Record an issue for company bidding on Ariz. prisons contract

by Bob Ortega on Aug. 09, 2011 Arizona Republic

When Florida inspectors arrived June 13 for a surprise audit of Geo Group Inc.’s South Bay prison in Palm Beach, they couldn’t get anyone to let them in. For 20 minutes, the state inspectors pressed an alert button to signal the prison’s control room, flashed lights at the security cameras, and tried to get the attention of someone – anyone – at the facility. Finally, they gave up and left.

Geo Group, of Boca Raton, Fla., is one of four companies bidding for a contract with the Arizona Department of Corrections to provide up to 5,000 new private-prison beds. Public hearings are being held this week and next to gauge community sentiment. Geo is proposing to build a new prison with 2,000 or 3,000 beds in San Luis, south of Yuma, or a new one with 2,000 to 5,000 beds near the existing Perryville state prison in Goodyear.

In Florida, the incident at the Palm Beach prison has drawn attention as that state moves to privatize many of its corrections facilities. That incident is an example of criticism of the company’s broader record that includes allegations of brutal and lawless conditions in Mississippi and Texas facilities and an ongoing FBI investigation into alleged illegalities in the awarding of a bid for construction of Geo’s new Blackwater River prison in Florida.

Arizona corrections officials will review Geo’s track record – both in Arizona, where it operates three state contract prisons, and elsewhere – as part of assessing all the bids before the state awards a contract or contracts in September.

Geo declined to comment on the Palm Beach incident. But Kris Purcell, a spokesman for Florida’s Department of Management Services, said Geo told his department that “the buzzer was broken and the folks inside didn’t know someone was out there.” Purcell said the buzzer was fixed and the staff retrained in security procedures.

At least 27 escapes have been reported from Geo facilities over the past seven years, including one in Texas last October that led to a murder. Seven inmates have escaped from Geo facilities in Texas and Illinois in four incidents over the past 11 months. Geo declined repeated requests for comment on the escapes or any of the issues raised in this story.

In Arizona, Geo has had one recent escape. In May 2006, Christopher Breiland broke out of its Florence West prison; he was recaptured 10 days later.

Spun off from Wackenhut Corp. in 2003, Geo operates 53 prisons, jails and detention centers as part of a larger operation with 78,000 beds in 116 facilities in the United States and three other countries. Geo also recently acquired a company that uses ankle-bracelet tracking devices to monitor 60,000 probationers and parolees. Analysts expect the company to report about $1.61 billion in revenue this year.

The company faces a Justice Department investigation and is fighting a suit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center over allegations of physical violence, abuse and barbaric conditions at its Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Mississippi. Guards allegedly allowed and bet on fights between inmates. While that prison was run by Cornell Cos. until last August, when Geo acquired Cornell, Geo has faced similar issues before.

In 2007, Texas canceled an $8 million contract with Geo and closed the Coke County Juvenile Justice Center, citing filthy conditions, allegations of sexual abuse, padlocked emergency exits and failure to provide education programs.

“Kids were stepping in their own feces. . . . The sheets were such a cat or dog wouldn’t sleep on them,” a state senator told the Dallas Morning News. Several state auditors who failed to report the conditions had previously worked for Geo, noted David Shapiro, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.

Geo settled suits over mistreatment of juvenile prisoners in Michigan in 2005 and Louisiana in 2000.

Geo is being investigated by the FBI and a federal grand jury in Florida over allegations of possible illegalities in the way the bid was awarded for construction of the recently opened Blackwater River Correctional Facility.

In October, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit against Geo, alleging that the company has allowed sexual harassment and retaliation against female employees at its Central Arizona Correctional Facility.

Last year, Geo settled a wrongful death suit for an undisclosed amount after the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld an award of $42.5 million against the company in the 2001 beating death of an inmate at the company’s Willacy County unit in Texas.

In June, an Oklahoma jury ordered Geo to pay $6.5 million to the family of Ronald Sites in a wrongful death suit. Sites was strangled to death by a cellmate at Geo’s Lawton Correctional Facility in 2005.

Geo also has faced issues with maintaining adequate staffing levels. This can be a problem because high turnover and high vacancy rates increase the risk of inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-guard violence, according to criminologists.

In Arizona, the Department of Corrections has withheld about $6,000 in equivalent salary payments this year over Geo’s failure to fill vacant positions quickly enough at its Phoenix West and Florence West facilities.

In New Mexico, that state’s corrections secretary, Joe Miller, drew the wrath of legislators last year for waiving $18 million in potential fines against CCA and Geo Group despite their regularly having vacancy rates as high as 22 percent at four prisons, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper. Miller previously worked for Geo as a warden. When New Mexico appointed a new corrections secretary last January, Miller returned to Geo.

In Florida, which, unlike Arizona, tracks staff turnover rates at private prisons, Geo and CCA had a 34 percent turnover last year, compared with 12 percent in Florida state prisons. Like CCA, its largest rival, Geo spends heavily on lobbying and campaign contributions.

The Dayton Daily News, reporting on prison-privatization efforts in Ohio, noted that Geo and CCA together have contributed $20.9 million to federal candidates in the past 10 years, and $19.6 million to lobby federal officials since 2000.

In Arizona, Geo Group retains the consulting group Public Policy Partners. In 2010, at least six individuals affiliated with that group gave donations to Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, chair of the House Appropriations Committee and a supporter of prison privatization.