The Liberty County Commissioners Court decided Tuesday, August 26 to hire a firm to consult on whether County Sheriff Bobby Rader should take over direct operation of the jail or leave it in the hands of a for-profit, private prison company.
The Liberty County Jail is currently operated by Community Education Centers. The consulting firm, MGT of America, Inc. is based in Austin and will be paid $64,000 to help the county decide what to do.
The issue is whether the contract with CEC is costing the county. In 2012, a study by Texas A&M researcher Lynn Greenwood for Liberty County found that de-privatization of the Liberty County Jail would help the county to manage its jail costs as it continues efforts to reduce the population in its jail.
County Auditor Harold Seay told Commissioner Mike McCarty that this year’s cost overrun for the jail’s operation will be about $800,000.
“We’ve got to do something,” Commissioner McCarty said.
For his part, Sheriff Rader explained his concern that while many claim the county can save at least $1 million by operating the jail directly, he might be blamed if that does not happen.
Still Sheriff Rader told the court, “We’re ready to take to take it. You give me the money to run it, and we’ll run it.”
One candidate in Liberty County has made ending the county's contract with CEC part of his platform. Leon Wilson listed "Stopping the waste of millions of dollars by bringing the jail back under County administration" as the first item on his platform when he announced his candidacy in the primaries in the Liberty Vindicator. Wilson won that primary and will be on the November ballot.
And like many for-profit, private prisons, the Liberty County Jail has seen it's share of scandal. For example, a CEC guard at the jail was arrested on March 15 for allegedly bringing contraband into the facility. Another CEC guard was arrested for smuggling drugs into the jail in 2013. A district court judge also accused CEC of thwarting its efforts to reduce the jail population with increased costs.
However, the commissioners may be still considering contracting with priviate prison companies. The court also voted on Tuesday to issue a request for proposals from companies that might want to run the Liberty County jail.
Corrections Corporation of America has scheduled its 2013 4th quarter investor conference call Thursday, February 13, 2014 at 10am CT. The investor calls are accessible through CCA's investor website and webcasts are generally made available in the days following the call.
These calls are often important gauges of where the industry thinks its future lies, whether its in expanded immigration detention contracts, out-of-state transfers from states like California, or increased state contracts. It will also be interesting to see if the loss of CCA contracts to operate the Dawson State Jail and Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility - together more than 4,000 prison beds - will impact the company's annual bottom-line.
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.
Last week, Texans for Public Justice filed a complaint (PDF) with the Texas Ethics Commission claiming irregularities in reporting by the Political Action Commission of private prison corporations GEO Group.
The complaint alleges that GEO reported that it had given State Representative Harvey Hildebran and State Senator Troy Fraser campaign donations of $1,000 and $5,000 respectively. However, neither donation showed up on the candidates filings, indicating that the donations may have been returned, a fact that GEO's PAC should have reported.
The donations occured in the midst of a heated fight over a bid to private the Kerrville State Hospital by GEO subsidiary GEO Care. Kerrville is represented by both Hilderbran and Fraser, and both opposed privatization of the hospital. After outrage from mental health and criminal justice organizations (including Grassroots Leadership, my organization), local residents, and elected officials, the privatization proposal was scrapped.