Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Scandal in Lock Down Mode: Rick Perry and the Texas Youth Commission 3/3

by Nomad
To view  PART ONE and PART TWO

Severe Consequences for Bad Behavior

George Bush

The origins of the Texas Youth Commission problems actually began as a result of fear-mongering campaign tactics about the rise of violent juvenile crime during George Bush’s 1994 run for governor. In one of his campaign ads, Bush told voters,
"The bottom line is young people need to understand there will be severe consequences for bad behavior."
(This tough talk about crime and punishment is somewhat ironic given the later events.) Some may argue that playing upon the fears of the public was to be merely a dress rehearsal for the anti-terrorism campaign following the hysteria caused by the 9-11 attacks. 

But then you don't mess with success. After all,  the “tough on crime” position had also worked for his father in his own the presidential campaign. The “revolving door” advertisement, produced by political consultant Roger Ailes, had been considered a major factor in Bush’s defeat of Michael Dukakis in 1988. Following those ads, the percentage of poll respondents who felt George Bush, Sr. was "tough enough" on crime rose from 23 percent in July 1988 to 61 percent in late October 1988. 
 Being tough on anything always plays well with Texas voters.

In order to fulfill that campaign promise, Bush would go on to nearly triple the size of the Texas youth corrections system, increasing the number of youthful offenders in state-run facilities from 1,800 to over 4.550 by the time of his presidential swearing-in in 2001. The Houston Chronicle weighs in with this:

Legislators and youth advocates say that system expansion overtaxed an agency bureaucracy, aggravated problems with staffing TYC facilities and set up a breakdown that occurred after major cuts were made to the agency's budget in 2003.

"The agency probably grew too fast based on Governor Bush's commitments of being more proactive in the enforcement of youth," said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
There were supposedly many contributing factors to the problem. Perhaps they were, but was it merely a case of incompetence by one governor followed by neglect and careless budget-cutting by another?
The TYC administration and board were inadequate to handle problems with the expansion. Remote locations of many TYC facilities made it difficult to hire and retain staff. The buildup brought in more children with mental problems. Open dormitory settings allowed older youths to become predators of the younger inmates and to organize their dorms against the guards.
And the state's political leadership — both Gov. Rick Perry and the Legislature — was slow to recognize the growing crisis because the focus was on adult prisons while the juvenile system ran on autopilot.
A harsh assessment, to be sure, but even this glosses over another important factor. Something that, for good reason, nobody really wanted to discuss. It requires peeling one more layer back from the onion to reveal that "lone why."

The Geo Group

To get to the reasons why problems with the TYC could have gone on for so long and to have been so successfully ignored, one has to zoom out and take an even larger view. 

It had to do with exposure which if you have something to hide, is not a good thing. The Geo Group a private company, one of about a half-dozen, that operates prisons, juvenile justice centers, psychiatric hospitals, and immigration detention centers all over the world,  and has big business in Texas.  The corporation runs 19 correctional facilities in Texas, including nine under contract for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Here is a map of the other privately-run facilities in the USA.

Geo Group Facilities in the USA

As a multi-national service provider for government, The Geo Group has found the management of correctional, immigration detention, and mental health facilities to be a highly lucrative enterprise. With 20,000 employees, and a revenue in 2010 estimated at $ 1.27 billion, the corporation operates in North American South Africa, the United Kingdom, and Australia. It operates more than 50 facilities in the United States including five mental health facilities in Florida.

And make no mistake, there’s money to be made keeping people locked away. With 2.3 million people behind bars and an estimated 10 million Americans cycling in and out of correctional facilities each year, the United States is in the midst of an "epidemic of mass incarceration," say researchers from the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights, a collaboration of The Miriam Hospital and Brown University.
On any given day, there are 1.6 million people serving sentences in state and federal prisons. Eight percent of them are in facilities operated by private companies. In the federal detention system, more than 16 percent of detainees are held in private lockups.

This proportion is projected to grow. According to industry leader Corrections Corporation of America [CCA], no state has allocated money to build new state-run prisons in the last year because of budget crises. So some state governments are turning to the private sector to house their prisoners. The private corrections industry maintains that it can build and start up prisons faster, and incarcerate inmates more cheaply than state-run facilities.
Based in Boca Raton, Fla., Geo Groups Inc. — formerly Wackenhut Corrections -— is competing with CCA for new contracts. Since 2009, GEO has acquired 7,600 new prison beds, a growth of 10 percent, according to a GEO annual report.
GEO spent $2,065,000 on lobbying between 1999 and 2009. The three major lobbying firms under Geo are Lionel "Leo" Aguirre, Winston & Strawn, and Dykema Gossett

Geo Group had had a notorious record when it won the contract with TYC. The record in Texas at the time of the West Texas School case was evolving is hardly confidence-inspiring, as this source reveals. As the writer notes:
The list is long enough and filled with enough serious incidents that it makes me wonder why GEO continues to earn lucrative contracts like the three new Texas contracts .... One reason might be the high-priced lobbyists and former state officials that GEO keeps employed.
As far as a private-sector solution to the economic shortfalls, Geo Group's relationship with the Texas Youth Commission left a lot to be desired. Regardless of that detail, it was making somebody a lot of money.

If Texas Were A Country

In a study released in 2007 by the Washington, DC-based Justice Policy Institute found that one out of every 20 adults in Texas were either in prison, jail, on probation or on parole. There are more people in prison in Texas than in any other state, and Texas' incarceration rate is second only to Louisiana. The report found that:
If Texas were a country, it would have the highest incarceration rate in the world, easily surpassing the United States and Russia, the next two finishers, and seven times that of the next biggest prison system in China.
The prison population in Texas has gone from 29,892 in December 1980 to an astounding 172,116 by December 2006. Stated Vincent Schiraldi, the Institute's Director and report co-author:
"The sheer numbers of people in prison and jail in Texas are signs of system fixated on punishment, and devoid of compassion."
It's easy to say that this is the means to deal with crime, but is that actually true? Let's compare New York's prisons and Texas' prisons in the same period.
While Texas had the fastest growing prison system in the country during the 1990s, New York had the third slowest growing prison population in the US. Over all, during the 1990s, Texas added five times as many prisoners as New York did (18,001).Yet since 1995, the study found that New York's decline in crime was four times greater than Texas' decline in crime.
Texas' current incarceration rate (1,035 per 100,000) is 80% higher than New York's (574 per 100,000), yet Texas' crime rate (5,111 per 100,000) is 30% higher than New York's (3,588 per 100,000). In 1998, Texas' murder rate was 25% higher than New York State's rate.
Not only are there more people in prison but the ones in prison are more often than not non-violent offenders. Given those facts, it's clear that incarceration is a big business in the Lone Star State.

The Hungry Beast

In 2010, the two largest private prison companies alone received nearly $3 billion dollars in revenue, and their top executives, according to one source, each received annual compensation packages worth well over $3 million. The privatization of the prison system, by its nature, is a hungry beast. 
As an ACLU report explains that while the incarceration rates climb ever upwards, the private prison industry expands at exponential rates, holding more and more people in its prisons and jails, and generating massive profits. Private prisons for adults were virtually non-existent until the early 1980s, but the number of prisoners in private prisons increased by approximately 1600% between 1990 and 2009.

One problem, however, despite what two out of five Americans think, violent crime is not on the rise; it's actually on a steep decline. According to the FBI, property crimes are down too. Yet the prison population is still on the increase. 
So, is this merely a sign that the prison system is effective at stopping crime? Not quite. There's something more to it.
According to ACLU, the two leading industry companies, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group, received a combined $3 billion in annual revenue in 2010. According to the report, the CCA acknowledged in records submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission that current sentencing laws increase the company’s profits.
Thus, the toughest possible approach to crime means maximum profits for the private incarceration corporations. The ACLU report goes on to say:
Leading private prison companies essentially admit that their business model depends on high rates of incarceration. For example, in a 2010 Annual Report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company, stated: "The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by . . . leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices . . . ."
The Southern border states are especially appetizing for corporations like Geo Group. Why, you might ask?
In August (2011), when GEO, the Florida prison company, posted a 40 percent rise in second-quarter profits, its executives in Boca Raton spoke of new immigration business on both sides of the Atlantic.

John M. Hurley, a GEO executive for North American operations, cited "the continued growth in the criminal alien population," larger facilities, and longer federal contracts, some up to 20 years.
A source  supplies the details: 
Since the late 1990’s, the number of people held in immigration detention has exploded. On any given day, ICE detains over 33,000 immigrants; this is more than triple the number of people detained in 1996. In the last 5 years alone, the annual number of immigrants detained and the costs of detaining them has doubled: in 2009, 383,524 immigrants were detained, costing taxpayers $1.7 billion at an average of $122 a day per bed. Nearly 2.5 million individuals have passed through immigration detention facilities since 2003.
And, and for the private prison operators,  immigrants, like children, have few if any civil rights to fret over. Practically everybody benefits. Politicians can win votes by taking a tough stand on the immigration problem. Profits can be made by corporations. Nearly everybody gets something out of the neat arrangement. 

The influence of private prison operators, like Geo Group, affects state governments in a number of ways. Firstly, its lobbyist can influence any legislation which increases incarceration rates. Secondly, it can effectively discourage the necessary oversight by government agencies. Direct or indirect conflicts of interest can call into question a politician’s motives. As Detention Watch Network warns:
These deep connections between corporate and government actors raise concerns about the extent to which private industry is dictating policy in an area where the lives, liberty and basic rights of hundreds of thousands of people are at stake.
As a Texas Watchdog Group found, Geo Group maintains close relationships with Texas lawmakers. Two state legislators, State Senator, Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo and state Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville had financial links to Geo Group. For example, Zaffirini’s husband, Carlos, had been a lawyer and advocate for the firm. Ms. Zaffirini denied knowing anything about Geo Group and its scandals, despite the fact her husband had worked for them.
“I quite frankly have not given private prisons a lot of thought," she says. "I spend most of the time focusing on the issues of the poor, the elderly and people who can’t represent themselves."
Quite a defense. Of course, despite her professed compassion, that altruism doesn't seem to extend to unrepresented prisoners, especially sexually abused juveniles. It is simply not a "tough stand" and isn't likely to win much approval with many Texas voters.
Oliveira, meanwhile, also has a cozy relationship with the prison company. His Brownsville law firm serves as its local defense counsel.
"The private prison industry is dependent on taxpayer dollars," says Alex Friedmann, the associate editor of Prison Legal News, a newsletter dedicated to protecting inmates' legal rights. "So, yes, I believe Zaffirini and Oliveira have a conflict of interest, or at least a perceived conflict of interest."
In fact, that appearance of conflicted interests is really nothing to be too concerned about. A red herring, in fact, Geo Group has a lot more influence on Texas politicians with its teams of professional lobbyists.
Need proof? Then, let's see what occurred when public outrage turned to political action.


After the West Texas School scandal, the public reaction demanded greater scrutiny of all TYC facilities. What the inspectors found in both the state-run and the privately-run facilities would shock them. The agency officials closed GEO's Coke County Juvenile Justice Center saying they'd found atrocious conditions there. 

Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire (D-Houston) told reporters "They've run a very poor facility that probably violates the youths’ civil rights. Kids were stepping in their own feces. The sheets were such that a cat or dog wouldn't sleep on them."

Then in April 2009, a high court upheld a massive judgment against the GEO Group after an inmate was fatally beaten at another one of its prisons. The Texas Tribune gives other examples:
...[A]n inmate at GEO's Dickens County prison facility slashed his throat, leaving letters complaining of blood-coated blankets and pillows, and floors and walls covered in mold. In 2006, a woman killed herself at a GEO jail in Val Verde County, after complaining that she had been raped by another inmate and sexually harassed by a guard.And in early 2009, inmates at GEO's Reeves County Detention Center started fires and took hostages to demand better health care. Later that year, a Texas appeals court upheld a $42.5 million verdict against the company for the 2001 death of an inmate four days from finishing his sentence at a Willacy County facility. The man was beaten to death by other inmates using padlocks stuffed into socks.
And keep in mind, this was in Texas alone.  After an unrelenting series of Geo Group scandals, Democrat lawmakers in Texas came to the capital with a mission. They authored six separate bills, aimed at independent oversight and accountability of private prison companies. It seemed like a good step forward.  What happened next? 

But in a remarkable turnaround for the corrections outfit, if not the entire troubled industry, not a single anti-private prison bill passed. In fact, none of the measures even received a floor vote. Despite an ongoing bout of bad press and public mishaps, the GEO Group emerged unscathed this legislative session thanks to a team of high-dollar lobbyists with deep roots in state government.
It would seem all the factors has come together- a perfect storm- determined legislators, the public outcry about the horrendous abuse of children. Everything needed for sensible and conclusive reform. And yet... nothing.

"At the beginning of the session there were several people who were rightfully outraged by what happened over the last two years," says Bob Libal, the Texas campaigns coordinator for Grassroots Leadership, a social justice organization that opposes private prisons. "So for there to be nothing to come out of this session out of six or seven good thoughtful bills that would have just provided basic accountability, it's really sad. And it really speaks to the private prison industry and the amount of influence they have."

That is particularly true of the GEO Group and its mental health unit, GEO Care, which shelled out a maximum of $370,000 this year on lobbyists in Austin, neatly coinciding with the company's slate of troubles that made national news. Meanwhile, its rival, the Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America, spent a maximum $50,000, according to records on file with the Texas Ethics Commission. Both prison companies do comparable business with the state, with each firm operating all or part of at least nine state facilities.
Leaving nothing to chance, Geo Group reportedly donated $15,000 into Perry’s 2010 reelection effort through its political action committee. Luis Gonzalez, a GEO Group lobbyist, meanwhile, gave $50,000 to Perry’s reelection bid.

Not Alone

In fact, Rick Perry, as a governor in good standing with the private prison corporations, is certainly not alone. As ThinkProgress reports: 
Two of Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s (R) most senior aides are current or former lobbyists for private prisons, and this industry stands to earn a windfall off the anti-immigrant SB 1070 law that Brewer recently signed.
As NPR later reported, this controversial law was largely conceived and drafted by a conservative business lobbying group in Washington, D.C.known to most people as American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private-prison operator in the US, had crafted the precise language and provisions contained in this anti-immigration bill. As NPR’s Laura Sullivan revealed,
Once the language was introduced, the influence of private prison companies intensified. NPR reports that 30 of SB 1070’s 36 co-sponsors received campaign contributions from lobbyists of three major private prison companies including CCA, Geo Group and Management and Training Corporation.
The reason for pushing this questionable legislation is obvious. 
According to Corrections Corporation of America reports reviewed by NPR, executives believe immigrant detention is their next big market. Last year, they wrote that they expect to bring in “a significant portion of our revenues” from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that detains illegal immigrants.
Other governors are also sharing the same cozy bunk with the prison industry, according to the ThinkProgress article.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) turned over $600 million in corrections funding to the private prison industry after one private prisons company doled out hundreds of thousands of dollars to Scott and the Florida GOP.
According to one source, Geo Group operates four federal prisons in Florida
In that state alone, Geo Group gave $705,000 in campaign contributions, and Geo Care, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Geo Group, gave an additional $117,415. And this was only one of several corporations in the industry involved. As a whole, the private-prison industry tends to court the Florida Republicans more than the Democrats. giving $783,494 compared to $143,000 to the Florida Democratic Party.
And Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) plans to sell five of its prisons to a private company. Meanwhile, the private prisons industry has spent millions to lobby state lawmakers to make criminal laws harsher in order to drive up their profits.

Yet while private prisons are having no trouble getting the attention of GOP lawmakers, they aren’t actually very good at running correctional facilities. A study of Arizona’s prison system found that private prisons cost more than their government-run counterparts, despite the fact that they typically steer clear of the costliest inmates.
The private sector solution means the job will not be done any better, the people doing the job won’t be properly screened, crimes and serial abuse will be committed and it won’t be a cent cheaper. To top it all off, corporations have reportedly been using inmate labor to replace private sector workers.
There you have it now, finally, amid all those tales of preventable scandal, all the suffering of child victims, here’s that lone why.

Courts of Justice and The Court of Conscience

To wrap the story up, justice- or a Texas facsimile of it- took one step forward in the West Texas School scandal. It took five years and a lot of useless posturing, a lot of fingering pointing and excuse-making but the two administrators accused in the Texas Ranger’s original report were finally indicted.

Ray Edward Brookins was indicted in 2007 on four counts of sexual abuse. Eventually on 25 April 2010 after a four-day trial, Brookins was convicted of two counts each of having an improper sexual activity with a person in custody and having an improper relationship between an educator and student.

Brookins was sentenced to 10 years in prison for sexually abusing a then-18-year-old back in 2004. In two full days of testimony, 11 witnesses testified against Brookins, including the victim himself. Prosecutors also presented DNA evidence that linked the victim’s sperm to Brookins’ office. Brookins did not testify, and the defense offered no witnesses of its own.

The other official named in the Bruzynski report, school principal John Paul Hernandez pled not guilty to 11 counts, including one sexual assault charge. The case against Hernandez was admittedly less documented as Brookins had been and therefore, there was more room for doubt despite the volumes of evidence, such as the interviews from victims and employees, collected by Sargeant Bruzynski. 

On February 23, 2011, after nearly six years of waiting, two weeks of trial, and finally six hours of deliberation, the jury acquitted the former state school administrator Hernandez of all of the sexual abuse charges.

Mr. Hernandez's lawyer, Albert G. Valadez, told jurors yesterday Brookins's conviction started an 'avalanche' of rumors against his client because it made it easier for inmates to make allegations. Hernandez’s attorney, Albert G. Valadez, said inmates made up the allegations so they would be released from the facility. This charge was made at the trial despite the fact that two of the student/inmates (who had claimed that Hernandez had performed oral sex with them had voluntarily undergone polygraph examinations and had passed. The tests had been conducted by the Special Crimes Polygraph Service in Midland, Texas, according to Burzynski's report.)

Valadez said the jury foreman told him after the trial that initial votes were two for not guilty and nine to convict. Those two jurors were somehow able to sway the rest, with one longtime holdout. Hernandez credited his acquittal to an absence of physical evidence. An interesting way of putting it, I think.

Hernandez told reporters after the trial. 
“I got too comfortable there. I forgot I was working in a prison.”
What did that statement actually mean?
The mother of Hernandez, 76-year-old Asteria, told reporters after the trial that her son was the real victim. “They robbed him of his career, his dignity, everything, These people are wrong, He’s not a monster. He’s not a bad person.” Indeed, in the eyes of the law, the verdict has cleared his name officially. With his name cleared, he is ready to go back into the job market and get on with his life. He seemed uncertain about his future.
Hernandez, who has a master’s in political science and history as well as education (administration), said he’d like to teach again but fears public schools. “It just takes allegations,” Hernandez said, and said he could imagine the talk there would be if he were ever accused of anything again.
*   *   *
I know what you are probably saying. Yes, that’s what passes for justice nowadays. It’s something that we must tolerate. Still at least, reforms were made, you may be saying. Think again. 
According to an article in the Statesman:
Nearly four years after the Texas Youth Commission was overhauled after a sex abuse and cover-up scandal, four leading advocacy groups for incarcerated youths said Tuesday that little has changed. Widespread unsafe conditions and various forms of abuse and mistreatment continue to plague the agency, they say.

In a formal complaint asking the U.S. Justice Department to investigate, Texas Appleseed, Advocacy Inc., the Center for Public Representation and the National Center for Youth Law said the commission is unable to ensure the safety of the 1,700 youngsters it incarcerates because of operational flaws, including inadequate staffing, improper restraints and excessive force.
And the rapes- if not by administrators- still continue according to the advocacy groups.
High numbers of youth-on-youth assaults continue to plague the agency's lockups in Beaumont and Corsicana — which last year won the dubious distinction in a federal report of having the second-highest sexual assault rate in the country among youth prisons.
Governor Perry turned presidential candidate Perry certainly didn’t want this subject to once again blow up, endangering his campaign. The Justice Department was not particularly welcome, according to Perry. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the governor felt that Texas was perfectly capable of handling this problem. It was more likely that he simply didn’t want the prying eyes of outside oversight. Too much was at stake.
Gov. Rick Perry's office said in a statement that Texas can fix any problems on its own.

"Since 2007, Gov. Perry has passed sweeping reforms to ensure the safety of incarcerated youth in the TYC system, and the state will continue to improve the system without the help of the federal government," the statement said.
Other legislators were less sure. They had seen this scenario play out before and in the end, they knew the usual outcome. Lots of talk and posturing and theater for public consumption.
"When we have allegations like this that can't ensure the safety of the youths in our facilities, we're back to where we were three or four years ago," said House Corrections Committee Chairman Jim McReynolds, D-Lufkin , a member of a special legislative panel that investigated previous Youth Commission abuses and pushed through the reforms.

"I want answers to each of the allegations. ... I don't want to hear that we're making strides. If what we're doing is not what needs to be done to stop this, then it's time for some changes. It cannot continue."
As far the Texas Ranger, Sergeant Brian Burzynski. he was honored by the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum with words of praise on September 1, 2007, by Colonel Tommy Davis, Texas Department of Public Safety. Davis said,
Sergeant Burzynski's initiative, diligence and commitment to pursuing prosecution against high-ranking members of a state agency responsible for offenses against juvenile inmate reflects the high moral standards the public has come to admire and respect from officers of the Texas Department of Public Saftey and the Texas Ranger Division.
In the end, at least, somebody gave a damn about the unseen and forgotten children beyond the walls. That surely must count for something. Mohandas Gandhi once said:
There is a higher court than courts of justice and that is the court of conscience. It supercedes all other courts.
It would be a better place to live in, to bring up our children in on the day when these two courts are reconciled.

Update: Here is a more recent case about a corruption case involving two judges in Pennsylvania who took bribes from private prisons in order to place juveniles in their prisons- even over the objections of their parole officers.  
Several hundred families have filed a class-action lawsuit against two former judges whove pleaded guilty to taking bribes in return for placing youths in privately owned jails. Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan are said to have received $2.6 million for ensuring juvenile suspects were jailed in prisons operated by the companies PA Child Care and a sister company, Western PA Child Care. Some of the youths were jailed over the objections of their probation officers. An estimated 5,000 juveniles have been sentenced by Ciavarella since the scheme started in 2002.