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Prisons for profit

Deaths, lawsuits don’t stop expansion of GEO immigration prisons

Photo by Michael Barajas

 

On May 27, 2007, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents caught Jesus Manuel Galindo as he swam across the Rio Grande to visit family in Anthony, New Mexico. Handed a 30-month sentence for illegal reentry at the Reeves County Detention Center in Pecos, Galindo, a resident of Juarez with a history of epilepsy, pleaded with prison staff throughout his stay to adjust his medication as his seizures worsened. In November 2008, the day after a grand mal seizure sent him to the hospital, prison staff ordered Galindo into an isolation cell as punishment, citing that he was having “compliance” issues with his medication.

Roughly one month later, Galindo suffered a seizure overnight inside his isolation cell, separated from staff and other inmates. His body was already cold to the touch and showed signs of rigor mortis when staff found him the following morning.

According to lawyers on the case, Galindo wasn’t quiet about his problems with the prison’s medical staff and worried often that he wasn’t being given correct medication levels. The mere sight of Galindo’s body being carted out of his cell sparked a prison riot as inmates set fires, took prison workers hostage, and caused over $1 million worth of damage to the facility. Their demands: better treatment and medical care at the sprawling prison complex southwest of Odessa.

The facility, like over a dozen across the state, is county-owned but managed and operated by the GEO Group, one of the most active private-prison contractors in Texas. This past December, the Galindo family and the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas sued GEO, Reeves County, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and the physicians group operating inside the prison, claiming Galindo’s death should have been prevented.

The day after the suit was filed, GEO announced it had been awarded the contract to run yet another facility in Texas: a new immigrant detention center in Karnes County.

Despite a long, troubled history in Texas, GEO’s catalogue of abuses hardly came up when the Karnes County Commissioners unanimously approved a contract with the company in December, according to Bob Libal, the Texas coordinator for Grassroots Leadership, a civil rights group based in Austin. “We didn’t even really find that many people that knew about it,” he said of his trip to Karnes, when he and other activists went to testify at the meeting.

One commissioner, when presented information about the recently filed Reeves County suit at the meeting, asked a GEO representative, “We’re not going to have those kinds of lawsuits here, right?” Libal said. “There was a little bit of discussion, and that was it. It seemed as if it was already a done deal.”

About an hour’s drive southeast of San Antonio, a sign welcoming motorists to Karnes City sits directly across from the Karnes Correctional Center, a GEO-run facility built in 1998 that houses over 600 county, U.S. Marshals Service, and ICE prisoners. Former Karnes County Judge Alger Kendall said Karnes — a rural county with a population of roughly 15,500, a 25-percent poverty rate, and one in 10 residents out of work — welcomed the new ICE detention center and the jobs GEO will bring with it.

“They plan on hiring quite a number of people. The prospect of hiring even 200 or 300 people out here is just, I think, very good for the county,” said Kendall, who served as county judge when the new center was approved. GEO has said the facility should employ about 140.

Though Karnes County officials have yet to provide the Current with a copy of the contract between the county, the federal government, and ICE, Kendall said GEO has agreed to house 30 county prisoners at the new facility, free of charge. “We were spending anywhere from $60,000 to $70,000 a year to house additional prisoners here that we didn’t have room for. To be able to house those 30 prisoners a day without any cost to us is going to be a big financial break,” Kendall said.

The new U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center would grant the company its 14th facility in the state, giving Texas far more GEO prisons than any other state. And while the company makes millions jailing both county and federal inmates across Texas, GEO has dealt with a near-endless stream of controversy over the past decade, with stories of rape, suicide, and murder plaguing several of its Texas operations.

In 2009, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced an overhaul of the immigration detention system, which encompasses over 200 detention centers, private jails, and local prisons run largely by private-prison contractors like GEO. ICE’s revised detention standards came after years of complaints from human rights groups over inadequate medical care, abuse, and lax oversight at its facilities.

However, many immigrant advocates have said the reforms failed to address serious cracks within the rapidly expanding ICE detention system. Human Rights Watch last year released a report claiming that ICE’s reforms had done little to fix clear holes in policy, practice, and oversight within the system.

After Homeland Security’s announced system-wide overhaul, the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, a facility in Taylor operated by private contractor Corrections Corporation of America, was touted as an example of ICE’s enhanced oversight measures and a new “softer” form of detention for the nation’s immigrant prisoners. However, in May 2010, allegations of further sexual misconduct at the hands of prison guards surfaced at Hutto.

In its report, Human Rights Watch outlined numerous reports of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment of detainees at several ICE facilities in Texas, including Hutto and the South Texas detention centers in Pearsall, Raymondville, and Port Isabel. “[T]his is only the latest in a series of assaults, abuses, and episodes of harassment that have quietly emerged as a pattern across the rapidly expanding national immigration detention system.

“This accumulation of reports indicate that the problem cannot be dismissed as a series of isolated incidents, and that there are systematic failures at issue,” the group wrote.

The new GEO-run facility in Karnes will be the first of what ICE is calling “civil” detention centers, in which GEO will house and care for up to 600 immigrant detainees. “It’s disturbing that the move is not to reduce the amount of people who are detained, but rather to codify the system so you detain more asylum seekers, more border crossers — the least dangerous people,” Libal said. “Many of these are people that absolutely should not be in detention.”

Nina Pruneda, an ICE spokeswoman for South and Central Texas, called the new Karnes facility “the first of its kind.” The facility will house low-risk male detainees without a criminal background who would be “carefully screened to make sure they don’t have a violent history,” she said. According to Pruneda, more than 3,500 such detainees are jailed in Texas ICE facilities.

It’s not just civil rights groups that have called for ICE to look at alternatives to detaining some of the nearly 400,000 immigrants caught up in the detention system in the U.S. Many are held on civil, not criminal, violations of U.S. immigration law, including asylum seekers and those whose legal status have been questioned.

The American Bar Association called for an overhaul of the whole system last year, saying federal crackdowns on immigrants had stretched the courts and detention centers too thin. Backlogged cases reached an all-time high by the end of 2010, at 267,752 cases, meaning that, on average, it takes 467 days for an immigration case to make its way through the system, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research arm of Syracuse University that analyzes data from U.S. immigration courts. In San Antonio’s courts, the backlog in cases jumped 11 percent in 2010.

In its report, the ABA called for ICE to cut down on the non-violent and low-risk immigrants the agency detains while they make their way through immigration hearings.

Jonathan Ryan, whose organization Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) provides legal representation to immigrants in local centers, said he’s hopeful the new ICE facility will provide a better environment for those who haven’t been charged with a major or violent crime. Still, he would like to see the system move away from detention. “We are first and foremost interested in seeing the government develop and implement alternatives to detention,” he said. “However, since the government has been clear in their intent to detain people, I welcome any attempt to reform the way in which they detain people.”

GEO officials were not willing to participate in this story. However, in a press release issued the day after the Galindo family sued GEO, the company called the new detention center ICE’s “first facility designed and operated for low risk detainees.” The contract to run the $32 million facility, which the company says will be up and running by the end of 2011, is expected to generate $15 million annually for GEO.

GEO’s history in Texas over the past decade has been particularly troubled. Libal easily rattles off a laundry list of recent controversies regarding GEO-run prisons in the state. (See “GEO Group Texas Death Watch” below.)

In 1999, the families of several teenage girls housed at the Coke County Juvenile Justice Center sued the company (then known as Wackenhut) after a staff member at the facility sexually assaulted the girls. An investigation later revealed the worker was a convicted child molester. The same day GEO settled with the families for an undisclosed amount, one of the victims committed suicide.

The Texas Youth Commission, investigating the facility years later, pulled its detainees and closed the facility after finding bug-infested food and feces smeared on the walls and floors. Later that year, Scot Payne, a convicted child molester from Idaho, slit his own throat at GEO’s Dickens County Correctional Facility in Spur, prompting an inspection by the Idaho Department of Correction’s health care director. The director called Dickens the worst facility he had ever seen, and Idaho pulled all its inmates out of Dickens and another GEO facility, the Newton County Correctional Center. Both counties eventually ended their contracts with GEO.

Events at the Val Verde Detention Center in Del Rio inspired two more lawsuits against GEO in the past decade. In one, an African-American guard at the facility sued alleging racial discrimination after his captain displayed a hangman’s noose at his desk near a photo of himself dressed in Ku Klux Klan garb. The Texas Civil Rights Project later sued GEO after guards at Val Verde discovered LaTisha Tapia, serving 18 months for marijuana possession, hanging in her jail cell by a bed sheet. The civil rights group blamed the company for the suicide, saying workers refused Tapia medical treatment and turned a blind eye when a male inmate raped her.

In 2007, two immigrant detainees at the GEO-run South Texas Detention Complex in Pearsall sued after claiming staff repeatedly threw them into isolation instead of giving them medical treatment. Miroslava Rodriguez-Grava, a crippled and mentally disabled detainee, said she was denied her medication, forced into isolation, stripped naked, and ridiculed by GEO staff.

Galindo’s death at Reeves and the riots that followed again put prisoner mistreatment at the hands of GEO staff in the spotlight. Prior to his death, Galindo had been held in solitary for two months, complaining all the while to staff that his anti-seizure meds weren’t working. According to the lawsuit, prison staff had changed Galindo’s medication to a cheaper drug upon his arrival at the facility, and within weeks he began to show signs the medication was not keeping his epilepsy under control. After he seized twice in solitary, he pleaded with the guards to take him out of isolation, afraid of being alone for the next seizure.

The family’s lawsuit against GEO contains a letter Galindo sent to his mother two days before his death. In it, he writes: “I already told them (warden and doctor) that I have been here for one month alone and I have gotten sick twice. Let’s see if they move me or do something soon. … I’ve already asked if they can place me with someone else so I won’t be by myself anymore.”

Prisoners rioted a second time at Reeves just weeks after Galindo’s death, claiming another sick inmate was denied medication and thrown into one of the facility’s solitary housing units (SHU). It took days for the staff to bring the riot under control. Then in March 2009, just three months after Galindo’s death, Jose Manuel Falcon died in solitary confinement at Reeves. Former South Texas Attorney-turned civil rights lawyer Juan Angel Guerra called Reeves one of the worst facilities he has seen, and said he represents hundreds of clients at GEO facilities all over Texas — nearly 200 of them at Reeves alone.

“All of them, they’re scared of the guards and the people running the prisons. They say that if you complain, even about medicine, they’ll throw you in [isolation],” Guerra said.

While GEO ruled Falcon’s death a suicide, saying he slit his own throat with a razor blade, Guerra doesn’t buy it. Falcon was serving the last two months of a five-year sentence for illegal reentry, Guerra said. After his death, Guerra said he learned Falcon was thrown into solitary after heckling and mocking some of the prison staff and was found dead inside his cell two hours later.

According to Guerra, an examination of Falcon’s body showed cuts to his arms and hands, sign of a possible struggle. “There’s no way that could have happened. We just don’t believe he committed suicide,” Guerra said, adding that he and the family plan to sue the company and the facility in the coming weeks.

Guerra had a first-row seat for one of the worst cases of abuse at a Texas GEO facility in the past decade. In 2001, two inmates beat Gregorio de la Rosa to death just four days before his scheduled release from the Willacy County State Jail in Raymondville. De la Rosa, convicted of possessing a small amount of cocaine, was not even sentenced to prison but wound up in jail after he couldn’t afford to pay his fine.

A wrongful death suit filed by the family revealed not only had prison guards and wardens witnessed the beating, but also that they stood by and laughed while it happened. According to the lawsuit in the case, GEO even destroyed videotape evidence of the murder.

After a jury awarded de la Rosa’s family over $40 million in the civil suit, Guerra, then Willacy County’s district attorney, got a grand jury to indict GEO officials on murder charges, though the indictment was thrown out soon after he left office.



GEO Group Texas Death Watch

1999: Families of girls housed at the Coke County Juvenile Justice Center sue GEO (then Wackenhut), claiming staff sexually assaulted detainees. One of the teenage victims kills herself the day GEO settles suit for an undisclosed amount.

2001: Inmate beaten to death in front of warden and guards at GEO-run Willacy County State Jail in Raymondville. Resulting lawsuit shows GEO destroyed a videotape of the killing, and the company settles for almost $50 million.

February 2006: Texas Civil Rights Project sues GEO after a woman commits suicide inside the Val Verde Detention Center in Del Rio. TCRP and the woman’s family claim prison workers denied medical treatment to the woman after a male inmate at the facility raped her.

August 2006: A crippled and mentally ill woman housed at South Texas Detention Compound in Pearsall sues GEO, claiming she was denied medication, forced into isolation, stripped naked, and ridiculed by GEO staff.

September 2007: Texas Youth Commission conducts an unannounced audit of the GEO-run Coke County Juvenile Justice Center following numerous complaints of squalid living conditions. TYC finds bug-ridden facilities, feces smeared on the walls, and pulls all of its 200 detainees.

March 2007: Scot Payne, an inmate from Idaho, commits suicide at the Dickens County Correctional Facility in Spur. The Idaho Department of Correction’s healthcare director inspects the facility and calls it the worst he’s ever seen. Idaho pulls all its inmates from the facility, and the county eventually ends its contract with GEO.

December 2008: Jesus Manuel Galindo dies when he suffers an epileptic seizure in solitary confinement at the GEO-run Reeves County Detention Center. Riots break out after prisoners view Galindo’s body being carried out of the facility. Galindo family and ACLU later file suit.

February 2009: Inmates riot again at GEO’s Reeves County prison, claiming prisoners are dying from poor medical care.

March 2009: Jose Manuel Falcon dies in solitary confinement at Reeves County Detention Center while serving the last two months of a five-year sentence. GEO issues statement saying Falcon took his own life with a razor blade, but family and attorney claim he had defensive wounds and have announced plans to sue.



In addition to promising new jobs wherever they set up shop, GEO has spent millions lobbying for its interests in Texas, consistently outspending any other private-prison interest.

Since the 2003 legislative session, GEO has paid its lobbyists upwards of $3.5 million to vie for its interests in Austin (See “Lobby Hobby,” page 17). In the midst of the Coke and Dickens scandals, GEO ramped up its lobbying efforts, spending roughly half a million in both 2006 and 2007, according to Texas Ethics Commission filings.

Since 2004, GEO has spent just over $2
million lobbying the federal government, according to numbers from the Center for Responsive
Politics.

GEO shelled out a maximum $520,000 on lobbying in Texas just last year, and according to current 2011 filings with the TEC, the group has a maximum of $420,000 in lobbying contracts for this legislative year. In their Texas Ethics Commission filings, lobbyists need only identify contract compensation within predetermined minimum and maximum ranges.

Libal charged that GEO uses its weight to push for policies that would keep its prisons full and out of the oversight of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. Prior to 2003, TCJS was charged with inspecting GEO’s county-owned facilities that primarily house federal inmates, Libal said, but after heavy lobbying, lawmakers passed a bill that took away TCJS oversight for those prisons.

Then, in 2007, lawmakers passed a bill expanding the number of inmates private prisons can house at their facilities in the state, essentially allowing companies like GEO to make more money off their already-existing contracts. The next session, lawmakers struck down a bill that would have subjected private-run prisons to Texas open-records laws, which would have forced companies like GEO to be more transparent in the operation of their facilities.

GEO’s bench of current and former lobbyists in Texas includes some with deep ties to the statehouse, and even a former House member who had been tasked with jail oversight.

Michelle Wittenburg, who has lobbied off and on for GEO since 2004, once served as general counsel for former Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick. Wittenburg’s lobbying for GEO has earned her a maximum of $600,000.

Bill Miller, a consultant to Craddick when he was still speaker, has made a maximum of $275,000 since he began lobbying for GEO in 2007. GEO’s top hired gun, Lionel Aguirre, who once worked for the state comptroller’s office, has earned roughly $1 million since he began lobbying for the company in 2007.

Former chair of the House Corrections Committee Ray Allen began lobbying for GEO almost immediately after he resigned from his seventh term in the Legislature. At one point, while still head of the corrections committee, Allen even lobbied outside the state for private-prison interests, behavior that was questioned at the time but ruled not to be a conflict of interest. Lobbying for GEO in Texas in 2006 and 2007, Allen raked in a maximum $200,000 for his services.



Screen shot 2011-02-15 at Feb 15, 2011    6.32.31 PM

The lobbyists

Lionel Aguirre has emerged as GEO’s top lobbyist, making between $900,000 and $1.1 million lobbying for the group since 2007. According to the Texas Ethics Commission, Aguirre, who once worked for the state comptroller’s office, has also lobbied for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas, the El Paso Electric Company, and the Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo Tribal Council.

Bill Miller has made between $135,000 and $275,000 lobbying for GEO since 2007. Miller, once a consultant to former Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick, co-founded influential Austin-based lobbying group HillCo Partners.

Michelle Wittenburg, former general council to Craddick, has lobbied off and on for GEO since 2004, earning her somewhere between $295,000 and $600,000.

• Former Texas House member Ray Allen started lobbying for GEO almost immediately after he resigned from his seventh term in the Legislature in January 2006. Allen, who once led the House Corrections Committee while his own firm also lobbied for private interests outside the state, lobbied for GEO in both 2006 and 2007, raking in somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000 for his services.



Vi Malone, the Karnes County treasurer since 2007, said locals support another detention center in Karnes, especially since they’re already used to having jails nearby. In addition to the GEO facility in Karnes City, the Connally state prison is only 10 miles south of the county seat.

Malone said that, years ago, GEO had to lay off some county workers at its facility because “there just weren’t enough inmates,” but that many are hoping the new facility will help prevent such layoffs in the future. “This should keep things stable,” she said.

While the recent oilfield boom in the Eagle Ford shale formation that crosses the county has benefitted Karnes residents, Malone said local leaders think it could be short-lived. “We know that will eventually end. With something like this new facility, we’re looking at long-term employment.”

Pruneda insisted ICE was unaware of any lawsuits filed against GEO in Texas, and said it’s ultimately the county’s choice whether or not to sign with the contractor.

Asked whether former and current allegations of abuse at GEO facilities were a concern, Kendall replied, “If those are legitimate or not, I don’t know. We’ve just had a very good working relationship with the GEO Group, they’ve been a very good corporate citizen here in this county.” •

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