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Texas GEO Prison Squalor Drives Idaho Prisoner to Suicide

by Matt Clarke

Seven months after arriving at the Dickens County Correctional Center (DCCC), a private prison in Spur, Texas operated by the GEO Group, Idaho state prisoner Scot Noble Payne, 43, was dead by his own hand. The reason he gave for committing suicide? Squalid conditions at the privately-run lockup.

Payne arrived at DCCC on August 27, 2006 along with 125 other Idaho prisoners who were transferred from a troubled GEO-run facility in Newton, Texas. In December 2006, Payne escaped from DCCC by scaling a fence. He was captured a week later, returned to the prison and placed in solitary confinement. In a letter to his uncle, Payne wrote that he welcomed death because "it sure beats having water on the floor 24/7, a smelly pillow case, sheets with blood stains on them and a stinky towel that hasn't been changed since they caught me."

Just after midnight on March 4, 2007, he used a razor blade to cut two 3-inch gashes in his throat.

Following Payne's suicide, Don Stockman, the health care director for the Idaho Department of Corrections (IDOC), inspected the GEO facility and declared it the worst prison he had ever seen. "The physical condition of the cell where the suicide occurred does not, in my opinion, comply with any standards related to inmate housing for either segregated housing or housing for inmates on suicide watch," he said. "The physical environment of the cell would have only enhanced the inmate's depression that could have been a major contributing factor in his suicide." But the IDOC cannot shirk its responsibility for Payne's death by laying the blame at GEO's feet.

During the seven months between when Idaho prisoners were transferred to DCCC and Payne's suicide, Idaho officials visited the prison just one time. That inspection revealed serious problems; however, no action was taken to correct them. Grievances filed by DCCC prisoners were handled over the phone by Idaho officials, who parroted DCCC warden Ron Alford's line that everything was O.K., everything was under control.

Nor can GEO escape responsibility for its role in Payne's suicide simply because the company suspended Alford, a former Texas warden known for running prisons using physical and verbal intimidation. Alford, in turn, placed the blame squarely on GEO.

"They denied me everything. To buy a pencil with GEO, it took three signatures. They're cheap," he said.

Likewise, lack of funds was Idaho's excuse for failing to monitoring their prisoners at DCCC. "We weren't happy about the things that were going on down there," stated former IDOC Director Vaughn Killeen, who stepped down in December 2006. "We didn't have that level of budget to accommodate full-time monitors."

It appears that, when it came to its prisoners held in out-of-state for-profit lockups, the IDOC's motto was "out of sight, out of mind."

Payne's suicide has changed that hands-off philosophy, at least temporarily. In July 2007 the IDOC created a staff position to oversee prisoners housed in out-of-state contract prisons and county jails. Further, the Idaho prisoners housed at DCCC have since been moved – to two other GEO-run prisons in Texas, the Val Verde Correctional Facility and the Bill Clayton Detention Center.

The good news? Conditions are reportedly better at the other GEO prisons; Val Verde, for example, has a full-time county monitor. The bad news? The county was forced to hire the monitor as part of a settlement following the death of Texas prisoner LeTisha Tapia, who killed herself at the GEO-run facility on July 23, 2004 after claiming she was raped by another prisoner and sexually humiliated by a guard. County and GEO officials paid Tapia's family $200,000 as part of the settlement.

IDOC officials may be facing a financial payout, too. In August 2007 Payne's mother, Shirley Noble, filed a $500,000 tort claim against the state of Idaho over "inhumane treatment and illegal and unconstitutional conditions of confinement" that led to her son's suicide. She is also considering litigation against GEO Group.

Sources: Associated Press, San Antonio Express-News, Idaho Statesman

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