in Houston, Texas

Lawmakers' relatives work for GEO Group prison co. as state weighs clamp-down on embattled firm

files/2009/04/prisonguardtower2-276x300.jpg
Monday, Apr 27, 2009, 12:19PM CST
By Matt Pulle
Two state lawmakers from South Texas have financial ties to a private prison firm that runs facilities for the Texas state prison system -- at a time when lawmakers are debating sweeping new measures to clamp down on corrections companies.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and state Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, have financial links to the GEO Group, a Florida-based firm that runs 19 correctional facilities in Texas, including nine under contract for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Zaffirini’s husband, Carlos, is a lawyer and advocate for the firm, formerly known as Wackenhut. In December 2007, the Zaffirinis’ hometown commissioners in rural Webb County considered whether to stop supplying water and sewer lines to a local GEO-owned prison after residents voiced concerns about the company’s track record. The Laredo Morning Times reported that Zaffirini put on a spirited defense of the firm, claiming the complaints against his client were  “steeped in emotion and void of logic.”

Zaffirini

Oliveira, meanwhile, also has a cozy relationship with the prison company. His Brownsville law firm serves as its local defense counsel. The House member's cousin David Oliveira, a partner at the firm, has represented the company on a lawsuit alleging misconduct that one judge described as "reprehensible."

Oliveira

The lawmakers' ties to the company raise all sorts of messy questions: Can either one of them vote on any legislation that would place tough regulations on how the GEO Group does business? Why haven't they disclosed their interest in the firm on their personal financial statements? And should any lawmaker have a financial interest in a company that feeds out of the public trough?

"The private prison industry is dependent on taxpayer dollars," says Alex Friedmann, the associate editor of Prison Legal News, a newsletter dedicated to protecting inmates' legal rights. "So, yes, I believe Zaffirini and Oliveira have a conflict of interest, or at least a perceived conflict of interest."

Oliveira did not return repeated phone calls for comment left beginning March 24.  Zaffirini, meanwhile, says that she is largely unfamiliar with the company's recent struggles, even though her husband works for the firm.

“I quite frankly have not given private prisons a lot of thought," she says. "I spend most of the time focusing on the issues of the poor, the elderly and people who can’t represent themselves."

Lawmakers could vote this spring to get tough with private prison companies, including the GEO Group, after the company's missteps have brought Texas prisons national attention for poor, unstable conditions.

Critics say Zaffirini and Oliveira, because of their personal ties to the company, should recuse themselves from prison-related votes. But Zaffirini says she would vote on the private-prison measures, and that her legislative aides have no knowledge of her husband's work.

Continues ...


Read about the GEO Group's troubles, including a recent finding that the company tried to cover up a deadly inmate beating. On page 2.

Hear from Carlos Zaffirini, who says his senator wife would not let his lawyering influence her lawmaking. On page 3.

See a listing of state legislative proposals that would limit the GEO Group, as well as all private prisons in Texas. On page 4.

Homepage photo of a prison guard tower by flickr user tomsaint11, used via a Creative Commons license.
Comments
Juli
Monday, 04/27/2009 - 03:07PM

Tax Dollars should not be diverted into privatized organizations. There is too much potential for corruption and deregulation leading to the destruction of the public good for the sake of greed and profit.

Lee Ann O'Neal
Tuesday, 04/28/2009 - 10:23AM

Hi, Juli, thank you for commenting -- and for reading the site!

Take care,

Lee Ann

leeann@texaswatchdog.org

William
Tuesday, 04/28/2009 - 10:36AM

A “SINGLE VOICE PROJECT” is the official name of the petition sponsored by: The National Public Service Council To Abolish Private Prisons (NPSCTAPP)

THIS PETITION SEEKS TO ABOLISH ALL PRIVATE PRISONS IN THE UNITED STATES, (or any place subject to its jurisdiction)

The National Public Service Council To Abolish Private Prisons (NPSCTAPP) is a grass roots organization driven by a single objective. We want the United States government to reclaim sole authority for state and federal prisons on US soil.

We want the United States Congress to immediately rescind all state and federal contracts that permit private prisons “for profit” to exist in the United States, or any place subject to its jurisdiction. We understand that the problems that currently plague our government, its criminal justice system and in particular, the state & federal bureau of prisons (and most correctional and rehabilitation facilities) are massive. However, it is our solemn belief that the solutions for prison reform will remain unattainable and virtually impossible as long as private prisons for profit are permitted to operate in America.

Prior to the past month, and the fiasco of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG, Lehman Brothers, and now the “Big Three” American Automobile manufacturers, the NPSCTAPP has always felt compelled to highlight the “moral Bottom line” when it comes to corrections and privatization. Although, we remain confounded by the reality that our government has allowed our justice system to be operated by private interests. The NPSCTAPP philosophy has always been “justice” should not be for sale at any price. It is our belief that the inherent and most fundamental responsibility of the criminal justice system should not be shirked, or “jobbed-out.” This is not the same as privatizing the post office or some trash pick up service in the community. There has to be a loss of meaning and purpose when an inmate looks at a guard’s uniform and instead of seeing an emblem that reads State Department of Corrections or Federal Bureau of Prisons, he sees one that says: “Atlas Prison Corporation.”

Let’s assume that the real danger of privatization is not some innate inhumanity on the part of its practitioners but rather the added financial incentives that reward inhumanity. The same logic that motivates companies to operate prisons more efficiently also encourages them to cut corners at the expense of workers, prisoners and the public. Every penny they do not spend on food, medical care or training for guards is a dime they can pocket. What happens when the pennies pocketed are not enough for the shareholders? Who will bailout the private prison industry when they hold the government and the American people hostage with the threat of financial failure…“bankruptcy?” What was unimaginable a month ago merits serious consideration today. State and Federal prison programs originate from government design, and therefore, need to be maintained by the government. It’s time to restore the principles and the vacated promise of our judicial system.

John F. Kennedy said, “The time to repair the roof is while the sun is shinning”. Well the sun may not be shinning but, it’s not a bad time to begin repair on a dangerous roof that is certain to fall…. because, “Incarcerating people for profit is, in a word WRONG”

There is an urgent need for the good people of this country to emerge from the shadows of cynicism, indifference, apathy and those other dark places that we migrate to when we are overwhelmed by frustration and the loss of hope.

It is our hope that you will support the NPSCTAPP with a show of solidarity by signing our petition. We intend to assemble a collection of one million signatures, which will subsequently be attached to a proposition for consideration. This proposition will be presented to both, the Speaker Of The House Of Representatives (Nancy Pelosi) and the United States Congress.

Please Help Us. We Need Your Support. Help Us Spread The Word About This Monumental And Courageous Challenge To Create Positive Change. Place The Link To The Petition On Your Website! Pass It On!

The SINGLE VOICE PETITION and the effort to abolish private “for profit” prisons is the sole intent of NPSCTAPP. Our project does not contain any additional agendas. We have no solutions or suggestions regarding prison reform. However, we are unyielding in our belief that the answers to the many problems which currently plague this nation’s criminal justice system and its penal system in particular, cannot and will not be found within or assisted by the private “for profit” prison business. The private “for profit” prison business has a stranglehold on our criminal justice system. Its vice-like grip continues to choke the possibility of justice, fairness, and responsibility from both state and federal systems.

These new slave plantations are not the answer!

For more information please visit: http://www.npsctapp.blogsppot.com/ or email: williamthomas@exconciliation.com

To sign the petition please visit: http://www.petitiononline.com/gufree2/petition.html

THANK YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT!

National Community Outreach Facilitator

The National Public Service Council To Abolish Private Prisons

P.O. Box 156423

San Francisco, California 94115

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