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N.M. Private Prisons Fined $1.6M

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The companies that operate private prisons where New Mexico state inmates serve their time have racked up nearly $1.6 million in penalties for understaffing and other contract violations since the Martinez administration started cracking down last year.

Nearly all of that was attributable to problems at The GEO Group Inc.’s prison in Hobbs, although the company’s Clayton prison was recently added to the penalty list.

The Corrections Corporation of America, which operates the women’s prison in Grants, also has been fined during the past couple of months, mostly for having inmates in the prison after their release dates.

Reversing the practice of the previous administration, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez decided to pursue the penalties the state is entitled to impose for contract violations.

“In today’s struggling economy, the people of New Mexico deserve to know the Corrections Department is running in a fiscally responsible manner,” Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel said this week in a statement.

The department recently revived its Office of Inspector General to keep tabs on contract compliance.

Such fines are discretionary, and former Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration gave private prisons a pass, irking lawmakers who estimated that upwards of $18 million could have been collected.

Richardson’s corrections chief, Joe Williams – who claimed that estimate was inflated – said that prisons already were paying substantial overtime costs, that understaffing was largely due to factors beyond their control, and that the facilities were safe and secure.

Williams worked at Hobbs for GEO’s predecessor company before Richardson hired him, and he returned to GEO’s corporate offices in Boca Raton, Fla., at the end of Richardson’s tenure.

After negotiations with the Martinez administration, GEO in January paid a $1.1 million fine for violations at the Lea County Correctional Facility in Hobbs for the period from January through October of 2011. GEO also agreed to put another $200,000 into recruitment over the subsequent year.

GEO continued to be penalized: $158,529 for November, $139,621 for December, $78,710 for January and $84,753 for February, according to documents provided by the department. The February assessment isn’t final yet, because the company has until late this month to respond to it.

The fines largely were due to vacancies in the ranks of correctional officers and in noncustodial positions such as teachers, counselors and treatment providers.

Corrections officials have said it’s difficult for the men’s medium security lockup at Hobbs to recruit and keep corrections officers because it’s competing with the oil industry.

An assessment of $2,570 for understaffing in January was proposed for GEO’s Northeastern New Mexico Detention Facility in Clayton, but the problem had been corrected by the time the department sent a letter to the prison on Feb. 10, and no penalty was assessed.

In early March, however, the department notified the Clayton prison that it would be fined $5,373 for February, for vacancies in mandatory posts and for two inmates imprisoned beyond their release date. That penalty is pending.

GEO did not respond to requests from the Journal for comment.

The Corrections Corporation of America, which operates the New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility in Grants, was fined $11,779 for January, and $9,974 for February – still pending – for an academic instructor vacancy and for inmates held beyond their release dates. Inspector General Shannon McReynolds said that occurs when the required parole plans aren’t developed in a timely way.

A CCA spokesman said in an email the company is working with the Corrections Department to “evaluate and analyze the issue.”

“We are working closely with our government partner to ensure that we conform with their requirements,” wrote Steve Owen, CCA’s senior director of public affairs.
— This article appeared on page C1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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