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One of the nation’s largest private prison companies has defrauded Texas by raising millions of dollars for in-prison therapeutic programs it has not provided during the pandemic, a new complaint with the state auditor alleges.
In 2020, as the coronavirus was killing thousands of prisoners across the country, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles met staunch opposition to releasing more people eligible for parole. It also required most parole prisoners to first complete a treatment program, generally lasting three to nine months, focused on life skills, substance abuse rehabilitation, or treating people convicted of sex offenses.
But with ailing staff and prisoners, Texas jails mostly kept men and women in their cells or dormitories, and those inside told The Texas Tribune in 2020 that much of the needed programming wasn’t happening. On Monday, prison rights advocacy LatinoJustice claimed that despite the lack of services, the Management & Training Corporation continued to blame the state for the programs and forced prisoners to forge documents showing they were being treated.
“Rather than offering group therapy sessions and one-on-one counseling with people participating in the rehabilitation programs, MTC staff simply gave people paperwork to do on their own time,” LatinoJustice senior counsel Andrew Case wrote in a letter to the chartered accountant who who presents complaint.
“MTC then forced employees to fill out timesheets showing that they had received treatment from MTC counselors that MTC had not provided,” Case continued. “People were instructed by MTC staff that if they failed to fill in the wrong timesheets they would be disciplined or lose their probation and be forced to return to prison.”
The complaint, which cites state treaties, program reports and dozens of interviews with detained men and women, alleges the fraudulent practices are still taking place.
MTC spokesman David Martinson declined to answer questions Monday, referring the Tribune to the Texas Department of Justice. TDCJ spokesman Robert Hurst sent a statement saying the prison system will fully cooperate with the state examiner’s investigation into the complaint and will conduct its own internal investigation.
“As a result of [COVID-19] Protocols have been implemented to ensure inmates remain on treatment and that appropriate treatment is provided in group sessions with social distancing requirements,” the statement said.
The agency said compliance with treatment programs was ensured through random on-site visits.
This is not the first time MTC, a private prison operator that also contracts with state prisons for rehabilitation programs, has faced allegations of fraud. Just last week, following an investigation by The Marshall Project, the Mississippi state auditor ordered MTC to pay nearly $2 million for improperly billing the state for thousands of unmanned prison guard shifts. MTC said it has already returned penalties for not having enough workers under the terms of the contract.
LatinoJustice’s complaint primarily focuses on three Texas prisons that have contracted with MTC for drug and alcohol abuse pre-orders that collectively earned the company more than $5 million from March 2020 through January of this year. The advocacy group noted that MTC has a total of 17 active contracts with TDCJ valued at more than $100 million.
Contracts between MTC and TDCJ require the company to provide a minimum level of group therapy, individual therapy and other services. The requirements are also anchored in state law. The programs are designed to help prisoners transition into the free world, often with programming related to their sentence.
For Joshua Ladd, that meant he had to undergo a substance abuse treatment program before he could be paroled for a methamphetamine-related conviction. However, the 48-year-old said he received no help from MTC to stay clean on the outside when he was transferred to Gist State Jail for treatment in April 2020.
Instead of group or individual counseling, Ladd told the Tribune, prisoners were given work packs to fill out. And although they had to fill out forms showing they received daily treatment, most of the time they just sat and waited to go home.
“Maybe once every two weeks a counselor would come by for an hour,” he said as staff finally began to enter the dormitory, which was filled with about 60 men. “One advisor just sat there and said, ‘I’m just going to give you the floor.’ … She just sat there and read her book.”
He said a sample time sheet was taped to one of the dorm’s windows, telling them to tick off 20 hours of direct treatment if all they received was paperwork.
“It was just a joke, a complete joke through and through,” Ladd said. “And it’s just so gross that they get away with this stuff. ‘Just sign here so we can get paid.’”
Ladd and several other inmates detained in 2020 wrote affidavits to pair with the LatinoJustice complaint. But the allegations don’t just apply to canceled programs during the height of the pandemic. A woman currently enrolled in an MTC behavioral detention program at Halbert State Jail said the practice has continued.
Kathryn Theune, 32, said group programs exist but are run by prisoners, not MTC staff. She said she has not received individualized therapy since enrolling in September.
“Besides, we are often on the road[sic] into the day room early in the morning to have an hour of ‘programming’ where no consultant is present,” Theune said in an affidavit last month. “We are not allowed to leave the lounge at this hour, but sit in silence for an hour after documenting our presence.”
The advocacy group argues that MTC stopped providing programs not to prevent further spread of the coronavirus in prisons, but because it “recognized that it could make more money that way.”
LatinoJustice said it was unclear how much TDCJ knew about the reduction in services as the agency fought in court to prevent the release of documents related to the programs and the pandemic. The group argued such documents could “reveal the extent to which TDCJ was aware of the fraud committed by MTC.”
“For example, if these notices show that TDCJ was aware of MTC’s benefit reductions but did not request a reduction in the amount payable, then TDCJ bears responsibility for MTC charging for benefits that were never provided,” Fall wrote along with LatinoJustice- Attorney Norma Esquivel.
Texas’ auditor will review the complaint, as it does with all allegations of fraud involving state funds, but it’s unclear when and what will happen next.