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Newsmonger: Private gains, public pains

Photo: Chuck Kerr, License: N/A

Chuck Kerr

That same month James Bragman, a 50-year-old schizophrenic patient, while being escorted by three GEO staffers for a hospital visit, jumped to his death from the eighth floor of the hospital parking garage. A review of his records showed he had a history of such suicide attempts, and just months before the incident had been deemed a "high risk for suicide and intentional self-injury."

Later that Summer a woman died at the facility after "someone put her head through the wall in her room," the report states.

By email, GEO spokesman Paez declined to answer questions about the South Florida deaths, saying the company has reduced average stays, seclusion and use of restraints at the facility. He classified problems at Montgomery County as "paperwork lapses."

"All residential treatment facilities in the world (including psychiatric hospitals), public or private, face operational challenges that are inherent in the management of mental health populations," he wrote. "GEO has always conducted its operations with a commitment to providing high quality services and adhering to industry leading standards."

Still this year a Justice Department investigation into GEO's Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Mississippi concluded GEO officials turned a blind eye to sexual misconduct by staff with young inmates while also ignoring medical needs and suicidal behavior. In April a federal judge wrote the youth prison "has allowed a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions to germinate, the sum of which places the offenders at substantial ongoing risk." GEO didn't attempt to renew its Walnut Grove facility contract or two others at Mississippi jails.

Watchdog groups worry GEO will continue to work its political connections to score another contract here. Stephen Anfinson, who headed the Kerrville facility until 2011, began working for GEO shortly after leaving the facility to oversee GEO's psych hospitals. Government watchdog groups like Public Citizen have complained Anfinson's insider knowledge of the facility gives GEO unfair advantage.

With the state currently spending about $27 million to run the Kerrville hospital each year, a contract for GEO could be lucrative. The 202-bed facility is almost always at capacity thanks to the mentally ill defenders that clog our criminal justice system. Meanwhile, many doubt GEO could maintain Kerrville's standard of care while spending 10 percent less and make a profit without cutting corners. "We already have the lowest-cost mental health care system here in Texas," said Leon Evans, president and CEO of the Center for Health Care Services in San Antonio. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation and the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Texas spends less per capita on mental health care funding than any other state.

"People with mental illness aren't criminals, and [GEO's] history of working with criminals isn't even that good," Evans said. "If your main mission is to make a profit and house people, then your main mission is not to produce great outcomes and help people recover."

Mental health care experts in Texas like Evans have urged the state to boost front-end treatment solutions such as getting people in community-based treatment programs before a mental illness spins out of control and lands them in jail (and eventually the state hospital).

With Kerrville right at the nexus of incarceration and mental health care, advocates like Bob Libal with the nonprofit Grassroots Leadership worry GEO would operate with the same goal in psychiatric hospitals as in prisons — to keep beds full.

"There's no incentive for private prison corporations to support strategies that reduce incarcerations," he said. "When they're in the market for psychiatric hospitals, they'll want to make sure that system keeps beds full, too."

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