Monday, March 28, 2005

Private prisons lurking as last resort to overincarceration

There is a vested interest that expressly hopes that a) Texas will continue to indiscriminately increase prison sentences, and b) that the state chooses not to fix the problem: Private prison companies. In the long run, if the state does not build more prison units and continues to increase penalties, the only alternative is to lease space from increasingly full county jails and, ultimately, private prisons.

There's little question private prison companies would like for the state to turn to their industry to solve the overincarceration crisis, as Governor Perry has occasionally hinted, though one always hears it phrased "as a last resort." Corrections Corporation of America has several lobbyists at the capitol -- the Ethics Commission website lists five of them, receiving between $75,000 and $170,000, collectively, but they spent more money on more lobbyists in 2003. One of their lobsters, Lara Laneri Keel, is married to a cousin of House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee chairman Terry Keel, reported Texans for Public Justice. That didn't help CCA much last session, though, when she also worked for them and Chairman Keel opposed privatization, calling it a "dismal failure" in Texas.

CCA only gave token amounts in Texas' 2004 election cycle, but was not a big player in legislative elections: $5K to Governer Perry, even though he wasn't running, and another $2,500 to the Republican Legislative Caucus, reports The only other recipient of CCA largesse was East Texas Democrat Chuck Hopson, who got $500.

By contrast, two other private prison firms who had a big lobby presence in 2003 don't seem to be around this time, at least according to the Ethics commission lobby reports: Wackenhut and Correctional Services Corp. didn't register any lobbyists this time around, compared to 7 and 3 respectively in 2003. Wackenhut gave $6,250 in Texas state legislative races last year to just seven candidates,
according to, but that hardly makes them a big gun in the Texas lobby field. Overall, private prison lobbyists don't seem to be out in force by comparison to last session, when there was a big push on their behalf and a House floor fight. This year, I know of no legislation to privatize existing prison facilities, though anybody, please, correct me if I'm wrong.

On the other hand, there may be good reasons they're laying low. I'm clearly not visiting the South Texans Opposing Private Prisons (STOPP) website often enough because I'd missed them highlighting this piece on the resignation of two Willacy County officials in an alleged bribery scandal involving private corrections companies, including three that allegedly employed state Sen. Eddie Lucio or his firm as a consultant. (While that may seem a bit cozy to those not used to how we do things here in Texas, nobody to my knowledge has accused Lucio of any impropriety. Remember, these guys earn $7,500 per year as legislators, so they all earn a living somehow.)

The fallout from the story hasn't reached Austin yet, but obviously there's that possibility. According to this article from the February edition of LareDos,
It is apparently resignation season in South Texas. Willacy County commissioners José Jimenez and Israel Tamez resigned just after waiving indictment and being convicted on federal conspiracy charges for accepting bribes of about $10,000 in the awarding of contracts for the Willacy County Adult Correctional Center in Raymondville. The violation of the Hobbs Act carries a penalty of imprisonment of not more than 20 years and/or a fine not to exceed $250,000.

Decisions for the construction of the $14.5 million Willacy correctional facility began in June 2000. Both commissioners admitted to receiving $10,000 or more from corporate representatives involved in the design, construction, financing, maintenance, and management of the 500-bed facility. The payments, according to a factual summary signed by the defendants, were in exchange for providing the particular corporate representatives with advantages not available to others interested in and competing for the design, construction, financing, maintenance, and management of the facility.

The companies involved in the construction of the Willacy County facility include jail consultant Corplan Corrections of Argyle, TX, design-builder Hale Mills Construction of Houston, Aguirre Corp. of Dallas , and the Management and Training Center (MTC) of Utah , which manages the Willacy detention center.

No company has been named as a source of the bribes; however, the investigation underway by the Texas Rangers, the FBI, and the Willacy County Sheriff's Department continues. It is widely speculated that other individuals, including a third Willacy County commissioner, will face charges.

There are several very interesting sidebars to this story.

One is that Senator Eddie Lucio of Brownsville has been on the payroll of both jail consultant Corplan Corrections and MTC, the Utah firm that manages the Willacy County correctional facility as a consultant. Aguirre Corp. is also a client of Lucio's consulting firm. According to the Texas Ethics Commission, in 2003 Lucio received $25,000 or more from Corplan; $25,000 or more from MTC; and $10,000 to $24,999 from Aguirre.

If the names Corplan, Aguirre, and Hale Mills sound familiar, it's because they are. The three companies formed the team that built the Webb County Detention Center on Hwy. 83, the $23 million facility that was begun in late 1997 and sold to Correctional Corporation of America before construction was completed.

Former Webb County Commissioner Rick Reyes later became a consultant for Corplan and Hale Mills and worked with Corplan, Aguirre, and Hale Mills on a $1.5 million, 180-bed upgrade on the downtown jail in 2000.

Encinal residents are no doubt familiar with Corplan and Hale Mills, whom consultant Reyes brought to the table for the planning and construction of the $27 million LaSalle County detention facility which was completed last spring. Though Encinal residents waged a good fight against the 500-bed facility from the inception of the project in September 2002, the LaSalle County commissioners -- ignoring the detention center's environmental and quality of life issues that have taxed the small town's water and sewage infrastructure and doubled Encinal's population -- gave the project a green light.
Juicy stuff. See LareDos for more. Hopefully legislators like Keel, Kolkhorst, Whitmire and others who stopped the private prison stampede in 2003 will do so again this time around. But if the Legislature keeps increasing penalties, Texas may not have a choice in the short term but to lease space from somebody - we're gonna have to put these guys somewhere.