State gets tougher on private prisons
Operators face fine as leniency disappears under Martinez administration

Trip Jennings
The New Mexican
Posted: Thursday, March 01, 2012

New Mexico's corrections agency has slapped Florida-based GEO Group Inc. with nearly $300,000 in penalties on top of $1.1 million in fines assessed last year for the company's continued failure to adequately staff a prison in Hobbs.

In addition, $11,800 in fines were assessed this week against New Mexico's second-private prison operator, Corrections Corporation of America.

Tennessee-based CCA, which operates a women's prison in Grants for New Mexico, was penalized for inadequate staffing there and for its failure to release 15 female inmates on time. Some of the inmates were released more than 30 days past their release date, state documents show.

The penalties against the companies point to a more aggressive tone that Gov. Susana Martinez's administration has struck with the for-profit companies than her predecessor, Gov. Bill Richardson.

For years, GEO and Corrections Corporations of America have managed some portion of New Mexico's prisons. At one point, the two companies operated six facilities. Now, their portfolio is down to four.

But until recently, the two companies could violate their contract with New Mexico without worrying about penalties in certain cases.

That leniency appears to have disappeared under the Martinez administration.

In November 2011, GEO agreed to pay $1.1 million in penalties for inadequately staffing the Lea County Correctional Facility for the months of January through October 2011. It was the first fine leveled in years -- if ever -- against GEO for inadequate staffing, state officials said. Then, in December and January, the state's Corrections Department hit GEO with additional penalties of $158,529.28 and $139,620.71 for November and December, respectively, according to Shannon McReynolds, inspector general at the New Mexico Department of Corrections.

The November and December fines against GEO resulted from the company's failure to staff enough correctional officers and other mandatory positions at the Hobbs prison. Also, several noncustody posts had been vacant for more than 60 days, including those that deal with mental health and substance abuse problems as well as for counselors, documents show.

A spokesman for GEO did not respond to an email request for comment on the penalties.

Meanwhile, a CCA spokesman directed questions to the state Department of Corrections when asked about the $11,800 penalty that went out this week against his company.

"We are still working with our government partner to evaluate and analyze the issue and believe any questions at this stage are more appropriately directed to the Department," CCA spokesman Steve Owen wrote in an email Tuesday. "We are working closely with our government partner to ensure that we conform with their requirements."

The $11,800 penalty resulted, in part, from CCA not having enough correctional officers in January at the Grants women's prison, McReynolds said. But the larger part of the $11,800 fine -- $7,964.46 -- resulted from the failure of prison staff to release 15 female inmates on time. State documents show 13 of those 15 inmates were let out more than 30 days past their release date.

By contract, New Mexico can penalize the GEO Group and Corrections Corp. of America for not meeting certain requirements written into their contracts, such as adequate correctional officer staffing, the filling of mandatory posts at each facility and ensuring that noncustody staff positions don't go unfilled for more than 60 days.

"These are taxpayer dollars that we are spending here," said McReynolds, whose job includes documenting when the two private-prison operators violate their contracts. "When we spend these taxpayer dollars on these services, we need to make sure we're getting those services."

State lawmakers and activists criticized what they said was the Richardson administration's leniency with the companies, saying they were concerned CCA and GEO Group were pocketing profits because of the state's willingness to overlook contract violations.

Both companies operate prisons in multiple states, including New Mexico.

In February, CCA reported $162.5 million in profits for 2011, up from $157.2 million from 2010, while GEO reported $77.5 million in profits in 2011, compared to $62.8 million in 2010.

McReynolds is in a position to compare the Martinez administration's orientation toward the for-profit companies with that of her predecessor's.

During a part of Richardson's administration, McReynolds worked as a contract monitor at one of the facilities operated by Corrections Corporation of America. And New Mexico's corrections agency knew that staffing problems existed at some privately operated facilities, he said.

"We've always had contract monitors. They observed and reported. But they didn't have enforcement authority," McReynolds said. "Under the previous administration, I don't know if it was a spoken or unspoken policy. The contract monitors submitted reports and they never were penalized."

Joe Williams, Richardson's then-corrections secretary, explained in 2010 that the contracts with the for-profit companies gave him discretion whether to assess penalties, and he chose not to.

At the time, a corrections spokeswoman said the agency couldn't verify how much in potential penalties the state had not charged the two firms because of sporadic record-keeping at the four facilities operated by GEO and CCA.

The question of how much New Mexico had not charged in penalties surfaced in 2010 when state lawmakers were struggling to find ways to close a yawning state budget gap. At the time, the Legislature's budget arm, the Legislative Finance Committee, estimated Richardson's administration had skipped $18 million in penalties by not assessing penalties against the two firms for inadequate prison staffing levels.

"We requested (Legislative Finance Committee) staff to stay on this and see what the new administration would do," said Rep. Luciano "Lucky" Varela, D-Santa Fe, vice chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee. "Apparently (the Martinez administration is) following up on this."

Ensuring prisons have enough staff is a "public safety issue," McReynolds said.

"If you have a poorly staffed facility, delivering services to inmates begins to break down," he said. "And then inmates find different ways to find services."

Varela wholeheartedly agreed and mentioned the touchstone of much of New Mexico's corrections policy as what can happen when there's not enough staff on hand -- the 1980 prison riot in Santa Fe in which 33 inmates were killed by other inmates and 12 corrections officers were held hostage, some of whom were sodomized, stabbed and beaten.

Staffing prisons at adequate levels would "preclude any major problems," Varela said.

Contact Trip Jennings at 986-3050 or at