Idaho Sending More Prisoners to Texas to Ease Overcrowding

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho — Even as they contend with criticisms of the way Idaho inmates were treated at a privately run Texas prison, state officials are sending more inmates to a troubled facility run by the same company.

State officials including Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter on Tuesday approved sending 40 inmates to the Val Verde Correctional Facility and Jail in Del Rio, Texas, as they try to ease prison overcrowding in their own state.

Last week, the state announced plans to move 125 inmates from Dickens County Correctional Center in Spur, Texas, citing poor living conditions.

Both Dickens and Val Verde are run by a Florida-based company called the GEO Group. The business operates more than 50 prisons across the United States as well as in Australia and South Africa.

Of the 125 inmates being moved from Dickens, 56 will go to Val Verde and the remaining 69 will go to a prison in Littlefield, Texas.

The shift comes amid reports of abusive guards and terrible sanitation at Dickens, where a prisoner killed himself March 4.

In letters to loved ones, Scot Noble Payne described a constantly wet floor, bloodstained sheets and smelly towels at the jail where he was serving time for molesting a child. He slit his throat in his cell.

Documents obtained by The Associated Press show Idaho did little monitoring of out-of-state inmates, despite repeated complaints from prisoners, their families and a prison inspector.

At the Val Verde jail near the Mexican border, inmate LeTisha Tapia killed herself after alleging she was raped by another inmate and sexually humiliated by a guard. A black guard accused his captain of keeping a hangman's noose in his office and a photo of himself in a Ku Klux Klan hood in his desk.

GEO settled lawsuits in both cases, though the terms were not disclosed.

"We'll do a site visit in the immediate future" to Val Verde, said Idaho Department of Correction Director Brent Reinke, who has pledged to improve monitoring of Idaho prisoners by instituting a new program that includes more frequent visits to out-of-state facilities.

But Val Verde County, where the jail is located, has been forced to hire a full-time prison monitor to keep a watch on operations as part of its own settlement with Tapia's family, the county attorney said.

"The county feels that the jail monitor is necessary," Ann Markowski Smith said in an interview. She added that concerns remain about the GEO-run prison, including whether inmates are properly receiving medication meant to treat mental health conditions.

GEO Group spokesman Pablo Paez said the company was working with Idaho to meet its prison needs. He declined to comment on Tapia's and the guard's cases.

After the state complained, GEO reassigned the warden at Val Verde, who told the AP he was later fired. Both he and the former director of the Idaho prison system said they didn't have enough money to make necessary improvements.

The state's contract with GEO is worth about $8 million annually.

Idaho, which began sending prisoners outside state lines in 2005, predicts their numbers will grow between 6 percent and 7 percent annually through 2010, with the population reaching more than 8,800 inmates.

Reinke said he would introduce a plan to build a new 2,200-bed private prison in Idaho, but that wouldn't be complete until 2010 at the earliest. Idaho likely will continue to send more inmates out of state until then.

While Otter acknowledged he was reluctant to work with GEO, he added: "I have a great deal of confidence in Mr. Reinke's ability to clean up the situation."


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