Prison Pays

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

• Through vigorous lobbying and campaign contributions, companies have been able to kill federal and state legislation that would subject them to greater public scrutiny.

Independent audits and performance reviews in Texas and other states have continually shown lax oversight of contracts, resulting in some cases with states overpaying the vendors. With private guards being paid much less than their public counterparts, more money is available for lobbying, campaign contributions and lavish executive salaries.
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On March 9, 2010, Cornell's senior vice president of corporate development e-mailed Alfred Moran, the head of the City of Houston's Department of Administration and Regulatory Affairs.

"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."

But Ben Erwin wasn't contacting Moran in his city capacity; Moran was also on Cornell's board of directors, a position from which he drew a six-figure pay in addition to his city salary. Cornell's contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons for the Leidel Comprehensive Sanctions Center — a halfway house in downtown Houston — was up for renewal. Erwin needed an updated letter of approval from the city's Planning and Development Department stating that the facility still complied with city code. (Moran declined to comment for this story. His involvement does not constitute a conflict of interest, according to the city's director of communications, Janice Evans, and City Attorney David Feldman. "Mr. Moran followed all procedures of a City employee who holds outside employment," Evans stated in an e-mail to the Press.)

The Leidel Center had operated mostly quietly and smoothly since its inception in 1996. The only hiccup occurred in 2005, when resident Chris Wilkinson left the facility with a church pass (a neo-Nazi with a swastika inked on the side of his skull, Wilkinson was clearly the religious type) and made a beeline for Tarrant County, where he shot and killed three people over what must have been an action-packed weekend. But since Cornell lived up to its contract by placing a few phone calls to authorities, there was no need for the prison bureau to consider taking action against the company.

Attached to Erwin's e-mail was a letter from him to Marlene Gafrick, director of Planning and Development, and a draft letter "for her to send to me regarding Leidel."

"Thank you for pushing this for us," Erwin wrote to Moran. "We owe the BOP a response by week's end, so please let me know if we run into any unforeseen hurdles."

Resolving this unfinished business was also necessary for reasons beyond renewing the contract: Cornell was negotiating a merger with competitor GEO Group, and it was best to have everything in place.

The contract was renewed, and when GEO's buyout of Cornell was finalized in August, it left GEO with "78,000 beds in 116 correctional, detention and residential treatment facilities," according to a GEO newsletter.

GEO has a varied history in Texas, both under its current incarnation and under its previous moniker, Wackenhut Corrections.

Certainly, not every GEO facility in Texas has been tarred by scandal. Since 2008, for example, the company has quietly run Conroe's Joe Corley Detention Facility, which houses federal prisoners. (The facility's only hitches so far have been a prisoner's suicide in April and the injuries accused Ponzi schemer Allen Stanford suffered in a fight with another inmate.)

In 2009, GEO landed a contract to run a psychiatric hospital in Conroe — something that reportedly surprised mental health advocates and even legislators. As The Dallas Morning News reported in 2009, "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..." The paper also noted that "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."

Sometimes Texas officials have no problem with GEO, even when other states do. In 2007, Idaho prison officials inspected a GEO-run prison in the north Texas town of Spur after an Idaho offender committed suicide. Calling the facility the worst they'd ever seen, Idaho officials transferred prisoners from Spur to another GEO facility. But after another suicide, in GEO's Littlefield prison, Idaho officials conducted an audit and found guards had routinely falsified reports. The state subsequently severed its contract with GEO. Texas prison officials, however, never removed or transferred the state's prisoners from those GEO facilities.

But Texas is the setting for the costliest civil judgment in the industry's history and one that involved GEO: In 2009, the Thirteenth Court of Appeals upheld a $42 million wrongful death judgment against the company for the 2001 killing of inmate Gregorio de la Rosa Jr. in its Willacy County lockup.

Here's how the court summarized the incident: "This case involves the horrific and gruesome death of Gregorio de la Rosa, Jr. Gregorio, an honorably discharged former National Guardsman, was serving a six-month sentence at a prison operated by Wackenhut Corrections Corporation for possession of less than 1/4 grams of cocaine. A few days before his expected release, 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."

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