March 2012

Problems, failed inspections, canceled contracts mount at McLennan County CEC lock-ups

Problems appear to be mounting for Community Education Centers (CEC) in central Texas and beyond.  

CEC's McLennan County (Waco) facilities have come under increased scrutiny from the McLennan County Commissioners Court and the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.  CEC operates two facilities in Waco, the 326-bed downtown jail and the 816-bed speculative Jack Harwell Detention Center.

Last week, according to KXXV ("County Commissioners concerned with jail budget," March 19), the McLennan County Commissioners started asking hard questions after the Sheriff's office asked for $400,000 in additional funds for overflow detainees at CEC's Jack Harwell Detention Center.  According to KXXV, the Commissioners may be considering taking the downtown jail back under public control:

"This request comes after the McLennan Co. Sheriff's Office already spent this year's $1 million budget and some commissioners believe even the new money will not get them through the rest of the fiscal year.  The sheriff's office will be requesting $385,000 from the commissioners court to help pay for the feeding and care of overflowed inmates.

Some county commissioners see this as a problem however, because the sheriff's office is already paying over $200,000 a month to house between 150-165 inmates at the CEC (Community Education Centers) run Jack Harwell facility.

The request for more money comes as the commissioners wait for those inmates to move back into the downtown facility that they believe the CEC should have already repaired. 

"I'd just like to get some input and that's the one thing I was going to ask from the Sheriff's Department [Tuesday]," said Commissioner Kelly Snell. "Is the sheriff's department in constant contact with CEC? And is our attorney as well with CEC?"

The main problem the commissioners have is that the downtown jail could bring them more money because the county has the option to operate it. As of now the commissioners have no idea when CEC will finish upgrading that jail however."

If McLennan is thinking of taking the facility back under public control, they would be the second county, after Liberty County, thinking of taking jail operations back from CEC.  

CEC's problems don't end there.  The Jack Harwell Detention Center is currently listed as non-compliant by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards for numerous reasons (see attached document if link doesn't work).  

In December, Jack Harwell also lost its Immigration and Customs Enforcement contract to detain immigrant women after, according to the Waco Tribune: 

"the agency investigated complaints from its inmates about housing conditions at the Harwell jail and determined that New Jersey-based Community Education Centers, which manages the jail for the county, was "unable to provide appropriate medical treatment in accordance to our detention standards."

Critiques of CEC's handling of immigration detainees continued this week as New York University and New Jersey immigrant rights groups issued a report claiming the company's Delaney Hall facility does not "fully comply with ICE standards, the report documents problems with everything from access to legal assistance and worship services to adequate health care, food and other basic services for detainees."  (Washington Post, March 23)

Why o why o why o did CCA think it could make stuff up in Ohio

Corrections Corporation of America’s (CCA) letter offering to purchase state and local prisons/jails in return for a 20-year deal and 90% guaranteed occupancy rate (probably making the hotel lobby very jealous) continues to gather press.  Last week, an AP story (Corrections firm offers states cash for prisons, Greg Bluestein, Associated Press) about the facility was picked up by a number of newspapers around the country. 

 In defense of the deal, CCA continues to point to its “successful” purchase of the Lake Erie Correctional Institution in Ohio.  Did CCA think no one would check to verify this claim? Unfortunately for CCA, the ACLU of Ohio did.  Quoting Mark Twain, they wrote "’[t]here are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.’ A recent letter sent out by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) to 48 governors offering to buy state prisons included a little of each.”

 Here are some highlights from the ACLU of Ohio’s blog:

 · “While CCA claims it will save Ohioans $3 million per year, a recent report analyzing the state's contract shows that taxpayers will actually lose money over the next 20 years.  Of course, this is not earth-shattering news, as other fiscal analyses in Ohio and Arizona have produced similar results.”

· “CCA also leads readers to believe there was no drama behind the transition to private ownership, but the people of Conneaut may disagree.  As CCA took the reins of the Lake Erie facility, Conneaut city officials were informed that it would be the duty of local police officers to investigate crimes at the private prison.  Typically, the Ohio State Highway Patrol (OSHP) handles all investigations at state prisons, but private properties are under the jurisdiction of local police forces.  This could cost the city of Conneaut taxpayer dollars it just doesn't have.”

· “CCA also points out that 93 percent of the previous staff from the Lake Erie facility was retained in the ownership transfer — the implication being that governors shouldn't worry about privatization because most state corrections officers will be hired back.  What it does not explain is that Lake Erie has been a privately operated facility for over a decade.  … Certainly, if the facility had employed state corrections officers, many of those workers could not afford to continue working there.  It's no secret that private prisons pay employees far less than state workers and provide few benefits, leaving doubt that privatization of a state facility would be as ‘seamless’ as CCA describes in its letter.”

On the bright side, I imagine CCA’s management and shareholders made out quite well.  Stay tuned to Texas Prison Bid’ness for more on this story. 

Dean of Texas Senate rejects CCA prison purchase proposal

Yesterday, Frank wrote that the ACLU, Presbyterian Criminal Justice Network, and a broad coalition of civil rights and faith leaders were opposing CCA's recent offer to buy state prisons in return for states maintaining 90% occupancy at these facilities.  

Now, these groups are being joined by Texas State Senator John Whitmire, the Dean of the Senate and long-time chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.  Whitmire, speaking to USA Today ("Private purchasing of prisons locks in occupancy rates," March 8th), had this to say:

"You don't want a prison system operating with the goal of maximizing profits," says Texas state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat and advocate for reducing prison populations through less costly diversion programs. "The only thing worse is that this seeks to take advantage of some states' troubled financial position."

Former Kansas Secretary of Corrections Roger Werholtz also warned against the temptation of a "quick infusion of cash" saying,

"[m]y concern would be that our state would be obligated to maintain these (occupancy) rates and subtle pressure would be applied to make sentencing laws more severe with a clear intent to drive up the population."

Here's hoping state leaders in Texas and beyond see through this proposal. 

Broad Coalition Urges States to Reject CCA's Offer to Purchase State Prisons

Last week, a broad coalition, including the ACLU and The Sentencing Project, urged state governors to reject Corrections Corporation of America’s (CCA) offer to purchase state and local jails.  As Texas Prison Bid'ness noted in its coverage of CCA’s offer a few weeks ago, this is a horrible deal for Texas.  Here are some excerpts from a letter sent by a broad coalition of worker and human rights organizations: 

“We understand that Harley Lappin, Chief Corrections Officer at Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), recently sent a letter to nearly every state announcing the Corrections Investment Initiative – the corporation’s plan to spend up to $250 million buying prisons from state, local, and federal government entities, and then managing the facilities.  The undersigned coalition urges you to decline this dangerous and costly invitation.

The letter from Mr. Lappin states that CCA is only interested in buying prisons if the state selling the prison agrees to pay CCA to operate the prison for 20 years – at minimum.  Mr. Lappin further notes that any prison to be sold must have at least 1,000 beds, and that the state must agree to keep the prison at least 90% full.  In other words, CCA would be buying not only a physical structure but a guarantee that your state will fill a large prison and continuously pay the corporation taxpayer money to operate the institution for two decades.  While a prison sale might provide a short-term infusion of revenue, taxpayers in your state would be left paying for this short-term windfall until at least 2032.  In short, this proposal to sell a valuable state asset is a backdoor invitation for your state to take on additional debt, while increasing CCA’s profits.   

Moreover, the requirement to keep a large prison 90% full for twenty years would pose an obstacle to more serious criminal justice reform.  The United States imprisons far more people – both per capita and in absolute terms – than any other nation in the world, including Russia, China, and Iran.  Over the past four decades, imprisonment in the United States has increased explosively, spurred by criminal laws that impose steep sentences and curtail opportunities for probation and parole.  The current incarceration rate deprives record numbers of individuals of their liberty, disproportionately affects people of color, and has at best a minimal effect on public safety.  Meanwhile, the crippling cost of imprisoning increasing numbers of Americans saddles government budgets with rising debt and exacerbates the current fiscal crisis confronting states across the nation.  

As this sprawling and costly system of mass incarceration damages the nation as a whole, CCA reaps lucrative benefits.  As the corporation admits in SEC filings: ‘The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by … leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices … .’

… 

The selling off prisons to CCA would be a tragic mistake for your state.  Mr. Lappin’s proposal is an invitation to fiscal irresponsibility, prisoner abuse, and decreased public safety.  It should promptly be declined.”

The Presbyterian Criminal Justice Network sent a similar letter to governors last week as well, urging states not to hand over control of prisons to CCA. 

Failed Inspections & Escapes at LaSalle Southwestern Corrections' Burnet County Jail

It's been a bad couple of weeks for LaSalle Southwest CorrectionsBurnet County Jail.  The facility was the subject to headlines across the state after a Shawshank-like escape where a prisoner broke through bricks under his sink and crawled to freedom through a skylight while guards assumed pillows tucked under his bedding were the prisoner (he has since been apprehended). It appears that both shoddy construction and human error led to the escape.  

According to a story on KVUE ("Sheriff: Jail staff to blame for inmate's escape," March 1) LaSalle Southwest Corrections has admitted fault in the incident:

"It's on us," warden Bruce Zeller said. "Like the sheriff said, the responsibility is on Lasalle Corrections, our facility, and our employees." 

Burnet County Sheriff W.T. Smith is in a battle of words and wills with members of the Burnet Commissioners Court.  Commissioners have blamed Smith's oversight of the jail for the problems, but Smith - rightfully, I believe - complains in the Burnet Bulletin ("War of wards over jail heats up," March 5) that he has limited purview over the facility: 

"I would like to have it, yes. But I don’t believe it’s financially feasible,” Smith said. But that’s not my call.” Smith acknowledged that, "Constitutionally, the sheriff is over the jail,” but said he has little authority.

It now appears that structural issues with the jail, constructed by prison construction firm Hale Mills, may be at fault.  The facility has flunked its Texas Commission on Jail Standards review, according to the River Tribune ("State officials find Burnet County Jail flunks security review, March 5): 

"The Burnet County Jail has flunked a state inspection that found design flaws in the wake of an escape March 1 by an inmate who chiseled a hole in the wall.

The state report says the private-public jail, which opened with 587 beds in April 2009 at a cost of $23 million, is "non-compliant" with security standards. "It means something is wrong," County Judge Donna Klaeger said March 5.

The Burnet County Sheriff's Office supervises the jail, which is operated by the private firm LaSalle Southwest Corrections.

Texas Commission on Jail Standards inspectors recently found "deficiencies" in the network of concrete blocks and reinforcement bars that support walls near cells for handicapped inmates, Executive Director Adan Munoz said."

This is certainly not the first problem for the Burnet County Jail.  The prison had another high-profile escape in September of 2009.  In the fall-out from that escape, the jail received a sharp rebuke from the Jail Standards Commission for not providing medical care to a pregnant inmate, amongst other problem.  At the time, TCJS director Muñoz described the situation this way:  “The best way to describe it is a lack of diligence, a lack of professionalism."  It doesn't appear that much has changed for LaSalle Southwestern Corrections. 

More problems - this time TB screening - at LCS's East Hidalgo Detention Center

Jared Taylor at the McAllen Monitor continues his paper's excellent coverage of ongoing problems at the LCS Corrections-operated East Hidalgo Detention Center, this time with a story on an investigation into the adequateness of inmate tuberculosis testing at the facility.  Early in the week, the Monitor reported that the LCS warden at the facility, Elberto E. Bravo, had been suspended as he faced a federal criminal investigation into fraud, bribery and theft allegations.

In Saturday's Monitor ("Tuberculosis concerns at La Villa prison irk officials," March 3) story details a multi-agency meeting about problems in screening of TB patients at the prison located in La Villa.  According to the story:

"The Monitor learned of a meeting between several federal, state and local agencies and LCS Corrections, which owns and operates the East Hidalgo Detention Center in La Villa. Questions about the facility came after the prison’s warden was suspended late last month.

Health officials questioned the prison doctor’s assertion that it was safe for possible carriers of tuberculosis — including inmates who had tested positive in the past — to be kept with the rest of the prison’s population, said Adan Muñoz, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

...  The meeting came after Hidalgo County Health Department officials learned a federal inmate at the facility recently who tested positive for tuberculosis, was released to Border Patrol agents and deported to Mexico without treatment, Sheriff Lupe Treviño said.  “He was deported without any precautions or advisories put out,” the sheriff said.

In another instance, county health officials learned of four inmates at the prison who had tested positive for tuberculosis or were possible carriers of the infection and were among other inmates, said Shannon Herklotz, assistant director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, who attended the meeting last month.

County officials raised their concerns with LCS, but received little response from the prison’s management."

Accountability and transparency appear to be problems at the facility.  We'll keep you posted on updates.