McClennan County officials recently approved the hire of 12 new jailers in order to comply with staffing standards stipulated by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS). According to reports in the Waco Tribune, the decision was reached after two hour closed door meeting with their county attorneys.
TCJS issued a notice of noncompliance to local officials in December of 2007, when the facility failed state inspection due to staffing concerns. According to reports, as of April 2008, the county had not responded. The jail is run by CivicGenics, a private prison corporation that is a subsidiary of Community Education Centers, Inc.
McLennan County pays $27.50 a day for each of the first 50 inmates housed in the CiviGenics facility on Columbus Avenue. The rate goes to $28.50 a day for 51 to 70 inmates, and $31 for each inmate from 71 to 90. After 91 inmates, the rate jumps to $41.95 a day, officials have said.
County officials authorized an additional $203,000 to hire 12 new employees to staff the jail. The facility has been out of compliance with TCJS for years as it has struggled with jail crowding issues. Rather than identify community alternatives to reduce incarceration, like rethinking law enforcement practices, the county has received variances from the state agency to meet capacity demands.
While officials, have already authorized funding they are currently exploring other options.
They hired a jail magistrate this year to try to set bonds faster and ease overcrowding. They also have asked for an attorney general’s opinion to answer a number of legal concerns about the use of ankle monitors, proposed to help clear out the jail while monitoring alleged offenders.
Yet, the struggle to find jail capacity continues and the consequences are real -- resulting in additional expenses of taxpayer's money. Earlier this week, the privately managed facility held 965 detainees, when the current capacity is only 931.
The local ABC affiliate in Houston reported this morning that the Harris County Commissioners Court will approve a measure to send more Harris County Jail detainees across state lines. The detainees will be housed in a private lockup in Louisiana.
The county already pays out millions of dollars a year to the center in Louisiana. Some 600 inmates were moved there because of overcrowding issues in the past.
We have reported recently why this is a bad public policy and negatively impacts communities in the Houston area.
It is clear that Harris County leadership focuses on expanding capacity, rather than alternatives to incarceration that would decrease the jail population. The Houston Chronicle is also reporting that the Commissioners Court will send as many as 1,130 jail detainees out of the state.
The choice of county officials to send jail detainees out of state is in response to chronic overcrowding. Voters did not approve bonding authority last Novemer that would expand the jail, in no doubt because of negative publicity that has surrounded the jail including escapes and horrible amount of deaths.
Yet, the county continues to rely on expanding capacity as a solution to jail crowding rather than alternatives. Harris County officials have received recommendations from multiple sources including our friend Scott Henson at Grits for Breakfast and Mark Levin with the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation to no avail.
Grits states in his post today that the in order to change way the county does it's business there needs to a leadership change. Harris County residents will have an opportunity later this year to change leaders who contribute to those who enter the jail and for how long they stay.
But there is another issue in Harris County as well. Currently, there is no capacity in the area to counter jail officials and other leaders in their drive to increase jail capacity. Opposition to such policies has been found in the Chronicle editorials and the blog posts of criminal justice policy watchers - including this one.
But I know of no organized effort, currently underway, to engage public officials in a dialogue around jail capacity that would reduce their reliance on incarceration. Until one emerges, public officials -- old ones and new - will more likely to continue to rely on expanding capacity to solve crowding issues.
A great new interactive site has been developed by Renee Feltz and Stokely Baksh, students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, called The Business of Detention. Check out the trailer:
The site features interviews with yours truly and Texas Prison Bid'ness found Judy Greene. We'll feature more clips from the Business of Detention in the coming days, but please check out the website for more information on the rise of the private detention industry in Texas.
Recent media reports at the T. Don Hutto detention center, a prison owned by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), highlight changes to the private prison. The notorious Hutto facility has been the target of numerous protests and a lawsuit as a result of its use to incarcerate immigrant families; some detainees as young as newborns. Press reports state that government officials are using a media blitz to lay the groundwork for additional family detention facilities that will be added to federal prison capacity over the next year.
According to an article in the San Antonio Express-News, reporter Hernán Rozemberg states:
Mired in controversy since its opening in May 2006, the 512-bed center has been through several makeovers. Administrators opened it for a swift media tour Tuesday to show how much has changed since the first tour 14 months ago.
Last year, the use of family detention at the private prison was resulted in litigation by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas Law School. The lawsuit settlement required CCA, which contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Williamson County, to meet comply with several standards that change the conditions of confinement at the prison.
ICE officials, like Gary Mead, stated in an Austin American-Statesman article written by Juan Castillo, that they learned a lot as they moved to lock up children and their parents:
"Candidly, when (Hutto) opened, we were new to the family residential facility business. We learned a lot," Gary Mead, acting director for detention and removal at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Tuesday.
As a result the changes required by the settlement and to improve public relations, the private prison recently opened its doors to the media to advertise changes underway at the facility. Despite any aesthetic changes and additions of certain amenities, the facility in Taylor, Texas is fundamentally still a prison.
Specifically, certain structures such as cell walls and the location of toilets in the space where someone sleeps cannot be altered. However, that does prevent the news media from participating in the coordinated public relations campaign According to news reports those changes include:
Regardless of these changes, Hutto continues to be a private prison. What continues to be disturbing is that ICE is going to expand the policy of locking up families. Once again this represents a failed social policy as the United States continues to rely on incarceration even though Congress has insisted on alternatives to family detention.
Given that ICE is implying that they are looking to expand family detention capacity, we will monitor these developments.