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Denial of Medical Care Causes Two Riots at GEO Group Texas Prison

by Matt Clarke

On December 12, 2008, a riot erupted at the GEO Group-run Reeves County Detention Center (RCDC) in Pecos, Texas, which houses federal immigration detainees. The uprising was triggered by the death of a prisoner who had received inadequate medical care. A second, more serious riot at the 3,000-bed facility broke out on January 31, 2009. [See: PLN, June 2009, p.1]. Prison officials’ refusal to provide detainees with medical treatment was again the cause.

The pair of riots and many other problems at GEO facilities in Texas have led some to re-evaluate the wisdom of prison privatization. Regardless, last year GEO landed a multi-million dollar contract to operate a new mental health prison hospital in Montgomery County, near Houston.

In December 2008, Jesus Manuel Galindo, 32, of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, was serving a 30-month sentence at RCDC for illegally re-entering the U.S. He suffered from severe epileptic seizures and was taking Dilantin, a medication that must be administered at precise times and confirmed therapeutic levels.

Galindo became concerned for his health. He called his mother and told her he wasn’t being given his medication frequently enough or at the full dosage. When he complained, RCDC officials put him in segregation. His mother mailed his medical records to the GEO-run prison; they were refused, and she was told not to send them again. Meanwhile, Galindo continued to suffer seizures in his segregation cell in the facility’s Secure Housing Unit (SHU).

Galindo contacted his public defender and told her he was afraid he would die. She sent investigator Octavio Vasquez to the facility on December 4, 2008. Galindo told Vasquez about the problems he was having with his medication; in turn, Vasquez talked to RCDC officials, who promised that Galindo would be returned to general population where other prisoners could help look after him. They lied. Instead, he remained in segregation.

At 7:00 a.m. on December 12, 2008, a month after he had been placed in the SHU, Galindo’s fears were realized when GEO guards discovered his body in full rigor mortis. He had been dead for hours. An autopsy attributed his death to his epileptic condition, and noted there were “below-therapeutic levels” of Dilantin in his system.

“With multiple seizures, inadequate levels of medication and left in isolation without supervision, he was set up to die,” said Robert Cain, an Austin doctor who reviewed the autopsy report.

Prisoners who had been incarcerated with Galindo when he was in general population saw him being removed from the SHU in a body bag. That touched off the first riot. Worried about his health, they had been trying to get RCDC officials to let Galindo out of segregation and provide him with medical care. Their requests had been ignored.

The riot lasted several hours, and two prison employees were briefly held hostage. Prisoners demanded to meet with the Mexican Consulate, federal officials and the warden to discuss problems at the facility, particularly health care. The disturbance ended without serious injuries to any detainees or guards, but with significant damage to the prison’s recreation center.

Twenty-six prisoners were indicted by a federal grand jury in April and May 2009 for offenses related to the incident; they pleaded guilty after being threatened with 10-year mandatory minimum sentences. Of course, no RCDC employees were indicted for failing to provide adequate medical care, which resulted in the uprising.

Even after the riot, guards at the GEO facility continued to put prisoners in the SHU if they complained about health-related problems, for “medical observation.” On January 31, 2009, the detainees at RCDC had had enough. They rioted again.

The second riot was worse than the first, involving about 2,000 prisoners and lasting five days. Law enforcement officers used rubber bullets and tear gas to put down the uprising. Three of the prison’s buildings were torched, causing huge plumes of black smoke and millions of dollars worth of damage. Following the riot, prisoners were held in tents due to extensive damage to the housing units.

According to one detainee, the second disturbance began after prisoner Ramon Garcia was put in segregation when he said he felt sick and dizzy. “All we wanted was for them to give him medical care and because they didn’t, things got out of control and people started fires in several offices,” the unidentified detainee stated.

The Reeves County Commission has already approved $948,000 in repair costs for the second riot and $320,000 for the first. Some estimate the total will be as high as $20-40 million, all of which has to be paid by the county or its insurance company. This calls the cost-benefit analysis of private prison management into question, as it was GEO’s mismanagement that left the county responsible for repairs to the facility.

Reeves County had issued about $115 million in revenue bonds to finance construction and expansion at RCDC since 1985; at the time of the riots, the county’s outstanding bond debt was around $92 million. To cover the cost of re-pairs incurred due to the riots not paid by its insurer, the county recently approved another $15.5 million in bonds.

Plus there is potential liability in a civil lawsuit, as Galindo’s family has filed a wrongful death claim. “There are a lot of layers to this case, but for us it’s simple. They should have provided medical care right there and treated him decently and they didn’t,” said attorney Miguel Torres, who represents Galindo’s parents, both legal U.S. residents.

“We don’t understand how there can be so little humanity there in the prison,” observed Galindo’s father. “Animals aren’t even treated as badly as they treated our son, keeping him locked up in the hole so sick and without any company. It was so cruel, and he died sick and afraid.”

Physicians Network Association (PNA) of Lubbock, Texas was contracted to provide medical services at RCDC, at a cost of $6.03 per detainee per day. PNA has contracts at ten GEO facilities as well as prisons run by Management and Training Corporation (MTC). The company claims to be a leader in prison health care with l4 years of experience and “no record of substantiated grievances in any facility.”

Yet in March 2003, the U.S. Department of Justice found widespread medical neglect and abuse at the Santa Fe County Adult Detention Center, a prison owned by Santa Fe County and operated by MTC, which contracted with PNA. That investigation followed the suicide of a prisoner who suffered from severe claustrophobia, who killed himself while on suicide watch. The Justice Department noted that the prison had no on-site doctor, nor a psychologist or psychiatrist.

The nearest doctor was in Lubbock, two hours away. On average, a physician visited the facility once every six weeks and saw only a few prisoners during each visit. The detention center’s nurse had been given a written order not to spend more than five minutes with any prisoner patient. Although the nurse had no mental health training and was not licensed to prescribe medications, she was giving drugs to mentally ill prisoners. PNA’s formulary (a list of approved medications) didn’t have many name-brand medicines but included “less expensive, less effective” drugs.

A similar situation existed at the GEO-run RCDC, which didn’t even have an infirmary. This was confirmed by Reeves County Judge Sam Contreras, who stated at a public meeting that the absence of a medical unit was “what caused the disturbance – because [prisoners] were placed in the SHU when they didn’t do nothing wrong. They are just sick.” Federal officials have since asked that an infirmary be built at RCDC, at an estimated cost of $1.8 million.

Several advocacy groups have staged protests over the conditions at RCDC, including the Southwest Workers Union, the ACLU of Texas, Grassroots Leadership, and the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. On December 10, 2009 –International Human Rights Day – dozens of protestors descended on GEO Group’s regional headquarters in New Braunfels, Texas to protest the deaths of Galindo and eight other detainees at RCDC since 2005. They called for an investigation by the Department of Justice.

“[P]risoners at the Reeves County Detention Center, many of whom are only serving time for immigration violations, report conditions that include medical neglect, abuse by guards, overcrowding, inadequate food and unsanitary conditions,” said Bob Libal, Texas coordinator for Grassroots Leadership.

Another protest was held outside RCDC on December 12, 2009 – the one-year anniversary of Galindo’s death. Ac-cording to ACLU Outreach & Advocacy Coordinator Tracey Hayes, “The conditions have not improved and since the up-rising, they’ve gotten worse.” Lisa Graybill, legal director for the ACLU of Texas, agreed. “We continue to receive complaints that the Bureau of Prisons and its contractors, GEO and Physicians Network Association, are systemically failing to address life-threatening and chronic medical conditions of detainees,” she said.

GEO Group has had other high-profile problems in Texas. Last April, in a scathing opinion, a Texas Court of Appeals affirmed a $42.5 million jury award against the company in a suit involving the death of Gregorio de la Rosa, Jr., a prisoner who was beaten to death at a GEO-run facility in Willacy County. Prison officials had watched de la Rosa die, smirk-ing and laughing, then covered-up evidence. [See: PLN, June 2009, p.10; Feb. 2007, p.34]. Following the appellate ruling, the case settled in January 2010 under confidential terms.

In 2007, GEO was forced to close a juvenile prison in Coke County after Texas Youth Commission officials found atrocious and unsafe conditions at the facility. [See: PLN, Nov. 2008, p.18; July 2008, p.18].

Scot Noble Payne, an out-of-state Idaho prisoner, committed suicide at a GEO-run Texas prison in 2007, leaving letters that said he couldn’t stand the squalid conditions in his segregation cell. Idaho subsequently pulled all of its prisoners out of the facility. [See: PLN, Dec. 2007, p.23]. A lawsuit filed over Payne’s death settled for $100,000 in Sept. 2009. See: Payne v. Sandy, U.S.D.C. (D. Idaho), Case No. 4:09-cv-00089-BLW.

Then there were allegations, reported in May 2008, that GEO employees had engaged in widespread sexual abuse of female detainees at the company’s South Texas Detention Center in Pearsall. Some of the prisoners reportedly became pregnant. That same facility was the subject of a lawsuit claiming two prisoners had received inadequate mental health care and were subjected to discrimination and retaliation. The suit is still pending, with a trial date set for March 29, 2010. See: Rodriguez-Grava v. GEO Group, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Tex.), Case No. 5:07-cv-00717-OLG-JWP.

Plus there are the many cases in which GEO employees have been arrested for bribery, fraud, smuggling contraband and other misconduct. Such as GEO guard Jose Alberto Ybarra, who was charged in March 2008 with bringing marijuana into the Val Verde Correctional Center; former RCDC guard Katherin Elizabeth Terry, who pleaded guilty in November 2009 to bribery and contraband-related charges; and Keith Clark, GEO’s business manager at RCDC, who was arrested in September 2009 on charges of credit card fraud.

Further, as previously reported in PLN, there was Moises B. Martinez, Jr., a case manager at RCDC, who was sen-tenced on July 31, 2009 to 2½ years in prison and three years probation for attempting to smuggle tobacco and other contraband into the facility; former RCDC life skills instructor Velma Jean Payan, sentenced on Sept. 2, 2009 to 24 months on contraband charges; and former RCDC guards Jerri Ornelas, Silvia Chairez and Jacob C. Guzman, who were sentenced on similar charges on Sept. 3, 2009. Ornelas and Chariez received 24 months in prison, while Guzman got 46 months; all three also must serve three years on supervised release. [See: PLN, Nov. 2009, p.50].

Despite these numerous problems – particularly those involving the provision of medical and mental health services – GEO Group subsidiary GEO Care was selected by Montgomery County, Texas in July 2009 for a $7.5 million contract to run the new 110-bed Montgomery County Forensic Mental Hospital. The facility, to be completed in 2011 at a cost of $35 million, is needed to house a backlog of prisoners awaiting competency hearings and mental health treatment.

Mental health advocates complained that there was never any public discussion about the contract for operating the hospital. “Why would we want to use an entity that hasn’t had a stellar reputation?” asked Monica Thyssen, a mental health policy specialist for Advocacy, Inc. “If the process had been more transparent, there probably would have been other state officials who would’ve said, ‘I don’t know if GEO is the best use of state dollars.’”

That is all too true, but with Texas becoming the private prison Mecca of the United States – the state is home to at least 56 privately-operated facilities – GEO depends on the general public and government officials not knowing about its shoddy track record when it comes to running prisons.

Then again, it’s not as though state prisons don’t have problems, too. “Some of [GEO’s] facilities are pretty darn good, and some are not as good as the others,” opined Texas state Rep. Jerry Madden. “But that’s the exact same problem we have with the state-run facilities.”

The difference? Public prisons don’t have to cut corners, or deny medical care that results in prisoners’ deaths, to make a profit.

Sources: Dallas Morning News, Brownsville Herald, Associated Press,,,,,, ACLU National Prison Project,,,,

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Related legal case

Payne v. Sandy

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