Discovering squalid conditions at a youth detention facility in West Texas last October, state officials abruptly shuttered the Coke County Juvenile Justice Center, moved its young prisoners to other facilities and cancelled the contract under which a private company had operated that facility for the state. For all the outrage that officials voiced over that feces-smeared youth prison, however, the same contractor—the Geo Group— continues to operate nine other corrections facilities for the state of Texas.
Texas’ massive private prison industry has been plagued by recent scandals involving unsafe facilities and prison guards who abuse prisoners entrusted to their care. These scandals have helped expose the woefully inadequate safeguards and oversight that Texas established during its 20-year-old prison privatization stampede.
Geo Group’s Coke County youth detention facility operated under the oversight of the Texas Youth Commission. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) oversees the state’s 28 contracts with private prison corporations and operates many more prison facilities on its own. Where its own facilities are concerned, TDCJ dutifully collects data on such things as how many officers each facility employs and which of those employees have been disciplined. Yet the agency does not collect such data on the privately run facilities that is oversees. Indeed, a key rationale for privatization was that the state could save money if it granted private contractors leeway to manage their facilities more efficiently than the state. A 2001 study national study of prison privatization by the U.S. Department of Justice, however, found that private prisons cost an average of one percent less than public facilities.
Furthermore, as Geo Group demonstrated in Coke County, for-profit companies operating without adequate state oversight may cut their own costs to the bone. As such, private facilities, which cost taxpayers more than $200 million a year, pose additional hidden costs that can include the violation of prisoners’ rights and the abuse of tax dollars. In 2006, Texas incarcerated 10.8 percent of its prisoners in private facilities, well above the state average nationwide of 6.2 percent.