His report also noted that some youths were confined in “malodorous and dark” solitary confinement for up to five weeks and only let out for showers. Several juveniles at the Coke County facility, which was described as a “violent cam-pus,” had requested to be placed in segregation for their own safety.
Prisoners at the juvenile center ranged in age from 13 to 21, and Harrell described them as “desperate” to lodge com-plaints during his visit. His investigators noticed that youths in solitary confinement were “educated” by teachers who slipped crosswords and math puzzles under the cell door.
His report also referred to the regular school program as a place where students simply sat in front of computers. “I usually leave these facilities sad,” said Harrell. “I left that one mad.”
What made his report so surprising was that the prison had operated for years without raising any eyebrows; it had even been named contract facility of the year, twice. The problems at Coke County came to light about 8 months after TYC was rocked by a major scandal involving the sexual molestation of children in state custody by two top officials. [See: PLN, Feb. 2008, p.1].
When state lawmakers discovered that the allegations of sexual misconduct had been ignored for years, and that the two accused TYC officials had been fired but not prosecuted, the legislature did a major housecleaning of both personnel and security issues in Texas’ juvenile justice system – or so it thought.
“We asked the question at our last hearing, were the kids safer?” said state Rep. Jerry Madden. “The answer we got was yes. It appears to me that some of them were not.”
TYC Executive Director Dimitria D. Pope visited the Coke County Juvenile Justice Center just days after Harrell made his report. Her reaction was to immediately cancel the state’s contract with GEO Group, Inc., the private prison contractor that operated the facility. GEO (formerly Wackenhut Corrections) had run the center since it opened in 1994. Over the last year the state had renewed its contract on a month-to-month basis at an annual cost of $8 million.
Initially GEO officials protested the contract cancellation, asserting that the facility was a model prison. Company offi-cials relented, however, after Sen. John Whitmire suggested that the matter be submitted to a public hearing.
“If GEO thinks they’ve been treated unfairly, let’s have a public hearing and look at all the photographs and videos [of the Coke County prison] and let the public decide,” said Whitmire, who accused GEO lobbyists of trying to influence law-makers to question the TYC’s findings. “They’ve run a very poor facility that probably violates the youths’ civil rights.... Kids were stepping in their own feces. The sheets were such that a cat or dog wouldn’t sleep on them.”
State inspectors found that laundry services at the prison were grossly deficient, and that some youths were forced to defecate in plastic bags because the plumbing in their cells wasn’t working properly.
GEO spokesman Pablo Paez commented, “We believe we have provided quality services for the Texas Youth Commission for many years.” However, those services have included a rocky history at the Coke County prison – such as the 2006 suicide of Robert Shulze, 19, who was not placed on suicide watch despite threats of self-harm; the 2004 death of 17-year-old John Rodriguez, who received inadequate medical treatment; the hiring of a registered sex of-fender by GEO to work at the facility; and a sexual abuse scandal in 1999 involving numerous female juveniles, which led to criminal convictions of two GEO employees and a lawsuit against the company that resulted in a confidential set-tlement. [See: PLN, Aug. 2000, p.1].
Yet based on the state’s recent quality assurance evaluations of the Coke County prison, Mr. Paez’s statement ap-pears to be valid. In February 2007 the GEO-run juvenile center was awarded a 97.7 percent compliance rating. Plus it was named contract facility of the year in 1999 and 2005.
Those ratings apparently misled state lawmakers until it was pointed out that the TYC employees responsible for evaluating the prison had previously worked for GEO Group.
Quality-assurance monitors Brian Lutz and David Robertson, and their supervisor, Valerie Jones, had been employed by GEO before they were hired by the TYC and assigned to the Coke County facility. Patti Frazee, a clerk with the moni-toring unit, had also worked for GEO. All four, plus three other unnamed TYC employees, were fired after conditions at the juvenile center became known.
“It was incestuous,” Dimitria Pope said of the monitors’ former relationship with GEO. She assured that such a mis-take would not happen again. “There was a significant breakdown. That will be totally restructured.” TYC’s acting director of quality assurance, Elizabeth Lee, resigned the same week that GEO’s contract was canceled.
“I think it’s outrageous,” stated Sen. Whitmire. “It just confirms what many of us suspected – that there was too close a relationship between the TYC employees and the GEO employees.”
Evidence of other conflicted interests became apparent when state Rep. Drew Darby voiced his opinion on the Coke County situation. Rather than express outrage at the abuse of juvenile offenders at the for-profit facility, Darby was angry about Pope’s decision to immediately close the prison, which cost his constituents jobs. He accused TYC of punishing Coke County residents for what he called the agency’s own failings.
The GEO facility in Bronte was the town’s second largest employer; its largest employer, the school district, received a third of its $6 million budget to provide educational services to youths at the prison. When GEO’s contract was canceled on October 2, 2007, all 197 juvenile offenders were removed. The center’s closure resulted in a loss of approximately 140 jobs, plus 21 at the Bronte school district.
The impact of the Coke County scandal may be just beginning for GEO. State lawmakers have requested that all of the company’s other prisons be checked. “I think from what I’ve learned about the operation in Coke County, [it] warrants a review of their entire operations ...” said Sen. Whitmire. GEO Group operates seven facilities in Texas that house adult state prisoners, under contracts valued at $44 million.
Further, GEO is being sued by seven former and current TYC prisoners who allege they were sexually abused by a registered sex offender who worked as a night-shift guard. The GEO-employed guard, David Andrew Lewis, was fired in March 2007 after state officials learned he had a prior sex offense conviction. “He just came in and started choking me, and getting on top of me, and grabbing my hands and pulling them behind my back and stuff like that, and grabbing me in private areas,” one of the juveniles stated. Another plaintiff in the case said Lewis allowed other youths into his cell and watched while they sodomized him with a broom handle. The lawsuit is ongoing. See: Johnson v. GEO Group, U.S.D.C. WD Texas, Case No. 5:07-cv-00983-FB.
In regard to the many problems at Coke County, Sen. Whitmire stated, “If that can happen in the TYC ... what about the other agencies that confine individuals?” He went on to note that “it is very simple that the monitors were not doing their job and there was a human failure,” and asked “who’s monitoring the monitors?”
It is interesting to note that Sen. Whitmire and Rep. Jerry Madden had received campaign contributions from GEO in the past. Both legislators head up the Corrections Committees in the Senate and House, respectively. Madden received $2,500 from GEO Group in 2005-2006; Whitmire received $2,000 in 2003-2004. Madden’s predecessor, Rep. Ray Allen, received $3,500 from the private prison firm in 2003-¬2004; he is now employed as a GEO lobbyist.
State Senator Juan Hinojosa was adamant about his distrust of GEO Group and other private prison firms. “It’s a myth that the private sector does a better job than government [at running prisons],” he said. “They’re there to make a profit and they’ll cut corners, and they’ll cut back on services and they’ll many times look the other way when abuse is taking place.”
Indeed, GEO representatives reportedly admitted that because the company had a month-to-month contract with the state, it was not going to invest in improvements at the Coke County facility. Also, the warden at the prison said GEO’s corporate office “did not respond to many of his purchasing needs.”
Sen. Hinojosa admonished his colleagues that GEO’s deficiencies would have been immediately obvious with an Internet search. “We should not sign contracts with these companies,” he stated. TYC Executive Director Dimitria Pope agreed. “GEO should be ashamed,” she said. “and anyone who’s rallying behind GEO should ... hold their head in shame.”
The shake-up at the TYC continues. Pope resigned on February 12, 2008; according to news reports, she would have been fired if she hadn’t quit.
Her removal was at the request of TYC Conservator Richard Nedelkoff, who wanted “new direction [and] new leadership” at the agency. Pope, who previously spent 20 years with the Texas Dept. of Criminal Jus-tice, had been criticized for approving a controversial policy that expanded the use of pepper spray on juveniles. The pol-icy was withdrawn after being challenged in court. As of June 2008, no new executive director for the TYC had been ap-pointed.
Other recent changes at the TYC include the formation of an Office of Inspector General – an office created by the state legislature last year. Additionally, the TYC now has a Special Prosecution Unit that works with district attorney’s of-fices in criminal cases arising at juvenile facilities. From December 2007 to February 2008, the Unit assisted in 37 cases involving staff misconduct. The Youth Commission has also established a toll-free hotline to report abuse.
Every sixty days, TYC Conservator Nedelkoff issues a report on the status of improvements in the agency. His most recent report, dated May 15, 2008, cites the development of “Rapid Response Teams” assigned to facilities where prob-lems are identified; the signing of an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to improve operations at the Evins Regional Juvenile Center; pay increases to attract additional TYC employees, to raise staffing levels; and the installation of a total of 7,150 surveillance cameras at TYC prisons, with another 5,368 cameras to be installed by August 31, 2008.
There has been another significant change since abysmal conditions at the Coke County Juvenile Justice Center were revealed: GEO Group no longer operates any TYC facilities. The company still owns the Coke County prison, how-ever, and hopes to use it to house state or federal offenders – not that GEO’s past record of dealing with adult prisoners is much better.
Sources: Austin American-Statesman, Associated Press, CBS 11TV, Coke County Juvenile Justice Center Audit, Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle, KRIS-TV, www.lubbockonline.com, New York Times, San Angelo Standard Times, San Antonio Express News, www.wfaa.com, Austin Chronicle
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Related legal case
Johnson v. GEO Group
|U.S.D.C. WD Texas, Case No. 5:07-cv-00983-FB