As expected, acting Texas Youth Commission Executive Director Dimitria Pope deflected blame for her administration's failure to identify problems at the Coke County private youth prison, though the blog Texas Prison Bidness and the Dallas Morning News had reported problems there months earlier. At yesterday's hearing, reported the Dallas News:
Ms. Pope told lawmakers her agency missed the crisis at Coke County because of an "incestuous" relationship between TYC monitors and employees at the facility. And she said problems were only reported at a regional level, never making it up to headquarters. Those personnel and structural issues are being rectified, she said, by performing more intensive audits and bolstering the agency's conflict of interest policies.
Her solutions weren't enough for Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, who said he has serious concerns about the state continuing to use private providers at all. Mr. Hinojosa said he has little faith that state agencies are properly vetting their contractors, when a "simple Internet search" should've made GEO a poor choice.
An aside: it's ironic to hear that complaints were only reported "at a regional level," because TYC didn't have regional bureaucracies until Ms. Pope created them earlier this year. So did the agency fail to report problems upstream because of the new bureaucracy? That's what it sounded like on its face, at least to this writer, though no one at the hearing addressed the topic. Perhaps TYC creating new, regional bureaucracies wasn't such a great idea?
Mike Ward at the Austin Statesman reported that Sen. Hinojosa supported ending Texas' use of private prisons, and even Chairman Whitmire expressed support for additional regulatory oversight at private prisons:
As predicted, though, easily the most dramatic part of the hearing was testimony belonged to Shirley Noble, the mother of an Idaho inmate who committed suicide in Geo's Dickens County facility earlier this year. Polly Hughes at the Houston Chronicle offered the best account of her testimony, including this provocative query that's been haunting me ever since: "Who was the person who had given him an open razor [when] his only contact on solitary were guards and the warden?"
Some of those who spoke called for an end to all privately run prisons in Texas, a suggestion that state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said bears further consideration.
"We keep contracting with contractors who have a long history of abuse," he said. "We should not sign contracts with these companies. Private companies do a poor job because they are out to make a profit."
Private companies now run about 18,000 of the state's 154,000 prison beds. While the hearing answered few questions — Geo officials were not present to respond to the complaints — it signaled that big regulatory changes could be in store for private prisons in Texas.
"I think it's clear that we're going to have to do much more to ensure these private facilities are properly monitored by the state — all of them," committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, said after the hearing. "The same issues that we found at the TYC center are there in the others."
Man, that's a good question, isn't it? Who indeed?!
Noble's description of her son's incarceration conditions sound eerily similar to those raised at Geo's Coke County facility, Hughes reported. At Geo unit in Newton, TX, "Bathing was sporadic, personal property was stolen, and inmates were forced to sleep close proximity to each other, creating unnecessary tension." Then after he was moved to Dickens County "In his last days, he began writing letters in "frightening detail" about sleeping on a cot with a feces-soiled blanket and a pillowcase stained with human waste and dried blood, his mother testified."
An Idaho Department of Corrections official who inspected the Dickens facility after the suicide corroborated Noble's claims in a letter her lawyer distributed to committee members, declaring that Geo's Dickens unit was "the worst correctional facility I have ever visited ... a facility that is beyond repair or correction."
Texas Prison Bidness bloggers Bob Libal (of the group Grassroots Leadership) and Nicole Porter (Children at Risk) both testified, with Libal in particular offering a detailed account of past problems at other Geo Group facilities in Texas.
LBJ School instructor Michele Deitch supplied written testimony to the committee, which she graciously shared with Grits and which I've uploaded here. Some of the key highlights:
- staff turnover rate in private prisons is 52.2% versus 16% in public prisons
- A recent study found that allegations about due process, cruel and unusual punishment, religious freedoms, living and physical conditions, and abuse and harassment were more prevalent in lawsuits filed against private prisons than public prisons (but lawsuits about medical care were more often filed against public prisons, presumably because public prisons tend to handle most prisoners who have medical problems)
- The rate of violence in private facilities is much higher than in public facilities, according to a Bureau of Justice Assistance study conducted by Jim Austin (Tony Fabelo’s former partner), which found that private facilities experienced 49% more assaults on staff and 65% more inmate-on-inmate assaults than public facilities. (emphases in original)
problems in the Coke County Facility are not new by any means. In 1999, several girls were sexually, physically, and mentally abused by Wackenhut employees at the Coke County Facility, including a man with prior conviction for sexual abuse of a child. There was a lawsuit that settled for $1.5 million, after which the plaintiff—a 15-year old girl who was a sexual assault victim of a staff member—committed suicide. This was the year that Coke County was awarded the “Contract Facility of the Year” by TYC. And in 1995, TYC confirmed allegations that some staff members at the Coke County Facility manipulated a “demotion/graduation” system to coerce girls into giving them sexual favors or dancing naked in front of them. Some girls were raped or fondled, while others were made to disrobe and shower in the presence of male employees.Deitch also supplied the committee with a partial list of scandals and problems at Geo and other private prisons in Texas that she, Libal and Porter collectively compiled. The record described there should give any conscientious lawmaker pause.
Though I had to arrive late at the hearing, I dressed in my Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes and after listening to the invited testimony (and asking around about what I'd missed), I signed up to speak when the public portion began. After a bit of initial banter with Chairman Whitmire about the blog, I offered three brief points that weren't discussed up until then:
First, in light of what happened in Coke County, the state should halt TYC's current plans to move forward with privatizing care for its youngest kids - 10-13 year olds, and also some older boys. We know to a certainty that TYC contract oversight is not sufficient to ferret out problems, I said. Indeed, TYC hasn't even finished its initial analysis of other contract units to see whether similar problems exist there. This plan should be indefinitely halted at least until the state has a better regulatory scheme in place.
Which brings us to, second, Texas needs to establish an independent regulatory stucture for private prisons instead of relying only on agency contract managers. Agency officials and private prison operators have a shared interest in concealing bad conditions from legislators and the media. A separate entity should regularly inspect them, I told the committee, just like the Texas Commission on Jail Standards monitors county jails to avoid conflicts of interest. Several speakers who followed me echoed this view.
Finally, the Geo Group said in a corporate filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission earlier this year that mounting debt burdens might force the company to divert money from "operations" to cover loan payments. Given clear evidence that Geo wasn't spending adequately to keep its understaffed facilities clean and habitable, I suggested to the committee that it's possible Geo diverted operating funds away from those facilities' upkeep, as their 10-K statement predicted. If so, then Texas taxpayers may be paying for services we're not receiving,
As Libal, Deitch and others noted, Texas has has more than its share of private prison scandals in the past, and none of them ever resulted in significant regulation. Maybe the media storm surrounding TYC will make things different this time and the Texas Legislature will improve oversight when they meet for the 81st time in 2009.
You can watch the archived hearing, which lasted around 3.5 hours, here. Pope was the first to testify, and the public hearing portion began at the 2:22:45 mark.UPDATE: See a summary of speakers' main points compiled by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.