Saturday, July 11, 2009

Geo Group secretly snagged forensic psych hospital contract in budget conference committee

Amazing! Emily Ramshaw at the Dallas News reports that legislators inserted a provision into the state budget in conference committee to pay for a privately-run psych prison in Montgomery County to be run by the Geo Group, even though no state agency requested it and the idea didn't make it through the budget process in either chamber. According to Ramshaw ("Troubled prison firm's deal for new psychiatric hospital raises questions," July 11):

Lawmakers inserted an earmark into the state budget to fund the future Montgomery County facility starting in 2011. But they said they didn't know until this week that the county had selected the GEO Group to operate it, although GEO lobbyists were pushing for it as early as February.

The new facility came as a post-session shock to mental health advocates, who acknowledge the need for it. But they say they weren't informed about it and never would have signed off if they knew Florida-based GEO was operating it.

This is a complete surprise to me, and I'm sure to many others who watched Texas' legislative process closely. That said, I've been calling for years on this blog for the state to invest more money in competency restoration so mentally ill inmates don't sit around for months in the jail waiting for state hospital beds to open up. But the Department of State Health Services had chosen to address that problem by funding and promoting outpatient competency restoration, not building more inpatient beds, and they didn't ask for this facility. Again from Ramshaw:

state lawmakers say the psychiatric facility, which by 2011 is expected to house more than 100 criminal offenders awaiting trials or competency findings, will solve a major backlog. The Montgomery County jail has hundreds of inmates awaiting mental health treatment. The nearest state forensic mental hospital is more than 100 miles away, and when a bed opens up, it takes at least two deputies to take an offender there.

"It's a problem we sorely need to address, instead of leaving people who need mental health care in prison," said Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, one of the Senate's budget writers.

But the budgeting process and the choice of contractor have raised some eyebrows.

Department of State Health Services officials, who oversee psychiatric care in Texas, say the Montgomery County facility was not something they requested funding for in the budget. It was added to the budget in conference committee.

Mental health advocates, who track psychiatric hospital legislation closely, say they never heard any public discussion about it.

Me either! Much of Ramshaw's story details unfortunate incidents in the Geo Group's recent Texas past, several of which are listed in this sidebar accompanying the story, and it's true there's a long list of problems.

Particularly worrisome, in some instances Geo allegedly hasn't provided all the services its contracted for, which would be especially troublesome in a mental health environment. According to a DOJ report last year, in general "private prisons appear to do a poorer job at providing meaningful programming for prisoners than state run facilities."

Equally concerning, guards at Geo units are less well trained than at TDCJ. According to the company's 10-K, Geo guards receive just 160 hours of training before being assigned to a facility compared to 300 hours for state prison guards. That makes me wonder whether COs at the Montgomery County mental health facility would receive adequate training for what's sure to be an exceptionally challenging gig.

Interestingly, legislators all over the state this week are being asked questions about the Geo Group for which they find themselves lacking good answers. In South Texas, Geo was accused in court this week of misleading shareholders about whether it was "exonerated" for an ugly 2001 murder of an inmate for which the company lost a major civil suit. Geo's counsel in the case is the law partner of a Texas state legislator, according to the Brownsville Herald ("Sanctions against the Geo Group sought," July 6):

The family of the late Gregorio de la Rosa Jr., killed by two inmates in 2001 in a jail facility then-operated and managed by Wackenhut in Raymondville under contract with the state, is seeking the sanctions from the Thirteenth Court of Appeals.

The family claims in court records that GEO "continues its disgusting display of disrespect for Texas' civil justice system," by lying to the government, investors and the business community in an April 30 report filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

State Rep. Rene O. Oliveira's firm, Roerig, Oliveira & Fisher LLP of Brownsville and McAllen, represents The GEO Group.

Asked if the prison group lied and to comment about the claims, Oliveira, D-Brownsville, said, "I'm not qualified to answer that question. I have never done one minute of legal work for them."

"I am not even familiar with the case. It is being handled by my partner, David Oliveira; nor am I familiar with the allegations. ... David Oliveira was not available for comment.

Geo is clearly a well-connected company - getting your project inserted into the conference committee on the budget when neither chamber nor the contracting state agency wanted it is no mean feat, and it's not everybody who finds a state legislator dodging questions about your company's alleged misconduct in the newspaper.

At least the Montgomery County facility won't open immediately and there may still be time for belatedly vetting the proposal before the system actually comes online.

UPDATE: A commenter points out that Montgomery County commissioners last year made a conscious decision to substantially overbuild their jail beyond current needs on the assumption that the facility, to be run by the Geo Group, would make enough profit from immigration detention to "spare taxpayers additional costs." One supposes that immigration detention is no longer paying the bills if the county and Geo are seeking to use the Montgomery County Jail for competency restoration beds! I wonder if that's the facility they're talking about?

See other Grits posts related to the Geo Group:


Anonymous said...

Does no one in government ever stop and say to themselves -Wait, this might be a really bad idea?

Smart business move for GEO though. They can mistreat that group of people all they want and all the complaints will just be put to the delusions of crazy people.

Just curious, what is the current billable hourly rate for having a state rep. in your pocket? Anybody know?

Anonymous said...

So - this Ramshaw person is a reporter. Did she try to find out exactly who on the budget conference committee stuck this in the appropriations bill? There are what....ten senators and reps on the committee? GEO contribute to any of their campaigns? Maybe the local rep or senator? I hate to read stories that leave questions unanswered.JMO.


editor said...

Has anyone looked to see if it was video recorded? -stircrazy

pigs said...

I know a group of pig ranchers that treat pigs much better than GEO treats humans in its care. And the pig farmers don't get kick backs like the pigs we've elected in this state do. We need term limits.

Anonymous said...

I might be missing something but I don't understand if this is a jail or a "mental health facility" My understanding was that criminal offenders in need of treatment or having competency concerns were transfered to state mental facilities and put in with the general population there. They have not as yet been convicted of any crime?

I guess what I am saying is will this be a "hospital" or a jail? If it is to be a hospital, I was not aware that GEO was licensed to provide such care. Like I said, perhaps I am missing something.

Anonymous said...

What does "state forensic mental hospital" mean? Is that just plain ole state mental hospital? Sorry, color me confused.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Here's the deal. These are beds for "competency restoration". That means that, pretrial, the defendants have been deemed incompetent to stand trial because of mental illness and must spend time getting back on their meds, etc., before they can go to court. For years that was done primarily at state hospitals, but in 2007 DSHS began promoting outpatient competency restoration, first in Harris County then in the other large counties.

So this isn't jail and it isn't a hospital - it's something in between and very different from anything else Geo runs in Texas.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for taking the time to clear that up for me Grits.

Now color me very afraid for these people.

Anonymous said...

Is this the same Montgomery County that built a jail to house immigration detainees? I believe Geo runs that place for them as well. They must have a very friendly working relationship.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Good catch, 9:16!

Apparently Montgomery County couldn't find enough new immigrant detainees to keep their overbuilt afloat. Who could have predicted that? :)

gravyrug said...

Gah. Something we obviously need, provided by someone demonstrably incompetent to do it (or at least unwilling to do it right). Politics makes my brain hurt.

Anonymous said...

So - there is a free lunch regarding jail economics? This "hospital" is being funded in order to pay the bonds for the immigrant jail and take the county commissioners off the hook financially?

This method of financing was used many times in the 90's when privates financed juvenile facilities and boot camps. Several (Canadian and Sweetwater that I know of) closed earlier this decade leaving someone on the hook for bond payments. Don't know the outcome of who was left holding the bag and I am sure there are other facilities around the state that suffered the same fate.

Appears this was just a Montgomery County financial bailout (and you're telling me Senator Williams didn't know?)

Hook Em Horns said...

Follow the money! Somewhere, some one or some people have been paid off in traditional Texas fashion.

Texas Maverick said...

Byrne Justice Assistance Grant to Montgomery County. Do you think it was to pay GEO?
State Jurisdiction Name Government Type Eligible Individual Allocation

Anonymous said...

Forensic beds could be reduced if many of the jails would allow clients to remain on medications they cam in with. Too often clients are taken off meds prior to evaluation and given different medications. Often the client will come in on a next generation anti-psychotic such a seroquel, abilify, geodon, etc... and then be placed on Haldol or Thorazine. Surprise, Surprise the client is no longer lucid and is not incompetent to stand trial.

Or they arrest someone for sleeping on the front steps of the county courthouse. Since the homeless person dx with Schizophrenia is a public nuisance the county decides to send them to a State Hospital on a forensic warrant for 90 days so the county won't have to worry about that person.

Anonymous said...

The usual suspects on sneaking this project through are most likely Senator Tommy Williams, Senator Steve Ogden, Rep. John Otto, Rep. John Zerwas, and Rep. Jim Pitts. Rep. Ruth McClendon also broke party rules and road with these Republicans this session. Someone needs to let Ruth know she has been a bad Democrat this year and Santa Claus may not visit her next election.

- Lance