How a private prisons corporation is creeping into Alabama

22437711-mmmainVia AL.Com | By Connor Sheets Private prison companies have planted their flags proudly in states across the Southeast. Every state sharing a border with Alabama is home to at least one privately operated prison.

Alabama has long been a regional outlier, with stalwart political opposition to corporate prisons keeping them from being established in the state.

But a series of recent moves demonstrates that at least one major national private prison conglomerate is finding creative ways to make inroads into Alabama.

The creep of GEO Group – the nation’s second-largest private prison corporation – into the state has gone largely unheralded. But the company’s purchase Wednesday of a correctional facility in Shelby County is the latest sign of a growing trend of corporate incursions into the state’s prison-industrial complex.

The moves come at a critical time, as lawmakers consider options for reforming the state’s overcrowded, violent prison system in the face of a federal investigation into a wide range of potential abuses and constitutional violations.

But it has gone largely unnoticed, as private prison companies do not currently run any operational state prisons in Alabama. They are instead finding other ways to establish footholds in the state, an effort being led in recent years by GEO Group.

Alabama Therapeutic Education Facility

On Wednesday, GEO Group acquired the Alabama Therapeutic Education Facility in Columbiana as part of its $360 million purchase of the national correctional company Community Education Centers.

With capacity for 724 inmates, the facility contracts with the Alabama Department of Corrections (DOC) to treat and rehabilitate state prisoners who are considered low-risk offenders.

“It’s a therapeutic facility. It’s privately owned but the state supports them through some of our funding to house some of our state inmates,” State Sen. Cam Ward, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Thursday.

“I call it therapeutic programs, education-based programs; they help them get a skill for when they get out. They’re nonviolent inmates.”

But the acquisition of the facility by GEO Group marks a new level of direct involvement in Alabama corrections by massive private prison corporations.

Pablo Paez, spokesman for the Florida-headquartered company, declined via email to respond to a number of specific questions about the acquisition and the company’s future plans for the facility and the state. He instead provided the link to a company press release announcing the deal and offered an additional one-sentence statement.

“We do look forward to continuing to provide quality services at the facility in Columbiana, Alabama, which is a 724-bed reentry facility under contract with the Alabama Department of Corrections,” Paez wrote.

Bob Horton, a spokesman for the DOC, declined to respond to a series of questions about private prison companies’ influence in Alabama.

Staff at the Alabama Therapeutic Education Facility declined to grant an interview or give a tour of the facility to an AL.com reporter who visited the hulking building Thursday afternoon.

The acquisition of the property was new enough on Thursday that employees there still wore uniforms with the Community Education Centers name and logo, which also remained printed on exterior signage at the facility. But a map of GEO Group facilities on the company’s website has been updated since Tuesday to include a bright yellow dot marking its stake in Alabama and linking to information about the Alabama Therapeutic Education Facility.

Perry County Correctional Center

The Columbiana facility houses hundreds of male and female Alabama state inmates – the exact number was not immediately available – but because it is a rehabilitative reentry program, it is not considered a state prison.

There is not a privately owned prison currently operating in Alabama, but GEO Group does own a prison in Perry County that for years held inmates.

The Perry County Correctional Center near Union Town is currently unoccupied, but it was home to a small number of prisoners at least as recently as 2015.

Opened in 2006, the prison was never a county correctional facility despite its name. It was instead a private prison that housed a wide range of offenders over the past decade, from Alabama state prisoners to state inmates sent there by the state of Vermont and federal inmates of the U.S. Marshals Service.

The prison – which has a design capacity of 690 people, according to investor materials distributed by GEO Group last year – was built by the private prisons firm LCS Correctional Services. In February 2015, GEO Group purchased the Perry County facility and seven prisons in Texas and Louisiana from LCS for $310 million.

The facility no longer houses any inmates, and is currently sitting unused.

The company has attempted to sell the prison to the state in the past, according to Ward.

“GEO also owns the empty Perry County prison, which they are trying to sell us,” he said.

State lawmakers have repeatedly taken steps toward purchasing the Perry County facility. In 2010, a bill was approved by the Legislature to allow as much as $60 million in bonds to be issued in order to buy the prison, but the state never ended up doing so. In 2015, the state House Ways and Means General Fund Committee approved a slightly tweaked version of that bill, but the state again failed to move forward with a purchase.

Ward added that the state is not planning to purchase the prison because it would not be cost-effective, and that he and other lawmakers are also opposed to private companies operating prisons.

“I don’t mind buying it if we can use it, but I have a problem with private prisons. I’ve just seen too many problems with private prisons around the country,” Ward said.

“The [other] main reason why it doesn’t make sense is that financially it doesn’t work. We spend so little already on prisons in Alabama that it would be more to go private prisons.”

In October, a state lawmaker said that the state could have purchased it for as little as $32 million, according to the Anniston Star. Meanwhile, in June, GEO Group sent a report to investors stating that the facility had a net book value of only about $12.9 million. So the prison sits empty in Perry County today.

“With respect to the Perry County facility, there are currently no concrete plans, and yes, the facility is completely idle,” Paez, the GEO Group spokesman, said.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement

While Alabama has not allowed private prison companies to purchase and operate state prisons, the federal government has contracted with GEO Group to serve some of its corrections needs in the state.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) used to house immigrant detainees in the Perry County Correctional Center.

“We do not currently use the Perry County facility and have not for at least five years,” ICE spokesman Thomas Byrd said via email. “I’m not sure of the exact date, but was told it’s been at least that long.”

But ICE does have a contract with a GEO Group subsidiary to run a program that supervises certain immigrants released from its custody.

ICE contracts with Etowah County to incarcerate as many as 345 detainees at a time in the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden.

When some of those immigrants are released from the Etowah County facility pending court dates and other proceedings, they are entered into the Intensive Supervision and Appearance Program, or ISAP, which has similarities to standard probation and parole programs.

BI Incorporated, which has managed the ISAP program since it launched in 2004, operated more than 40 ISAP offices as of 2014. It currently has a dedicated office in Gadsden office, and in November GEO Group published a job posting on Monster.com seeking an administrative to work there.

ISAP “is a community-based/supervision program managed by BI Incorporated, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of GEO Group, under contract with the Department of Homeland Security and ICE,” according to Paez, who directed more detailed questions about the program and GEO Group’s role in it to ICE.

But a September 2014 statement contained on a cached version of BI Incorporated’s website explains ISAP and the company’s role in it in greater detail.

The statement explains that ISAP provides “case management and supervision” to ICE detainees involved in immigration proceedings.

It achieves these goals through such means as requiring program participants to report frequently to ISAP offices and/or submit to tracking by electronic monitoring devices.

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