. Further on November 27th, the TDCJ made 10 separate payments to the ACA, each for $150.00, all on the same day.
In December 2003, many of these questionable payments were brought to the attention of ACA Director Verdeyen with a request for an explanation. Verdeyen did not reply and later denied receiving the inquiry.
As the state of Texas deals with shrinking revenue, the elimination of school lunches for needy children, and an end to the meals-on-wheels program for home-bound senior citizens, hundreds of thousands of dollars continue to flow to the ACA. Isn't it time for the state to launch a full-scale audit of the TDCJ-ACA relationship? Why haven't state legislators done so?
Sources: E-mails to and from ACA; personal correspondence; Texas State Comptroller of Public Accounts, Fiscal Management Division, Detailed Document Activity Report.
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