Political Intelligence

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Jailhouse Rot

If a recent report by federal inspectors is any indication, the Bush administration’s eagerness to privatize prisons is endangering everyone from inmates to the public. Several for-profit detention centers in Texas are plagued with severe security, safety, sanitation, health care, and management problems, according to documents obtained by the Observer.

After last year’s extensive review of private lockups holding federal detainees, inspectors with the Office of the Federal Detention Trustee flunked three of six facilities in Texas. The reports provide a rare official glimpse at the dark side of a largely unregulated and growing detention complex that has been almost entirely outsourced to private “corrections” corporations.

Two detention centers were deemed “deficient”: the Brooks County Correctional Facility in Falfurrias, operated by LCS Corrections Services Inc. of Lafayette, Louisiana, and the Willacy County Regional Detention Center in Raymondville, operated by Utah-based Management & Training Corp. Both facilities passed inspections performed by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

The third, the East Hidalgo Detention Center in the Rio Grande Valley town of La Villa, was deemed “at risk, the most dire category, requiring immediate intervention from federal authorities. The 990-bed Hidalgo facility is operated by LCS. The company earns more than $45 per prisoner per day for holding U.S. Marshals Service detainees.

“We want to be as open as we can,” said Richard Harbison, vice president of LCS. “We know we make mistakes and when we do we want to learn from our mistakes and fix them.” Harbison said they have corrected the problems identified in the reports and expect to pass upcoming inspections.

At East Hidalgo, the inspectors found dozens of violations of federal standards. Medical, dental, and mental health care is virtually nonexistent. Initial medical screenings are performed by unqualified nurses and do not include a physical examination, or an appraisal for chemical dependency, mental retardation, and suicide risk, according to the report. Moreover, the jail has no dentist or mental health professional on-site. A hallway is used as an examination room. Staff are not trained to deal with suicidal detainees despite eight suicide attempts in the year prior to the report.

Security is poor. At the time of the inspection, visitors didn’t even pass through a metal detector when entering the building. The jail has no “specific instructions” on when firearms may be used; no procedures for maintaining weapons or for controlling keys, kitchen tools, and medical equipment; no effective plan for a mass evacuation; and no training program on the use of force.

Sanitation is lacking. Employees are not tested for blood-borne pathogens, increasing the risk of disease to both guards and inmates. Detainees are issued “sporks,” but the utensils are not sanitized, nor are barbering tools.

Two juveniles were discovered by the inspectors at the adult-only detention center and immediately removed.

In addition, the report reveals that 19 inmate-on-inmate assaults had occurred in the previous year. After six inmates escaped in 2006, the state jail commission cited the facility for employing too few guards, for the third time.

Lingua Americana

If you think people in America should speak only English, maybe Texas isn’t the state for you. Between 2000 and 2005, the number of people who reported speaking a language that’s not English at home rose by 860,000 to 6.86 million. They now make up 33 percent of the state’s population. (Come to think of it, maybe the U.S. isn’t the country for you: In 2005, 52 million people reported speaking another language, up 5 million since 2000.)

The Modern Language Association has just released colorful charts, based on data from the 2005 U.S. Census American Community Survey, that allow you to pull out data by state for the 30 most frequently spoken languages in the U.S. (All the data and maps are at www.mla.org/map_data.) It’s worth noting that these stats only cover speakers of languages other than English, not their fluency in English, so they capture seventh-generation, bilingual German families in New Braunfels as well as newly arrived Farsi speakers in Houston.

Spanish speakers account for the larger part of the increase in the population of non-English speakers. In Texas, they added about 737,000 non-English speakers. Texas had the second-largest increase, behind California. Even with anti-immigrant sentiment a major concern for the GOP, Spanish speakers gained in 44 states in the same period; only in Mississippi, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, Maine, and Vermont did their numbers drop. That’s a 4.1 million-person increase nationwide.

The polyglotting of Texas and the nation seems so inevitable that true connoisseurs of xenophobia should rejoice about the boost in Spanish speakers. Spanish, after all, is a European language. It’s the only European language on the rise; the numbers for French, German, Italian, Greek, and Polish, all spoken by older generations of immigrants, are dropping. Spanish is written in the Roman alphabet, so you can sound out written words even if you don’t know what they mean. And the language has thousands of words recognizable in English because of a shared heritage. MALDEF or LULAC aren’t likely to adopt this as a slogan, but we’ll say it here: Compared with Chinese, Thai, or Urdu, Spanish is practically English.

Not So Fast

In early February, infamous Tulia undercover agent Tom Coleman lost another attempt to overturn his perjury conviction. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that Coleman’s sentence of 10 years probation should stand. After a five-day trial in 2005, a jury found him guilty of one count of aggravated perjury and sentenced him to seven years imprisonment, but recommended that he be placed under community supervision. Coleman was charged with falsely testifying in a 2003 hearing about accusations that he pilfered gasoline while working for the Cochran County Sheriff’s Office.

Coleman came to national attention after the Observer broke the story (“The Color of Justice,” June 23, 2000) on the drug arrests he spearheaded in the Panhandle town of Tulia. Working undercover for a multicounty drug task force, Coleman arrested 46 men and women, most of them black, on narcotics charges in 1999. Coleman, who is white, had no hard evidence for his charges. In 2003, Gov. Rick Perry pardoned 35 of 37 who were convicted at trial or accepted plea agreements based on Coleman’s accusations. Forty-five of the 46 arrested split a $6 million settlement of a civil lawsuit against the agencies that participated in the drug task force.

Helter Smelter

Despite objections from the city of El Paso, the governor of New Mexico, and the Mexican government, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality approved a controversial air permit in mid-February to reopen the ASARCO copper smelter in downtown El Paso.

El Paso Democratic state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh said at an Austin TCEQ hearing that the smelter would pump 12 times as much sulfur dioxide as all other El Paso sources combined. Shapleigh urged commissioners to vote against the permit because of ASARCO’s 100-year legacy of pollution (see “Clean Up or Cover up?” October 8, 2004). “You will find lead in schools and in yards of homes,” he said.

Nonetheless, the three TCEQ commissioners voted unanimously in favor of the company. TCEQ Commissioner Larry Soward said the Texas Clean Air Act made it impossible to deny the permit renewal. As a sop to critics, the commissioners decided to reduce the permit renewal term from 10 years to five. While commissioners have the authority to require continuous monitoring of lead at the facility, they declined to do so.

Attorneys for the city of El Paso have filed a motion to reconsider with the commission.

Regardless of the ruling, ASARCO is currently in bankruptcy proceedings and might not be in a position to reopen the mothballed copper smelter. ASARCO’s parent company Grupo Mexico SAB, which is fighting to retain control of ASARCO, announced in January that it would not reopen the smelter if it regained majority control. The copper-mining company ASARCO LLC, which currently has majority control, said in February that it would sell all assets of the company to pay creditors.

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Published at 12:00 am CST