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Big Stories of 2013 - #5 - Troubles persist at McLennan County's speculatively built private jail

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As we say goodbye to 2013, Texas Prison Bid'ness is highlighting the top private prison stories of the year, based on stories covered on our blog.  Our number five story of the year is continued problems at the Jack Harwell Detention Center, McLennan County's speculatively built private jail. 

Back in May, we reported that McLennan County Commissioners had voted to end the county's contract with private prison corporation Community Education Centers to run the Jack Harwell Detention Center, deciding instead to team up with LaSalle Corrections.

The detention center had been a strain on McLennan County since before construction began in 2008.  The county was hoping to pay off $49 million in bonds floated by its Public Facilities Corporation and generate revenue by holding federal prisoners but never saw the numbers they anticipated.  

However, by 2012, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards found the facility non-compliant and ICE dropped their contract at the time altogether, citing substandard care.  At the time of the operations transfer the facility is at less than half capacity and housing overflow from the county jail.

This August, plans to bring immigration detainees back to Jack Harwell continued fell through, leaving the facility still dramatically undercapacity.  

As Lauren reported in October, McLennan County officials approved a new budget in August that included a five cent increase in the tax rate and $4.5 million in budget cuts.

Seeking to streamline jail costs, the McLennan County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee proposed reducing the jail population by ten percent.  Unfortunately, any savings from that reduction in population would be countered by a deal that McLennan County made with LaSalle Corrections that would house 325 prisoners at Jack Harwell, whether or not the cells are actually in use.

McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said at the time the deal allowed taxpayers to avoid paying the entire bill, including bond payment that LaSalle makes on the facility.  "Having LaSalle as operator and us having to guarantee a threshold is better than not having anyone at all." 

McLennan County continues to pay for its decision to float debt for a speculative private jail it didn't need.  Hopefully, other communities are taking note.  

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