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Newsmonger: Private gains, public pains

Photo: Chuck Kerr, License: N/A

Chuck Kerr

GEO spokesman Pablo Paez declined by email to discuss details of the Kerrville proposal. Meanwhile a series of health and safety compliance reviews by the DSHS conducted this year raises serious concerns over care provided at GEO's Montgomery County Mental Health Treatment Facility, Texas' first publicly-funded, privately-run psychiatric hospital. DSHS found a litany of violations at the facility ranging from unauthorized seclusion to keeping patients hospitalized months after they'd been found competent to stand trial. In its review of the facility, DSHS's state hospital division noted serious injuries and incidents that were never reported to the state — like one inmate who seriously harmed himself before eating fecal matter. Classes designed to rehabilitate patients were described as "bedlam."

In internal DSHS emails reviewed by the Current, State Hospitals Section employee Jo Ann Elliott wrote to colleagues about one particular case of neglect at the Montgomery County facility: "While in seclusion for four hours, [a] patient banged his head on the seclusion window and walls, causing lacerations to both eyes and a bruise to the head. Patient threatened staff if door was opened. No physician assessment during this time. Why was [restraint] not considered to protect the patient from self-harm?"

Elliot adds, "No physician assessment occurred during the 4 hour seclusion. The lack of action by staff would be a reportable incident to DFPS [Department of Family and Protective Services] in one of the state hospitals."

DSHS has filed a notice of violation with the facility, fining GEO over $100,000, said agency spokesman Carrie Williams. She declined to comment on whether GEO's past performance at Montgomery County and elsewhere will impact DSHS's assessment of GEO's Kerrville proposal. DSHS has no public hearings scheduled for the GEO proposal.

Beyond Montgomery County, GEO, once known as Wackenhut, has a history of problems at its other Texas facilities. In the late 1990s Wackenhut hired a convicted sex offender as a guard at the Coke County Juvenile Justice Center, which then held young women. The guard sexually assaulted a 15-year-old detainee. Later in 2006 and 2007, officials found GEO had hired another sex offender as a guard at the facility, who then sexually assaulted several inmates.

Texas ultimately shuttered the Coke County facility in 2007 amid reports of squalid conditions, sexual abuse, and youth suicide.

In 2009 inmates rioted at GEO's West Texas Reeves County Detention Center, claiming prisoners were dying from poor medical care. The ACLU helped the family of one inmate sue the company after the man died from an epileptic seizure in solitary confinement. Beyond Texas, GEO's history grows even more clouded.

At the South Florida State Hospital, investigators wrote that they were concerned GEO staff had perhaps tried to cover up Santana's death in the scalding-hot bathtub (GEO staff hadn't reported his death as required), and noted a 30-minute gap in staff observation. State investigators randomly checked water temperatures in baths at the facility last October, according to the investigator's report, finding temperatures as high as 126 degrees — exposure to temperatures of more than 120 degrees for more than five minutes can result in third degree burns.

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