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Will Ellis County privatize its jail?

A debate that we've largely missed has been brewing in Ellis County, just south of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.  The County Commission has been discussing the possibility of privatizing its local jail since at least January, according to a story by Andrew Branca in the Waxahatchie Daily Light ("County debates privatizing jail," March 12, 2013): 

"The Ellis County Commissioners Court continued its discussion of using a jail management company for the Wayne McCollum Detention Center at a workshop meeting Monday morning.

Proponents of privatizing the county jail told commissioners that using a jail management company could provide a significant savings to the county and to taxpayers.

The operation of the detention center is currently run by the detention bureau, which is a division of the Ellis County Sheriff’s Office. The detention center operates under the direct supervision philosophy, which means a detention officer is present inside the housing unit at all times to directly supervise and interact with the inmates.

The county has had exploratory meetings with LaSalle Correction and Community Education Centers to learn more about their jail management services."

Regular readers of Texas Prison Bid'ness will be familiar with the records of both LaSalle Southwestern Correctional and Community Education Centers.  Not all in Ellis County are mesmerized by privatization.  Former Republican Precinct Chairman Dave Vance penned an op-ed ("Privatizing county jail a bad idea," March 19, 2013) in the paper highlighting some of the problems with privatization: 

"As has been identified in numerous studies, reducing the salaries and benefits of detention officers results in increased turnover, a decrease in qualified applicants and substandard performance. Quality of service is significantly reduced. Reducing staffing levels results in the same problems.

I urge the Ellis County Commissioners to research LaSalle’s past problems and problems other for-profit correctional companies have created. The reputations are far from stellar.

I believe LaSalle cannot provide taxpayers the same level of services while also making a profit. Additionally, we would be turning over control of the jail to a company that profits from increased incarceration when the goal should be to reduce crime and reduce jail occupancy. Instead, we are creating an incentive to incarcerate individuals."

Of course, Vance is right on both accounts - privatization has been shown to result in dramatically higher turn-over rates amongst correctional officers and there are some pretty clear-cut examples of how privatization has incentivized keeping higher incarceration rates.  Sources from Ellis County tell us that a vote could be coming soon from the County Commissioners on privatization, and an RFP has been issued.  We'll keep you posted on developments.