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Leaking roofs, abscessed teeth, little time outside: Idaho prisoners describe Texas facility

December 12, 2018 GMT

In February 2017, while at the Ada County Jail before trial, and before the government shipped him out of state, James Morningstar, then 31, penned a letter to the judge in his case asking for leniency.

“Addiction is a strong taskmaster, and I desperately need the tools to remain sober and be a hardworking, productive citizen,” Morningstar wrote.

He’d been arrested after a Boise traffic stop in April 2016, when officers found meth, heroin and painkillers, a pistol, and over $6,000 cash. He pleaded guilty to one count of drug trafficking and was sentenced to a set six-year sentence, with the possibility of up to 20 years in prison, court records show. It was his first felony offense.

For a while, it seemed Morningstar had the tools he needed to remain sober. He went to St. Anthony Work Camp, a minimum security facility designed to help inmates develop healthy work habits. He had a job operating machinery at a potato plant, he remembered, and earned about $800 a month — important, given the fact that he was also sentenced to pay more than $10,000 in restitution and court fees.

But this year, the Idaho Department of Correction removed Morningstar from the work camp and sent him to the Eagle Pass Correctional Facility in Eagle Pass, Texas, an isolated, privately run facility on the Mexican border a few hundred miles southwest of San Antonio. It’s not a work camp — it’s a medium security facility where Morningstar has spent most of his time indoors with more than 500 other Idaho inmates. He is subject to far stricter security than he was in Idaho, and he only earns $48 a month.

“I was earning $800 a month — they took that from me,” he said in a phone interview from the facility. “Now I’m earning $48 a month. To me, that just ain’t right. That was my future.”

Yet his good behavior and promising future may be why he’s no longer at the work camp. The department needed well-behaved prisoners like him to send out of state.

Four years after Idaho limped away from a private prison debacle that resulted in rampant violence and multiple lawsuits, the Idaho Department of Correction is waist-deep in another private prison agreement. This time, Idaho is sending 700 inmates to two facilities managed by The GEO Group, which amassed more than $2.2 billion in revenues in 2017.

The majority of Idaho’s out-of-state inmates have been sent to the Eagle Pass Correctional Facility. Though the 549 Idaho inmates have only been at the Eagle Pass facility for a few months, complaints from some inmates and their families have begun to mount.

The situation is meant to be a temporary fix to the housing problem in Idaho’s prisons, with the department housing a total of 7,507 inmates in-state as of Thursday. Ideally, the prisoners in Texas receive the same treatment as they would in Idaho.

But some in the facility say that hasn’t been the case. They remained inside in cramped conditions for two months without being allowed outside, they said; they eat poorly prepared food and don’t have good access to health care when they need it. In recent weeks, there have been at least two riots at the facility, one which sent a guard to the hospital. By many accounts, the facility was not ready to receive prisoners when the inmates arrived, as the GEO Group had to perform construction to bring the facility up to the Idaho Department of Correction’s standards. The situation has drawn the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, which has received dozens of complaints about the facility from prisoners and their families via letters, emails, phone calls and social media messages.

The irony of the situation is that the Eagle Pass Correctional Facility houses some of the department’s model inmates — and it’s not lost on them, either.

“It’s supposed to be better,” said Jerry “Jay” Hance, 35, who is serving time there for drug and assault charges. “Instead we come down here and get punished.”

Never meant to be a prison

Part of the problem is the Eagle Pass Correctional Facility was not built as a prison, said Hance.

Hance, arrested as a probationer in Buhl in 2016 when a police officer found a meth pipe in his possession, has been in other prisons, he said. They’re designed to hold inmates for years or decades, and thus are massive, with a great deal of space for prisoners to move around. That’s not true of the Eagle Pass Correctional Facility, he said. In fact, the Eagle Pass Correctional Facility’s life as a prison has been largely an afterthought.

In December 2008, the GEO Group announced the building’s opening, in its first incarnation as the 654-bed Maverick County Detention Center, on behalf of Maverick County, Business Wire reported at the time. Back then, the GEO Group managed many detention facilities in Texas, and the Maverick County Detention Center, built for $43 million, housed prisoners who had cases in federal court, according to the Eagle Pass Business Journal. The company operated the building until 2013, when the relationship soured between the firm and the county. GEO Group pulled out of the contract, leaving the Maverick County Sheriff’s Department with the expensive task of managing the facility alongside the U.S. Marshals.

Then, in April 2017, the GEO Group bought the facility back from the county. The company’s contract with the Idaho Department of Correction came soon after that. By November, a total of 700 Idaho inmates were housed in Texas, between the Eagle Pass Correctional Facility and the Karnes County Correctional Facility.

Although the company renovated the building to bring it up to Idaho Department of Correction standards, Hance said the facility is not equipped to serve as a prison.

“It’s just a county jail, it’s just a facility for holding inmates,” Hance said in a phone interview from the facility. “It’s not a prison by any means ... it’s not designed to hold prisoners long term.”

Because of the building’s restrictions, Hance said, the inmates haven’t been able to move about the facility the same way they would in a prison. For instance, Hance pointed out he hasn’t moved from his tier of cells in a week or more, which is unusual for life in a prison. He said 48 inmates live in the tier’s six cells, with eight beds to a cell — something that would never happen in Idaho.

‘Only been outside once’ since arrival

Hance isn’t alone in his frustrations with the facility. An increasing number of inmates and their families are expressing concern over the lack of basic services as promised in the state of Idaho’s 43-page operating agreement with The GEO Group. For example, page 14 states, “(The) Contractor shall provide facilities, equipment, and supplies for indoor and outdoor recreational and leisure time programs.”

But Patrick Irving told the Idaho Press in late November that he and his fellow Idaho inmates at Eagle Pass hadn’t had any outdoor recreation for nearly three months.

“I’ve only been outside once since I arrived in September,” Irving said. “We had an indoor recreation room that was basically a concrete box. They called it ‘indoor rec’ but when it rains, it floods and there are beetles, mosquitoes and moths flying everywhere. Occasionally, the bugs crawl in from the indoor rec room to our units, stuff like that.”

Jared Deveraux said he too saw the outdoor recreation area for the first time in late November.

“It’s basically weeds and dirt and a concrete slab for basketball. That’s it. You can kind of walk in circles around the concrete basketball court,” he said.

The Idaho Department of Correction knew “there were unavoidable delays in pouring the concrete pads necessary for the basketball courts, handball courts and exercise area located in the outside recreation at the Eagle Pass Correctional Facility,” department spokesman Jeff Ray told the Idaho Press in an email. “The delays were caused by the unusually heavy rains received this year in southern Texas. The inmates could not be allowed in the area while construction equipment, tools and building supplies were present.”

The GEO Group provided the department with an action plan for completing the recreation area, Ray wrote, and IDOC monitored the process at every step.

Ray added, “It should be noted that there were enough indoor recreation areas available in the facility so that it met all American Correctional Association and Texas state standards even before the outside recreation areas were created.”

Hance estimated by mid-November, he’d had two collective hours outside in the past two months. He said the claustrophobic conditions have made the facility more dangerous.

“You keep so many top dogs in a cage and they’re going to start fighting,” Hance said. “There’s nothing to do here.”

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‘Low maintenance’

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The Idaho Department of Correction has confirmed that inmates deemed “low maintenance” — i.e., no disciplinary issues or serious medical concerns — were handpicked, with the GEO Group’s input, for transfer to Texas. When asked how the department selected inmates to send out of state, Ray referenced page five of the contract with GEO Group, which specifies the state will not send inmates to the private facilities if they have a litany of physical or mental health issues, as outlined in an Idaho state statute. The agreement also stipulates the department would not send inmates with a history of “institutional violence involving a deadly weapon or significant pattern of violence while confined in Idaho.”

Ray also wrote “the GEO Group reviewed the files of the inmates IDOC selected to assure they met established contract requirements.”

“They were looking at folks who are really well-behaved, cooperative and friendly and relatively healthy,” said Kathy Griesmyer, policy director for the ACLU of Idaho. “It’s hard to see that in spite of the fact that they were doing all the things right, yet they’re the ones spending years away from their families.”

Deveraux, an Eagle Pass inmate, said he tried to do everything right when he was incarcerated, first at the minimum-security South Idaho Correctional Institution, where most inmates are assigned a job.

“They actually sent me to help fight horrible wildfires in California a year ago. I was helping to harvest orchards in Nampa when they came and told me I was being shipped to Texas. It was a bit of a slap in the face to go from doing something meaningful to this nonsense,” he said. “There were guys working in the dog-training program in the Idaho facility, guys building furniture at the Idaho facility and now they’re here doing next to nothing.”

Deveraux’s older brother Greg, who used to visit Jared regularly when he was at SICI south of Boise, says it’s sadly ironic that Idaho’s “best” inmates have been sent so far away.

“There has to be an aspect of punishment for criminal behavior, I get all that. But on the other hand, you don’t want to send them someplace where they’ll be worse when they come out. It’s crazy to send people so far away, separated from their families. Where’s the motivation for them to succeed?” Greg said. “I’m planning a trip down there next spring. But it’s different. I have a job and I can’t just take off to Texas whenever I feel like it.”

In the meantime, there’s the issue of communication costs. For example, inmates must pay just to access email. Then, there’s a surcharge to inmates and their families to send emails or conduct phone calls or video chats.

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Jeff Baker, 59, serving a life sentence for first-degree murder, ripped out his own abscessed tooth at the Eagle Pass Correctional Facility. He knew the tooth had problems and asked to see a dentist. After two-and-a-half weeks, he said, the staff hadn’t brought him to a dentist, and the pain was too much.

“I couldn’t take it, so I had to pull it out myself,” Baker said.

The GEO Group confirmed in a statement to the Idaho Press that prison officials checked with medical staff, and no such case had been documented.

Baker is one of multiple inmates at the facility who said they didn’t get medical treatment fast enough — and when they did, it was inadequate.

Morningstar, for instance, remembered how he collapsed with a back injury while working out inside. He couldn’t get up for five minutes, he said, and described the pain as “excruciating.” Prison staff promised he’d see a doctor the next day, but that didn’t happen. He was worried about collapsing again during that time, and possibly hitting his head on something when he did.

“It took two days to get me (to a doctor),” Morningstar said.

Once he did see a doctor, he said, he received Ibuprofen.

“They treated it like it was no big deal,” he remembered.

Until Monday, Hance considered ripping out a bad tooth of his own, much as Baker had before him. His face swelled up and he could hardly eat. Although staff examined it multiple times, he said, it took more than a week for him to see a dentist and get the tooth removed.

On page 16 of the department’s contract with GEO Group, the company is “required to provide inmates with dental treatment within 28 calendar days of request by the inmates, unless it is an emergency.”

“I keep telling these guys and they keep saying, ‘We’ll get to you, we’ll get to you,’” Hance said.

Finally, after repeated complaints and multiple staff examinations — during which time, Hance said, he didn’t receive painkillers — a dentist on Nov. 26 removed his tooth.

It took far too long, he said.

“In Idaho, they would’ve gotten you (to see a dentist) right away,” Hance said.

Not your typical inmate

Jared Deveraux is not your typical Idaho inmate. He’s a graduate from Brigham Young University-Idaho and has a master’s degree from Idaho State University in theater arts.

“I was young and idealistic and romantic. When I was young, I thought I’d be an actor,” he said. “When I got older, I thought I’d get an advanced degree and become a professor. So, I started working on a Ph.D. from Texas Tech University. I’m told on a regular basis, ‘You don’t belong here.’ But, while I was putting myself through school, I was a roofer in the Treasure Valley, and that’s when the universe put me in a time-out. Maybe you’ve read about it on the internet.”

Indeed, it’s not difficult to learn that Deveraux was convicted in February 2017 of six counts of felony grand theft. Prosecutors said he stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from customers when he was an employee of ARI Roofing in Caldwell and Paradigm Roofing in Boise. Deveraux, now 43, was convicted of six felony counts of grand theft.

“Jared’s not eligible for parole until October of 2021. He’s technically eligible for work release next year, but that will depend largely on him getting back to Idaho,” said his girlfriend, Annie Cheney. She moved from Idaho to Eagle Pass to be closer to him, and admitted that her life there is nearly as solitary as Jared’s.

“I spend part of my day at home by myself and the other part of the day at the prison visiting with Jared,” she said. “I’ve known Jared for eight years. Honestly, I lost a few friends in my decision to support Jared. So, yes, it’s been very, very hard for me. That said, my mother recently came down to Texas and we both went to see Jared together. I know my mom wants me to have an easy life, and I know that I’m not choosing an easy path, but I’m confident that someday we can do that together.”

Lobbyists at correction meetings

About halfway through the Idaho Department of Correction’s 43-page contract with the GEO Group is the monthly rate the department will pay the company to manage the housing of its inmates in Texas. Beginning on Oct. 1, the contract required the company to invoice the department for $1,063,822 every month for the first 500 prisoners housed there, according to the document. The department will then pay the company $69.95 per prisoner per day for every prisoner after that.

While the GEO Group agreed to pay for transportation of prisoners once they’re in Texas, the Idaho Department of Correction foots the bill when sending prisoners out of state — or bringing them back for court, something Hance said has happened.

“I don’t understand why they’re spending all this money keeping people here and sending them back and forth,” Hance said.

He knows the GEO Group is a Florida-based company, and he wishes Idaho would keep its money in-state to help address the prison crisis there instead of spending to house people in Texas.

GEO Group is courting the department for more business.

“The lobbyists have been at board of correction meetings, they’ve been at legislative interim meetings, assessing prison overcrowding,” Griesmyer said. “So we’re already rebuilding a relationship with a private prison company and certainly there’s invested interest in those companies being able to compete with the state to help potentially build a new prison for Idaho — which, we certainly don’t want to see a new prison facility built ... and definitely not a privately run facility. We’ve already seen that, and it was disastrous for the state. It was more disastrous for the people who were living in that prison facility, and it would just be a financial and legal liability for the state to go down that road again.”