April 2011

TDCJ should study history, all aspects of state jail privatization, not just costs

State Representative Erwin Cain's proposed amendment to study and potentially privatize all Texas state jails may have lost some steam.  According to the latest copy of the amendment we've seen, the amendment would now mandate the study of the "most effecient and cost-effective" manner of running state jails, but the study would no longer automatically trigger TDCJ to privatize state jails if they were found to be cheaper.

That's certainly good news.  However, the state should study more than cost-savings.  Other impacts of privatization - including guard pay and benefits, turn over rates, recidivism rates of prisoners leaving the institutions, assault incidents, suicides and attempted suicides, lawsuits, guard misconduct, and drug and alcohol program completion, to name a few -  should be added to the list.

TDCJ has good reason to study these other issues in addition to cost.  The agency's record with state jail privatization has not always been rosy, and in at least one case was downright appalling. 

Here in Austin, TDCJ partnered with Travis County and Wackenhut Corrections (now called GEO Group) in 1997 to open the Travis County Community Justice Center under the auspices of the state jail system.  At the time, Wackenhut CEO George Zoley hailed the community corrections facility “as the first project of its kind in the country.”  However, by September 2009, the state had seized control of the facility citing an investigation into multiple guards having sex with prisoners and Wackenhut Correction’s chronic problems staffing the facility. 

Guards were reportedly paid a starting wage of $6.50 an hour, hardly enough to attract and maintain talented staff in Austin's dot-com economy. In two short years, the company had racked up a record $625,000 in state fines related to staffing levels.  State investigators claimed that the company was using money intended for rehabilitation to expand another Wackenhut Texas prison. 

A criminal investigation into the sexual assaults produced at least 12 sexual assault and harassment indictments against former Wackenhut Corrections employees.  Travis County Sheriff Margo Frasier said the facility was "poorly run and poorly managed. Frankly, this is the result of being understaffed and underpaid."  Stories like this one have been under-played in the current privatization debate, but should be taken seriously by policy-makers studying the issuing.

Harris County Commissioner proposes privatizing jail system

Harris County JailHarris County JailMike Morris at the Houston Chronicle reports ("Privatizing County Jail on commissioners' agenda: Radack says it could be a way to cut back on costs," April 18) that at least one Harris County Commissioner is proposing privatizing Harris County's massive jail system.  According ot the story,

"Harris County Commissioners Court will consider a proposal to study privatizing the Harris County Jail, the state's largest lockup, with nearly 10,000 inmates.

The suggestion comes from Commissioner Steve Radack, who said the item is a way for the county to examine all ways of cutting costs as budget cuts take hold and scores of county workers are laid off."

While there isn't a firm proposal on the table as of yet, this is clearly a troubling development. As this blog has chronicled, private jails have been plagued with mismanagement and operational problems.  Furthermore, turning over the Harris County jail system to a private corporation will further empower an industry that relies on ever increasing incarceration rates for growth. 

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett raises further concerns in the story,

"I wouldn't be in favor of moving forward at all until somebody comes forward and says, 'This is why privatization would be good,' and gives me some concrete examples," Emmett said. "Clearly, it would be a massive change that would be undertaken neither lightly nor quickly. … It's one thing to say we're going to privatize a jail in a very small rural setting, but to talk about a jail like ours, where not only is it a jail but it's currently the largest mental health facility in the state of Texas — this is a large undertaking."

A large undertaking indeed.  According to the latest TCJS numbers, Harris County has nearly 8763 prisoners, making it one of the largest jails in the country.  Harris County also currently ships more than 1,000 prisoners to two private jails in Lousiana and the Community Education Centers' Newton County Correctional Facility

Here is some of our previous coverage of Harris County's overcrowding and privatization issues.

CEC's Liberty County Jail fails TCJS inspection; Warden is not properly licensed

Via a tip from Diana Claitor at the Texas Jail Project, CEC's Liberty County Jail failed its Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) inspection (attached) on March 16 under some fairly interesting circumstances. TCJS is the state agency charged with ensuring that county jails maintain basic standards, and the agency keeps a list of non-compliant facilities.   

The jail had numerous violations dealing with plumbing (including leaking toilets, non-functioning toilets, showers not draining, and a lack of hot water in certain cells) and light fixtures, as well a non-functioning intercom system in the old jail facility and parts of the new facility. 

In addition, the report contains this piece of information:

During a random reviewof staff jailer licenses, it was revealed that the Jail Administrator, Warden Tim New does not have a TCLEOSE Jailer's License

From my understanding, a Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education Jailer's License is the basic certification that one must have to work in a jail, so it's a bit troubling that the Warden of this facility hasn't attained one. 

HB 2569 set for County Affairs hearing on Thursday

Mando MartinezMando MartinezHB 2569, Rep. Armando Martinez's bill that would provide some accountability measures to private jails, will be heard as part of the County Affairs agenda this Thursday, March 31st, at 10:30am or adjurnment (most likely sometime in the afternoon).  I'll be attending and testifying at the meeting, and I expect that criminal justice reform groups will be joined by the Combined Law Enforcement Agencies of Texas and other jailer organizations in supporting the bill.

As we reported, HB 2569 is one of two bills on private jails filed by "Mando" Martinez, and is very similar to last session's HB 3903 that was effectively killed on the House floor.  HB 2569 would similarly subject private jails to the same open records law as public facilities, mandate that counties hold hearings before privatizing their county jails, and make it illegal for public officials such as sheriffs to be on the payrolls of private prison corporations. 

HB 2072, another bill filed by Rep. Martinez, was given a hearing several weeks ago in front of the same committee, to a cool reception.  Most of the opposition was based on the fact that bill gave more power to collective bargaining units in jails when it came to privatization decisions, and the bill was strongly opposed by the Texas Association of Counties and the Texas Conference on Urban Counties.  Committee members may be able to build a bigger consensus behind HB 2569 on Thursday.  We'll keep you posted on develoments on these two bills.

House Lawmakers Push to Privatize All State Jails

The Texas Tribune's Brandi Grissom reported yesterday ("House Lawmakers Propose Privatizing All State Jails", March 31) that House Lawmakers are considering a plan to privatize all of Texas' state jail facilities. Rep. Erwin Cain, R-Como, filed a budget amendment Tuesday which would require TDCJ to begin a competitive bidding process on its non-contracted state jail facilities by January 1, 2012. According to that amendment (p 272), TDCJ would have to either shutter facilities which had estimated operating costs 10% higher than the bids, or eventually enter into a contract with a private operator for them. If Cain's legislation does pass, it's certain TDCJ would be required to privatize its fifteen remaining state jail facilities.

State jail facilities house prisoners convicted of low-level drug and property offenses for periods of up to two years. Five of Texas's twenty state jail facilities are currently privatized. They are managed by Corrections Corporation of America, and their capacity sums to 7,345 beds. The non-contracted facilities held around 12,500 inmates in 2009.

The Tribune reported that Cain said he will rescind his amendment. He then plans to attach it to a corrections bill authored by House Corrections Chair, Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, because of "technical concerns about the language."

According to the Tribune, Cain said in support of his amendment that, "government is not always the efficient provider." As we've noted in the past, though, the implication that private prisons are more efficient than those run by TDCJ is incorrect.

The studies that purport to demonstrate efficiency gains from privatization have failed to control for operational differences (read: compromises in safety and security) at private facilities. Texas's state auditor said as much when it recognized TDCJ hadn't even established adequate standards by which to judge contract compliance. Additionally, the studies that purport to show efficiency gains achieved by privatization are suspect, because they have been funded by private prison companies.

Private prisons appear to achieve cost savings relative to TDCJ with their initial bids because they hire guards at much-lower wages, but their strategy leads to chronic job vacancies, high rates of turnover, and consequent operational and security problems (For one resource on this, see Grassroots Leadership's "Considering a Private Jail, Prison, or Detention Center?"). In a comparison of private prisons with state-run facilities, TDCJ included the following:

"During FY 2008 the correctional officer turnover rate at the seven private prisons was 90 percent (60 percent for the five privately-operated state jails), which, in either case, is higher than the 24 percent turnover rate for TDCJ correctional officers during FY 2008."  

-Interim Report to the 81st Legislature, Texas Senate Committee on Criminal Justice (December 2008)

So, private facilities have a unique problem with high turnover not experienced by state-run prisons and jails, and TDCJ's data shows the high rate of turnover is just one of the consequences of privatization. (we wrote about this before). The Bureau of Justice Assistance reported that private facilities experienced 49% more assaults on staff and 65% more inmate-oninmate assaults than public facilities. Private facilities also had significantly lower staffing levels than public facilities. A report by the Bureau of Prisons similarly found that private prisons had fewer correctional officers and much higher rates of staff turnover, escapes, and drug use than public prisons. So, while incidents at private facilities are sometimes similar in nature to those at state-run facilities, their incidence is uniquely high (See "Considering a Private Jail, Prison, or Detention Center?").

Even the purported cost-savings claimed by private prison companies are dubitable, though. This is because private facilities often take the least expensive inmates from TDCJ, and when TDCJ's contracted facilities have come to their point of renewal, their rates often go up. Sylvester Turner noted this in Brandi Grissom's Tribune Article:

"But state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, cautioned against the notion of more privatization, saying it could cost the state more in the long term. Past attempts at privatization, he said, have shown that companies are interested only in less expensive inmates. The state is left to shoulder the burden of housing the most-costly inmates: those who are sick and mentally ill. And, he said, there's no guarantee that private providers' rates won't skyrocket in the future."

One more very important objection to privatization was mentioned in the Tribune article, this time from Ana Yañez-Correa:

Ana Yañez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said privatizing jails provides a perverse incentive to continue policies that keep more people in jail, because it results in more profits for the companies running the facilities. "The real cost savings is going to come out of minimizing the number of people who don’t need to be there," she said.

This is what Molly Ivins said, and it's one of the most concerning aspects of privatization. Through organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), private prison companies support harsher sentencing and seek to influence legislation that raises profits by holding as many warm bodies in private prison cells as possible.

We'll be following developments on this front at the legislature.