From undermining democracy to increasing mass incarceration, ALEC has got it covered

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Senior Communications Strategist

Reacting to backlash against voter suppression efforts promulgated by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), two of the organization’s giant corporate members – Coca Cola and PepsiCo – have succumbed to pressure from public interest groups and severed their ties to the group.

According to a National Public Radio report, ALEC promotes business-friendly legislation in state capitols and drafts model bills for state legislatures to adopt.  They range from little-noticed pro-business bills to more controversial measures, including photo voter identification laws.  These laws directly benefit the corporations’ bottom line regardless of the societal cost.

Thankfully, the truth is starting to come out about how ALEC is an affront to our democracy.  A few days ago the Huffington Post published an article titled How Are ALEC Laws Undermining Our Democracy?

So what kind of bills does ALEC draft and spread state to state? According to the article:

–       Democracy-undermining Voter ID legislation that has been passed in at least 14 states – under the guise of preventing election fraud (which no one can actually find).

–       Voucher programs that privatize public education.

–       Anti-immigrant laws like Arizona’s SB 1070.

–       Anti-worker legislation.

–       Laws that undermine smart-on-crime reforms, such as “three strikes,” mandatory minimum sentencing, and “truth in sentencing.”

As the list above shows, ALEC’s model legislation has a real world negative impact on the civil liberties of all Americans, puts more people needlessly behind bars, undermines our democracy, and makes communities across the country less safe.

The ACLU of Texas works to protect the civil liberties of all Texans, but we need your help.  Follow our work and join our Community Action Network – together we can ensure that civil liberties, not corporate profits, prevail at the Texas Capitol.

Nobody wants a “Jail to Nowhere”

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Senior Communications Strategist

Texas doesn’t need more prisons or jails. In fact, as a recent article by Mike Ward in the Austin American Statesman and the Abilene Reporter News points out, an increasing number of Texas towns and counties have found out that building them is, to put it mildly, economically risky.    The takeaway is clear … Texans don’t need any more “jails to nowhere”.

Crime rates are down, cost effective alternatives to incarceration are up, and the “tough on crime” approach to criminal justice is finally starting to be seen as the failure we have long known it to be.  Evidence based programs, which – by the way – happen to be much less expensive than incarceration, coupled with government budget cuts have started to get lawmakers thinking that incarceration isn’t always the best solution.

Unfortunately, a number of Texas counties and towns (the article points to Anson, Littlefield, and Angelina, Newton, Dickens and Falls Counties as a few examples) were sold on the idea that mass incarceration was in Texas to stay.  According to the article, most of the privately operated county jails sit less than half full, and guess who is left holding the bill?  (Hint – it is not the for-profit prison company). In Falls County, officials are scrambling to fill beds in a county-built private prison after the private company announced it was pulling out.

This is just wrong.  Nobody should be “scrambling” to find prisoners to fill beds. Imprisoning people should never be a business choice, but only a choice driven by public safety.  This is just another example why the for-profit prison model does not work.

The take home message: investing in prisons is a poor investment.  In regard to the counties and towns that are currently struggling with the high cost of empty prison beds, Representative Jerry Madden said it’s sad to say, but they made a business choice, and they’re going to have to live with it at some point.  Other localities in Texas should be fairly warned and not head down that path – both to protect their economic interest, and for the sake of bringing the discussion back to one of public safety for all, not private profit for a few.

Op-Ed in the New York Times Highlights Downfalls of Privatization

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Senior Communications Strategist

If you follow our blog, you’re sure to know how we feel about the for-profit prison industry trying to take over the government function of ensuring public safety.  It really is a terrible situation – nobody should make a profit off of incarcerating offenders or immigrants.  And, prison corporations certainly shouldn’t play a part in drafting bills, such as Arizona’s SB 1070, designed to put more people behind bars, all while lavishly lining the industry’s pockets.

In a recent Op-ed in the New York Times, Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen brought light to additional issues with privatization of services in what has become the “Migration Industry”.  From the article, here are some of his concerns about for-profit companies running deportation, detention, and border control:

–          Privatization introduces a corporate veil that blurs both public oversight and legal accountability…and distorts lines of legal responsibility.

–          The private nature of these companies breaks ordinary administrative chain of command, placing both governments and the public at a disadvantage in terms of ensuring transparency.

–          Private companies seldom have an interest in securing public oversight, as any criticism may entail negative economic consequences.

–          Numerous reports have been filed about misconduct, violence, and abuse perpetrated by contractors carrying out migration functions.

–          Deportation, detention, and border control have become big business.  Boeing’s current contract to set up and operate a high-tech border surveillance system along the United States-Mexico border is worth $1.3 billion and involved nearly 100 subcontractors…and the Geo Group manages 7,000 detention beds in the United States.

–          Privatization, once pursued, is difficult to reverse.

We have seen all of this before. In fact, we recently wrote about the sexual abuse scandal at the Don T. Hutto Detention Center in Taylor Texas, CCA’s letter to all state governors offering to purchase state prisons and jails, CEC’s (a for-profit prison company) notification to Liberty County that they will raise prices per prisoner if the county is successful in lowering the incarceration rate, and the new Karnes Immigrant Detention Facility in Texas.  All these situations point to various reasons why privatization is the wrong solution.

Privatization chips away at government accountability, and is riddled with problems from abuse to cutting corners.  We must take a stand and stop it! Join our Community Action Network to get more involved.

Thank you Texas Observer and Houston Chronicle

By Dotty Griffith
Public Education Director

Most reporters drank the ICE Kool-Aid last week when Immigrations and Customs Enforcement conducted a media tour of the Obama administration’s new “model detention center” in Karnes City, just southeast of San Antonio.

The Chronicle and the Texas Observer– unlike other media reports we’ve seen – noted that the facility will be run by a for-profit prison corporation with a checkered record, GEO Group, the second-largest for-profit prison company in the United States. National Public Radio noted protests by immigrants’ rights advocates, another part of the event largely ignored by media.

Typical single-source reporting,  particularly a story by the Associated Press that was widely picked up, distorted the real issue: continued detention at great expense to taxpayers and great profit for private prison corporations of immigrants who can be tracked at lower cost without incarceration while awaiting deportation hearings.

Federal and state governments should stop relying on the private prison industry. Private incarceration companies like GEO have incentives to cut corners and maximize profit at the expense of decent treatment and human rights. In 2007, state auditors had this to say about a Texas juvenile facility operated by GEO: “cells were filthy, smelled of feces and urine, and were in need of paint,” and “there is racial segregation [in] the dorms.” Last month, the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center settled a lawsuit that alleged horrific abuse of youth at another GEO prison.

Sadly, most media outlets failed to report anything but what they were told.

Why o why o why o did CCA think it could make stuff up in Ohio

By Frank Knaack (originally posted on
Associate Director of Public Policy and Advocacy

Corrections Corporation of America’s (CCA) letter offering to purchase state and local prisons/jails in return for a 20-year deal and 90% guaranteed occupancy rate (probably making the hotel lobby very jealous) continues to gather press.  Last week, an AP story (Corrections firm offers states cash for prisons, Greg Bluestein, Associated Press) about the facility was picked up by a number of newspapers around the country.

In defense of the deal, CCA continues to point to its “successful” purchase of the Lake Erie Correctional Institution in Ohio.  Did CCA think no one would check to verify this claim?  Unfortunately for CCA, the ACLU of Ohio did.  Quoting Mark Twain, they wrote “’[t]here are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.’ A recent letter sent out by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) to 48 governors offering to buy state prisons included a little of each.”

Here are some highlights from the ACLU of Ohio’s blog:

  • “While CCA claims it will save Ohioans $3 million per year, a recent report analyzing the state’s contract shows that taxpayers will actually lose money over the next 20 years.  Of course, this is not earth-shattering news, as other fiscal analyses in Ohio and Arizona have produced similar results.”
  • “CCA also leads readers to believe there was no drama behind the transition to private ownership, but the people of Conneaut may disagree.  As CCA took the reins of the Lake Erie facility, Conneaut city officials were informed that it would be the duty of local police officers to investigate crimes at the private prison.  Typically, the Ohio State Highway Patrol (OSHP) handles all investigations at state prisons, but private properties are under the jurisdiction of local police forces.  This could cost the city of Conneaut taxpayer dollars it just doesn’t have.”
  • “CCA also points out that 93 percent of the previous staff from the Lake Erie facility was retained in the ownership transfer — the implication being that governors shouldn’t worry about privatization because most state corrections officers will be hired back.  What it does not explain is that Lake Erie has been a privately operated facility for over a decade.  … Certainly, if the facility had employed state corrections officers, many of those workers could not afford to continue working there.  It’s no secret that private prisons pay employees far less than state workers and provide few benefits, leaving doubt that privatization of a state facility would be as ‘seamless’ as CCA describes in its letter.”

On the bright side, I imagine CCA’s management and shareholders made out quite well.  Stay tuned to Texas Prison Bid’ness for more on this story.

Another Immigrant Detention Center is Not What Texas Needs

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Senior Communications Strategist

We can think of about a million reasons why the new “civil” immigrant detention center in rural Karnes City is anything but a showing of “civility” from ICE.  For starters:

  • It’s managed by the GEO Group, a for-profit prison company with a track record of mismanagement, prisoner abuse, inmate deaths, sexual assault of detainees by prison guards…and that’s just in Texas;
  • The location is in a rural area, far from legal or social services;
  • This is costing taxpayers a lot of money;
  • Karnes City taxpayers were not consulted about the facility until after the contract with GEO was signed.

Most fundamentally, though, is that a “civil” detention center like this shouldn’t exist. Who will be held there? You may guess that dangerous criminals will make up most of the center’s population.  Nope. This center will hold immigrants in the lowest security level of ICE custody – asylum-seekers awaiting their hearings, for example.  We increase the vulnerability of these vulnerable people seeking safety by separating them from their families far away from legal representation.  In 2009, ICE claimed it would reduce the use of isolated detention centers – which makes it more maddening that they just built a new one in Karnes City, a small town southeast of San Antonio.

Public safety isn’t protected by overreliance on expensive detention of non-violent border crossers, especially asylum seekers fleeing economic hardship or political, sexual and criminal abuses in their home countries.  Instead of treating them like dangerous criminals at a cost to taxpayers of an average $166 per day, the US should implement other programs. Alternatives to detention (or ATDs) cost significantly less — from 30 cents to $14 per day — than locking up immigrants in detention facilities.

Why deprive people of their liberty and ability to work, shatter families, expose detainees to abuse by guards, and spend more taxpayer dollars in the name of immigration enforcement? It makes you wonder, until you remember the enormous profits reaped by private prison companies like GEO Group. With that kind of money, you can buy yourself some pretty decent lobbyists, we’d guess.

In the end, “civil” detention centers like the new one in Karnes city are not consistent with American values and they do not benefit our society.  Worse, no corporation, state, county, or city should profit from putting people behind bars.  It is time to rethink this system. We would even save tax dollars along the way.

Broad Coalition Urges States to Reject CCA’s Offer to Purchase State Prisons

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

Last week, a broad coalition, including the ACLU and The Sentencing Project, urged state governors to reject Corrections Corporation of America’s (CCA) offer to purchase state and local jails.  As Texas Prison Bid’ness noted in its coverage of CCA’s offer a few weeks ago, this is a horrible deal for Texas.  Here are some excerpts from a letter sent by a broad coalition of worker and human rights organizations:

“We understand that Harley Lappin, Chief Corrections Officer at Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), recently sent a letter to nearly every state announcing the Corrections Investment Initiative – the corporation’s plan to spend up to $250 million buying prisons from state, local, and federal government entities, and then managing the facilities.  The undersigned coalition urges you to decline this dangerous and costly invitation.

The letter from Mr. Lappin states that CCA is only interested in buying prisons if the state selling the prison agrees to pay CCA to operate the prison for 20 years – at minimum.  Mr. Lappin further notes that any prison to be sold must have at least 1,000 beds, and that the state must agree to keep the prison at least 90% full.  In other words, CCA would be buying not only a physical structure but a guarantee that your state will fill a large prison and continuously pay the corporation taxpayer money to operate the institution for two decades.  While a prison sale might provide a short-term infusion of revenue, taxpayers in your state would be left paying for this short-term windfall until at least 2032.  In short, this proposal to sell a valuable state asset is a backdoor invitation for your state to take on additional debt, while increasing CCA’s profits.

Moreover, the requirement to keep a large prison 90% full for twenty years would pose an obstacle to more serious criminal justice reform.  The United States imprisons far more people – both per capita and in absolute terms – than any other nation in the world, including Russia, China, and Iran.  Over the past four decades, imprisonment in the United States has increased explosively, spurred by criminal laws that impose steep sentences and curtail opportunities for probation and parole.  The current incarceration rate deprives record numbers of individuals of their liberty, disproportionately affects people of color, and has at best a minimal effect on public safety.  Meanwhile, the crippling cost of imprisoning increasing numbers of Americans saddles government budgets with rising debt and exacerbates the current fiscal crisis confronting states across the nation.

As this sprawling and costly system of mass incarceration damages the nation as a whole, CCA reaps lucrative benefits.  As the corporation admits in SEC filings: ‘The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by … leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices … .’

The selling off prisons to CCA would be a tragic mistake for your state.  Mr. Lappin’s proposal is an invitation to fiscal irresponsibility, prisoner abuse, and decreased public safety.  It should promptly be declined.”

The Presbyterian Criminal Justice Network sent a similar letter to governors last week as well, urging states not to hand over control of prisons to CCA.

CCA Letter Highlights why the For-profit Prison Model is a Bad Idea

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

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is offering a heck of a deal to states across America.  As the Huffington Post (“Private Prison Corporation Offers Cash In Exchange For State Prisons,” February 14) reported last week, in exchange for a 20 year management contract and guarantee that the prison will remain at least 90% full, CCA will buy your prison.  Sounds almost too good to be true … well, that’s because it is.  While the deal may be bad for states, it is actually great for those of us who oppose the for-profit prison industry.  It highlights one of the fundamental flaws of the for-profit prison model: the need to maintain high numbers of incarcerated individuals regardless of the impact on our tax base and our communities.

With skyrocketing corrections budgets, lawmakers in states across the country have reassessed their criminal justice systems.  Like in Liberty County, these lawmakers have found that over-incarceration is both extremely expensive and counterproductive to the goal of protecting public safety.  Instead of locking people up for low level, non-violent offenses, like drug possession, lawmakers have turned to evidence-based approaches to addressing the issue.  As the ACLU pointed out, the results of this reassessment for Texas have been extremely positive.  “Since 2003, the Texas Legislature has passed a number of bills aimed at reducing the number of individuals incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, including drug offenses. Instead of building new and costly prisons, the legislature has increased the use of probation and provided increased funding for nonviolent offenders to attend residential and nonresidential treatment programs. And, as the numbers show, concerns about any coinciding decrease in public safety are unfounded: as Right on Crime pointed out, ‘serious property, violent, and sex crimes per 100,000 Texas residents have declined 12.8 percent since 2003.’”  Oh, and these smart on crime reforms have also saved the state more than two billion dollars.

But, as the saying goes (to the for-profit prison industry) … two billion dollars saved by taxpayers is two billion dollars not earned by the for-profit prison industry, thus CCA’s need for its very own mandatory minimum.  If Texas were to accept CCA’s offer, it would have two options: (1) undermine its smart on crime reforms or (2) maintain its reforms and pay CCA to maintain empty cells.  Taxpayers lose either way.  We thank CCA for highlighting this fundamental flaw.

Florida is Swinging in the Right Direction

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Senior Communications Strategist

Business Week magazine is calling it a setback for GEO, but we call it a big win for criminal law reform and public safety. With a 21-19 vote, the Florida Senate said “no” to privatizing the state’s prison system.  Had this measure passed, it would have been the largest for-profit prison system in the U.S.  Texans should watch and learn.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott is in favor of the plan claiming it will save the state $16.5 million a year. But we all know what comes with those supposed savings: less safe prison conditions for guards and inmates, fewer prison employees who all have less training, cuts in medical care and educational programming, higher recidivism rates resulting in a decrease in public safety…and the list goes on.  According to Florida law, Scott still has the power to approve the contract – something we hope will not happen.

We applaud Floridians for looking out for the public interest and sending one of the world’s largest private prison corporations on its way.  But, Texans (and the rest of the world) must keep our eyes open.  After losing what would have been such a lucrative contract, GEO is likely on the prowl for its next target.  President of the GEO Care Unit said, “There are other states looking at doing similar things and you’re seeing things happening abroad.” Watch out, Texas! A for-profit prison company makes money by imprisoning as many people as possible as cheaply as possible. Imprisoning people shouldn’t be a money-maker in Texas or anywhere else.

GEO and companies like it need to be stopped. Turning our prisons into a for-profit industry is a bad idea.  Congratulations, Florida, for coming to the right conclusion that the public safety of Floridians is not for sale. Texans should keep it that way.

Bad News From Liberty County

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

Last week we wrote about Liberty County’s battle to reign in its excessive county jail budget (A line in the sand in Liberty County).  Its solution makes sense – don’t lock up individuals accused of low-level, non-violent crimes.  The community would save millions of dollars as long as it stood up to the for-profit prison industry’s attempts to undercut the savings by raising the rate to house inmates.

On Monday, according to The Cleveland Advocate (“County extends jail contract for another 60 days,” 2/7/12), the county commissioners court voted to extend the for-profit jail contract for another 60 days.  County Judge Craig McNair said the 60 day extension will give the commissioners more time to gather information.  Liberty County Precinct 1 Commissioner Todd Fontenot agrees that it is time for the extensions to stop.  As the The Cleveland Advocate reported, “Fontenot said that he believes that the best decision would be to have the sheriff directly operate the county jail. … Fontenot reasoned that the private company marks up the cost of operations to generate a profit and that if the county took the facility over, they would not have to pay the increased cost but use it for the needed personnel.”

Actively trying to undermine smart on crime reforms is nothing new to the for-profit prison industry.  Liberty County now has the opportunity to send a clear signal to the for-profit prisons industry – taxpayers care about the safety and well-being of their communities and have no interest in ensuring profit for the for-profit prison industry.