Candlelight Vigil at Texas Capitol Honors Those Who have Died in Texas Prisons

March 23, 2017

Advocates and community activists call on Texas lawmakers to close more prisons, starting with for-profit lockups

(Austin, Texas) — Formerly incarcerated people and criminal justice reform advocates will gather at the Texas Capitol tonight, Thursday, March 23, from 6:30 - 8:00 p.m. to honor the lives lost in Texas prisons and jails and to call on the Texas legislature to continue to close prisons this legislative session, including those operated by for-profit prison corporations.  

In 2016 alone, 634 Texans died in custody. Many of those deaths occurred in private, for-profit facilities, each of which receives tens of millions of dollars per year of taxpayer money. Grassroots Leadership, formerly incarcerated individuals and their loved ones will honor the memory of the thousands of lives lost to mass incarceration, and demand an end to private prisons in Texas.

Thel Renfro is one of the many Texans who have needlessly lost a loved one to the private prison system. Barbara Teegarden, his ex-wife and the mother of his two children, died in 2014 while serving two months in a privately run facility for a parole violation. Barbara became comatose in prison, and was only taken to the hospital after other inmates contacted her children to let them know she was in urgent need of medical attention. Renfro says, “The inmates were sympathetic but the staff wasn’t. They acted as if she was trash. And, as much as I hate to say this, any family could have someone in there that makes a mistake and could end up in a situation like that. But that doesn’t mean that they have to go to a place like that, where they’ll be treated like animals. I’ll be willing to bet that if there was an investigation that they’d find out these people weren’t getting the meds they were supposed to, they’re not getting the proper medical care that they’re supposed to, the staff is not qualified to do their job that they’re doing [...] I don’t think that will ever change. It’s all about profit.”

“Prisoners deserve to live. They’re in there serving a punishment, not a death sentence, and if they’re going go ahead and push [the private prison] system the way they do right now, they can count on a lot more deaths and a lot more unhappy people, until someone puts their foot down and says enough is enough. These people cannot go around here and make money off these people while they’re dying.

Private prison corporations like Management and Training Corporation (MTC), the company that runs the East Texas Multi-Use Facility where Barbara was incarcerated, Corrections Corporation of America (recently rebranded as CoreCivic) and GEO Group have a long track record of mismanagement and abuse.  In order to maximize their bottom line, private prisons often under train and underpay their staff. Not surprisingly, private prisons and state jails in Texas have been found to have staff turnover rates that are four to six times higher than in public facilities.

Texas is among several states that have closed prisons in recent years without compromising public safety. The state is in a position to reduce corrections spending and continue to move Texas in the right direction by ending private state jail contracts, four of which expire August 31.

State jails, originally conceived to provide rehabilitation for prisoners serving short sentences, have become warehouses with higher rates of recidivism than state prisons and poor operations. This is evident at the Bradshaw State Jail in Henderson, TX, which has been operated by Corrections Corporation of America since 2004. Among the four private state jails with contracts expiring, Bradshaw is the deadliest by far, with 13 deaths since 2006. Media reports and letters from prisoners also point to a K-2 epidemic, which puts prisoners and staff at great risk of harm and corruption.

“Short state jail sentences should never be a death sentence,” said Holly Kirby, Criminal Justice Programs Director for Grassroots Leadership. “Texas should continue to make progress by closing troubled for-profit state jails while changing the policies that lead to us locking up so many people.”

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Grassroots Leadership is an Austin, Texas-based national organization that works for a more just society where prison profiteering, mass incarceration, deportation and criminalization are things of the past.