West Texas riots renew debate over private prisons

PECOS, Texas – As officials in a remote West Texas county have sought to keep the local prison full and financially workable, it has become the scene of mounting inmate unrest, including two riots in the last six weeks.

Reeves County faced a major boondoggle – a prison without prisoners – when it turned to a private company, The GEO Group Inc., about five years ago to manage its sprawling detention center and fill it with federal inmates.

The influx of prisoners has allowed the facility, the county’s largest employer, to stay in operation but not without a series of disturbances and protests, some of them incendiary.

The prison and its management came under increasing scrutiny as authorities dealt with the latest incident, a riot that started Jan. 31 and left buildings heavily damaged.

The riot followed a similar disturbance in another portion of the prison in December. That caused at least $320,000 worth of damage, according to county records.

“Generally, these [disturbances] are not random,” said Bert Useem, a Purdue University professor who has written extensively on prison issues. “They occur in prisons that are facing serious difficulties.”

The GEO Group did not respond to an e-mail from The Associated Press seeking comment.

This isn’t the first time the publicly traded company, based in Boca Raton, Fla., has attracted scrutiny over conditions in its prisons.

In 2007, the Texas Youth Commission fired the company after nearly 200 teenage offenders were removed from a juvenile justice center it operated in Bronte, citing health and safety violations.

The company has also come under fire for its operation of a facility that houses illegal immigrant detainees in Pearsall, Texas. A federal lawsuit charges that two Mexican immigrants were not treated for their mental illnesses, and correctional officers there are threatening to strike over pay and working conditions.

“They operate as a bare-bones, profit-making machine,” said Howard Johannssen, an official with the union representing the Pearsall officers.

In Reeves County and Pecos, its largest town, The GEO Group is largely viewed as the savior of a sinking ship.

At the time the company was hired to manage the prison, the county was unable to find enough inmates to fill a newly built third unit.

Since joining forces with The GEO Group, the county has filled the center with more than 3,300 federal inmates, including more than 1,207 in unit III, turning the situation around.

The facility employs more than 500 people, most of whom work for the county.

“Any small community with a prison that employs that number of people would see” the value of having such a facility, said Robert Tobias, executive director of the Pecos Economic Development Corp.

According to information posted on the Web site of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, the latest riot began when authorities refused to respond to a request by prisoners that a gravely ill inmate be taken to a hospital.

The prison was accredited last month by the American Correctional Association, the nation’s only such program for adult and juvenile detention facilities.

“To my knowledge, our auditing didn’t raise any red flags,” said James Gondles, the group’s executive director.

However, because of the riots, it is likely that another auditing team will be sent to the prison, Gondles said.



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