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Federal report: Texas prison where riots occurred failed to address security problems

FILE - In this Thursday, Feb. 5, 2009 file photo, plumes of smoke rise from the yard and recreation building of Reeves County Detention Center 1 unit in Pecos, Texas. The fires came five days after inmates set fires to other parts of the RCDC I and II units during a riot blamed on complaints about inadequate health care and food. A Justice Department Inspector General report released Thursday, April 23, 2015, was critical of the operation at the the 2,400-bed facility that primarily houses "low-level" immigrants in the country illegally. (AP Photo/Pecos Enterprise, Smokey Briggs, file)

FILE - In this Thursday, Feb. 5, 2009 file photo, plumes of smoke rise from the yard and recreation building of Reeves County Detention Center 1 unit in Pecos, Texas. The fires came five days after inmates set fires to other parts of the RCDC I and II units during a riot blamed on complaints about inadequate health care and food. A Justice Department Inspector General report released Thursday, April 23, 2015, was critical of the operation at the the 2,400-bed facility that primarily houses "low-level" immigrants in the country illegally. (AP Photo/Pecos Enterprise, Smokey Briggs, file)

A prison in West Texas that holds mostly immigrant inmates and has been the scene of multiple riots was understaffed and failed to address persistent security problems, a federal report released Thursday said.

The Justice Department's Inspector General report criticized operations at the Reeves County Detention Center in Pecos, which came under heavy scrutiny beginning in late 2008 following the death of an inmate and two riots that caused an estimated $1 million in damage.

The 2,400-bed federal prison, about 175 miles east of El Paso, houses mainly immigrants who have committed low-level crimes, including drug possession and entering the United States illegally more than once.

The report covers a period from October 2008 to December 2013 and found several issues at the prison, including too little medical and correctional staff, use of an improper area of the prison to isolate inmates, and failure to address reported deficiencies in security, health services and record-keeping.

The facility, which is made up of two compounds, is overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons but has been run since 2003 by the GEO Group, a for-profit prisons operator based in Florida.

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The audit examined the contract awarded to the GEO Group in 2007, which runs through 2017 and is worth an estimated $493 million, the second largest ever awarded by the Justice Department, according to a Justice Department news release.

Auditors found that nearly $3 million in expenses charged to the government was considered to be "unallowable or unsupported," or money that should have been put to better use. Without adjustment, nearly $100,000 in improper charges would occur through the end of the contract, the report said.

Prior to a riot in 2009, the prison had limited its staffing to save costs, the report said. The riot was one of two that occurred after an inmate died of an epileptic seizure while placed in solitary confinement.

After the 2009 riot, staffing was increased to meet a requirement of more than 90 percent, the report said.

But the prison's health services unit continued to be short-staffed. From December 2010 to December 2013, the unit was understaffed 34 out of 37 months.

The GEO Group uses a subcontractor for its health services. However, it may have a financial incentive to accept Bureau of Prisons deductions for health service vacancies rather than "fill vacant positions at the costlier market rates," the report said.

From 2007 to 2013, Bureau of Prisons staff provided 94 notices for unacceptable performance to the GEO Group, and nearly half of them concerned security, health services and record-keeping.

The report also criticized an area of the prison called the J-Unit, where inmates accused of creating disturbances, including coercing other inmates to join demonstrations, are separated from the general population. Several inmates told investigators they didn't know why they were placed in the unit and were given no explanation by officials.

J-Unit inmates do not have access to the same educational and vocational resources as those in the general population, the report said.

The report made 17 recommendations, including specific guidelines for the J-Unit. In its official response to the report, the Bureau of Prisons agreed with nearly all the recommendations except those for the J-Unit, saying it disagreed with how the unit was portrayed.

However, the Bureau of Prisons did not respond to messages or emails from the Associated Press seeking comment about the report.

The GEO Group also would not respond to a request for comment but said in a statement that the recommendations "have been largely resolved."

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