A coalition of influential Texas organizations is pushing back against the proposed privatization of a state psychiatric hospital by GEO Care, a subsidiary of a prison operations group that has a troubled history in Texas.
The Department of State Health Services (DSHS) is preparing to privatize one of the state hospitals it oversees, a move estimated to save taxpayers millions of dollars a year.
Members of the coalition, concerned by the fact that GEO Care was the only bidder to operate the hospital, are urging DSHS, the Legislative Budget Board, and Gov. Rick Perry to reject the company's proposed management of the hospital.
“The GEO Group has a long and troubled history in Texas,” said Bob Libal, whose organization, Grassroots Leadership, signed the letter along with groups like the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, the Center for Public Policy Priorities, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and the United Methodist Church.
That history includes the closure of GEO's Coke County Juvenile Justice Center in 2007 following reports of horrific conditions, sexual abuse and youth suicides. GEO also drew negative attention in 2009, when inmates started fires and took hostages at the group's Reeves County Detention Center to demand better health care. That same year, a Texas appeals court upheld a $42.5 million verdict against the GEO Group for the 2001 death of an inmate who was beaten to death by other inmates four days before finishing his sentence at a Willacy County facility.
Pablo Paez, vice president of corporate relations for the GEO Group, said that the coalition's letter was an inaccurate representation of the company’s track record, both nationally and in Texas. Before the Coke County facility was shut down, for example, Paez said, the Texas Youth Commission named it "Facility of the Year" in both 1999 and 2005.
“To judge a company’s record on isolated events is grossly unfair,” he said.
But GEO’s troubles don't appear to be isolated. Last month, the Austin American-Statesman reported that a psychiatric hospital run by GEO Care in Montgomery County faced $53,000 in state fines for problems with patient care. The state hospital division conducted a review of the facility this spring, reporting incidents like a patient who injured himself in isolation because staffers were too afraid to enter his room, and another who was required to clean up his own feces and urine. (Paez said despite such reports, the number of restraint and seclusion events at the facility is well below the state average.)
“GEO has paid millions in lawsuits over the death of prisoners,” Libal wrote in the letter. “If that kind of liability were to fall on the Department of State Health Services, GEO’s cost-cutting measures might not save taxpayers money.”
We've reached out to DSHS and will update this post with the agency's response.