Prison Pays

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

The court also scolded Wackenhut/GEO for withholding or destroying evidence, including a surveillance camera recording of the beating. In a deposition before trial, the prison warden stated that he had seen the videotape. But under questioning on the stand, the warden changed his story: He testified that he never saw video, but had merely viewed his "own little movie" in his mind, based on information from others.

In the company's refusal to turn over evidence, the court opined, "We find that Wackenhut's conduct was clearly reprehensible and, frankly, constituted a disgusting display of disrespect for the welfare of others and for this state's civil justice system."

The company had appealed nearly a dozen other counts against it, prevailing in one: an order for the company to pay $7,000 for de la Rosa Jr.'s funeral expenses. But on that count, which came to less than two-ten-thousandths of one percent of the total judgment, the company emerged victorious. The court could find nothing in the law to uphold that count.

"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."

GEO generated more ink for its Coke County youth detention center, which Texas Youth Commission Ombudsman Will Harrell inspected in 2007 and found lacking. Harrell observed an "over-reliance" on pepper spray; an insect infestation; gross understaffing; and bedding that hadn't been washed in a month.

"There is a greater sense of fear and intimidation in this facility than perhaps any other I have been to," he wrote.

Another inspection, by Harris County's TYC liaison, noted that one of the dorms lacked a bathroom, so the kids had to relieve themselves on the floor "or a plastic bag (if they have one)."

Curiously, the facility had received rave reviews from TYC's own inspectors, prompting TYC to twice dub it Contract Facility of the Year. Uncuriously, it turned out that two of the inspectors were former GEO employees.

Once the ombudsman's report became public, TYC could no longer ignore things, and it dispatched new inspectors. After walking through the facility, according to the Dallas Morning News, they had to scrape human excrement off their shoes. Commission head Dimitria Pope removed all 197 kids from the facility, setting them up on another campus where they were given, among other luxuries, toothbrushes.

State Senator John Whitmire, the chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, admonished both GEO and TYC, and launched an investigation and a series of hearings on GEO's contracts in Texas.

"They had their lobbyists try to pressure legislators not to listen to TYC," Whitmire told The Dallas Morning News. Of course, Whitmire had for years accepted campaign contributions from GEO, and would continue to accept the company's money, even after the Coke County center was closed: In January, two GEO PACs contributed a total of $4,000 to his campaign.

It appears that, in the Coke County incident, GEO had pushed the envelope too far: The company may have saved money by not providing decent staff salaries, or even making sure a facility was fully staffed, and by cutting corners on facility maintenance and state-mandated educational programs for its youthful offenders. But a prison company — or, specifically, the staff at each facility — has to recognize the line demarcating what they can get away with and what will spill outside the prison walls.

On the surface, private facilities can appear cost-effective.

The Texas Legislative Budget Board figured that, in fiscal 2008, the per-diem cost for state-operated "1,000-bed prototype units" was $41.58, while private facilities came in at a cool $36.10.

Based on those costs, the Austin-based conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation has championed the private prison industry's "14 percent" cost savings.

Marc Levin, who heads the TPPD's Center for Effective Justice, says that "national research" proves that private prisons save money. However, outside of state and federal audits that show privatization provides negligible savings, the most widely cited pro-privatization paper is a 2004 study by Vanderbilt University researchers that was partially funded by industry leader Corrections Corporation of America.

Even the Texas Legislative Budget Board noted that "one aspect of the cost differences is that privately operated facilities did not incur certain fixed costs, such as offender transportation and offender classification." Also, per the board, "medical costs for private facilities are paid by TDCJ."

And industry critics say that a per-diem comparison ignores the fact that private prison facilities are not maximum-security; that most contracts allow companies to bill the state for medical care or "return" offenders who develop serious (i.e., expensive) health issues; that they often receive tax incentives or other subsidies for building a facility in a particular location; and, perhaps most important, that they don't have to pay lower-level staff a decent wage. (Private prison guards in Texas and other states also don't have to meet the same training requirements as their public counterparts, so the savings keep coming. As Scott Henson of pointed out in 2007, GEO guards typically receive 160 hours of "pre-service training," while TDCJ guards get 300.Since Texas is home to many private prisons, it makes sense that it's home to excellent blogs on criminal justice, including ­ and

But both Levin and critics can agree that cost-savings is just one area of concern.

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