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In February 2017, while at the Ada County Jail before trial, and before the government shipped him out of state, James Morningstar, then 31, penned a letter to the judge in his case asking for leniency.

“Addiction is a strong taskmaster, and I desperately need the tools to remain sober and be a hardworking, productive citizen,” Morningstar wrote by hand.

He’d been arrested after a Boise traffic stop in April 2016, when officers found meth, heroin and painkillers, a pistol, and over $6,000 cash. He pleaded guilty to one count of drug trafficking and was sentenced to a set six-year sentence, with the possibility of up to 20 years in prison, court records show. It was his first felony offense.

For a while, it seemed Morningstar did have the tools he needed to remain sober. He went to St. Anthony Work Camp near the Montana border, a minimum security facility designed to help inmates develop healthy work habits. He had a job operating machinery at a potato plant, he remembered, and he earned about $800 a month — important, given the fact that he was also sentenced to pay more than $10,000 in restitution and court fees.

But then, this year, the Idaho Department of Correction removed Morningstar from the work camp and sent him to the Eagle Pass Correctional Facility in Eagle Pass, Texas, an isolated, privately run facility on the Mexican border a few hundred miles southwest of San Antonio. It’s not a work camp — it’s a medium security facility where Morningstar has spent most of his time indoors with more than 500 other Idaho inmates. He is subject to far stricter security than he was in Idaho, and he only earns $48 a month.

“I was earning $800 a month — they took that from me,” he said in a phone interview from the facility. “Now I’m earning $48 a month. To me, that just ain’t right. That was my future.”

Yet his good behavior and promising future may be why he's no longer at the work camp. The department needed well-behaved prisoners like him to send out of state.

Four years after Idaho limped away from a private prison debacle that resulted in rampant violence and multiple lawsuits, the Idaho Department of Correction is waist-deep in another private prison agreement. This time, Idaho is sending 700 inmates to two facilities managed by The GEO Group, which amassed more than $2.2 billion in revenues in 2017.

The majority of Idaho’s out-of-state inmates have been sent to the Eagle Pass Correctional Facility. Though the 549 Idaho inmates have only been at the Eagle Pass facility for a few months, complaints from some inmates and their families have begun to mount.

The situation is meant to be a temporary fix to the housing problem in Idaho’s prisons, with the department housing a total of 7,507 inmates in-state as of Thursday. Ideally, the prisoners in Texas receive the same treatment as they would in Idaho.

But some in the facility say that hasn’t been the case. They remained inside in cramped conditions for two months without being allowed outside, they said; they eat poorly prepared food and don’t have good access to health care when they need it. In recent weeks, there have been at least two riots at the facility, one which sent a guard to the hospital. By many accounts, the facility was not at all ready to receive prisoners when the inmates arrived, as the GEO Group had to perform construction to bring the facility up to the Idaho Department of Correction’s standards. The situation has drawn the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, whose employees have received dozens of complaints about the facility from prisoners and their families via letters, emails, phone calls and social media messages.

The irony of the situation is that the Eagle Pass Correctional Facility houses some of the department’s model inmates — and it’s not lost on them, either.

“It’s supposed to be better,” said Jerry “Jay” Hance, 35, who is serving time there for drug and assault charges. “Instead we come down here and get punished.”

Never meant to be a prison

Part of the problem is the Eagle Pass Correctional Facility was not built as a prison, said Hance. Hance, arrested as a probationer in Buhl in 2016 when a police officer found a meth pipe in his possession, has been in other prisons, he said. They're designed to hold inmates for years or decades, and thus are massive, with a great deal of space for prisoners to move around. That’s not true of the Eagle Pass Correctional Facility, he said. In fact, the Eagle Pass Correctional Facility’s life as a prison has been largely an afterthought.

In December 2008, the GEO Group announced the building's opening, in its first incarnation as the 654-bed Maverick County Detention Center, on behalf of Maverick County, Business Wire reported at the time. Back then, the GEO Group managed many detention facilities in Texas, and the Maverick County Detention Center, built for $43 million, housed prisoners who had cases in federal court, according to the Eagle Pass Business Journal. The company operated the building until 2013, when the relationship soured between the firm and the county. GEO Group pulled out of the contract, leaving the Maverick County Sheriff’s Department with the expensive task of managing the facility alongside the U.S. Marshals.

Then, in April 2017, the GEO Group bought the facility back from the county. The company’s contract with the Idaho Department of Correction came soon after that. By November, a total of 700 Idaho inmates were housed in Texas, between the Eagle Pass Correctional Facility and the Karnes County Correctional Facility.

Although the company renovated the building to bring it up to Idaho Department of Correction standards, Hance said the facility is not equipped to serve as a prison.

“It’s just a county jail, it’s just a facility for holding inmates,” Hance said in a phone interview from the facility. “It’s not a prison by any means ... it’s not designed to hold prisoners long term.”

Ingrid Andrulis, the ACLU of Idaho's intakes and investigations manager, echoed those sentiments. 

“We also know it’s a private prison and it was intended to be used as an immigration holding facility, so structurally it’s not set up to hold folks for long periods of time,” she said. “But we also know that the department tried to look for prison space in some of the closer western regional space, but either there was no room, or if they wanted to connect with Oregon or Washington, the cost was too high for the state to bear, and they had to look elsewhere.”

Because of the building’s restrictions, Hance said, the inmates haven’t been able to move about the facility the same way they would in a prison. For instance, Hance pointed out he hasn’t moved from his tier of cells in a week or more, which is unusual for life in a prison. He said 48 inmates live in the tier’s six cells, with eight beds to a cell — something that would never happen in Idaho.

'Only been outside once' since arrival

Hance isn't alone in his frustrations with the facility. An increasing number of inmates and their families are expressing concern over the lack of basic services as promised in the state of Idaho’s 43-page operating agreement with The GEO Group. For example, page 14 states, “[T]he Contractor shall provide facilities, equipment, and supplies for indoor and outdoor recreational and leisure time programs.”

But Patrick Irving told the Idaho Press in late November that he and his fellow Idaho inmates at Eagle Pass hadn’t had any outdoor recreation for nearly three months.

“I’ve only been outside once since I arrived in September,” said Irving. “We had an indoor recreation room that was basically a concrete box. They called it ‘indoor rec’ but when it rains, it floods and there are beetles, mosquitoes and moths flying everywhere. Occasionally, the bugs crawl in from the indoor rec room to our units, stuff like that.”

Jared Deveraux said he too saw the outdoor recreation area for the first time in late November.

“It’s basically weeds and dirt and a concrete slab for basketball. That’s it. You can kind of walk in circles around the concrete basketball court,” he said.

The Idaho Department of Correction knew "there were unavoidable delays in pouring the concrete pads necessary for the basketball courts, handball courts and exercise area located in the outside recreation at the Eagle Pass Correctional Facility," department spokesman Jeff Ray told the Idaho Press in an email. "The delays were caused by the unusually heavy rains received this year in southern Texas. The inmates could not be allowed in the area while construction equipment, tools and building supplies were present." 

The GEO Group provided the department with an action plan for completing the recreation area, Ray wrote, and IDOC monitored the process at every step.

Ray added, "It should be noted that there were enough indoor recreation areas available in the facility so that it met all American Correctional Association and Texas state standards even before the outside recreation areas were created."  

Hance estimated by mid-November, he'd had two collective hours outside in the past two months. The claustrophobic conditions, have, he said, made the facility more dangerous.

“You keep so many top dogs in a cage and they’re going to start fighting,” Hance said. “There’s nothing to do here.”

Even more alleged grievances from Idaho inmates at Eagle Pass continue to pile up, ranging from the lack of books to read to no toilet paper being distributed for days.

“We can give you a laundry list of complaints that we’ve been hearing: attorney visits being restricted, no library, the roof leaks, language barriers with the prison staff, no religious services, the lights are on 24/7, no movement within the prison facility,” said Andrulis with ACLU Idaho. “We’ve heard from several prisoners about issues with the food. It’s just bad.”

The Idaho Press reached out to the Warden of the Eagle Pass facility, who deferred questions to GEO Group executives. Pablo Paez, executive vice president of corporate communications for the GEO Group, provided this statement to the Idaho Press responding to prison conditions and visitation access:

“The Eagle Pass Correctional Facility has always had appropriate procedures in place to facilitate visitation between inmates and family members and has never denied access to any visitors. Should capacity be reached in the main visitation area, the Facility has contingencies in place to accommodate increased visitation capacity. Each housing unit at the Facility has its own indoor recreation area that has been available to inmates since their arrival. Construction on the main outdoor recreation area was delayed due to weather and has been operational since the beginning of November. The Facility discovered some roof leaks during recent rains related to renovations of the air conditioning units. All leaks were repaired in a timely manner.”

"Low maintenance"

The Idaho Department of Correction has confirmed that inmates deemed "low maintenance" — i.e., no disciplinary issues or serious medical concerns — were handpicked, with the GEO Group's input, for transfer to Texas. When asked how the department selected inmates to send out of state, Ray, the department's spokesman, referenced page five of the contract with GEO Group, which specifies the state will not send inmates to the private facilities if they have a litany of physical or mental health issues, as outlined in an Idaho state statute. The agreement also stipulates the department would not send inmates with a history of "institutional violence involving a deadly weapon or significant pattern of violence while confined in Idaho."

Ray also wrote "the GEO Group reviewed the files of the inmates IDOC selected to assure they met established contract requirements."

“They were looking at folks who are really well-behaved, cooperative and friendly and relatively healthy," said Kathy Griesmyer, policy director for the ACLU of Idaho. "It’s hard to see that in spite of the fact that they were doing all the things right, yet they’re the ones spending years away from their families.”

Deveraux, an Eagle Pass inmate, said he tried to do everything right when he was incarcerated, first at the minimum-security South Idaho Correctional Institution, where most inmates are assigned a job.

“They actually sent me to help fight horrible wildfires in California a year ago. I was helping to harvest orchards in Nampa when they came and told me I was being shipped to Texas. It was a bit of a slap in the face to go from doing something meaningful to this nonsense,” he said. “There were guys working in the dog-training program in the Idaho facility, guys building furniture at the Idaho facility and now, they’re here doing next to nothing.”

Deveraux’s older brother Greg, who used to visit Jared regularly when he was at SICI south of Boise, says it’s sadly ironic that Idaho’s “best” inmates have been sent so far away.

“There has to be an aspect of punishment for criminal behavior, I get all that. But on the other hand, you don’t want to send them some place where they’ll be worse when they come out. It’s crazy to send people so far away, separated from their families. Where’s the motivation for them to succeed?” Greg said. “I’m planning a trip down there next spring. But it’s different. I have a job and I can’t just take off to Texas whenever I feel like it.”

In the meantime, there’s the issue of communication costs. For example, inmates must pay just to access email. Then, there’s surcharge to inmates and their families to send emails or conduct phone calls or video chats.

“Look, I’m not destitute. I can afford this; but I’ve seen the wives, girlfriends, families who come to a prison for visitation. Fifty cents for an email? Another 50 cents to send a picture of your kids? It's incredible. These guys have to pay through the nose, and it's the families that have to do that. Now, think of this. You’ve got inmates who can’t get access to much work, let alone pennies a day. So, the expense of communicating is landing on the families,” said Greg Deveraux. “And then there’s the issue of personal items getting lost. My brother Jared is a writer. So, I got him a typewriter, plus some supplies — you know, paper and ribbons. They lost it. It never showed up. They stuck it away somewhere. Who knows where it is.”

Medical concerns

Jeff Baker, 59, serving a life sentence for first-degree murder, ripped out his own abscessed tooth at the Eagle Pass Correctional Facility. He knew the tooth had problems and asked to see a dentist. After two-and-a-half weeks, he said, the staff hadn’t brought him to a dentist, and the pain was too much.

“I couldn’t take it, so I had to pull it out myself,” Baker said.

The GEO Group confirmed in a statement to the Idaho Press that prison officials checked with medical staff, and no such case had been documented.

Baker is one of multiple inmates at the facility who said they didn’t get medical treatment fast enough — and when they did, it was inadequate.

Morningstar, for instance, remembered how he collapsed with a back injury while working out inside. He couldn’t get up for five minutes, he said, and described the pain as “excruciating.” Prison staff promised he’d see a doctor the next day, but that didn’t happen. He was worried about collapsing again during that time, and possibly hitting his head on something when he did.

“It took two days to get me (to a doctor),” Morningstar said.

Once he did see a doctor, he said, he received Ibuprofen.

“They treated it like it was no big deal,” he remembered.

Until Monday, Hance considered ripping out a bad tooth of his own, much as Baker had before him. His face swelled up and he could hardly eat. Although staff examined it multiple times, he said, it took more than a week for him to see a dentist and get the tooth removed.

On page 16 of the department's contract with GEO Group, the company is "required to provide inmates with dental treatment within 28 calendar days of request by the inmates, unless it is an emergency."

“I keep telling these guys and they keep saying, ‘We’ll get to you, we’ll get to you,’” Hance said.

Finally, after repeated complaints and multiple staff examinations — during which time, Hance said, he didn’t receive painkillers — a dentist on Nov. 26 removed his tooth.

It took far too long, he said.

“In Idaho, they would’ve gotten you (to see a dentist) right away,” Hance said.

Ray provided the following statement from the department in response to health care services at the facility:

"We closely monitor operations at Eagle Pass and Karnes County. We have IDOC monitors in those facilities on a weekly basis, and we pay particularly close attention to the delivery of medical and dental services. We are confident inmates are receiving adequate care."

But officials from the GEO Group told the Idaho Press it sometimes takes weeks for an inmate to see a medical specialist.

The hunger strikes

Mostly, inmates at the facility eat the same thing every day, Hance said. The staff serves rice and beans, which are usually cold because the trays often sit in a hallway for 15 or 20 minutes by the time the food is served. Hance said the staff didn’t offer an explanation as to why.

The staff doesn’t offer many explanations in general, he said.

During a grainy phone interview he paused to call out to the other inmates in his cell.

“What did you guys have for lunch today?” Hance asked.

“Rice and beans,” came the unanimous shout back.

Andrulis, of the ACLU of Idaho, said she’s also heard complaints about the food.

“I heard the food was always cold,” she said. “That’s about it ... and this is from several people, that the food is just bad.”

Aside from the food being cold, Hance is also suspicious of it because of the kitchen conditions.

“The kitchen is really bad ... really disgusting,” Hance said. “I don’t eat the food. ... The water tastes like a mud puddle.”

He doesn’t have a job in the kitchen, but he knows inmates who do. They told him they ran out of soap to do dishes with, but they had to reuse the dishes anyway. After that, Hance said, he stopped eating the prison food. Now he buys his food from the facility’s commissary at marked-up prices — a pack of Ramen costs about 48 cents, he said. He also tries to drink only bottled water.

Ray's response to questions about food quality was brief.

"The menus have been approved for Karnes," he said. "We are still in the process of reviewing them for Eagle Pass."

Hance said there’s been more than one hunger strike in the prison, during which inmates tried to protest the conditions in the facility. It didn’t work though, he said, because no one told the prison’s warden about it, although GEO Group officials said they knew of a brief incident in which inmates refused to eat facility food.

Who are these inmates?

Jared Deveraux is not your typical Idaho inmate. He’s a graduate from BYU-Idaho and has a master’s degree from Idaho State University in theater arts.

“I was young and idealistic and romantic. When I was young, I thought I’d be an actor,” he said. “When I got older, I thought I’d get an advanced degree and become a professor. So, I started working on a Ph.D. from Texas Tech University. I’m told on a regular basis, ‘You don’t belong here.’ But, while I was putting myself through school, I was a roofer in the Treasure Valley, and that’s when the universe put me in a time-out. Maybe you’ve read about it on the internet.”

Indeed, it’s not difficult to learn that Deveraux was convicted in February 2017 of six counts of felony grand theft. Prosecutors said he stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from customers when he was an employee of ARI Roofing in Caldwell and Paradigm Roofing in Boise. Deveraux, now 43, was convicted of six felony counts of grand theft.

"Jared’s not eligible for parole until October of 2021. He’s technically eligible for work release next year, but that will depend largely on him getting back to Idaho,” said his girlfriend, Annie Cheney. She moved from Idaho to Eagle Pass to be closer to him, and admitted that her life there is nearly as solitary as Jared’s.

“I spend part of my day at home by myself and the other part of the day at the prison visiting with Jared," she said. "I’ve known Jared for eight years. Honestly, I lost a few friends in my decision to support Jared. So, yes, it’s been very, very hard for me. That said, my mother recently came down to Texas and we both went to see Jared together. I know my mom wants me to have an easy life, and I know that I’m not choosing an easy path, but I’m confident that someday we can do that together.”

Meanwhile, inmate Patrick Irving’s father is even farther away — Dwight Irving’s job as sales engineer for Dell took him to New Jersey.

“Apart from my visit last month, I’m trying to stay in touch with Patrick through letters and emails and on the phone,” said Dwight Irving. “He certainly seems to be doing better.”

Much better than October 2014 when Patrick, then 34, was arrested and charged with setting a string of fires on Hill Road in Boise. The worst of the fires gutted a single-family house. Irving had multiple previous run-ins with the law, including convictions for drug trafficking and traffic violations. He was sentenced to two concurrent terms, ending in 2053. He won’t be eligible for parole until October of 2029.

When asked what his son was like as a boy, Dwight Irving took a long breath.

“Wow … I’m going to need a moment. I guess … well, Patrick always wanted to be a hero. If he saw something wrong, he would step in and try to do something,” said Irving. “That’s one of the reasons I’m a bit worried for him right now because he’s the type of guy who will stand up for just about anybody. Anything that would smack of violence? I’m hoping right now that he would stay away from that.”

Patrick Irving said his father should be glad to hear that his son is doing better.

“Mentally, I’m good. I’m happy to be alive at this point. Yes, my convictions are on my record and I’ll have to spend a good amount of the rest of my life, explaining to somebody of why I deserve a fair shake, why I deserve their trust. Right now, I’m just trying to float day by day and appreciate the small things,” he said. “In the meantime, it sure would be nice to have some basic things here. I worry about the visits. I worry about the expense that families are hit with to communicate with people down here. I worry about access to books and proper nutrition and basic things.”

Lobbyists at correction meetings

About halfway through the Idaho Department of Correction’s 43-page contract with the GEO Group is the monthly rate the department will pay the company to manage the housing of its inmates in Texas. Beginning on Oct. 1, the contract required the company to invoice the department for $1,063,822 every month for the first 500 prisoners housed there, according to the document. The department will then pay the company $69.95 per prisoner per day for every prisoner after that.

While the GEO Group agreed to pay for transportation of prisoners once they’re in Texas, the Idaho Department of Correction foots the bill when sending prisoners out of state — or bringing them back for court, something Hance said has happened.

“I don’t understand why they’re spending all this money keeping people here and sending them back and forth,” Hance said.

He knows the GEO Group is a Florida-based company, and he wishes Idaho would keep its money in-state to help address the prison crisis there instead of spending to house people in Texas.

The contract — which Hance and others say they have requested multiple times, but not seen — seems to allow for grievances to be heard. The GEO Group is required to use the Idaho Department of Correction’s system of documenting grievances from inmates, and those grievances are supposed to be delivered to the department on the 10th of every month, according to the contract.

Yet Andrulis said for the first few weeks the facility housed prisoners, they did not have access to grievance forms at all.

In addition to that, if the department finds The GEO Group has violated the contract in any way, it can charge the company $581.63 per day per violation. Ray confirmed the department has not invoked that penalty against the company.

“We know that department officials go down once a week, I think, and it rotates, there are several staff members who go down once a week and they spend two to four days there every week, depending ... meeting with the warden, meeting with the prisoners, walking the facility and checking in with folks, kind of addressing grievances or having meetings with folks,” Griesmyer with the ACLU said. “And that was happening several months ago, I assume it’s going to continue.”

What is clear, Andrulis said, is GEO Group is courting the department for more business.

“The lobbyists have been at board of correction meetings, they’ve been at legislative interim meetings, assessing prison overcrowding,” Griesmyer said. “So we’re already rebuilding a relationship with a private prison company and certainly there’s invested interest in those companies being able to compete with the state to help potentially build a new prison for Idaho — which, we certainly don’t want to see a new prison facility built ... and definitely not a privately run facility. We’ve already seen that, and it was disastrous for the state. It was more disastrous for the people who were living in that prison facility, and it would just be a financial and legal liability for the state to go down that road again.”

Ray confirmed there are no set plans to bring inmates back from Texas, and inmates' release varies on a case-by-case basis.

Meanwhile at the Boise offices of the ACLU of Idaho, advocates say they want to let inmates and their families know that it takes considerable courage to speak up, particularly about a facility that is so far off of Idaho’s radar.

“People need to know what’s going on. Just because these 500-plus men are behind closed doors so far away from Idaho doesn’t mean that they’re not people too," Griesmyer said. "They’re our family members, our neighbors, our friends, our children. They deserve to have their voices heard.”

When Idaho Press contacted Eagle Pass Warden Waymon Barry to answer any one of the number of questions that we had for this story, Barry said he couldn’t comment without approval from an executive at The GEO Group’s home office, who responded via the written statement. 

The only thing that Barry did say was, “Well, it’s another day in paradise here in Eagle Pass.”

Editor's note - this story has been updated to reflect the following correction: Waymong Barry is the Eagle Pass Correctional Facility's warden. Earlier versions of the story included an inaccurate spelling of his name.

Tommy Simmons is the Ada County public safety reporter for the Idaho Press. Follow him on Twitter @tsimmonsipt

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