Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Geo lobby pressure inspires Senate hearing on private prisons: What should they discuss?

With the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee poised to examine the Geo Group and other private prison contractors on Friday, here's a little more detail about the Geo Group's aggressive response to the Texas Youth Commission's decision to close the Coke County facility that the company operated for 13 years. Mark Lavergne in the East Texas Review reports that ("Prison contractor under fire," Oct. 9):
In the early morning of Oct. 2, Whitmire’s general counsel received a call from lobbyist Michelle Wittenburg on behalf of GEO. “They were very, very aggressive about, you know, defending their practice there, and that they disagreed with TYC,” Whitmire said.

TYC communications director Jim Hurley said that on Oct. 3, GEO “took people on a tour of a nicely, freshly painted, rejuvenated facility.” Whitmire characterized the occasion as a “pep rally.” Whitmire, House Corrections Committee chairman Jerry Madden (R-Richardson), and Sen. Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock) each sent a staff person to observe the event, as did Speaker Tom Craddick, Whitmire said.

Hurley said he had been “deluged” by calls from citizens and investors who are concerned about the economic impact that shutting down the facility, which employs about 140 people, would have on the community.

“This is the Texas Youth Commission,” Hurley said, “We are not the Texas Economic Development Commission. Our mission statement says that we are to take Texas’ most incorrigible kids, provide rehabilitative services, treatment—all the things that they need, and try to make them fit to reenter society … Our priority are the youth that we have been charged with handling. That was the only consideration when we took this action.”

The economic side-effects of the action for the community are “unfortunate,” Hurley said, “but our charge is the youth … We do care. But,still, we got to stick with what we do.” ...

According to Whitmire, GEO representatives admitted Wednesday to staff that because they had a month-to-month contract with the state, they were not going to put any capital or improvements there. “That’s why you got sheets that haven’t been washed in three months,” Whitmire said. “That’s why kids have infections from unsanitary conditions.”

As of press time, the company’s corporate communications office had not returned a phone call from LSR seeking comment.

Whitmire said incredulously that GEO representatives claimed that the human feces that the kids were standing in (as reported by TYC officials) were actually glue. “One of the buildings that they were locking the kids in had no restrooms,” he said. “ … The kids were required to urinate or relieve themselves in trash cans or on the floor.” He later added, “If they want a hearing on that, I’ll give them a hearing … They ought to be careful what they ask for.”
Whitmire's Senate committee hearing will be held Friday morning. Here are several topics I hope the committee focuses on in addition to the specific conditions at the Coke County unit:

Please slow down on contract care.
Why does TYC plan to expand contract care for 10-13 year olds and older boys (a bidder's conference has already been held), when we know for certain TYC contract oversight functions are dangerously inadequate? If Coke County was so bad, why expand contract care further before finding out why the agency's oversight broke down? It doesn't make sense, but that's the direction in which the agency is barreling forward. IMO this ill-considered policy decision should be the main focus of the hearing; the past is the past, but the more pressing concern is what will TYC do going forward?

Need regulatory oversight for private prisons
Unless a private prison houses county jail prisoners, there's no regulatory entity overseeing them in Texas, TYC Executive Director Dimitria Pope said at a press conference last Friday. If nothing else changes thanks to the Coke County case, that should. I say give the job to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, so there's an independent entity looking at these facilities besides TDCJ and TYC contract managers.

Did operating funds from Geo's Texas prisons go to pay off corporate debt?
According to the company's 10-K, company officials earlier this year predicted that Geo's large debt could cause management to siphon funds from operations to pay its loans. Is that what happened here?

Shouldn't we have looked at this a while ago?
The committee should examine allegations of abuse at the Coke County facility documented by the Dallas Morning News, and question TYC officials why they didn't act when that information came out several months ago?

Let's get some expert testimony
People I'd like to see invited to testify at the hearing about Geo's record: Texas Prison Bid'ness blogger Bob Libal, LBJ School instructor and TYC Blue Ribbon Panel member Michelle Deitch, and the mother of the Idaho inmate who who has sued Geo after her son committed suicide and left a 5 page note complaining about squalid conditions at the Dickens County facility. I'd also like to hear the opinions of the Harris County TYC monitor Susan Moynahan on this topic, but given how rudely she was treated the last time she testified at the Legislature that leads us to ...

Mr. Chairman, let your witnesses speak
One problem: If Chairman Whitmire plans to invite people to testify, he needs to let them speak. At the last hearing on TYC even fellow legislators often weren't allowed to finish their questions, and "bullying" is the only reasonable word to describe how the chairman treated any witness critical of TYC. Two different witnesses told me after that hearing they decided on the spot not to inform legislators about additional problems at the agency because it was clear Sen.Whitmire wasn't in the mood to listen to criticisms.

Surely the Coke County fiasco demonstrates that TYC hasn't been "fixed," and indeed it's questionable whether overall conditions haven't worsened. Let's hope at this hearing witnesses are left free to openly describe the agency's problems, or you can be pretty darn sure it won't result in finding solutions.

UPDATE: AP's John Miller reports that the mother of the Idaho inmate mentioned above will be at the hearing Friday to speak about her son's suicide. That should make for compelling testimony.


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, Whitmire and the rest of the Legislature are part of the problem, and they have no interest in fixing the problem correctly or legally.

Anonymous said...

Said it before and will say it again. As bad as the State of Texas does with handling of Social Services it still manages to do a better job than most private contractors. Especially when there is a for profit motive in human services.

Private agencies only do a better job when a person can afford the service... However, the service providers often cow tow to those they provide service to!

Can't imagine this working well in corretions! While different, just look at how well the rich and famous do in celebrity rehabs!

Anonymous said...

Someone should demand that TYC actually make an affirmative case for private facilities.

Let's see:

1. Despite claims to the contrary, they are more expensive.

2. Staff get paid less and receive fewer benefits.

3. Youth are more likely to be abused or suffer abusive conditions because of inadequate oversight.

4. A private company is first and foremost accountable to the bottom line, to its stockholders if its traded publicly, and not to the public or the youth. This is a basic conflict of interest.

5. Contrary to their self-presentation, private facilities do NOT encourage innovation. The sure thing is far more reliable when the bottom line matters first.

The historical record of privately run youth facilities is littered with Coke Counties, dating all the way back to the 1970s.

If the Whitmire-Madden committee gets one thing right, this would be a good one: put a halt, indefinitely, on further contract facilities and do some kind of an impact study on their effectiveness versus publicly run facilities.

Bill Bush

tttt said...

"Unless a private prison houses county jail prisoners, there's no regulatory entity overseeing them in Texas....."

The following self-report on the Texas Jail Commission is helpful in understanding their mission:

Through a MOU with TDCJ, the TCJS has been hands-off regarding private prisons holding TDCJ inmates. The TCJS only regulates private prisons holding out-of-state inmates, county jails, and municipal jails operated by private contractors. TYC doesn't come into play that I can see.

The TCJS has a miniscule budget of about $1 million. This is ridiculous. I can count the number of inspectors on one hand and that's just for 250+ county jails and private prisons they now regulate. If they assume more responsibility in inspecting with an added feature of monitoring, their budget is going to have to be greatly increased.

tttt said...

Bill, you might remember back in the late 90s when Cornell simply walked out on a juvenile contract in Georgia because it was no longer profitable. They low-balled the bid and the state bit. You're right, the track record just doesn't belong to GEO, alone.

Anonymous said...

Male TYC inmates moved to girls facility

Anonymous said...

One step forward

Four Steps Backwards

Anonymous said...

Just a point of clarification, Bill:

Friday's hearing is not a Whitmire-Madden show. It's just a Whitmire show. The hearing on Friday is of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee (chaired by Whitmire), not the Joint Select Committee on the Operations and Management of the TYC, which Madden and Whitmire co-chair.

The committee Madden chairs, the House Corrections Committee, will also be holding a hearing on 10/17 to discuss the implementation of SB 103 (sans any senatorial influence).

AND, today the Joint Committee posted a hearing for 10/29.

It will be interesting to see how the dynamics in House Corrections will differ from that of Senate CJ or the Joint Committee.

Anonymous said...

They should discuss why staff at their facility locked youth in cells for days at a time for a period of months. Cells with no toilets, sporadic access to the restroom, irregular food and water.

Eddie G. Griffin said...

Great post and updates. Since the legislature recessed, Grits has been my primary source of information about the TYC saga. Jerry Madden and company keep turning over stones and finding more mess. But there is a solution, and I believe they are getting there- slowly but surely.

Anonymous said...

The new administration is more of a problem than a solution.

Anonymous said...

Abuse, corruption and deaths in for-profit prisons shouldn't surprise anyone and especially not in a prison run by GEO Group. Coke County is only unrepresentative in terms of the media attention it has drawn. Look at their history in Ault and Pueblo Colorado, in Baldwin, Michigan, in Jena, Louisiana, in New Mexico to get some sense of their chronic abuse of the public trust.

Idaho had ample warnings for ten years that it had failed to monitor its exported prisoners to Texas and Louisiana, but chose to ignore them. That state failed the public, their taxpayers and the prisoners they sent through their continuing malfeasance.

Do you think GEO cares? CEO George Zoley was paid $2.67 million last year and exercised $1.7 million more in stock awards. He purchased an $8.95 million house. This May he got a stock award of about $3 million more. COO Wayne Calabrese made 2.75 million in pay and exercised stock awards in 2006.

On April 24th Arizona inmates in a GEO-operated Indiana prison rioted where the bulk of the guards were making $8 an hour.