Prison Pays

Despite a history of abuse and bad conditions, private prison corporation GEO keeps getting contracts from the state.

Anthony Ferrell left the Ben A. Reid halfway house in northeast Houston on October 25, 2010, to go to work. He never came back.

Just over two weeks later, a Meyerland gas station security camera recorded him walking inside shortly after midnight. When he exited, a mother of three was missing her purse and a 24-year-old college student lay on the floor, bleeding to death. The man had intervened in the purse snatching, and for that, he got a bullet in the stomach.

Six days later, a Crime Stoppers tipster spoiled Ferrell's good time: Police arrested him at a nightclub and charged him with capital murder in the death of Sam Irick. Two days after that, Ferrell had the privilege of observing something Irick never again would: a birthday.

"Gregorio was beaten to death by two other inmates using a lock tied to a sock, while Wackenhut's officers stood by and watched and Wackenhut's wardens smirked and laughed."
Keri Rosebraugh
"Gregorio was beaten to death by two other inmates using a lock tied to a sock, while Wackenhut's officers stood by and watched and Wackenhut's wardens smirked and laughed."

Ferrell's criminal history dates back to 1989, when he was convicted of burglary and given seven years probation. When he later refused to provide a sample for a urine analysis, his probation was revoked and the full sentence was imposed. But he was out of state custody by 1992, whereupon he committed armed robbery. He served ten years of a 20-year sentence, and in 2007 was busted for unauthorized use of a vehicle and possession of less than a gram of a controlled substance. The six-month sentences were assigned concurrently, but Ferrell unfortunately got an extra 90 days tacked on when he attacked the officer transferring him into custody; Ferrell kicked the officer in the groin.

When the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles released Ferrell to Reid, it figured that he wouldn't be too much of a problem. He wasn't placed under "superintensive supervision," meaning he wouldn't be yoked with a GPS. And Reid was not a secured facility.

When the staff at Reid figured out Ferrell had absconded, they notified local and state authorities, per the contract hammered out between the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the halfway house's Houston-based owner, Cornell Companies. After those phone calls, Ferrell was no longer Cornell's problem. It was up to law enforcement to find him.

This was the same for the sex offender who had absconded from Reid three weeks before Ferrell. And it was the same for the other sex offender who fled in February 2009. Fortunately, neither of those guys did any damage. Not like Gary Cox, the sex offender who strolled off the Reid campus in 2000, and, over the course of a year, kidnapped three pre-teen girls, holding them captive for days. In May 2001, a cop pulled him over outside San Antonio. With Cox in the car were his third victim and a gun. Cox stepped out of the car and shot himself in the head.

None of these things canceled Cornell's contract with the state, which means the company's shareholders never had to hear about losing any money on a guy who kept a nine-year-old girl in a boarded-up cabin in the Hill Country for five days before dropping her off one block from her home when he grew tired of her.

In fact, Cornell never had much to worry about. When the previous supervisor at Reid was indicted for drug distribution in 2004 and seven employees resigned after failing drug tests, TDCJ didn't blink. Nor was it an issue that same year when two residents raped another and then threatened the lives of seven residents who became aware of the incident. The punchline for that joke is that the two rapists already had warrants out for their arrests due to parole violation, a minor detail that the Reid staff somehow overlooked.

But a lack of sanctions wasn't unusual among private prison operators. It took something really big for a contract to be cut, because states often don't have the space for inmates, which is why they're contracted out in the first place. It would take something like forcing kids to sleep in feces-encrusted cells and eat food infested with bugs, which is what happened at a Texas Youth Commission facility in the West Texas town of Bronte in 2007. That one was owned by the Florida-based GEO, which would go on to lose four more contracts in Texas. But GEO would win some as well. And in a $730 million deal in August, GEO took over Cornell, greatly enhancing its place in the market.

The marriage of two of the most problematic private prison operators in the country will probably be good for GEO's shareholders, executives and board of directors. But what it means for community safety and inmate welfare is a bit murky: Barely held accountable for escapes, riots and inmate-on-inmate violence, private prison companies operating in Texas and elsewhere have for decades done exactly what corporations are supposed to do: Put shareholders' interests above all else.

Just like state- and federally run prisons, private prisons have their own set of problems and deficiencies, including:

• Privately operated halfway houses and penitentiaries are not responsible or held accountable for the prisoners who escape from their facilities;

• Performance measures in contracts are often vague; even if such terms are clearly delineated and companies under-perform, they're rarely fined or sanctioned;

• Guards who work in private prisons are paid less than those in government facilities and often undergo a lot less training;

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