Friday, December 16, 2011

Blatant Political Favoritism

As I discussed previously, the state of New Jersey has been looking to bring a private immigration detention center online for a few months now.  After the initial proposal was announced, it was discovered that the state has basically rigged the bidding process in favor of one single company that has strong relationships with many influential NJ politicians, including governor Christie.  The company, Education and Health Centers of America, is affiliated with a larger private prison company, CEC, which has a terrible track record both within the state and outside it.

So after the plan was protested by advocates because of the obvious favoritism showed to EHCA, the state re-issued its proposal.  And again, EHCA was the only company to bid on the proposed detention center.  And, lo and behold, they won.

Blatant Political Favoritism

Their Lobbyists Game the System

A lobbyist in Annapolis, Maryland, has just settled a case revolving around ethics charges due to unreported donations.  Bruce Bereano was found to have wined and dined state legislators without reporting the meals as campaign contributions.  Are you at all surprised that this stand-up guy represents CMS, one of the largest, for-profit prison medical companies in the country?

I'm not.

A Familiar Tune

Residents in Crete, Illinois, are finding themselves in a situation quite similar to the hubbub taking place in Southwest Ranches, Florida.  CCA has proposed an immigration detention center in town, which is especially troubling considering a report was just released that recommended closing such facilities due to numerous human rights violations.  Residents feel the facility is being forced on them; "Village residents have not been asked for their input on this issue," said a local resident. The board president couldn't even provide any details on the project, because CCA has not exactly been forthcoming with information regarding the proposed construction.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Florida's Politicians (But Not Its Residents) Love Private Prisons

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz represents Southwest Ranches, Florida, which has been at the epicenter of a debate over a proposed immigration detention facility.  Residents of the town have consistently demonstrated their opposition to the facility, which they feel was designed and planned without much public knowledge of the proceedings.  Basically, they think they have been fleeced by CCA, who hopes to build the facility on land it already owns, into having a detention center that they fear will lower property values and present a risk to public safety.

Unfortunately, they've got a pretty poor representative in Ms. Wasserman, who's basically taking a "lesser of available evils" approach.  She initially called a town hall meeting to allow residents to voice their opposition and learn more about the project.  After more than 250 people showed up to let CCA and the town council know they didn't want a private prison, Wasserman, who had called the meeting, decided she would support the project.  She now thinks it's a good idea and that the town should move forward, saying she thinks "it is going to be far better to have that ICE detention center there than to have any other facility that would have a much more negative impact on residents there."  Other than a lead paint producing puppy mill, I can't really imagine what would be worse for a community than a privately operated, for-profit human rights violations incubator.  But there's no chance she could have been partially swayed by the nearly $20 million CCA has spent lobbying the federal government over the past decade.  Right?

Unfortunately for the residents of Southwest Ranches, Wasserman isn't alone in ignoring her constituents interests and supporting a company with a long track record of failing to live up to its contracts.  The mayor of Southwest Ranches just basically told his constituents to pound sand, because the deal is done.  CCA owns the land, and has for a decade, so he says there's really nothing residents can do to stop the construction at this point.  If there's any saving grace in all of this, it might be found in Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart from Miami, who just sent a letter to ICE to demonstrate his opposition to the proposed detention center.  So there is at least one Congressperson from Florida who hasn't been bought off by the industry yet.  Also, Udonis Haslem, one of those Miami Heat players not named LeBron or Dwyane, has voiced his opposition to the center in a letter he sent to the Southwest Ranches Town Council.

However, Southwest Ranches is not the only front in the privatization battle happening in Florida.  As you may know, earlier this year the state was looking to privatize half of its prison system, and medical care for the entire system.  After details of the plan emerged that showed it was forced through as a last-minute amendment to the budget, the state was sued by the union representing the state's COs, which succeeded in blocking the privatization because the plan violated the state constitution.  In the process, the Director of the state DOC lost his job for opposing the plan, because Governor Scott could not abide a secretary of corrections who had an independent train of thought that challenged his worldview idolizing privatization at all costs.

The corruption surrounding this whole mess was so blatant that the FBI and a Federal Grand Jury are actually both investigating the whole deal, starting with the former speaker of the house (who is currently imprisoned), who forced through a last-minute budget amendment (seems to be the trend in Florida...) a few years back that resulted in the construction of the Blackwater Correctional Facility.  I guess the name "Abu Ghraib" had already been taken.  The FBI's investigation recently resulted in a search of the house of the Santa Rosa County Commissioner.  They're apparently interested in whether the GEO Group could have effectively purchased the man's vote with either licit or illicit campaign contributions.

And yet, amid all this; the blatant corruption; investigations by the FBI and a federal grand jury; Floridians protesting the construction of an immigration detention center, Governor Scott just keeps pushing his foolish plan to privatize the prison system.  His budget proposal for FY12 includes huge increases in the amount state employees would have to pay for health insurance, increased funding for education, and, yes, a renewal of the plan to privatize half the state's prison system.

WTF, Florida?

Advocates Call for Investigation of GEO Group Abuses

As the US Department of Justice continues to decline to investigate ongoing abuses of immigration detainees in private detention facilities, a new voice has joined the chorus of those calling for some accountability to be imposed on the system.  The Public Advocate for the City of New York has written a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, urging him to investigate the ongoing abuse of immigration detainees.  He is joined by local and national politicians who want the DOJ to do something about the abuses immigrants face in detention.  As an NYC Council Member stated, "Detention centers that do not respect basic human rights have no place in New York City or anywhere else in the United States."

Monday, December 12, 2011

Private Prisons Must Comply with Public Records Laws

Well at least in Tennessee and Florida, they do.  In most jurisdictions, private prisons, as private companies, are not subject to public records or FOIA laws, which has presented a tremendous obstacle to members of the public who wish to exert some semblance of oversight on the system.  But in a recent ruling in Tennessee, it was held that CCA must comply with public records requests as must any agency performing an inherently governmental function.  This is a tremendous victory for advocates like myself, who recognize that the industry is in dire need of effective oversight and that it has skirted the bounds of accountability for decades by continually avoiding turning over records related to its operations.  CCA will almost undoubtedly appeal the decision, but for the time being, I want to savor this victory.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

ALEC's Influence in Arizona

As I've reported on extensively in the past, ALEC is a nefarious front group for conservative legislation that has been a major driving force behind our nation's crisis of mass incarceration.  So there's no way I could pass up highlighting a new report that has come out detailing how effective ALEC has been at getting corporate-sponsored legislation passed in the state of Arizona.

You'll probably remember that ALEC was where SB1070, Arizona's "Breathing While Brown" law, was born, before ALEC member Russell Pearce brought it home and introduced it to the state legislature.  The law was drafted with CCA at the table, and would have a direct impact on their bottom line as it resulted in increased incarceration of illegal immigrants, almost half of whom are detained in private facilities.  Arizona also happens to be home to many private facilities that currently house out-of-state prisoners and immigrants, and the state is seeking to add 5,000 additional private beds to its existing state-run facilities.

So this report comes at a critical time for Arizona, as it evaluates whether or not it wants to proceed with a plan to contract away millions of taxpayer dollars to an industry that hasn't even been able to demonstrate savings in the state of Arizona.  ALEC has pushed for the privatization of prisons in the past, and it has given private prison companies direct access to state legislators who are considering the privatization bids.  Those same companies have also donated thousands of dollars to these politicians, all of which amounts to a tremendous amount of political influence for the industry in the state.  As The Executive Director of the People for the American Way stated, "There's no way ordinary citizens can match the level of access and influence that ALEC provides to these corporations."

For now, the state is holding back on awarding contracts until some time in January, after it was twice sued over the request for proposals because it has for years failed to conduct an efficiency audit of its existing private facilities.  Once that report is complete, the state should have (even more) data to demonstrate that private prisons don't actually save any money, which will hopefully compel state legislators to reject the industry's influence and make wiser decisions with the constituents' hard-earned money.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Straining Resources in a Small Town

After Ohio became the first state to sell a prison to a private company earlier this year, a few logistical details needed to be hammered out.  For instance, who would be responsible for dealing with major disturbances that could potentially happen at the prison?  Disturbances like riots, which seem to happen more frequently at privately-operated prisons?

When the state owned and operated the facility, the state's Highway Patrol would respond to such emergencies.  But now that the prison has been turned over to private hands, it appears as though the responsibility now falls on the local police department in Conneaut, Ohio.  The local government fears the strain this could put on the small town's resources if the police department ever needed to be called in to deal with an emergency at the prison.  So much so that they're heading to the state capitol to speak with Governor Kasich about it.

For all the great economic benefits that proponents of privatization discuss, they often fail to mention how the industry can act as a parasite on small communities.  They use tremendous amounts of resources, from water and electricity to sewer lines.  A prison can dissuade commerce and prospective homeowners.  There are numerous prisons sitting empty across the country right now, having been built on speculation but never filled; towns have defaulted on bond payments just to try to keep them open (See here for some coverage of the story in Hardin, Montana).  So to any government who contracts with a private company to operate a prison, I say: be careful, because you really do get what you pay for.

San Bernardino County Doesn't Want a Private Prison

As a result of the decision in Brown v. Plata this spring, California has been ordered to reduce its state prison population by approximately 40,000 prisoners because overcrowding was so severe that the state could not provide medical care to the population that was sufficient enough to not violate their right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.  Governor Jerry Brown has decided to force these prisoners on county jails, and some of the private facilities that have held state prisoners are being shuttered in the process.

One of those is the Desert View CF, run by the GEO Group.  The prison is closing and the San Bernardino sheriff's office has already stated that it has no intention of signing a contract with the GEO Group, or any other private prison company for that matter, to operate it.  A spokeswoman for the department said, "It's not something the county is's too costly."

Monday, December 5, 2011

Australia: It Just Keeps Getting Uglier

A few more interesting pieces of news have come out of Australia recently, following riots and hunger strikes at an immigration detention facility and widespread criticism of the country's reliance on private incarceration.  It appears as though the government had been warned of major issues in its private detention centers at least 5 months before the riots this spring, which cost more than $8.5 million in damages.  The report indicates that the Immigration Department knew its private prison industry was "severely compromised," but apparently did nothing to rectify the situation before prisoners finally rioted over substandard living conditions.

Then, as if the situation wasn't bad enough, Serco (the private company that runs the facility) was using administrative staff at the Christmas Island facility as security guards during the riots.  To put it simply, as the frigging director of Serco himself said, "I can't think of a more serious breach of occupational health and safety."

Certainly, the government should have heeded the warnings it received about the private detention centers, because this crisis could have potentially been averted.  Hindsight is of course 20/20.  Hopefully though the government will use this as a learning experience, since it is considering giving Serco a new multi-billion dollar contract for services at a hospital (Serco already has a contract worth more than $4 billion to run the private detention centers).  Especially considering a psychiatrist who just reviewed healthcare at Serco's Scherger Detention Center concluded that "tragedy is very likely to occur" due to the prisoners' inability to get adequate treatment. One person even went so far as to claim that Serco is compromising mental health care services in the community because of how poorly it operates.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Failing on Promises of Economic Benefits

Central Falls, RI, like many other towns and cities across the country, is facing a difficult budgetary climate and could greatly benefit from some increased revenue.  You know, revenue like the $525,000 the town is supposed to receive annually from the private company that operates its prison.  Except the company hasn't been paying the town for years, and now Central Falls is pursuing bankruptcy protection because its risky investment with a private prison didn't quite pan out as it had hoped.

CCA Guard Gets Second Drug Charge

As I've mentioned previously, private prisons seem to have trouble recruiting and retaining high-quality staff.  It probably has something to do with the fact that they cut corners on screening, don't hire unionized COs, and pay like Ebeneezer Scrooge.  Anyhoo, a CCA guard from New Mexico has just received not his first, but his second charge of being in possession of an illegal substance.  After formerly being charged with marijuana possession, this young man stepped his game up and was just caught smoking heroin.

Privatization Pushback

Proposals to privatize health care and mental health care for prisoners have begun to meet resistance in both North Carolina and Pennsylvania.  Let's start with the NC situation, which really scares the crap out of me.

First is a quick read; a great little editorial discussing the drawbacks of privatization and how private vendors often fail to live up to the public's expectations.  According to the author, "the logic in privatizing the services falls short... Anticipated savings might be difficult to come by... state oversight would have to be not just maintained but intensified," and the lack of competing bids calls the wisdom of the plan into question.

The community has started to pay attention as well.  A town hall meeting was convened earlier this week at a church, where many residents expressed concerns about personal and public safety if the GEO Group starts providing mental healthcare for serious criminals.

Then there's Pennsylvania, where Governor Tom Corbett wants to privatize liquor sales and has tossed around the idea of privatizing healthcare for state prisoners.  Thankfully, that foolish plan has already met with opposition both from the general public, as nurses picketed in protest of the plan, and from local politicians.  State Senator David Argall contends that the plan presents a serious risk to public safety, as would any plan in which instruments designed to promote public safety are turned over to the lowest bidder among companies with long histories of abuse and negligence.