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Private Prisons a Public Disgrace in Texas

So much human feces covered the floors of a GEO Group-run juvenile prison in Coke County, Texas that departing inspectors stopped outside to wipe their shoes in the grass. The Coke County Juvenile Justice Center was in such bad shape that Texas Youth Commission (TYC) executive director Dimitria Pope ordered all juvenile offenders removed from the facility following the inspection, then canceled the state’s contract with GEO. [See: PLN, July 2008, p.18].

What was even more alarming was the fact that such abysmal conditions had existed for years while the prison received high marks from inspectors and literally no oversight by state officials. Then again, four of the TYC’s monitoring staff overseeing the GEO-run center were former GEO employees.

The Coke County facility was the state’s only privatized secure juvenile facility. However, around 9 percent of Texas’ adult prisoners are housed in privately-run prisons or state jails. For two decades, Texas has been on a binge to build prisons, fill them and keep them full. This is what lured so many private prison contractors to the Lone Star state. Texas has about 120 lockups and over 160,000 prisoners; 17 are privately-operated facilities that house more than 14,000 men and women.

Texas legislators succumbed to the appeal of privatized prisons in the mid-1990s, when private prison vendors promised cheaper and more efficiently run facilities. For well over a decade those vendors successfully sold this myth to state officials. But a Feb. 2001 report by the U.S. Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance, found that the promised cost savings from privatization had “simply not materialized.”

Texas leads the nation in private contract facilities, which include leased prison beds, state jails, intermediate sanction centers and pre-parole units. Nashville, Tennessee-based Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) runs nine facilities that house Texas state prisoners. Florida-based GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut Corrections) manages five.
Numerous studies have raised concerns that for-profit prisons operate at dangerously low staffing levels and have excessive employee turnover, which result in more security-related problems.

The largest private prison in Texas, in Mineral Wells, holds over 2,100 prisoners. In 2005 the CCA-run facility had to enlist the help of local law enforcement to put down a riot because there was not enough staff to control the situation. Seventeen prisoners were injured.
In August 2007 the prison needed the assistance of 30 local police officers to control a clash between prisoners and guards. Security at the unit is so porous that three prisoners have escaped over the past two years.

Other private prison-related incidents in Texas have included widespread sexual abuse of girls at a Wackenhut-run juvenile facility; a $47.5 million jury award against GEO Group in a wrongful death suit involving a prisoner’s murder; and a $40 million jury verdict against Correctional Services Corp. (later acquired by GEO Group) after a juvenile offender died as a result of gross medical neglect.

What is most amazing is that for years the state has failed to monitor the private prisons with which it contracts at a cost of $200 million annually. Researchers using the public records act found that Texas had not collected much of the basic data from its private prisons that it routinely gathers at state-run facilities.

According to the Feb. 6, 2008 issue of Watch Your Assets, “In response to requests for records under the Texas Public Information Act, ... the [Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice] acknowledged that it does not collect basic statistics about private facilities, numbers that it routinely gathers for facilities that it operates itself. TDCJ officials say that its inspectors monitor some employment information during site visits but the agency could not provide staffing numbers for its private facilities. The requested data that the agency did not provide were records on the number of guards each facility employs, the guard-to-prisoner ratio, guard disciplinary data, and enrollment in drug-treatment programs.”

“There is very little accountability,” acknowledged Texas state Senator Juan Hinojosa. “Some of the businesses have been sued repeatedly for abusing prisoners.”

In January 2008, Sen. Hinojosa pressured Attorney General David Dewhurst into reviewing privately-run facilities to ensure they were “equal to, if not better, than the services provided by the state [and] to make sure they are not cutting corners, putting the public at risk for the lack of guards, lack of health services, and the lack of drug counseling.”

Until recently, legislators erroneously reasoned that the lack of oversight would somehow foster competition between private prison vendors, which in turn would cut costs even further. Consequently, state officials failed to collect data to determine whether or not this hands-off approach was working – which was counterintuitive at best and utterly negligent at worst.

State lawmakers are now learning that prison privatization has led to substandard staffing levels and a host of other problems. Private prisons tend to be more short-staffed than publicly-run facilities, have higher employee turnover rates, and offer lower pay and less training. This combination of factors has resulted in more violence at private prisons.
A 2001 Bureau of Justice Assistance report found that levels of violence at privately-run prisons exceeded those at public prisons with comparable security levels by 48 percent in prisoner-against-staff assaults and 65 percent in prisoner-on-prisoner assaults.

Legislators and state prison officials are not blameless for the lack of oversight over private prison contractors. Indeed, many of these public servants go on to lobby for the interests of private prisons after they leave the public sector.

Just last year, former state Rep. Ray Allen quit his legislative position, claiming he could not survive on his taxpayer-funded salary. He is now a paid lobbyist for GEO Group and receives $50,000 to $100,000 under an annual contract.

GEO lobbyist Bill Miller is a close personal friend of House Speaker Tom Craddick. Michelle Wittenburg was Craddick’s General Counsel before she took a position with GEO. Former state Rep. Mike Toomey earns between $25,000 and $50,000 as a lobbyist for CCA. Laneri Keel also works for CCA; she is married to the cousin of Terry Keel, former chair of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and Craddick’s current parliamentarian.

Former Texas Rep. Allen D. Place chaired the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee during the 1990s. He now lobbies for Management Training Corp. (MTC), which operates three prisons in Texas at a cost of almost $13 million a year.

During the 2007 legislative session, state Rep. Jerry Madden successfully pushed a bill to increase the number of private prison beds in Texas. Madden is chairman of the House Prison Committee; CCA and GEO ranked among Madden’s top ten donors in 2006.

The Texas prison system is a bottomless pit that swallows the lives and money of state residents. Private prisons have served only to worsen the situation, to the detriment of prisoners held in for-profit facilities, and have created a corrupt revolving door among state-officials-turned-lobbyists. Money made from privatized mass incarceration has stripped both Texas citizens and their elected leaders of dignity. The feces covering the floor of the GEO-run juvenile prison in Coke County was literal, but the waste inherent in Texas’ private prison industry is equally odious.

Source: “Watch Your Assets” a joint newsletter by Texans for Public Justice and Grassroots Leadership

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