News About Sex Offender Civil Commitment

The following are excerpts from a story that ran in today’s Texas Observer. You can read the full article here

In early September 2015, guards fanned out across Texas with orders to round up about 200 men, rousing some from bed as early as 3 a.m. and demanding they stuff whatever they wanted to keep into black Hefty bags.

The men weren’t hard to find. They’d all completed lengthy prison sentences for sex crimes. The state calls them “sexually violent predators,” men required not only to publicly register their whereabouts but also to participate in a court-ordered monitoring and treatment program meant to cure them of “behavior abnormalities” and safely integrate them back into society after they’ve done their penance. At the time of the roundup, most were living in boarding homes and halfway houses.

… and the others were frisked, loaded onto vans and prison buses and driven hundreds of miles to Littlefield, a remote, sparsely populated corner of the Texas Panhandle, where guards shuffled them into the Bill W. Clayton Detention Center, a prison that had been empty for six years.

Once inside those old prison walls, the men surrendered their IDs, Social Security cards, birth certificates and credit cards, along with cash and coins. Guards dug through the Hefty bags, tossing out all sorts of personal items now considered contraband. They went from living in halfway houses that looked like motels to windowless cells with cinderblock walls, hard steel bunks and metal toilets. But officials at the detention center were adamant: This wasn’t a prison. They instructed the men to call their living quarters “rooms,” not prison cells.

Unlike at the halfway houses, the new inmates couldn’t come and go. It wasn’t clear when their sentences would end, if ever.

Two and a half years after the Texas Civil Commitment Center opened its doors, only five men have been released — four of them to medical facilities where they later died.

State officials claim Texas’ new civil commitment program is designed to rehabilitate the men. But their families and friends argue the state has simply stashed them in a for-profit prison on the outskirts of the state, far away from the support services they’ll need if there’s any hope of transitioning back into society — the supposed goal of the facility. Lawyers who represent them consider the state’s new program an unconstitutional extension of the prison sentences the men have already served.

Critics of private prisons see in the Texas Civil Commitment Center the disturbing new evolution of an industry. As state and federal inmate populations have leveled off, private prison spinoffs and acquisitions in recent years have led to what watchdogs call a growing “treatment industrial complex,” a move by for-profit prison contractors to take over publicly funded facilities that lie somewhere at the intersection of incarceration and therapy. In Texas, their recent attempts to privatize two state psychiatric hospitals failed after families and advocates raised concerns that cost cutting to boost profits would jeopardize the quality of care.

The Texas Civil Commitment Center, however, was a quiet coup that few people saw coming. In 2015, the state signed a $24 million contract with Correct Care Solutions to run the facility; the contract was extended in 2017. The recipe for creating a new for-profit lockup in the era of decarceration: a state agency imploding under mismanagement, a private prison contractor on the rebound and a desperate town saddled with a mountain of debt and an empty detention center. Oh, and sex offenders.

Many of the problems that haunt private prisons elsewhere are evident at the center. Documents I obtained under state open records laws show a steady churn of staff since the prison reopened. The men confined there say that the turnover makes it impossible for them to advance in treatment, which is their only way out of indefinite detention. Correct Care has been scolded for delays in providing medical care and for repeatedly failing to conduct or document all the therapy that taxpayers are now funding.

As the tab for sex offender treatment grows in Texas, the state and Correct Care have found creative ways to squeeze more money from the 277 men now incarcerated in the Littlefield facility, or rather from their families and friends on the outside. While state law allows the program to take a third of any income the men receive in order to help pay for their treatment and confinement in Littlefield, people who send packages to the facility say the company has now applied the concept to gifts. Anyone sending a package to an inmate must submit a receipt for whatever’s inside so officials can charge the sender a third of whatever it’s worth.

Some of the men are still required to help pay for ankle monitors, despite their new home being surrounded by a perimeter of two security fences topped with concertina wire. Inmates say that offenders who get in trouble sometimes end up in solitary confinement for weeks or even months at a time.

The not-a-prison prison operates with more secrecy than most supermaxes. For months I’ve asked to tour the detention center and interview inmates about the conditions there. The agency that oversees the program, the Texas Civil Commitment Office, has refused to answer many of my questions, including why they won’t let reporters inside the for-profit lockup.

Officials did, however, instruct me not to call it a prison and to refer to the men as “residents” instead of inmates.

The civil commitment program that Texas created in 1999 was unique in that it committed sex offenders only to treatment, not detention. Over time, however, the program grew more restrictive, requiring most men to live in halfway houses and boarding homes under contract with the state. By 2014, the private prison companies that ran the homes, such as Avalon Correctional Services and GEO Group, were demanding more money, which Texas didn’t want to pay. The agency in charge of the program, the bluntly titled Office of Violent Sex Offender Management, infuriated Houston-area lawmakers when it was caught moving dozens of sex offenders into the city’s Acres Homes neighborhood without telling local officials. A secret plan to build a for-profit prison camp to house the men in Liberty County similarly collapsed.

…Not a single offender had ever graduated from treatment in the history of the program. Nobody under civil commitment had ever been charged with committing another sexually violent act.

While the state calls the Texas Civil Commitment Center a treatment facility, men inside the lockup claim the therapy there ranges from chaotic to nonexistent. They contend that lapses in treatment, which they say stem from near-constant staff turnover, have made it virtually impossible to graduate from the program. In letters from inside, some of the men say they’ve had up to six therapists since arriving in Littlefield and claim their treatment starts back at square one each time they get a new one. Individual counseling sessions have gone from once every two weeks to once every three months, they say.

…Rachel says she quit a year and a half later, not because she was sick of working with sex offenders but because she was appalled by the conditions inside the lockup, particularly the poor medical care. “People were not getting the treatment they needed,” she told me. “A lot of these guys were really old. The clinic was always running out of medications or never had the right ones. It was all very unorganized.”

… a Florida prison firm called Correctional Services Corp. In 2005, GEO Group, one of the pioneers of the private prison industry, bought Correctional Services and began courting other states to send their adult inmates to Littlefield, which in the end only brought more trouble. In 2008, a prisoner from Idaho committed suicide after spending a year in solitary confinement at the facility. Idaho’s prison director accused GEO Group of falsifying reports to cover up problems that stemmed from chronic understaffing and pulled some 300 inmates out of Littlefield.

…Correct Care also runs civil commitment centers in Florida and in South Carolina, where the state’s department of mental health recently contracted with the company to build a new $36.5 million 268-bed civil commitment facility by the end of 2018.

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