Discrimination is not a Houston Value

The Most Diverse City in the Country Needs an Equal Rights Ordinance

Houston is the most diverse city in these United States. Just how diverse? We have no racial or ethnic majority. We have one of the largest—and quite frankly, one of the most architecturally breathtaking—Hindu temples in the country. We enjoy the only livestock show and rodeo where you can hear over 100 languages spoken. Houston has the highest concentration of refugees in the U.S, from 78 countries around the world. And this year’s Pride Parade boasted a crowd 700,000 strong.

That’s just shy of 10 Reliant Stadiums at capacity.

Given our lively, kaleidoscopic diversity, one would think non-discrimination would be prominently enshrined in municipal law. And it was, for a time, until forces opposed to Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) secured a victory in the Texas Supreme Court to force it onto the ballot in November.

The fight to keep HERO alive is about Houston values—and the principle that everyone should be treated equally and fairly under the law. In order to see that the ordinance remains on the books, we must first understand exactly what it does.

First of all, the anti-discrimination ordinance protects all Houstonians from discrimination, whether they’ve been singled out because of their sex, race, sexual orientation, religion, or gender identity. It protects veterans who don’t want to be discriminated against because they served their country. It protects pregnant women, the disabled, and the elderly. And without it, a Houston company’s best and most conscientious employee can be legally fired simply because he or she chooses to come out to co-workers.

Of course, some of these categories are protected by other laws, but HERO provides a local venue for resolving discrimination complaints that is timely, effective, and affordable. Without the benefit of HERO, those who are fired or denied housing or public accommodations simply for being who they are literally have to make a federal case out of it. More often than not this process requires a lawyer, and the time it takes to right the wrong—which is by no means a foregone conclusion—is usually measured in years.

While Houston is proud of its diversity, discrimination remains a reality: Between the day HERO was passed and the day it initially went into effect, 54% of the discrimination complaints lodged with the Office of the Inspector General related to race, 17% to gender, 15% to age, and 4% to sexual orientation or gender identity. Our gay, lesbian, and transgender neighbors need the anti-discrimination protections the ordinance brings, but it simply isn’t true that its scope is limited to them. The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance protects everyone.

HERO protects you.

This is why HERO enjoys widespread support from over 80 current or former city officials, from community organizations and non-profits, and over 70 local faith leaders. It has been endorsed by the Greater Houston Partnership, the Houston Association of Realtors, Rice University, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the NAACP.

And no wonder. Diversity is one of Houston’s greatest strengths, and it’s essential we do everything in our power to preserve and protect that diversity. HERO promotes what Houstonians value most: fair treatment for all, no matter who you are.

Democracy in Action at Hood County Book Banning Hearing

County governments almost never find themselves on the front lines of constitutional struggles, but you wouldn’t have known that had you attended the Hood County Commissioners’ Court hearing last Tuesday morning. At issue was the attempt by some local residents to remove from the public library two LGBT-tolerant children’s books, Princess Boy and This Day in June. After hours of impassioned debate, in the end what I witnessed was a big victory for the First Amendment over the threat of censorship.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality, LGBT issues are a contentious topic in the great state of Texas, and Hood County is no exception. The Hood County clerk, for example, made national headlines within the last month after being sued by a same-sex couple over her refusal to issue them a marriage license. Against that backdrop, the members of the Commissioners’ Court prepared for a long and vigorous debate, moved the item to the top of the agenda, and removed the time limit so that every resident of Hood County who wanted to could be heard.

I’ve seen sensationalist headlines describing conservative Christians “storming” the county meeting to try and remove the books, but that’s not quite what I witnessed. In fact, time and time again, residents approached the podium, asserted their Christian values, their deep roots in Hood County, their understanding of why someone would want the books censored, and then turned around and affirmed their neighbors’ constitutional right to have access to the books. The speakers weren’t just ticking off a list of politicized talking points. Rather, one by one the people of Granbury, Texas gave impassioned personal testimonies in defense of their venerated First Amendment.

One woman holding a stack of children’s Bible stories explained how one parent’s right to check out My Princess Boy was the same right that allows her to check out a children’s book explaining Noah’s Ark. A 96 year-old gentleman approached the panel on crutches, said he was “the most conservative person in the room,” and then pleaded with the court not to give in to censorship. Another resident with fire in her eyes and a thick Texas twang demanded that the books stay right where they are because she has a son who is “as gay as the day is long, and he is MY princess boy.”.

After three long hours and a seemingly endless list of speakers, the Commissioners’ Court made its ruling. Conscious of their grave civic responsibility, the commissioners explained that the books had to stay because each one of them had pledged to uphold the Constitution, and if they weren’t prepared to do just that then they would have to find a different job.

We’re told that the next fight for LGBT equality will be over “religious refusal” laws. But listening to the impassioned voices of the residents of Granbury, as well as to the commissioners entrusted to govern them, I’m confident that most Americans already know that the Constitution, much like the public library, has room enough for everyone.

Joe Swanson is a community organizer for the ACLU of Texas.

Banning Books in Texas

Some residents in Granbury, Texas, are lobbying to remove Princess Boy and This Day in June from the Hood County Library because they “indoctrinate children to the LGBT lifestyle” and “promote perversion.” Hood County Library Director Courtney Kincaid decided to keep the books on the shelves, but next week the commissioners’ court will meet to discuss whether or not to reverse her decision.

Book banning is one of the worst crimes one can commit against the human intellect, and undermines the free exchange of ideas that is one of the pillars of our democracy. We’ll be keeping a close eye on the commissioners’ court’s deliberations, but in the meantime, we thought we’d take a quick look at other books that have been either banned or challenged in Texas.


Farenheit 451
Ray Bradbury

Farenheit451TNWhile banning a book about book burning tests the limits of irony, in 2006 Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel was challenged in Texas and banned elsewhere throughout the country. In Conroe, the book was challenged due to its use of profanity, with one parent saying, “it shouldn’t be in there because it’s offending people…If they can’t find a book that uses clean words, they shouldn’t have a book at all.” The possibility that banning the book might be more offensive than the language it contained does not appear to have been a consideration.


The Working Poor: Invisible in America
David Shipler

The Working PoorTNTerrified of the risk of teaching high school children about the lives of Americans living in poverty, this non-fiction work by a Pulitzer Prize winner was challenged due to an anecdote of one woman’s experience with sexual abuse as a child and abortion during high school. The Working Poor was one of several books suspended last September in Highland Park High School during National Banned Books Week.


Esperanza Rising
Pam Muñoz Ryan

Esperanza RisingTNThe award-winning novel set in post-Revolutionary Mexico and Great Depression Era Southern California about 12-year old Esperanza Ortega has recently been challenged in Texas and North Carolina. One parent felt the novel “promoted illegal immigration” and was not age appropriate, while other parents were upset that the book addressed issues like racism, immigration, and “ethnic class struggles,” as though this were not, you know, what literature is for.


And Tango Makes Three
Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell

And Tango Make ThreeTNTwo very real male chinstrap penguins named Roy and Silo raised a chick named Tango together, and the authors turned it into this charming children’s story. And Tango Makes Three topped the lists of banned books in the United States and in Texas over the last few years. Reasons cited were that this book has anti-family values and “promotes the homosexual agenda.”


Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?
Bill Martin Jr.

Brown BearTNIn what is perhaps the most bizarre entry on this list, in 2010 the State Board of Education removed Bill Martin Jr.’s Brown Bear picture book series from the third grade curriculum, because someone else named Bill Martin happened to write a book entitled Ethical Marxism: The Categorical Imperative of Liberation. This in spite of the fact that Bill Martin Jr. died four years before Bill Martin’s book was even published.


Santa Claus Around the World
Lisl WeilSanta ClausTN

This non-fiction children’s picture book teaches children how Christmas is celebrated in other parts of the world. But because it included Krampus, a horned and beastly figure from a centuries-old German Christmas tradition, some parents tried to put it on the chopping block.


The Adventures of Captain Underpants
Dav Pilkey

Captain UnderpantsTNWhile most grade school boys embrace gross and irreverent stuff, this 11-part series was the most challenged of all books in 2012, for its offensive language, unsuitability for its age group, and violence. The series includes references to undergarments, toilets, bodily excrement, and mischievous rebellion against authority, and naturally it is beloved by its target audience of elementary school-aged boys.


Leprechauns Don’t Play Basketball
Marcia Thornton JonesLeprechaunsTN

Like the Harry Potter series, the references to magic and wizardry in Leprechauns Don’t Play Basketball resulted in the book being challenged in Nederland ISD.


Katy Perry
Sarah TieckKaty PerryTN

The biography of pop star Katy Perry was challenged for being offensive to religious sensitivities in Eagle Mountain Saginaw ISD during the 2011-2012 school year. Over what we will assume were the vigorous objections of the student body, the book was ultimately retained.

Will Texas State Officials Defy the Supreme Court?

“The oath of office I take says I support the laws and Constitution of the United States; it says that first.”

Dallas County Clerk John Warren
Dallas County Clerk John Warren
Thus spoke Dallas County Clerk John Warren when he announced that his office would begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in the event of a favorable Supreme Court ruling later this month. Warren likewise indicated that he would be prepared to act within an hour and a half of the ruling, and that he had already approved overtime for his staff in order to accommodate what would surely be unprecedented demand.

Other counties are following suit. Bexar County clerk Gerry Rickhoff has not only redesigned the license itself so that it does not address gender, but has also indicated that he is prepared to keep his office open 24 hours a day if necessary. And Travis County clerk Dana DeBeauvoir will be prepared to issue marriage licenses promptly, as she has done before.

Stan Stanart1
Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart

So we know Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio will be prepared to comply with a favorable Supreme Court decision on marriage equality the day it’s rendered. Unfortunately, however, same sex-couples who live in Houston—the state’s largest city and the most diverse in the country—might have to wait. Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart has stated that he will seek “guidance” from the state’s Attorney General before issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples—and he’s made it perfectly and disturbingly clear that his reasons for preventing same-sex marriages are personal: “They’re destroying an institution, the institution of marriage.”

On the state level, politicians are reacting about as well as one would expect from a group of people who celebrate their opposition to marriage equality with slices of hate cake. The fact that their statements are predictable, however, doesn’t make them any less alarming. Representative Cecil Bell, who authored several retrograde anti-LGBT measures in the last legislative session, has stated that it would be “disappointing” to see county clerks “acting outside of Texas law,” suggesting that compliance with a Supreme Court ruling were somehow illegal. Naturally Bell added that such a ruling “is not an edict that sweeps across the land,” although that is precisely what a Supreme Court ruling does.

Ken Paxton
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton

Like Bell, Attorney General Ken Paxton, whose “guidance” Stan Stanart and other clerks may seek on decision day, has stated publicly that he is “committed to defending the Texas Constitution and self-government by Texans”—the subtext being that he intends to pursue bureaucratic obstructionism if he finds the Supreme Court decision unacceptable to him and, apparently, “the will of the people of Texas.” This is in spite of the fact that polls clearly show that a strong majority of Texas voters believe that discrimination against the LGBT community is a problem.

Let the Attorney General and county clerks throughout the state know that you want them to do what their oaths and their duties already bind them to do: to obey and uphold the law of the land.

Velez Hearing Day 3: A Portrait of Constitutionally Inadequate Counsel

By Brian Stull, ACLU Capital Punishment Project at 2:47pm

In Day 3 of the Velez hearing in Brownsville, Texas, I want to take a moment to explain the legal context – the rule of constitutional law – that will entitle Manuel Velez to relief if the judge, the Hon. Elia Cornejo Lopez, credits the facts presented.

The legal journey starts 50 years back with the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright. There, the court held that the Constitution entitles poor people facing possible imprisonment counsel appointed at the state’s expense.  In later decisions, the court clarified that a poor person’s right to appointed counsel is a right to effective counsel.

So how does an appellate court, after a conviction, test whether the prisoner had effective counsel?  The law gives a two-step test.  First, counsel’s alleged mistakes must be serious errors, not Monday-morning complaints that a different strategy would have worked better. Second, the prisoner has to show that the trial attorney’s mistakes or omissions made a difference in the trial’s outcome – in legal parlance, “a reasonable probability of a different outcome.”

A typical winning claim looks like this. Counsel failed to present readily available evidence of the prisoner’s innocence.  And, had that innocence evidence been shown at trial, it likely would have made a difference in the jury’s decision.

The task in this hearing for Manuel’s counsel, a dedicated team of lawyers from the firms Carrington Coleman and Rothgerber, Johnson, and Lyons, has been to demonstrate counsel’s failures to show that the child victim had been injured long before Manuel had access to him.  Much of the hearing evidence is medical evidence of the child’s injuries that counsel failed to explore in the 2008 trial, which led to Manuel’s capital murder conviction and death sentence.

One of the crucial building blocks is to show that Manuel’s trial counsel had every reason to question the timing of the child’s injuries, but failed to do so.  Yesterday, Manuel’s lawyers did just that with the presentation of deposition testimony of Dr. J. Keith Rose, who had met with Manuel’s trial attorneys in advance of the 2008 trial.  Well before trial, Rose had told trial counsel they needed a forensic pathologist to look at the case, to look closely at brain injuries that appeared based on records to be more than two weeks old, and to create a timeline of injuries based on all available medical records. Rose also testified to medical records (in the months before the child’s death) showing a dramatic increase in the child’s head circumference, a cardinal sign of head trauma.  Rose testified that counsel in 2008, while asking advice on what to do, had not brought him these crucially important records.

The second building block is to show that, had appropriate experts been called, a timeline created, and all records gathered, the result of Manuel’s 2008 trial would have been different.  Many experts are testifying along these lines in this hearing.  Today it was Dr. Ronald H. Uscinski, a renowned neurosurgeon whose academic work was cited in a recent U.S. Supreme Court opinion.  Uscinski showed the court the child victim’s CAT scan and microscopic slides of his brain, both of which showed that the injuries ultimately resulting in his death happened months before Manuel was involved with the child’s family.

Attorney Tami Goodlette ended her examination of Uscinski the same way the team ended with many of their experts: “Had Manuel Velez’s attorneys called you and asked you to a render an opinion at his 2008 trial would you have told the jury what you testified to today?”  The answer was yes.The hearing continues Friday with testimony by several witnesses, including one of the attorneys who represented Manuel at his unjust 2008 trial.

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Who’s The Criminal When Austin Police Infiltrate Protestors and Encourage Commission of Felonies?

By Debbie Russell

Editor’s Note: The Harris County hearing was reset for three weeks from today. State District Judge Joan Campbell told the prosecutors she was “floored” that the role of an Austin
police detective has not been disclosed. 

Our friends at the ACLU-MA have already provided the linear version of events here. A more detailed account by Jordan Smith of The Austin Chronicle is here. First to break the news was an active Occupy Austin participant, Kit O’Connell, blogging here at FiredogLake.com, which includes the most relevant portions of the transcript of the hearing in Houston last week that brought to light these activities.
On Wednesday, September 5, in a Harris County court, a judge will rule to proceed forward or move to dismiss, essentially by suppressing much of the prosecution’s evidence against the Occupiers.

Background: Across the United States, urban police departments prioritize the drug war and the so-called “war on terror” over simply rooting out violent criminals. The war on drugs targets non-violent, low-level users for the most part, in an effort to log higher arrest numbers such that it appears they are doing their job. The war on terror, formerly the purview of federal entities, and now being done in conjunction with them, takes many forms including: data-mining; spying on people without prior cause; infiltration of activist groups (many times acting as provocateurs); and the use of military tactics to chill free speech.

Case in point: Evidence is mounting that an undercover Austin Police detective induced members of Occupy Austin to commit felony obstruction of a roadway during a demonstration in Houston in December 2011. Or, did he – and two colleagues – intervene in protester plans in order to keep them, and police and firefighters responding to the Houston protest, safe?

The big question is did Austin Police Chief Acevedo order or approve the operation? There’s no doubt that it happened…one of the undercovers proudly admitted it in a court hearing last week. He said he pushed for activists to “step it up” and suggested building lock boxes – a riskier action than simply linking arms to block a roadway. The problem is, participants didn’t know it was “felony” risky! Never before had this action brought more than a misdemeanor charge, but an assistant district attorney in Harris County found a way to bump it up by claiming the lock boxes could have been hiding explosives (a sad irony since the real activists are committed to non-violence).The main risk with lockboxes is that they can be harmful to the users depending on how public safety officials choose to remove them.

Bottom line: Those in charge of our public safety not only lied about who they were and encouraged riskier actions than were being initially planned, but they bought the materials, assembled them and delivered the “criminal instruments” to the activists, putting them at risk of injury and unintended commission of a felony. In no way did this activity by APD protect anyone from harm. In fact, it created it.

Debbie Russell is an Austin-based activist and ACLU of Texas volunteer.

Guest Blog: Voices from the Austin/Travis County Reentry Roundtable

By Emily Rogers
Planning Coordinator, Austin/Travis County Reentry Roundtable

In its self-evaluation report to the Sunset Advisory Commission, The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) says that one of its biggest opportunities for improvement lies in the reentry of offenders into the community.  There’s good reason for TDCJ to focus its attention on reentry. After all, 95% of incarcerated people will eventually come home to their communities. Reentry is not an option. It’s inevitable. As such, planning for reentry as soon as a person enters the criminal justice system is a necessity for building stronger, safer communities. Reentry and full reintegration into society should be an explicit goal of our criminal justice system.

The sunset review of Texas’ criminal justice agencies provides Texans an opportunity to take stock of the current system. The Austin/Travis County Reentry Roundtable offers the following suggestions for making reentry work:

·         Use evidence-based practices to provide rehabilitative programming tailored to individual need.

·         Urge reentry planning and planning for continuity of care to begin at entry into the criminal justice system in particular for vulnerable populations.

·         Promote partnerships between criminal justice entities and the community, which can be used to monitor and sustain the reintegration of individuals exiting the criminal justice system.

Supporting reentry involves a shift in thinking about how people who break the law are punished. The shift requires adopting strategies that will maximize the gain to public safety rather than focusing solely on incapacitating people by locking them up. To promote successful reentry and reintegration, legislators and public officials need to hear that the citizens of their communities are ready to use smarter, cost-effective, community-based approaches to criminal justice.

If you would like to know more about the Austin/Travis County Reentry, you can visit our website.  You can also contact Jeri Houchins at jerijeanw@gmail.com or Emily Rogers at emilyrrt@gmail.com. The full report on our recommendations to the Sunset Advisory Commission can be found here. Our meetings and events are open to anyone interested in reentry. Our calendar can be found here.

Interested in getting more involved with the ACLU of Texas’ Criminal Law Reform Campaign?  Sign up to be a CAN Activist!

Religion in Public Schools: Why can students lead prayers, but not teachers?

By Rebecca Robertson
Director of Public Policy and Advocacy

Here at the ACLU of Texas, we get a lot of flak for wanting “to take prayer out of public schools.”  (Not that we mind.  It’s our job to stand up for liberty when others won’t.)  But at least our critics ought to get the facts straight!  We’re not opposed to prayer in school if it’s initiated by students.  What we do oppose is prayer being forced on students by teachers, coaches, or school administrators.

So what’s the difference?  It’s right there in the Constitution!  In our first post on the Religion in Public Schools blog series, we discussed how the First Amendment guarantee of religious liberty has two parts:  freedom to exercise one’s faith (or no faith), and freedom from government intrusion.

The freedom to exercise one’s faith protects a student’s right to pray in school, whatever her religion.  Students can even invite their friends to join them in prayer.  For example, “see you at the flag pole” events, where students meet at a pre-arranged location to pray together before school, are permissible so long as students are the organizers and attendance is voluntary.

But the flip side of making sure that students have the freedom to follow their individual beliefs is making sure that school officials don’t force their own religious views on kids.  The Constitution prohibits the government from telling people that they must pray at a certain time or in a certain way.  That’s why schools cannot have someone lead an official prayer at a football game or at graduation, even if the prayer is non-sectarian.  Schools cannot be in the business of coercing students to listen to or participate in prayer that conflicts with the students’ beliefs.  Only kids and their parents have the right to decide whether and how school children pray.

We hope we’ve cleared things up.  Students have the right to pray or not according to their own personal beliefs, and government-run schools need to stay out of it!

Up next – Bibles in Texas classrooms.

A Few Simple Changes Would Limit Eyewitness Misidentifications

By Matt Simpson
Policy Strategist

Eyewitness misidentifications have accounted for 80 percent of the 44 wrongful convictions that have been overturned in Texas. One way to reduce wrongful convictions is to ensure the process of eyewitness identification is not influenced by law enforcement and that identifications are affirmed.

During the 2011 session, the Texas legislature passed important reforms to the way eyewitness identification is handled.  The bill, HB 215, mandated local law enforcement develop written policies guiding officers on conducting eyewitness identification interviews and tasked the Bill Blackwood Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas (LEMIT)  at Sam Houston State University (working with stakeholders) to develop a model Eyewitness Identification policy for law enforcement.

The ACLU of Texas, along with the Innocence Project, the Innocence Project of Texas, state legislators, and a host of other criminal justice policy and law enforcement experts have proposed some protections to include in the proposed Eyewitness Identification policy, including:

–          Blind Administration, meaning  the police officer administering a photo or live lineup doesn’t know the suspect;

–          Setting up a procedure in which the suspect doesn’t stand out in the lineup, the eyewitness doesn’t see the suspect in multiple lineups, and the eyewitness is told that the perpetrator may not even be in the lineup and the investigation will continue regardless of the lineup result;

–           Lineups should be videotaped whenever possible to protect suspects from any misconduct by the lineup administrator and to help the prosecution by showing a jury that the procedure was legitimate;

–          Immediately following the lineup, the eyewitness should give a statement about his/her level of confidence in the identification.

Following a stakeholder meeting in September 2011, LEMIT proposed a decent policy including many of the previously mentioned procedures.  As the policy is finalized, the ACLU of Texas and other proponents continue to advocate for additional measures:

–          Specific step-by-step guidance about how to conduct an eyewitness identification interview;

–          Sequential presentation of suspects because the current proposed policy lacks clear direction; also research indicates that sequential presentation is preferable to a “photo array” or the viewing of multiple suspect photographs simultaneously;

–          Witness statements should be recorded (whether in video or written form) in the witness’ own words.  Clearly, video and audio recording are preferred, but even if an officer is taking notes, there should not be any alteration of the words spoken by the witness when articulating the degree of certainty the witness has in a selection from the lineup;

–          Use of a qualified interpreter (such as a court certified interpreter) if a witness is more comfortable doing an interview in a language other than English. Or, the proceedings should be video and audio taped.  It is extremely important to ensure effective communication or there is a risk of losing the nuance of witness statements made during and after identification which could undermine the ability of the judge and jury to determine guilt or innocence.

On December 1, Matt Simpson, Policy Strategist with the ACLU of Texas, will testify about changes the civil rights organization would like in the proposed policy.  Stay tuned as we continue to work with LEMIT and other stakeholders to ensure the innocent are not wrongly convicted in Texas.

Private Prisons: How the Industry Sells Such a Bad Product

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Communications Coordinator

There is no evidence that increased criminal penalties and stiffer sentences benefit society or lower crime rates.  In fact, as Texas has shifted away from incarcerating non-violent offenders, serious crimes have declined.  This is something the private prison industry doesn’t want the public to know and the industry has developed ways both to advocate for locking up more people for longer periods of time and for convincing some lawmakers that private prisons are the best place to put these prisoners.

The ACLU Banking on Bondage report dedicates a section to exploring how the industry markets its product.  As the report explains, not every private prison company is guilty of all these tactics, but overall the impact is powerful enough to undermine smart-on-crime solutions to over incarceration.

  • Questionable Financial Incentives

Money is power, and the report cites instances of legislators and other government officials accepting financial incentives from the private prison industry. For example, in Pennsylvania, a county judge who was responsible for skyrocketing rates of imprisoned juveniles was found guilty of racketeering, money laundering, and conspiracy in connection with his acceptance of $1 million from the developer of a private juvenile facility that was benefiting from increased juvenile sentencing.

  • The Revolving Door Between Public and Private Corrections

A large number of private prison industry employees were previously employed by state corrections. online casino .  As the report documents, this has resulted in some private facilities not being scrutinized by the government departments that are charged with overseeing them.   In one of the more egregious cases the report highlights, a West Texas juvenile facility run by The GEO Group, Inc was awarded a 97.7% grade for overall compliance. An independent review of the facility found that “cells were filthy, smelled of feces and urine, and were in need of paint.[and] water leaks [were] numerous throughout the facility, creating an unsanitary and unsafe environment for all youth and staff.”  The independent auditors actually left the facility with large amounts of fecal material on their shoes.  The review found that some of the state-employed monitors of this facility had recently worked for GEO before changing positions.

  • The Private Prison Lobby

The private prison industry heavily lobbies both state and federal governments.  For example, the report finds that between 1999 and 2009, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison corporation, spent over $18 million on federal lobbying alone.   Many companies also hire lobbyists to influence various state governments. Furthermore, the report shows that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group that brings together state legislators and private corporations, drafted successful legislation designed to promote mass incarceration at the state level. CCA had a major role in the development of this legislation.

  • Campaign Contributions

It doesn’t stop with lobbying – the private prison industry spends massive amounts of money on campaign contributions.  The report shows that since 2000, the leading private prison companies have contributed more than $6 million to candidates for state office.  CCA and GEO also have their own political action committees.

  • Control of Information

Maintaining a positive public image is of utmost importance to any successful industry and the private prison industry is no different. They have well-done websites that highlight their “good” work and hire communications firms to write puff pieces that highlight awards, charity events, and a shining (but not representative) example of how they care about the well-being of prisoners. Not surprisingly, negative reports – about cases of sexual abuse or violence in facilities, for example – rarely get communicated to the public. Furthermore, private prisons are not held to the same open government standards as their public competitors, which means that it can be near impossible to get information about what is actually going on behind private prison walls. CCA has even blocked information from a group of concerned shareholders.

It is incredible that a policy so important to society – how we deal with offenders – is shaped more by the power of money, lobbying, and public relations than justice or community standards. Next week’s blog on the Banking on Bondage report will examine the false claims of cost savings and safety promises the private prison industry uses to sell its wares.