Friday, July 06, 2007

Suicide aftermath reveals squalor at private rural Texas prison

The state of Idaho decided to pull the plug on a contract with GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut) after an inmate who'd previously tried to escape, citing hideous conditions, committed suicide in his cell, leaving behind a 20-page letter to his uncle full of lurid detail about the squalor he and other inmates lived in there. The warden was fired at the facility, and a guard there was convicted this spring of smuggling contraband to a prisoner. But it was the suicide that shook Idaho officials from their potato growing to pay attention to what was going on in Dickens County. Reported AP's John Miller ("Suicide exposes squalor in Texas prison," 7-6), the late Scot Noble Payne:
was among Idaho inmates sent to the prison in Spur, Texas, run by a Florida-based company called the GEO Group. The business operates more than 50 prisons across the United States as well as in Australia and South Africa.

Soon after Payne's suicide, the Idaho Department of Correction's health care director inspected the prison and declared it the worst facility he had ever seen. Don Stockman called Payne's cell unacceptable and the rest of the Dickens County Correctional Center "beyond repair."

"The physical environment ... would have only enhanced the inmate's depression that could have been a major contributing factor in his suicide," he wrote in a report on Payne's death.

Stockman said the warden at Dickens ruled "based on verbal and physical intimidation" and that guards showed no concern for the living conditions.

After Idaho's complaints, GEO reassigned warden Ron Alford, who told the AP he was later fired. He insisted GEO did not provide enough money to make necessary improvements.

"They denied me everything. To buy a pencil with GEO, it took three signatures. They're cheap," Alford said in an interview. He disputes Stockman's findings on his treatment of Idaho inmates.

GEO spokesman Pablo Paez declined to comment on Alford's performance and would say only that the company had been working to address Idaho officials' concerns. But on Thursday, the state announced plans to move 125 inmates from Dickens to other facilities, citing the poor living conditions.

The private prison business has been booming as the federal government seeks space to house more criminals and illegal immigrants.

"Sometimes it may be a better situation for the inmates, and sometimes it's not," said prison consultant Douglas Lansing, a former warden at the Federal Correctional Institution in Fort Dix, N.J. "Monitoring is a vital component. You can't just move them out of town and forget them."

That appears to be largely what happened with Idaho's inmates.

The prisoners were sent to Dickens in August from another GEO-run Texas prison after complaints about abuse by guards.

But in the following seven months, Idaho sent an inspector to Texas only once. That inspection found major problems, including virtually no substance-abuse treatment, and a complete lack of Idaho-sanctioned anger-management classes and pre-release programs.

There's no evidence the inspector's recommendations were followed. And no one from Idaho visited the prison again until after Payne's suicide.

I guess corrections officials in Idaho figured, "out of sight, out of mind." I often think that's how a lot of folks feel about people in prison, generally. After all, that's how we let prisons in Texas get that bad in the first place.

See more on GEO's operations in Texas from Texas Prison Bidness.


Anonymous said...

Private Prisons in Texas have different rules than TDCJ Units. A "Variance" is an exception to TDCJ policy given to privately operated prisons; a fact not to many folks are aware of. I was conducting a security audit of an East Texas privately operated prison and discovered a major policy violation. I immediately contacted the unit warden and informed him of my findings. The unit warden informed me that a "Variance" had been approved by TDCJ Administrators (authorizing the unit to violate policy). I contacted TDCJ Headquarters and confirmed this fact. I told the TDCJ Adminstrator that I wanted to submit a request for a variance for my unit (TDCJ) and was informed "Variances" are only for the Private Prisons. I retired in 2004 without being assigned to conduct any other private prison security audits. I'm certain that was just a "coincidence".

Retired 2004

Don said...

The inmates at Dickens County were moved from another GEO unit because of conditions. Now they are being moved to yet another GEO unit at Littlefield. Conditions are better there, but if the client states would hold the GEO group more accountable, they wouldn't get into these messes. GEO will do what it takes to keep the contract, and no more.

Anonymous said...

If you think they're bad, check out CiviGenics in Texas. Overcrowding and squalor are the rule of the day at Ector County Corrections Center in Odessa.

Anonymous said...

While you are checking, check Harris Co. At least the DA in Dallas County sees the infractions and he is a dream come true, he cares unlike so many others.

Harris Co. is filthy, rampant with MRSA and no one seems to care. Harris County should be whittled away from the State of Texas and become it's own country, the county already thinks they are above the law and whatever they chose to do is just fine and acceptable.

Anonymous said...

i did my last of 3yrs at bridgeport. They, like most units scrammbled when there was so-called suprize inspections going on. Exploiting boredom to gain free inmate labor. I also recall very calmly as an inmate diffusing a gun-ho guard. In texas guards are instructed to keep a 3ft rule. This was offten dissreguarded, but this guy was sincearly just approaching me wrong. He was very green and had unknowinly barreled me off in a very dangerous posture. I took a 3ft step backwards in a public "dayroom" and asked him calmly but loud to please do not violate the 3ft policy. Keeping my body language calm, he felt the need to approach me again in my space. it was something silly, i was perhaps just another bored smartass. I waited a few days. He was open minded enough we talked and i explained to him that less then 2ft in an inmates "box" was a threatening stance reserved for taking inmates down. He was so untrained.