Monday, September 22, 2008

Private prison news

These notable private prison stories showed up in the news over the weekend:

Laredo 'Superjail' launched.
Texas Prison Bidness informs us that the so-called Laredo Superjail - a controversial 1,500 bed facility that earlier drew staunch opposition - finally opened last week. TPB blogger Bob Libal offered this account:

I was able to attend the opening, and have to admit it was even more surreal than I could have imagined - complete with a high school mariachi band singing Spanish language ballads, a cake in the shape of the GEO Group's corporate logo, and a slew of new GEO Group prison guards (many of whom looked to be 18 or 19) wearing desert-camo style uniforms.

GEO Group executives George Zoley and Wayne Calabrese mingled with local politicos, including Laredo mayor Raul Salinas and Webb County judge Danny Valdez, who apparently have forgotten their respective councils' rejection of GEO money a little over a year ago.

The prison will hold pre-trial federal detainees for the U.S. Marshals - many of whom will be immigrants prosecuted for criminal violations under the program Operation Streamline. The facility was proposed back in 2003, and even before the official launch of Streamline, the Marshals capacity was being pushed almost exclusively by expanded criminal prosecution of immigration violations (PDF), a departure from the old style of dealing with immigration issues in the immigration court system.

Simply put, this $100 million gift to the GEO Group is almost exclusively due to the government holding border-crossers in criminal jail for 30-90 days before deporting them. Doesn't seem too "streamlined" to me.

Idaho's 'Virtual Prison' monitors oversee Texas facilities
Three prisoner deaths including two suicides in Texas are spurring a debate in Idaho over the state's reliance on out of state private prisons, according to a lengthy article in the Magic Valley Times News ("Families feel loss as out of state prison population grows," Sept. 21):
Idaho has so many prisoners scattered around the country that the IDOC last year developed the Virtual Prison Program, assigning 12 officers to monitor the distant prisons.

In 2007 Idaho sent 429 inmates to Texas and Oklahoma. This year; more than 700 - and by one estimate it could soon hit 1,000.
The Virtual Prison program is documenting problems, even if it's not necessarily solving them:
During recent visits to the Bill Clayton Detention Center in Littlefield, Texas - where about 371 Idaho inmates are now held - state inspectors found there wasn't a legal aid staffer to give inmates access to courts, as required by the state contract. Virtual Prison monitors also agreed with Aragon's assessment:

"No programs are offered at the facility," a state official wrote in a recently redacted Idaho Virtual Prison report obtained by the Times-News. "Most jobs have to do with keeping the facility clean and appear to be less meaningful. This creates a shortage of productive time with the inmates.

"Overall, recreational activities are very sparse within the facility. Informal attempts have been made to encourage the facility to increase offender activities that would in the long run ease some of the boredom that IDOC inmates are experiencing," according to a Virtual Prison report.
Arkansas prison system says privatization wrong overcrowding fix. Arkansas' prison system oversees a total 14,816 people, reports the Arkansas Democrat Gazette ("State still opposes private prisons," Sept. 20), but 1,247 are presently housed in county jails because the state doesn't have enough beds. In response, four legislators co-sponsored legislation last week to use private prisons for the overflow, but the state prison system is resisting the idea. Said a Department of Corrections spokesperson:
“I will say our department is not overly eager to step back into privatization.” [Dina] Tyler cited the state’s experience with the Wackenhut Corrections Corp., which ran the Grimes and McPherson units in Newport from 1998 to 2001.

“That experiment didn’t go well. The state had to assume management of those two facilities because the company couldn’t do what it said it could do,” Tyler said.

Wackenhut performed poorly in sanitation and maintenance issues, she said.

Tyler also pointed to a U. S. Department of Justice probe into the McPherson and Grimes units in November 2003 which characterized conditions at the two prisons as “unconstitutional” because of inadequate medical care and unsafe living conditions.

“That happened right after we stepped back in,” Tyler said.

[Privatization supporter Rep. Johnnie] Hoyt, who is in his first term as a state representative, said “if I’d been here a hundred years like everyone else, I’d know that. But is Wackenhut OK now ? Let’s revisit all aspects of that.” A subsequent agreement between the state and the Justice Department to remedy conditions at the prisons has been completed, releasing the state from federal oversight, Tyler said.

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