By EMILY RAMSHAW, The Dallas Morning News, July 11, 2009
AUSTIN – A private prison company's history of filthy conditions, sexual abuse, suicides and riots in some of its Texas lockups isn't stopping the state from paying it $7.5 million to run a new psychiatric hospital near Houston.
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, although GEO lobbyists were pushing for it as early as February.
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.
"Why would we want to use an entity that hasn't had a stellar reputation?" asked Monica Thyssen, children's mental health policy specialist with Advocacy Inc. "If the process had been more transparent, there probably would have been other state officials who would've said, 'I don't know if GEO is the best use of state dollars.' "
GEO officials, who run more than 50 facilities in the United States, including five mental health facilities in Florida, declined to comment, saying in an e-mail that they don't discuss "specific business development efforts and/or contracts."
But state lawmakers say the psychiatric facility, which by 2011 is expected to house more than 100 criminal offenders awaiting trials or competency findings, will solve a major backlog. The Montgomery County jail has hundreds of inmates awaiting mental health treatment. The nearest state forensic mental hospital is more than 100 miles away, and when a bed opens up, it takes at least two deputies to take an offender there.
"It's a problem we sorely need to address, instead of leaving people who need mental health care in prison," said Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, one of the Senate's budget writers.
But the budgeting process and the choice of contractor have raised some eyebrows.
Department of State Health Services officials, who oversee psychiatric care in Texas, say the Montgomery County facility was not something they requested funding for in the budget. It was added to the budget in conference committee.
Mental health advocates, who track psychiatric hospital legislation closely, say they never heard any public discussion about it.
And neither Deuell nor Sen. Tommy Williams, who represents Montgomery County, knew until a reporter's phone call that county officials had selected GEO subsidiary GEO Care to run the facility – though legislative documents indicate the company was pushing for it as early as February.
"I know [GEO] has had problems," said Williams, R-The Woodlands. "Certainly I would expect them to run it in accordance with our state guidelines. I'll insist on that."
GEO's track record in Texas has been rocky.
In the midst of the Texas Youth Commission's 2007 sexual abuse scandal, agency officials shuttered the company's Coke County Juvenile Justice Center, saying they had found atrocious conditions – including feces on the walls – at the facility. They also fired a GEO prison worker after learning he was a convicted sex offender.
Earlier that year, an inmate in isolation at GEO's Dickens County facility slashed his throat, leaving letters complaining of blood-coated blankets and pillows, and floors and walls covered in mold.
And in 2006, a woman committed suicide at a GEO jail in Val Verde County, after complaining that she had been raped by another inmate and sexually harassed by a guard.
As recently as this winter, inmates at GEO's Reeves County Detention Center rioted, starting fires and taking hostages, to demand better health care. And in April, a Texas appeals court upheld a $42.5 million verdict against the company for the 2001 death of an inmate who was four days from finishing his sentence at a Willacy County facility. The man was beaten to death by other inmates using padlocks stuffed in socks.
Montgomery County officials, who selected GEO to operate the psychiatric facility late last month, say that the company has a good track record with its other mental health hospitals and that they're not "overly concerned" with the problems that have been documented in a few of Texas' 17 GEO lockups.
A presentation that GEO prepared for Texas lawmakers in February boasts of improved clinical programming, shortened waiting lists, and the elimination of the use of restraints and seclusion in its Florida psychiatric facilities. Company executives say they won the support of wary mental health advocates in that state.
The GEO prison incidents "obviously shouldn't have happened," Montgomery County Commissioner Ed Chance said. "But when you're dealing with inmates, you're going to have problems. You're going to have some headlines."
After the 2007 TYC scandal, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle raised serious concerns with GEO. Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said "a simple Internet search" should have made GEO a bad contractor choice for the state. And Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, told lobbyists for the firm it was best if they didn't contribute to his campaign at that time.
But GEO has continued its full-court press in Texas. Within months, these lawmakers and 13 others had accepted campaign contributions from the company.
"Some of their facilities are pretty darn good, and some are not as good as the others," Madden said. "But that's the exact same problem we have with the state-run facilities."
GEO PROBLEMS IN TEXAS
2001: Inmates at a Willacy County lockup beat a man to death four days before his release date, using padlocks stuffed into socks.
2006: A female inmate commits suicide at a GEO jail in Val Verde County after alleging she was raped by another inmate and sexually harassed by a guard.
2007: An inmate in isolation at GEO's Dickens County facility commits suicide, leaving letters complaining of blood-coated blankets and pillows.
2007: The Texas Youth Commission shutters GEO's Coke County Juvenile Justice Center after finding horrific conditions and learning that the company hired a convicted sex offender as a guard.
2009: Inmates at GEO's Reeves County Detention Center riot, starting fires and taking hostages, to demand better health care.
Future Montgomery County Forensic Mental Hospital
Price tag: $35 million
Location: On a 61-acre plot in Conroe, next to 1,100-inmate detention center
Capacity: 110 beds, with potential to add 130
Completion date: 2011
Current waiting list: For mental health care at the Montgomery County Jail, about 200 inmates