Remote Texas Prison Keeps Jobs, but Riots Bring Scrutiny to Arrangement

A remote western Texas county secured its finances and kept jobs at home by turning over its sprawling prison to private management, but two inmate riots in the last six weeks have increased scrutiny on the facility.

About five years ago, Reeves County faced a major boondoggle -- a prison without prisoners. The lack of inmates to fill a newly built third unit put the county at risk of defaulting on the bonds used to finance the unit's construction.

The county turned to a publicly traded company, The GEO Group Inc., to manage the prison and fill it with federal inmates. The influx allowed the prison, Reeves County's largest employer, to stay in operation, but not without a series of disturbances.

The latest was a riot the weekend of Jan. 31. The GEO Group said Tuesday that no major injuries occurred but the prison couldn't immediately resume normal operations because of "significant" damage to buildings.

During the earlier riot in December, two employees were taken hostage and an exercise room was burned. That disturbance caused at least $320,000 worth of damage, county records show.

These and other matters detailed in news accounts and court documents indicate widespread tension among inmates over a variety of issues, most notably medical treatment. And, for some observers, they give more voice to the oft-stated criticism of private prisons.

"Generally, these (disturbances) are not random," said Bert Useem, a Purdue University sociology and anthropology professor who has written extensively on prison issues. "They occur in prisons that are facing serious difficulties."

The GEO Group issued brief statements at the time of the disturbances but did not respond to an e-mail from The Associated Press seeking further comment.

The Boca Raton, Fla.-based company previously 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 also has come under fire for its operation of a facility that houses illegal immigrant detainees in Pearsall. A federal lawsuit charges that two Mexican immigrants were not treated for their mental illnesses. And correctional officers at the facility 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 viewed favorably for saving jobs when it was hired to manage the prison five years ago.

Since hiring The GEO Group, the county has filled the center with more than 3,300 federal inmates, including more than 1,207 in unit III. Many of the prisoners are non-U.S. citizens.

The facility employs more than 500 people, most of whom work for the county, and has become increasingly important to the economy as the area has lost several other employers in recent years.

"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 Corporation.

The significance of The GEO Group's work on the county's behalf was underscored in January 2006 when the Pecos Area Chamber of Commerce gave the company its "Citizen of the Year" award. At the presentation, chamber president Jim Dutchover cited the company for injecting an "infusion of ideas and money" into the community.

But recent events have left the impression that the prison has been poorly run.

"Prisoner riots are a relatively rare occurrence," the American Civil Liberties Union wrote in a letter to the Department of Justice requesting that it investigate the center. "For this reason, two serious disturbances within a two-month period at a single facility is sufficient cause for great concern."

A message seeking comment from the Justice Department was not immediately returned Saturday. The ACLU says the department hasn't responded to its request for an investigation.

According to information posted on the Web site of another advocacy group, the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, the latest riot began when authorities refused to respond to prisoners' request that a gravely ill inmate be released from solitary confinement and transferred to a hospital.

A federal lawsuit filed by an inmate in 2007 claims prisoners were sprayed with mace after staging a hunger strike to protest the quality of medical care and meals. As part of the suit, filed without an attorney, the prisoner included an undated memo purportedly from a prison official saying he was working toward improving meals, medical care and recreational equipment.

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

The accreditation, required by the federal Bureau of Prisons, was based largely on the results of an onsite audit in October in which representatives of the organization would have reviewed paperwork and interviewed inmates outside the presence of prison authorities, said James Gondles, the group's executive director.

"To my knowledge, our auditing didn't raise any red flags," he said.

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

"Are we concerned when an incident happens at an accredited facility?" he said. "The answer is yes."