Chris Christie's Texas horror: Meet the scandalous prison company he's long promoted

A corporation Christie's lobbied for and long pushed runs notorious detention center with a slew of vocal opponents

Published January 24, 2014 1:30PM (EST)

Chris Christie                        (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)
Chris Christie (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

A controversial company promoted by Chris Christie runs an immigrant detention center in Texas slammed by advocates as one of the nation’s worst. The facility is used by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to house immigrant detainees who are seeking asylum in the United States.

And, noting Christie’s “long and very close relationship with Community Education Centers,” the private company running the facility for ICE, one critic told Salon, “I think it’s time people start asking questions, because this company’s practices are not confined to New Jersey.”

“I’ve visited a bunch of detention facilities in Texas, and that’s by far the worst,” said the opponent, Bob Libal, who directs the prison reform group Grassroots Leadership and visited the Polk County Adult Detention Center with other activists in 2012 and 2013. His allegations echo a 2012 report from the Detention Watch Network, a coalition including the ACLU and the American Immigration Lawyers Association as well as Libal’s group: “Inadequate medical care, poor nutrition, lack of access to legal services, absence of meaningful programming, and a willful neglect of those who are imprisoned there plague the Polk detention center.”

Spokespeople for Christie and for CEC did not provide comment in response to Thursday inquiries.

CEC’s ties to Chris Christie and track record running halfway houses in New Jersey have drawn harsh scrutiny, including a series of stories in the New York Times. Reporter Sam Dolnick wrote in 2012 that Christie, who was a registered lobbyist for CEC in 2000 and 2001, “has long championed the company,” and the state had paid out tens of millions to CEC but “not closely examined” its “financial standing or operations, according to documents, former company executives and state officials.” Former employees told the Times “that the company had kept staffing levels very low” and thus “did a poor job delivering counseling and other services intended to help inmates make the transition to society.”

The Times also wrote that the Christie administration “took no action in response to the [state] comptroller’s warning,” following a critical audit of New Jersey halfway houses, “that regulators were kept in the dark about Community Education’s finances.” When legislators responded to a Times investigation by passing stronger halfway-house oversight rules, Christie narrowed them with a line-item veto, a move the Times noted drew accusations of “trying to protect Mr. Palatucci, the company executive who is his close friend.” The paper wrote that documents suggest CEC CEO John Clancy “highlighted Mr. Palatucci’s ties to Mr. Christie in an effort to impress investors and secure desperately needed financing for the company.”

That’s Community Education Centers’ then-senior vice president Bill Palatucci, a close Christie friend and adviser – part of an inner circle that shrunk this month when the George Washington Bridge scandal spurred Christie to dismiss strategist Bill Stepien. After the Times reported widespread issues with violence under CEC’s watch, Palatucci slammed the paper as the “handmaiden of the liberal left.”

Palatucci left CEC in November 2012 and served as chairman of Christie’s 2013 reelection campaign and co-chair (along with Christie’s brother) of his inaugural committee. (The 2013 Christie campaign has received a legislative subpoena as part of the “Bridgegate” scandal, its attorney confirmed Thursday to the New York Times.)

“There is probably nobody more important to Chris Christie’s political operation than Bill Palatucci,” former state GOP chairman Jay Webber told the National Review’s Eliana Johnson in December. Johnson reported that state Republicans expected Palatucci would take a significant role in any Christie presidential run. Last summer, National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar floated Palatucci as a potential Christie choice for placeholder to fill the seat of deceased Sen. Frank Lautenberg, though he argued Palatucci would make “a controversial pick” given his ties to CEC.

While CEC has slipped from the headlines in New Jersey, detention facility conditions have made the company a target in Texas. (CEC announced in 2007 that it was acquiring the management services company CiviGenics, then “the second-largest privately held corrections operator” and thus creating “the largest offender reentry services company in the United States.”) Detention Watch’s 2012 report noted that some detainees who had been transferred to Polk from the Houston Processing Center “jokingly referred to HPC as a ‘country club’ to highlight the egregious conditions at Polk.”

In an email to Salon, an ICE spokesperson said the agency had found DWN's reports to be "built primarily on anonymous unsubstantiated allegations." The spokesperson added, "Many secondhand sources and anecdotes in the reports pre-date the agency's initiation of comprehensive detention reform." Citing annual inspections, ICE said the Polk facility "is in compliance with ICE detention standards. DWN's concerns have been specifically addressed as part of the inspection process. However, these inspections did not reveal any deficiencies regarding medical care, nutrition, access to legal materials, or detainee programming."

In contrast, advocates from Grassroots Leadership and Texans United for Families who returned to the facility last September reported the asylum-seekers there “in many ways” faced conditions “even direr” than those observed the year before. Among the allegations the groups reported hearing from inmates: “serious chronic medical conditions that were not being adequately addressed by medical staff”; “the quantity of food was not sufficient”; “staff called the men who could not speak English ‘stupid’ or ‘crazy’”; and “Bad-tasting and smelling water.” The activists thus urged that ICE cease using the facility entirely.

“We went back thinking that things had probably gotten better because of the report ...” Libal told Salon. “Things had gotten worse.” CEC's website touts features at Polk including religious services, "a faith-based support group for substance abuse called 'The Most Excellent Way'"and a medical department that "provides detainees with information regarding various aspects of health education."

Faced with advocates’ demands that ICE extricate itself from the facility, said Libal, ICE representatives have cited the “detention bed mandate” imposed by Congress. “Congress has told us that we have to fill 34,000 beds, and so we do,” Libal said he’s been told by ICE, “and … you don’t want us to build new detention centers.” Libal suggested that ICE “might be able to redefine what ‘custody’ is.” Though he called the bed mandate “a big deal” and “crazy,” he said, “What we would like them to do is close Polk at the very least.”

Libal noted that CEC continues to use Christie’s praise in its public relations. Two years before CEC’s Delaney Hall New Jersey halfway house was the subject of a Times’ exposé, Gov. Christie spoke at a 10th anniversary event for the facility. “Places like this are to be celebrated,” Christie said in a quote featured in a video currently on CEC’s website. “A spotlight should be put on them as representing the very best of the human spirit. Because when you walk through here as I’ve done many times, what you see with your very eyes are miracles happening.”

By Josh Eidelson

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Bill Palatucci Bill Stepien Chris Christie Editor's Picks Ice Immigration Lobbyist New Jersey Prison Texas