McLennan County is still struggling to fill its speculatively-built Jack Harwell Detention Center, according to an article in the Waco Tribune ("ICE detainees never delivered to county’s jail," August 27) this week:
"McLennan County officials said the 200 detainees U. S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement promised to the county’s private jail didn’t come.
Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Matt Cawthon said ICE told the county the detainees would be delivered to the Jack Harwell Detention Center on Highway 6 at the end of July, but none arrived.
Harwell warden James Duke said he has offered 300 of the center’s 833 beds to the federal agency, but he doesn’t know when to expect them to be filled.
“The thing with immigration is this facility is only an overflow facility. So basically, we can’t expect (detainees) unless (ICE) needs us for overflow beds, and there’s no way we can predict that,” he said. “Dealing with (ICE), it’s got to be on their time and on their need.”"
This is not the Jack Harwell lock-up's first foray into immigrant detention contracts. As we reported back in 2011, then-operator Community Education Centers had immigration detainees removed from its facility after complaints from legal service advisors and immigration rights advocates that conditions in the facility were inappropriate for immigrants in civil detention. The facility also was deemed non-compliant by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.
McLennan County has struggled to pay the debt the county's Public Facility Corporation floated to pay for the construction of hte facility. The facility has sat half-empty for years after county's financing agency spent $49 million to build it. The sitting McLennan County Sheriff was on the payroll of CEC at the time the county voted to finance the construction of the facility.
The Jack Harwell Detention Center, built in 2010 on $49 million in revenue bonds, is once again housing immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. McLennan County Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Matt Cawthon told the Waco Tribune that the facility would begin leasing two hundred beds to ICE for people awaiting immigration hearings.
LaSalle Corrections took control of the facility just last month when the county decided to change operators from Community Education Centers, which had run the detention center since its construction. The county had always had trouble filling the beds, but after an audit by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards and an ICE investigation uncovered poor conditions, McLennan County lost its contract with ICE in December 2011.
County commissioners chose LaSalle because of the company's "stability and its track record of persuading federal agencies to contract for its services." In fact, a LaSalle executive was quoted in the Waco Tribune as saying that the company has:
“...been blessed to have a relatively good history of increasing the jail population for our clients,” said Billy McConnell, an executive with LaSalle. “We are confident we can provide a service that the county will find satisfactory.”
Like many contracts with for-profit prison companies, McLennan's contains a bed guarantee -- a stipulation that McLennan will continue to pay LaSalle if the population drops below a set level. The only commissioner who voted against the proposal said that he could "not in good conscience" put his support behind a contract that put McLennan County on the hook for unfilled beds. If prison population declines or if the facility once again fails to live up to ICE's standards (which are notoriously low), the county could find itself in even more fiscal trouble.
While McLennan County was lucky to be rid of CEC, it might have jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire with this new deal with LaSalle.
Montgomery County is trying to sell off the Joe Corley Detention Facility, an immigrant detention center that's been the subject of a federal investigation and a money-drain on the county. The only company to make a bid on the facility -- billed at $55 million -- was GEO Group, the for-profit private prison currently running it. The Montgomery County Courrier reports that
The Joe Corley center, which opened in August 2008, was put up for sale in January when it was discovered the bonds used to finance the $44.8 million project would lose their tax-exempt status.
County officials established a minimum purchase price of $55 million to cover the jail’s outstanding debt (less than $38 million) and approximately $7 million in fines for losing that tax-exempt status.
We've been reporting on the Joe Corley facility since 2008, when Montgomery County began contracting to detain people for the United States Marshalls Service in addition to ICE and the Bureau of Prisons. Since then there have been a string of incidents, including a suicide attempt; a lawsuit when air conditioning was shut off during the summer; the financial burden of an empty prison; and allegations of financial misconduct.
Our friends at LIFT-Houston will be holding a vigil outside of the Joe Corley Detention Facility on Saturday to protest the immigrant detention system and show solidarity with those trapped within it. From their Facebook event page:
Join LIFT-Houston and community allies in a vigil to show support for the families of Jayron Lopez and Pablo Ortiz-Matamoros. Pablo, detained at the facility for nearly 3 months, died of lymphoma in early February 2013. Jayron is currently detained and we demand his immediate release.
We are calling on ICE to exercise prosecutorial discretion and release Mr. Lopez to be back with his family and community. In addition, we ask that all low-priority detainees be released immediately.
This week, a sign-on letter was publicly delivered to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. The letter, signed by 37 national and Texas-based organizations, calls for the immediate closure of the Polk County Detention Center. This facility, run by for-profit private prison company Community Education Centers, was highlighted on a list of ten of amongst the worst in the nation by Detention Watch Network due to the inhuman conditions revealed in a November 2012 report by Grassroots Leadership and Texans United for Families. The letter states that"
"ICE should prioritize release of immigrants into alternatives to detention and community support programs that are far more humane, less costly, and are effective at ensuring immigrants are able to appear at their hearings. As a first step toward ending inhumane detention, we call for the closure of the IAH Polk County Secure Adult Detention Center."
The diverse list of signatories includes Catholic Charities of Central Texas; Presbyterian Health, Education, and Welfare Association; the United Methodist Church, General Board of Church in Society; Detention Watch Network; the Texas Civil Rights Project; and both supporting organizations of this site. A press release about the letter is available here.
Texas Prison Bid'ness has been covering the campaign to close the detention center in Polk for months now, including a protest in December that drew over 100 community members from Houston and Austin. We'll keep you updated as this story develops.