Monday, Apr 27, 2009, 12:15PM CST
By Matt PulleContinued from page 1, which outlines state Sen. Judith Zaffirini and Rep. Rene Oliveira's connections to the GEO Group prison company.
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Geo Group facilities in Texas
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Two years ago, the Texas Youth Commission slammed the GEO Group's Coke County Juvenile Justice Center, discovering illegal contraband and filthy cells that "smelled of feces and urine." Other findings included racially segregated cells and a limited education program that consisted of one daily worksheet slipped into the juvenile's cell. The agency later pulled 197 of its inmates out of the facility and canceled its contract with the firm.
Then, earlier this month, the Court of Appeals in the 13th district in Corpus Christi upheld a massive judgment against the GEO Group, then known as Wackenhut Corrections Corp., after an inmate was beaten to death at one of its facilities. The court concluded that the company tried to cover up the attack and that its conduct "constituted a disgusting display of disrespect."
“The GEO Group is an appalling company to represent," says Bob Libal, the Texas campaigns coordinator for Grassroots Leadership, a social justice organization that opposes private prisons. “It’s staggering to think about how many problems the GEO group has had in Texas."
The GEO Group last year earned $59 million in fees from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for managing nine state facilities. More notably the GEO Group has endured a rash of problems in Texas that have garnered the attention of their colleagues in Austin, as well as media outlets across the country.
In 2007 State Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat and chairman of the criminal justice committee, called for a special hearing on GEO's state contracts after the Texas Youth Commission issued the devastating report on the company's youth facility. He then lashed out at the firm when he felt like its lobbyists were attempting to downplay its troubles.
The corrections outfit also generated headlines when two prison riots broke out at the GEO-operated Reeves County Detention Center, which houses inmates detained on federal immigration violations. The first rash of violence came last December after inmates complained about a lack of health care, followed by more rioting two months later in which the West Texas facility was engulfed in flames. Both riots cost Reeves County, which owns the detention center, more than $1 million to repair the damages.
Zaffirini's husband, Oliveira's firm defended GEO Group in 2001 prison beating case
But despite the GEO Group's recent bout of bad publicity, it was a brutal prison beating nearly a decade ago that may raise the most questions about Zaffirini and Oliveira's financial interest in the company.
On April 26, 2001, two inmates at a GEO Group-operated facility in Willacy County stuffed prison-issued padlocks into socks and beat Gregorio de la Rosa on his head, neck, ribs and back, striking him dead just four days before his intended release.
The family of de la Rosa, an honorably discharged National Guardsman who was incarcerated on a drug charge, would later file a wrongful death lawsuit against the GEO Group. They claimed that the beating was no isolated incident. Rather, de la Rosa's attorney, Ronald Rodriguez, alleged that facility's guards allowed inmates to enforce their own brand of order that included rape and extortion.
The Laredo attorney put on quite a case. He introduced evidence of assaults in which inmates were also attacked with padlocks wrapped inside socks -- just like de la Rosa had been. Rodriguez showed that the guards didn't follow policy when they failed to pat down inmates who entered the area where the deadly beating took place. Finally, in order to point to a wider culture of dysfunction, Rodriguez introduced into evidence a prison training videotape in which a guard tells an inmate that if he didn't want to be raped, he shouldn't have come to prison.
$47.5 million judgment
A jury would later award the de la Rosa family $47.5 million, one of the top 10 jury verdicts in 2006. The judge and jury also found that the company destroyed the videotape of the beating. The GEO Group appealed the case, but earlier month the court of appeals in the 13th district of Texas upheld the ruling. The court noted testimony that the prison's warden and officers "smirked and laughed" as the inmates attacked de la Rosa. Judge Gina Benavides, who wrote the opinion, also concluded that Warden David Forrest intentionally disposed of incriminating evidence and that "these cover-up attempts show intentional malice, trickery, and deceit.”
"We hold that nearly all the indicators of reprehensible conduct exists in this record," the judge said.
In October 2007, Zulema de la Rosa Salazar, the older sister of the late inmate, wrote a letter to Whitmire, who had recently called for a hearing on the GEO Group's track record in Texas. In her letter, Salazar says that she tried to warn officials in Webb County when the company proposed building a prison there. But no one would ever meet with her.
"They will not listen," she writes, her anger nearly crystallizing on the page. "Why? I'll tell you why. One of the GEO Group's attorneys, Mr. Zaffirini, is married to Senator Judith Zaffirini. Is this not a conflict of interest?"
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.