Grassroots Leadership Blog

Koch Institute Mass Incarceration Panelists Call Out Private Prisons

On April 16, 2014 the Charles Koch Institute and Mediaite hosted Rule of Law: How the Criminal Justice System Impacts Well-Being, a panel discussion in Austin, TX, which sought to foster discussion focused on the impacts of mass incarceration on our society. For an event branded by Koch — the family name notorious for their mutli-billion dollar conglomerate Koch Industries, Inc. and pro-free market and privatization ideology — the discussion around the for-profit, private prison industry was an interesting one.  

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Humpday Hall of Shame: Willacy County pays the price of private prison...again.

This week’s Humpday Hall of Shame spotlight is on a Willacy County, Texas, private prison debacle that dates back to 2005. It resurfaced last Friday when the Valley Morning Star reported that the county will mediate with a construction company it sued for alleged poor workmanship at three county correctional facilities. The subsequent repairs cost the county $620,000, according to County Judge John F. Gonzales.

The county filed the lawsuit March 7 against Houston-based Hale-Mills Construction, for poor construction on the $7.5-million Willacy County Jail, a $14.5-million county-funded private prison used by the U.S. Marshals' Service, as well as a $111.5-million county-funded private prison comprised of tent-shaped structures.

Willacy County alleges that Hale-Mills’ poor construction practices resulted in roof leaks at the Willacy County Adult Correctional Center, a private prison operated by Management & Training Corporation and contracted by U.S. Marshals’ Service, which led the Marshals' Service to threaten to remove their detainees from the facility in 2011.  Gonzales claimed, “We had all these structural problems because they cut corners.”

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Testify: the Texas Homeland Security Subcommittee and God's Call for Us

Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. --Exodus 22:21 

On Monday, April 7, I was privileged to testify in front of the Texas state Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee regarding border security, sanctuary cities and other immigration issues. Cristina Parker and Eleana Diaz, both of Grassroots Leadership, and Alejandro Caceres of the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition also offered testimony. Eleana speaks candidly about her family's experience here

I spoke to the committee as a Presbyterian missionary serving in the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program. From my work, I've learned that the immigration system in our nation, as well as the for-profit prison industry, is programmed to prey on people who have done nothing but cross a line. Crossing that line is not a crime, but is a civil matter. Immigrants are not guaranteed legal counsel, and if "apprehended," can languish for months and years in immigration detenton centers owned by the Corrections Corporation of America, the GEO Group, Community Education Centers (CEC), and other for-profit prison corporations. That doesn't sound like sanctuary to me!

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Some thoughts about the relationship between the Hutto Visitation Program and Casa Marianella/Posada Esperanza.


At the Hutto Detention Center in Taylor, Texas, the incarceration continues of women from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, often perceived and then grouped as "las Latinas" or Spanish speakers.  The relentless, lethal gang wars that are tearing apart their neighborhoods and cities, in addition to domestic violence and sexual exploitation, impels some courageous women to suffer the hell passage on the train that goes from the southern border of Mexico with Guatemala into various points in Mexico. This train is known as la bestia. When they finally cross the border from Mexico into the U.S. they then spend days or as much as two weeks in the cold buildings under the control of the Border Patrol.  There they are subjected not only to extreme cold, absence of adequate clothing and bedding but a daily diet that many have told me consisted of nothing but two bologna sandwiches and water.  One woman asked me, “Is that not what is called torture?”
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My Unplanned Senate Testimony: How Local Immigration Enforcement Policies Hurt Communities, Including My Family

Monday morning, as I walked to the Capitol to join Grassroots Leadership’s Cristina Parker, Lauren Voyles, and several other immigrant rights advocates from the community in a senate hearing on sanctuary cities, I received the following text message: “Have you testified in one of these before? If not, it could be a good opportunity. They are talking about border issues, so it may be a good thing for you to speak about”

Cue panic attack. I had never testified before and the last senate hearing I had attended was opened with testimony from an eloquent and well-prepared professor, the opposite of what I felt that morning. 

Outside of the room holding the hearing Cristina quickly explained the process and I hastily filled out a form so that I could be put on the docket to testify. She handed me a piece of paper to scribble out a quick script for myself and after staring at it for a few seconds I realized I actually did have a lot to say and I wanted it to be heard.

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Humpday Hall of Shame: Obama in town for civil rights speech, could end deportations

On Thursday, April 10, President Barack Obama will attend a meeting commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act in Austin, Texas, along with three former U.S. Presidents — Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the event's organizers said on Monday.  The Civil Rights Summit, slated from Tuesday to Thursday, is organized by the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library located on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. 

President Obama is scheduled to give a keynote speech on Thursday, and while he is speaking about civil rights, let us not forget the President's executive power to end deportations and his aggressive roll-out of the Secure Communities Program.

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Highlights from our Community Conversation in Austin!

Last week our board members Nicole Porter and Christopher Petrella addressed a packed house at Huston-Tillotson University for A Community Conversation on Race, Mass Incarceration, and the Private Prison Industry.  In addition to spotlighting our board members’ work, our intention was to use this event to bring more visibility to the criminal justice side of our programs here in Austin.

We opened the event by taking a visual straw poll of who was in the room.  Kymberlie asked participants to raise their hands in response to questions like, “Who in this room has been directly affected by the criminal justice system,” and “How many of you believe that criminal justice policies affect us all?”  People responded most enthusiastically to the question, “Who believes we have the power to change criminal justice policies and practices?” with cheers and claps!  

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Humpday Hall of Shame: GEO Doesn't Make Enough Money?!

Congratulations, it's a tie! Today's Humpday Hall of Shame award goes to the GEO Group and Rep. John Kavanagh.  

Last Friday, Arizona House Appropriations Committee Chairman John Kavanagh allegedly wrote an additional $900,000 into the Arizona budget the for-profit prison corporation. Kavanagh maintains that GEO Group lobbyists requested the money, but Arizona Department of Corrections spokesman Doug Nick, however, claims that no additional funding was requested for GEO. 

Such a deal perhaps should not come a surprise, since Kavanagh apparently received six campaign contributions from GEO during the last election cycle. In fact, GEO CEO George Zoley, senior vice presidents Thomas Wierdsma, John Bulfin, Jorge Dominicis, and Stephen Fuller, and employee James Black all donated the maximum individual donation amount, $424, between June 29 and and July 9, 2012. Kristin Boilini and and Nicholas Simonetta, two lobbyists for GEO's lobbying firm Pivotal Policy Consulting, also donated to Kavanagh during that time. 

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