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Weekend Read: They served their prison sentences, but they're still locked up

Jason Schoenfeld already served a full prison sentence, but he’s back behind bars — not because of what he’s done, but because of what the state of Texas says he might do.

Schoenfeld entered a detention center in Littlefield, Texas more than two years ago. Located in a remote corner of the Texas Panhandle, it was once a prison and currently houses a rehabilitation program for men like Schoenfeld who have committed sex offenses.

Schoenfeld used to attend therapy sessions every two weeks. They’ve slowed to once every three months. He is not free to seek therapy elsewhere. He is not free to leave.

That would be unconstitutional were it not for a process called civil commitment. States can’t imprison people who they believe “constitute a real, continuing, and serious danger to society,” but as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1997, they can confine them in order to treat them.

Texas says it’s treating Schoenfeld and the 200 other men confined in Littlefield. But in almost 30 years, only five men have been released from the program. Four of those were set free only because they needed medical care.

“To be constitutional, this has to be a therapeutic program,” Scott Pawgun, an attorney representing a man inside Littlefield, told Michael Barajas for The Texas Observer. “It’s got to be the worst therapeutic program in the history of sex offender treatment, far and away.”

Between 1999 — when Texas created its civil commitment program — and 2015 the men were held in state-run boarding and half-way houses. In 2015, they were moved to the prison in Littlefield and put under the care of Correct Care Solutions, a for-profit company dogged by past allegations of mismanagement and neglect. As Barajas recounts,

The company was birthed from private prison company spinoffs and subsidiaries that have over the past decade been accused of everything from leaving a Florida psychiatric hospital patient in a scalding hot bath until he boiled alive to providing such abysmal medical care at a West Texas immigrant detention center that inmates rioted.

Texas has fined Correct Care Solutions hundreds of thousands of dollars since granting it a contract in 2015. The vast majority of Littlefield’s staffers have resigned. The men confined there say they’ve each had up to six therapists and that their treatment starts back at square one each time they are re-assigned to a new one.

Since their only path to being released is to advance in treatment, offenders sent to Littlefield have effectively been detained there indefinitely.

For Correct Care Solutions, that’s good news. It says it will run out of bed space by 2019 and be forced to expand its current operation or build another facility. The incentive to rehabilitate offenders and graduate them from treatment? Nonexistent.

“A state agency imploding under mismanagement; a private prison contractor on the rebound; a desperate town saddled with a mountain of debt; and an empty detention center,” Barajas summarizes for The Texas Observer, is a “recipe for creating a new for-profit lockup in the era of decarceration.” 

We’ve documented the dangers of for-profit prison companies before. In 2016, we investigated Corizon Health Inc., where the cold, hard reality that “every dime saved on prisoner care is a dime added to the company’s bottom line” has resulted in multiple deaths.

That same year, we looked at immigrant detention centers run by for-profit providers and found that “detainees are routinely denied their due process rights and frequently endure inhumane conditions.”

“Look, I’m not a cheerleader for sex offenders or anything, but I hate injustice,” Schoenfeld’s friend John told Barajas. “He went through the justice system, he served the sentence that the system decided to give him.”

But private prison companies are not the justice system, and laws like Texas’ civil commitment, as one of its original co-authors said in 2015, have been “broken beyond anyone’s imagination.”

The first step to fixing it is to eliminate the profit motive from the correctional system.

The Editors.

P.S. Here are a few other pieces we think are valuable this week:

SPLC’s Weekend Readings are a weekly summary of the most important news reporting and commentary from around the country on civil rights, economic and racial inequality, and hate and extremism. Sign up to receive Weekend Readings every Saturday morning.