by Matthew T. Clarke
Recently, the Newton County Correctional Center (NCCC), a private prison in Newton, Texas run by the Boca Raton, Florida-based Geo Group, has experienced several incidents involving the out-of-state Idaho prisoners housed there. These incidents included a non-violent protest involving 85 prisoners, an escape, and the resignation of a deputy warden. Additionally, allegations of prisoner abuse were substantiated; Idaho prisoners have since been removed from the facility.
Idaho incarcerates 449 of its prisoners in out-of-state private prisons. Of those, 30 are incarcerated at a CCA prison in Minnesota and 419 are held at NCCC, one of 53 prisons nationwide operated by Geo Group, formerly known as Wackenhut.
Initially, Idahos out-of-state transfers were voluntary and had few problems. In October 2005, Idaho transferred 302 prisoner volunteers to Minnesota. However, overcrowding led Minnesotas prison system to exercise its primacy option on the bunk space in that states private prisons. Thus, 270 of the 302 Idaho prisoners were transferred hundreds of miles away to NCCC in Texas, something they neither volunteered for nor desired.
When they arrived at NCCC, Idaho prisoners discovered hotter temperatures and an austere prison life without many of the luxuries and privileges they were accustomed to. According to Idaho Department of Corrections (IDOC) spokesperson Teresa Jones, these privileges included cable TV and personal televisions, the absence of which she referred to as cultural differences between how prisons were run in Idaho and Texas.
Another unaccustomed cultural difference was guard brutality. On April 7, 2006, six Idaho prisoners complained of abuse by guards. In a letter to his sister, one prisoner stated that he had been placed in isolation, handcuffed, beaten and pepper sprayed. The complaints resulted in disciplinary actions against three Geo guards
including one demotion, a suspension and the firing of a supervisor. It also prompted an already scheduled visit by IDOC officials to the for-profit prison site.
Another violent incident occurred on May 30, 2006, when an Idaho prisoner refused to leave his cell and cursed at a deputy warden. The deputy warden then punched him in the face; the prisoner was forced to the ground and pepper sprayed, and his pants were forcibly removed. An IDOC report regarding the incident found that it resulted from a lack of staff training and policy violations. The unidentified deputy warden resigned on June 4.
Less than a week later, on June 10, 2006, eighty-five Idaho prisoners participated in a non-violent protest on the recreation yard by refusing to return to their cells. The protest lasted more than seven hours and was prompted by demands for butter for rolls, more television channels and lower commissary prices, according to prison officials.
Two days later, a pair of Idaho prisoners escaped from NCCC by climbing the fence while guards were distracted by a disturbance elsewhere in the prison. Orlando Gonzalez-Leon, 27, serving up to 50 years for murder, was recaptured about 90 minutes later. The other escapee, Rudolfo Garcia-Lopez, 38, was serving up to 20 years for aggravated assault and attempted kidnapping. He was caught on the morning of June 15, 2006, about 12 miles from the prison.
It was later reported that an armed Geo guard in a watchtower had failed to shoot at the escapees despite having a clear shot. The guard, who was not named, stated, My timing was slow and I felt highly-ass intimidated. Local law enforcement officials harshly criticized the guard, and Geo, for allowing the escape.
IDOC didn't view these problems as being serious. Theres always a little bit of a settling process at a new prison, said Jones. Someone apparently reconsidered, however, as IDOC announced in July 2006 that it would move all of its prisoners out of NCCC and place them in two other Texas lock-ups run by GEO, the Bill Clayton Detention Center and the Dickens County Correction Center. IDOC Director Beauclair stated he was dissatisfied with GEO's inability to hire qualified staff at NCCC.
Apparently Wyoming prisoners are equally unhappy with the cultural differences of how prisons are run in Texas. A May 28, 2006 disturbance involved 39 of the 301 Wyoming prisoners housed at the Bill Clayton Detention Center; only minor injuries were reported. Wyoming incarcerates 536 of its prisoners in Texas.
Sources: Houston Chronicle, www.localnews8.com, Associated Press, www.billingsgazette.net.
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