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New Mexico Slaps Private Prison Companies with $1.4 Million in Fines

The departure of Bill Richardson as New Mexico’s governor has changed the previously lax business environment for the state’s private prison contractors. The new administration of Governor Susana Martinez is taking a more aggressive tone in demanding contractual compliance at privately-operated facilities that house state prisoners.

In March 2012, the New Mexico Corrections Department (NMDOC) imposed nearly $300,000 in fines against GEO Group, which operates three private prisons in the state. Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) was also hit with $11,779 in fines for failing to properly staff the women’s prison in Grants.

Those fines were on top of another $1.1 million in penalties assessed in November 2011 due to GEO’s failure to adequately staff the Lea County Correctional Facility (LCCF). According to Shannon McReynolds, inspector general at the NMDOC, GEO Group agreed to pay the $1.1 million fine but was “not completely happy” about it. Additionally, the company agreed to spend $200,000 over the next year to recruit more employees at LCCF.

The penalties imposed against the company in March 2012, also for inadequate staffing, resulted from GEO’s failure to have enough guards in staffed positions at LCCF. There were also noncustodial positions, such as counselors for substance abuse and mental health treatment, that had remained vacant for more than 60 days.

Part of the $11,779 penalty against CCA came from not having enough guards at the New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility. The largest part of the fine, $7,964.46, was due to CCA’s failure to release 15 prisoners on time. Records indicated that 13 of the 15 were released more than 30 days past their release date.

“These are taxpayer dollars that we are spending here,” McReynolds said. “When we spend these taxpayer dollars on these services, we need to make sure we’re getting those services.” New Mexico currently contracts with GEO Group and CCA to operate four facilities that hold state prisoners.

It was only after Governor Martinez took office that GEO and CCA had to worry about penalties for failing to fulfill their contractual obligations.

“We’ve always had contract monitors. They observed and reported. But they didn’t have enforcement authority,” said McReynolds. “Under the previous administration, I don’t know if it was spoken or unspoken policy. The contract monitors submitted reports, and [the companies] were never penalized.”

Faced with a budget crunch in 2010, the legislature’s budget arm, the Legislative Finance Committee (LCF), looked into the Richardson administration’s failure to assess penalties against CCA and GEO Group. The Committee determined that the state had failed to impose an estimated $18.6 million in fines for inadequate staffing.

The LCF, however, did not connect the dots as to why the Richardson administration failed to hold the companies accountable. As previously reported in PLN, CCA and GEO were laundering thousands of taxpayer dollars, under the guise of campaign contributions, into the political war chests of Richardson and other elected officials. Plus it didn’t hurt that New Mexico’s Corrections Secretary at the time, Joe Williams, had previously worked for GEO Group when the company was known as Wackenhut Corrections. [See: PLN, Feb. 2012, p.38; March 2011, p.42].

State Representative Luciano “Lucky” Varela, vice-chairman of the LCF, noted that proper staffing in correctional facilities was a public safety issue. He cited the 1980 Santa Fe prison riot that resulted in 12 guards being held hostage and the deaths of 33 prisoners. Adequate staffing would “preclude any major problems,” he said.

“We requested [LCF] staff to stay on this and see what the new administration would do,” Varela stated. “Apparently, [the Martinez administration is] following up on this” by imposing fines against CCA and GEO for contractual violations.

“In today’s struggling economy, the people of New Mexico deserve to know the Corrections Department is running in a fiscally responsible manner,” added current Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel.

Sources:, Albuquerque Journal

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