Coalition urges gov. to reject Kerrville State Hospital privatization

A civil rights group is asking people to sign a petition urging Texas Governor Rick Perry to reject a proposal by GEO Care to privatize a state hospital in Kerrville. Grassroots Leadership, the group sponsoring the petition, also announced that a coalition of civil rights, faith-based organizations, mental health advocates, and the Texas State Employees Union had signed a letter addressed to Gov. Perry urging him to reject GEO’s bid.

GEO Care is a subsidiary of GEO Group, formerly known as Wackenhut Corrections, the second largest operator of private prisons in the US.

“The GEO Group has a long and troubled history in Texas,” said Bob Libal executive director of Grassroots Leadership. “GEO has paid millions in lawsuits over the death of prisoners. If that kind of liability were to fall on the Department of State Health Services, GEO’s cost-cutting measures might not save taxpayers money.”

The coalition’s letter calls attention to patient-care problems at GEO operated mental health facilities that include “three gruesome deaths” in Florida and fines levied in Texas for inadequate patient care.

The letter also says that GEO in 2007 was forced to close one of its youth correctional facilities in Coke County, Texas because of unclean and unsanitary conditions.

The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) is considering privatizing at least one of its 10 state hospitals. The Legislature mandated that it do so last year. The law requires that any privatization of state hospitals must save the state at least 10 percent.

One way to achieve the 10 percent savings would be to lower labor costs by cutting wages and benefits, reducing staffing levels, hiring unqualified staff, and providing them with insufficient training. Most, if not all, of these measures factored in deficiencies found at facilities operated by GEO.

One such facility is the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Mississippi, described by federal judge Carlton Reeves as “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which is suing GEO, reports that beginning in 2005, Walnut Grove was operated by the Cornell Companies. Between 2005 and 2010, the facility’s population increased but staffing declined. When GEO purchased Cornell in 2010, it did nothing to address the staffing shortages.

And there were other problems. The US Justice Department reports that some guards had gang affiliations, had little training, and relied heavily on force and pepper spray to control the population. As a result, inmate on inmate violence was common and sometimes encouraged by guards.  Furthermore, GEO offered few if any rehabilitation services for the inmates.

Mississippi recently discontinued its Walnut Grove and two other contracts with GEO.

In Florida, GEO operates the South Florida State Hospital where the deaths of three patients resulted in an investigation by the state agency that oversees state mental hospitals, the Department of Children and Family.

One of the deaths involved the suicide of John Bragman, a bipolar schizophrenic who had attempted suicide several times. The report found that the three staff members accompanying Bragman during an off site appointment did not follow the proper protocol for escorting a suicidal patient, allowing Bragman to break free and jump to his death.

“They’re hiring the cheapest people off the street who aren’t qualified for what  they’re doing,” said Bragman’s brother Larry Bragman to the Associated Press.

Luis Saldana, another patient at GEO’s South Florida hospital scalded to death after he was left unattended in a bathtub. A medical examiner said that Saldana was over medicated at the time of his death.

The same report said that hospital staff seemed confused about their responsibility to report the deaths of Bragman, Saldana, and Loida Espida, another patient who died in GEO’s care.

In Texas, the Austin American Statesman reports that the GEO operated Montgomery County Mental Health Facility in Conroe is facing $53,000 in fines for shortcomings in patient care that include unauthorized restraint and seclusion of patients and failure to report serious injuries.

According to the Statesman, one patient while in isolation continually banged his head on windows and walls but staff looked on and did nothing because they didn’t know how to respond.

“You should have such training where you know how to deal with it when someone is doing that to themselves, period,” said Robin Peyson, executive director of NAMI Texas, a mental health advocacy group to the Statesman.

According to Grassroots Leadership, Texas already spends the least amount per capita on mental health services of any other state and state spending for these services is about one-third of the national average. As a result, it’s difficult to see how privatization that reduces spending further could maintain current levels of patient care.

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