A Win for Texas: Proposed Limits on Investment by Judges in For-Profit Prisons

Matt Simpson
Policy Strategist

On Tuesday, the Senate Jurisprudence Committee will hear HB 62, a bill filed by Representative Ryan Guillen that proposes to limit investments by judges in private prison companies. The bill would prevent conflicts of interest similar to the dramatic incident in Pennsylvania in which a judge was found guilty for routing defendants through his court and into facilities in which he held a financial interest.

Clearly, Rep. Guillen wants to prevent judges from being unduly influenced by their investment in a private prison.  The bill will also demand greater accountability and transparency among private prisons in  general.

But this is just one small step toward what should be much larger scale reforms. Rep Guillen is familiar with the host of issues surrounding private prisons: He represents a district in South Texas that includes the privately-run, federal immigration detention facility Willacy Detention Center, located in Raymondville, TX.

Those issues include the following:

First, private prisons do not have the same obligations under the state’s Public Information Act as other state-run entities. Texas should clarify in law that private prisons (and really any entity that contracts with the state) have the same obligations to provide public access to records related to the expenditure of state money. Presently, private prisons can avoid full transparency.

Second, the process by which a private company is brought into a community should involve greater public input. The local community should have a say when a private prison comes to town—or when a company takes over a publicly run facility. Too often, decisions to privatize jails and prisons are made quickly and without public input. Requiring a public hearing is one way to fix this. In 2009, the ACLU of Texas and other advocacy organizations suggested as much in HB 3903; unfortunately, that bill didn’t pass, and the proposal has not progressed since.

Finally, HB 62 almost implicitly begs the question: Who else is receiving money from private prisons? HB 3903 (from 2009) and many other proposals have encouraged the state legislature to limit investments in and direct income from private prisons by and to individuals with potential conflicts of interest, e.g., county officials, sheriffs, and other community leaders, as well as policymakers who could similarly benefit from the privatization of prisons or jails.

Rep. Guillen has taken the lead, pushing this issue to the forefront in the Texas legislature. But we should view this bill as the first step—not the final reform—toward improving transparency and accountability for privately run prisons.

Highlights from 2013 the Symposium

On Feb 10, 2013, we held a Symposium in Austin to find a cure to our state’s addiction to mass-incarceration. We learned from the best and most experienced: folks at the grassroots level, from the ACLU of Texas professionals who deal with the Texas Legislature every day and from an ACLU professional who has won victories in Florida, a state not unlike ours. Listen to what they think needs to happen in Texas.

Hope and Naz Mustakim | One Couple’s Battle Within a Broken Immigration System

Howard Simon | Using Electronic Communications to Enact Social Change

Panel Discussion| Key Policies to Focus on in 2013

ACLU of Texas | 75 years of protecting your liberty

Mass-incarceration is not the answer to all of our social problems like drug addiction or undocumented immigration, yet our country spends billions to lock people up instead of investing in real solutions. Want to help us end mass-incarceration in Texas? Be our eyes and ears in your part of the state when you join the Community Action Network. We need people like you to stand with us. Together we can make a difference.

Is patient care – or profits – the priority at privatized Montgomery County Mental Health Treatment Facility in Conroe?

By Ryan Meltzer
ACLU of Texas Intern

Last week, we ran a post that mentioned the grand jury investigation into the construction of the Montgomery County Mental Health Treatment Facility in Conroe. Apparently, the County didn’t publish any legal notices requesting bids from construction companies, as required by law, nor was there any evidence that the commissioners chose the “winning” company from a list of recommended, qualified developers. As it turns out, the facility’s problems didn’t end with the whiffs of corruption surrounding its construction.

Now, the Austin American-Statesman and the Houston Chronicle are reporting that the Texas Department of Health Services has recommended levying over $100,000 in fines against the facility, stemming from severe shortcomings in the patient care provided by—you guessed it—GEO Care, a subsidiary of private prison operator GEO Group. The Department has tentatively reduced the fine to $53,000, but its decision is not final—and when you read the laundry list of violations, you’ll understand why. Since March 2011, the Department has inspected the facility three times, and each visit has turned up serious problems, ranging from unauthorized restraint and seclusion of patients to inadequate recordkeeping and failure to report grave patient injuries to the state. Some lowlights:

  • Half of 50 incidents of patient restraint or seclusion were not supported by an “appropriate” physician’s order. The Department determined that there was a “significant lack of compliance with physician orders for initiating restraint.”
  • The director of psychiatric nursing had only an associate’s degree, rather than the required master’s degree in psychiatric mental health.
  • Classes designed to help patients recover were described as “bedlam,” leading patients to refuse attendance. (Echoes of the New York Times’ story on the halfway houses operated by Community Education Centers. For our previous coverage on CEC, see here and here)
  • The hospital kept patients for months after they had been found competent to stand trial, and maintained excessively restrictive policies on phone use and personal property.
  • While being held in seclusion for four hours, one patient threatened staff and repeatedly banged his head against his room’s walls, causing lacerations to both eyes and a bruise to his head. Staff did not attempt to help the patient—for instance, by employing mechanical restraints—out of fear.
  • One patient seriously injured himself and then consumed fecal matter, but the incident was not reported to the state or addressed through the patient’s treatment plan.

The most disturbing part: Despite these deeply troubling findings, the Department is moving forward with its plans to privatize one of the 10 public psychiatric hospitals it oversees. Admittedly, the Department’s hands appear to be tied—the Chronicle reports that state lawmakers attached a rider to last year’s budget bill, ordering officials to privatize one state psychiatric hospital and generate at least 10 percent cost savings to the state. Laws like this elevate fiscal savings over human welfare, and evince a callous indifference to the care of the most vulnerable members of our society.

Actually, no. Scratch that. The most disturbing part: As of last Thursday, the only company to bid for the contract was—that’s right—GEO Care.

Tell your lawmakers that there are better ways to cut state costs than farming out prison and mental health care operations to profit-driven companies. Join our Community Action Network today!

Private Prisons Pose Problems for Taxpayers

News Reports Document Bad Management and Financial Concerns; States Like Texas Lead the Way in Finding Alternatives to Incarceration

By Ryan Meltzer
ACLU of Texas Intern

Back in June, we published a post detailing the Christian Broadcasting Network’s critical coverage of the private prison industry. A little over a week ago, CBN rebroadcast its investigative report, titled Selling Prisons “for Profit,” exploring the miserable conditions in private prisons as well as the ethical implications of treating prisoners as dollar signs.

Although our previous post quoted at length from the accompanying CBN print story, the television broadcast (available for streaming here) includes some compelling footage:

  • Prison security cameras capture a brutal inmate-on-inmate fight while a guard watches from the security of an enclosed room.
  • An investor presentation by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) boasts of corrections as a “recession resistant” industry, with high recidivism rates making for a good investment.
  • Jesus Cardenas, a former inmate at Texas’s own Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility, recounts a handful of the horrors he witnessed while in custody.

Texas Prison Bid’ness, Grits for Breakfast, and the Private Corrections Working Group have extensive coverage of the problems that have plagued Mineral Wells over the years, but suffice it to say that CCA, the private company that operates the facility, has been ineffective at preventing escapes, disturbances, and contraband smuggling. Cardenas’s testimony certainly doesn’t help CCA’s image: Describing the stark difference in security between Mineral Wells and the public prison where he was first held, Cardenas recalls “at least one or three [inmate fights] a day” and reports that known gang members routinely stored cell phones, drugs, and weapons in their cells.

If it wasn’t bad enough for the image of the private prison industry for CBN anchor Pat Robertson to lead the story with a comparison of the U.S. to jail-happy China and Russia, CBN’s rebroadcast coincided with a raft of bad news for private prisons and their investors.

First, the Conroe Courier reported that a federal grand jury is investigating the construction of two privately run facilities, the Joe Corley Detention Center and the Montgomery County Mental Health Treatment Facility, based on allegations of corruption. The article explains that Montgomery County is at risk of losing its tax-exempt status on the $45 million in bonds it issued to finance the Joe Corley Detention Center, as the facility is currently housing only federal prisoners. If the county loses its tax-exempt status, County Judge Alan Sadler is quoted as remarking, “the tax implications would be huge.”

Next, the Brownsville Herald covered the dispute between Willacy County District Attorney Bernard Ammerman and Willacy County Judge John Gonzales over the county’s debt from the Willacy County Regional Detention Center. While Judge Gonzales maintains that the county has insulated itself from creditors by financing the prison through a public facility corporation, Ammerman counters that Willacy County will be liable to bondholders if the center fails. By any estimate, the county’s debt is between $75 and $189 million, so in the event of a default, the county could potentially see a sharp drop in its bond status—a catastrophic economic turn of events for the County’s 22,000 residents.

Most recently, the New York Times continued its investigation of Community Education Centers (CEC), the New Jersey-based corrections company that operates a number of penal institutions in Texas. Having exposed chronic problems with violence, escapes, contraband, and poor rehabilitative services at CEC facilities, the Times has turned its attention to CEC’s tumultuous finances. According to records filed in a lawsuit against CEC by its former chief financial officer, the corporation has faced such severe financial turmoil over the last four years that it considered filing for bankruptcy in 2010. What, you might wonder, could have so shaken a supposedly “recession resistant” industry that a company like CEC is at risk of bankruptcy? Simple: When your business is dependent on high incarceration rates, sensible policies that reduce prison populations are going to hurt your bottom line. Indeed, CEC’s financial problems didn’t come from their New Jersey contracts, which have grown over the past decade; rather, the Times writes, “Community Education has . . . run into trouble after an aggressive expansion foundered in states like Alabama and Texas.”

Arguably more troubling than the possibility that CEC has been on the brink of financial ruin for years, though, is the fact that in Texas, government entities are expected to scrutinize the qualifications of corporate bidders before awarding a private prison contract. (For a sample jail-related Request for Proposal issued by Harris County, see here.) Because CEC has apparently received new and renewed contracts in Texas during the time frame examined by the Times, this suggests one of two things: Either CEC was less than honest in its financial accounting, or Texas officials enamored of corrections privatization chose to ignore the grim truth behind the numbers. In light of such reports, it’s clear that the CBN story has only just scratched the surface of prison privatization.

Stand with the ACLU against prison privatization and join our Community Action Network today!

ALEC and Private Prison Lobbying Exposed

By Frank Knaack (Originally posted on Texas Prison Bid’ness)
Associate Director of Public Policy and Advocacy

Earlier this year, The Nation and The Center for Media and Democracy released ALEC Exposed.  ALEC Exposed brought to light the actions of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization that unites corporations with state legislators to “discuss” public policy and draft model legislation.  One of the most concerning areas of this public/private partnership is in the realm of criminal justice and prisons.  In fact, criminal injustice may be a more appropriate phrase.  Thanks to ALEC, the for-profit prison industry has a lot to be thankful for during this holiday season.

As The Nation reported, “ALEC helped pioneer some of the toughest sentencing laws on the books today, like mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders, ‘three strikes’ laws, and ‘truth in sentencing’ laws.”  According to the proponents, these laws are designed to reduce crime.  In reality, as California saw first hand, instead of reducing recidivism these laws lead to severe overcrowding.  In the end, public safety is undermined (at the expense of taxpayers) while the for-profit prison industry makes out like a bandit.  Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company, played a lead role on the ALEC task force developing some of this legislation.  NPR reported last year that through its membership in ALEC, CCA was actually able to help draft model anti-immigrant legislation like Arizona’s noxious SB 1070.

Unfortunately, the negative influence of the for-profit prison industry is not limited to ALEC.  As the ACLU reported, CCA and The Geo Group, Inc. have engaged in a multi-state lobbying effort to fight smart on crime reforms.  These two corporations hired 271 lobbyists in over 32 states between 2003-2011.  Between 1999 and 2009, CCA alone spent over $18 million on lobbying, just at the federal level.  To understand their need for this army of lobbyists you do not need to read any further than Geo’s Securities and Exchange Commission filings (CCA’s is similar):

“Our growth depends on our ability to secure contracts to develop and manage new correctional, detention and mental health facilities, the demand for which is outside our control …. [A]ny changes with respect to the decriminalization of drugs and controlled substances could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, sentenced and incarcerated, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them. Similarly, reductions in crime rates could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences requiring incarceration at correctional facilities. Immigration reform laws which are currently a focus for legislators and politicians at the federal, state and local level also could materially adversely impact us.”

The U.S. has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world, and the private prison industry clearly wants to make sure it stays that way. While taxpayer and civil rights advocates have been working to reform archaic and ineffective criminal justice laws, working to ensure that our laws reflect current research on effective ways to reduce crime and protect human rights, for-profit prison corporations are headed in the opposite direction.  To these corporations, societal impact and public safety don’t matter.  The only thing that is relevant is maximizing the bottom line.


Human Rights and Private Prisons – They Don’t Mix

By Frank Knaack (Originally posted on Texas Prison Bid’ness)
Associate Director of Public Policy and Advocacy

Today is International Human Rights Day.  A day when people from across the world come together to reaffirm the basic rights that all people are entitled to, regardless of “race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”  On December 10, 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly.  The United States played a key role in securing the adoption of the UDHR.  The UDHR has since become the foundation of the modern UN human rights system, or in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt “the international Magna Carta.”
While December 10th is a day for celebration, a day where we look back on the progress we have made, it is also a day for action, a day to speak out against the injustices and depravations of basic human dignity that still occur on a daily basis.  In Texas, we need not look far to see that our state and our nation have too often failed to uphold these basic rights.  The numerous immigration detention facilities in Texas provide a clear case in point.
As frequent Texas Prison Bid’ness readers no doubt know, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) locks up approximately 400,000 each year at a cost of $1.9 billion.  To accomplish this horrendous feat, ICE contracts many of these detainees out to the for profit private prison industry, including to a number of private facilities in Texas.  The result: a massive transfer of public funds to private corporations that wastes scarce tax dollars and results in the depravation of basic human rights.  Just last week, ICE transferred immigrant women out of the Jack Harwell Detention Center in Waco, a private jail operated by Community Education Centers, a for-profit private prison corporation after reports from inside the facility alleged a lack of access to medical care, including for pregnant women; spoiled food; no contact visits; and virtually non-existent access to attorneys.  Allegations such as these do not signal the existence of a few bad apples, rather they clarify the structural flaw in the private prison model: the legal obligation to both ensure basic human dignity and maximize shareholder profit.  These obligations are mutually exclusive.   
Want to do something to stop this abuse?  Join the Waco Dream Act Alliance, Hope Fellowship Church, Texans United for Families, Grassroots Leadership, and those affected by the immigrant detention system at a vigil in Waco for detained immigrants on International Human Rights Day (Saturday, 12/10).  The vigil will begin at 2pm at Heritage Park at Third and Austin and will highlight the more than 10,000 immigrant detention beds (and the humans suffering in them) in Texas.