Saturday, October 13, 2007

Texas Senate committee begins long march toward private prison oversight

It's hard to know what if any conclusions to draw from yesterday's Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee hearing on private prison oversight, but one senses it might be the first step toward future legislative proposals to create restrictions on the dozens of privately run lockups that dot the state.

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:

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."

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?"

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)
Deitch made sure everyone was clear that, so far as Geo Group's history at the Coke County site:
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.


Anonymous said...

Scott, sadly you missed Elmer telling everyone that DaPope had the hardest job of all executive directors in the state. His personal thank you to her gagged all watching. Does anyone realize she is responsible for less than 10K youth and can't do that right? And the Grandma tag is already taken. Go bake brownies for your own kids.

Anonymous said...

Did you see the pictures from this Coke Co. juvie? Nasty.

Anonymous said...

On a similar note, have you followed what is happening with the Mesa group?

They had a kid in their custody 60 miles from where he was supposed to be and committed suicide under the care of one of their contract foster parents.

These are the people who operate the Williams House in Lometa.

Anonymous said...

Greetings from afar my brotha' Grits! I just saw the replay of the hearing and thought "wow, Henson sure cleans up well!"

Couple of questions for you. First, if I'm not mistaken, I take it you think an outside agency ought to be monitoring contracted facilties. What state agency? Or are you thinking the state should create a new agency that specifically monitors contracts in both the adult and juvenile systems? I think that'd be great.

Second, I know Senate Bill 103 requires the TYC to be accredited by ACA. Does the same hold true for their contracts as well? I don't have the bill handy so I can't tell.

Finally, I noticed Whitmire acknowledged your blog. As much as he doesn't want to admit it, he reads these comments. So with that, "Hi Elmer. I noticed you've been behaving here of late. Good for you."

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Whitsfoe, he not only acknowledged reading Grits, he said he'd seen what I wrote about letting witnesses speak and "took it to heart." I appreciated that, actually; I thought it was big of him to say - he deserved the kudos you gave him on that score.

As to what agency should do oversight, IMO either a new agency should be created, or, perhaps more pragmatically, the scope of the Commission on Jail Standards' authority (and staffing, obviously) might be expanded to include private prisons. Jails are quite different from prisons, and TCJS doesn't have that expertise right now, but if you'd have to build a new agency, anyway, they could hire and train the expertise.

Bottom line - contract managers for contracting agencies play a very important role, and that job needs to be done better. But inspectors like TCJS have a different role. To avoid incentives for collusion between agency and contractor to cover up abuses, IMO there needs to be regular, outside inspection, as well. best,

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Oh, and yes, according to testimony by Nick Hudson at the hearing, contractors must also be accredited by ACA, but most aren't, including the Coke facility.

Anonymous said...

I'm so sick and tired of Whitmire's shit. In 1997, he held a criminal justice committee hearing on the scandal in Brazoria County involving Missouri inmatesand the subject of contract monitoring came up. It's come up many more times since. It was during those years he took plenty of political contributions from the private companies.

As Yogi would say, this is deva ju all over again.

I can assure you that if history has taught us a lesson, it's one we've forgotten.

Whitmire needs to retire. He's lost his effectiveness.

Anonymous said...

YO’ Grits -

It would be more cost effective and practical if they’d consider expanding the role of the Jail Standards Commission and change their name. I think that’d fit; however, they'd need someone with a background in monitoring juvenile justice facilities, not just the physical plant, but the programming as well. If they were to do something along those lines, they’d be overwhelmed by TYC employees looking to jump ship.

The situation at the Youth Commission, with TDCJ running shop, is starting to take its toll on facility administrators. I know a few who have been in contact with the Governor’s office, some with their local reps, many with their attorneys, just waiting for their number to come up.

The most recent developments, from what I'm hearing from afar, are certainly not encouraging. In fact, it's very dismal, and it all centers around one particular TDCJ transplant, BSH.

If BSH can read, he needs to hear this: the TYC has specific personnel policy concerning retaliation. The TYC entered into an agreement with Advocacy Inc. et al concerning the use of pepper spray. You may not have liked it, but that’s the way it rolled. Your directives to use common sense are contrary to that settlement agreement. Point blank, the GAP policy concerning the use of pepper spray on youth in solitary confinement is prohibited according to the policy that was reinstated as a part of the settlement agreement. The fact you are holding these administrators accountable for following that court order is not only inexcusable, but unlawful. If you think for one minute these facility administrators will put their lives and those of their family on the line to please you – think again.

BSH needs to go.

In the mean time, Alaska is great! You guys should see the King Salmon we’re catching up here! Too bad they don’t have a juvenile problem in this neck of the woods!

Anonymous said...

Seems a primary issue with either a new agency or a reworking of TCJS is how do you stop the TDCJjr effect? The fact that you NEED competent juvenile program staff is irrelevant, just ask D'Pope.

Anonymous said...

I was disappointed that variances were only discussed by the Jail Standards people. I thought the variances were just as ludicrous as those granted to the private prisons.

Four staff to inspect 267 facilities; and there was only one!

Hang on everyone; the 81st Legislative Session is only several months away. Help is on the way! Very, very disgusting.

Anonymous said...

I want to see how Jerry Madden handles Pope in his hearing. For some reason I think she may not get as warm welcome from Jerry Madden. Scott you should email Jerry Madden your thoughts on the younger youth being contracted out. He might actually be interested in doing something to stop the little boys from being put in contract care. He has always answered my emails when I ragged on him about TYC. I might be totally wrong but I think Rep. Maden is trying to do what is right in the TYC matter. I am even willing to over look the fact he is a Republican.

Anonymous said...

Whitsfoe, dude all the TDCJ regime needs to go and those promoted during her leadership. Our agency's survival is hanging in the balance and dependent on their removal. I've yet to see d'Pope arrive on a campus without her puppets and henchman. She loves those "yes men/women" and she's an expert at pulling the strings to make them dance. Wish they could see themselves, they'd certainly lose self-respect if they had an inkling of what that is!!

Anonymous said...

Will Owens show up at the hearing this week, or has even the Lege accepted that he doesn't do anything?

Anonymous said...

12:39 p.m. You're funny!!

Anonymous said...

BSH continues to promote the use of force continuum which places OC spray before physical restraint. Its like the settlement never happened...

Anonymous said...

ERJC does too, because other than the newspaper, CO has not put it in black or white for TYC to stop using it.

Anonymous said...

Scott, has anybody researched Dimitria Popes background? What are her qualifications? Why was the RED unit developed for her, was it based upon her inability in her prvious post with TDCJ or was this unit developed for a real purpose. Is this unit still operational, if not why?

This is all perplexing that we have no real background of this person other than her own account. I believe as well as many others that we should have some historical perspective of a person attempting to lead an agency with a duty to protect and rehabilitate the youth of Texas.

Anonymous said...

How does being the chief of "RED" unit qualify someone to head an entire agency? Oh wait -- cronyism at its finest. Thank you, Whitmire, and crooked Texas Politics in general.

So it's understandable then, if cronyism installed Pope in the first place, that she appoint all her cronies to TYC positions. It's wrong, but one can see how she believed the practiced was endorsed.

I wish we had a good leader. Hell, even a lackluster leader would be an improvement. Good leaders convince their staffers to do things, based on the wisdom and soundness of that leader's ideas. Instead, Pope has to coerce her staffers. This breeds resentment.

Pope frustrated the career progression of many fine, competent employees when she appointed her friends to those top positions. If I were one of the aformentioned, I would be worried. As soon as Pope is gone (resigned, ousted, however), her cronies will be S-O-L! Their subordinates will drop the feigned respect. Lateral professionals won't be afraid to criticize. Eventually, they too, will be ousted.

I hope they haven't bought any big houses latetly!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Y'all, FWIW Pope ran CJAD at TDCJ (i.e., adult probation) before the RED Group. That's actually a real management gig, and it's where Whitmire said he worked with her previously and she earned his (apparently undying) confidence.

Anonymous said...

And why was she removed from that post?

Anonymous said...

RED Unit was created for a reason, based upon incompetence, please check into this and maybe then we will get a clearer picture.

Anonymous said...

Regional bureaucracy's? Did you have to create one more place to promote your buddies to D'Pope??? What a mess, This is the TYC not a social club. These are our children; not adult offenders. This woman and her Posse must go. The Gov needs to see the TYC for what it has become, a Bottomless Powder Keg, he should seriously consider bringing in some one with a track record of putting these kids best interest in the forefront.

Anonymous said...

TDCJ wanted to replace Pope and created the RED Unit. Whitmire helped her then and has probably protected the RED Unit for her. After Whitmire recommended her for the TYC position, TDCJ must have figured they didn't have to keep the unit there any longer.