Monday, Jun 29, 2009, 10:42AM CST
By Matt PulleIn the 2009 legislative session, the GEO Group, a Florida-based private prison company, poured money into lobbying, selecting some of the priciest and best-connected hired guns in Austin. The reason was simple: The company had a lot of explaining to do before state lawmakers.
For at least three years now, the GEO Group has endured a rash of dangerous, embarrassing episodes that call into question the outfit's ability to run prisons and jails. The state shut down one of its facilities, citing filthy conditions, while two riots broke out at its prison in West Texas. Then in April, a high court upheld a massive judgment against the GEO Group after an inmate was fatally beaten at another one of its prisons.
This year state lawmakers (all Democrats) arrived in Austin with their sights set on the GEO Group. They authored six separate bills targeting private prison companies, most of which outlined more public accountability and state oversight. Anti-private prison activists were confident that some of the measures would be approved.
But in a remarkable turnaround for the corrections outfit, if not the entire troubled industry, not a single anti-private prison bill passed. In fact, none of the measures even received a floor vote. Despite an ongoing bout of bad press and public mishaps, the GEO Group emerged unscathed this legislative session thanks to a team of high-dollar lobbyists with deep roots in state government.
"At the beginning of the session there were several people who were rightfully outraged by what happened over the last two years," says Bob Libal, the Texas campaigns coordinator for Grassroots Leadership, a social justice organization that opposes private prisons. "So for there to be nothing to come out of this session out of six or seven good thoughtful bills that would have just provided basic accountability, it's really sad. And it really speaks to the private prison industry and the amount of influence they have."
That is particularly true of the GEO Group and its mental health unit, GEO Care, which shelled out a maximum of $370,000 this year on lobbyists in Austin, neatly coinciding with the company's slate of troubles that made national news. Meanwhile, its rival, the Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America, spent a maximum $50,000, according to records on file with the Texas Ethics Commission. Both prison companies do comparable business with the state, with each firm operating all or part of at least nine state facilities.
But it's not just the GEO Group's expense account that makes it noteworthy. A lot of companies pay top dollar for a crew of lobbyists. But few of them can match GEO's well-connected team, a team that, over the last two sessions, have helped the outfit expand their business and beat back efforts to regulate their operations.
> Read more about the GEO Group's well-connected lobbyists and view a graphic about the firm's connections. On page 2.
> 'Money pays off,' says the leader of one anti-private prisons group. On page 3.
Homepage photo of a handshake by flickr user oooh.oooh. Photo of the state Capitol (above) by flickr user fusionpanda. Both used via a Creative Commons license.