Following a suicide at a for-profit jail in Waco, three private prison guards have been arrested and charged with tampering with records that tracked how often they checked on the prisoner, Michael Martinez, who hung himself in his cell on November 1st.
The prison — the Jack Harwell Detention Center operated by private prison corporation LaSalle Corrections — was also found non-compliant by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) following a review of the facility. The TCJS review (attached) found that private jailers violated the standard mandating that potentially suicidal or mentally ill prisoners be checked on every 30 minutes.
The Jack Harwell facility has long and troubled history dating back to before its construction. The facility was publicly financed and built on speculation that it would win federal contracts to detain or incarcerate immigrants, but has largely failed to generate the revenue needed to make the facility financially profitable. (Of course, in this case financial profitability relies on more people behind bars.) The jail has also been plagued with allegations of abuse and mismanagement, including sexual assault allegations. Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed detainees from the facility last year following an outcry from attorneys and activists.
Suicides in county jails have endured more public scrutiny in recent months following the suicide of Sandra Bland and state legislators are currently looking into policy proposals to reduce the risk of suicide.
A for-profit prison that houses hundreds of immigration detainees has failed an inspection by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.
The Rolling Plains Regional Detention Center is operated by Louisiana-based private prison corporation Emerald Corrections and detains 485 federal contract detainees and only 12 local prisoners. Those 12 local prisoners put it under the purview of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, which found the lock-up non-compliant during a September inspection. TCJS standards are considered base-line standards for operating a jail in Texas.
According to the Commission's audit (attached), the facility failed on a number of accounts including misclassification of prisoners, employees operating without a jailer's license, and that the facility was not operating at the required 1 officer per 48 prisoners ratio.
The review should be of particular concern to immigration advocates as immigration detention standards generally are suppose to meet or exceed jail standards.
Last month, private prison corporation Community Education Centers won a new contract to operate the troubled Liberty County Jail, according to a press release from the New Jersey-based company earlier this month. The contract has a three year term and a two year option, according to the company, and followed a report by jail consultants MGT America. CEC has operated the facility since 2006, though the company's tenure at the facility has anything but smooth.
This past April, two prisoners were found dead at the 285-bed lock-up in a single week prompting a review by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards that found what the Houston Chronicle described as "a slew of deficiencies at the facility, including infrequent inmate observations, incomplete suicide prevention screening and improper distribution of medication."
The deaths followed a spate of other problems at the facility including a long string of contraband smuggling and at least two allegations of sexual abuse in the facility. The facility has repeatedly run into problems with the Jail Commission, the agency charged with overseeing basic standards at county jails. In 2011, a Jail Commission failed the facility for a series of infractions including that the warden of the facility was not properly licensed.
Beyond operational problems, the facility has made headlines as an example of for-profit incarceration incentivizing high rates of incarceration. Back in 2012, Liberty County made our "big stories of the year" list after 253rd District Court Judge Chap B. Cain initiated a plan to reduce the number of non-violent individuals housed in the jail. The plan was successful, but the contract for the jail stipulated at the time that if the jail population dipped below 200, the cost per inmate went up, reducing the financial incentive to keep jail populations low. It's unclear if the new contract with CEC retains this counter-incentive to sound criminal justice policy or not.
Senator John Whitmire, D-Houston, sent a warning to city officials in Shepherd, TX after they voted in favor of contracting with private corrections company, Emerald Correctional Management LLC, to build a new lockup for immigrants awaiting deportation.
Whitmire, Chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, sent a two-page letter to the Shepherd Mayor Pro Tem Sherry Roberts to tell her history has shown that partnering with private prison companies to build local lockups is a bad idea. In the letter, Whitmire cited Littlefield and Jones County, both small communities in Texas where partnerships with private companies have gone belly up and left local taxpayers with the burden of paying off the bonds.
According to reports from the Houston Chronicle, Whitmire's letter stated:
"I hope you are aware that many cities and counties in Texas have gone down the failed path of partnering with private correctional entities to build both prisons and immigration detention facilities."
"Many of these thousands of beds now sit empty, leaving the public partner (city or county) responsible for paying off the debt issued to build the facility."
"Texas has closed three, privately run state jails or prison facilities, while our state inmate population continues to decline," Whitmire said.
"If the expected immigration population dwindles or disappears altogether, the state will have no part in filling the empty beds with state inmates. Again, thousands of beds built through speculation projects now sit empty, with public entities on the hook.
"I understand and appreciate the desire to provide economic development within your community, but gone are the times of using prisons and correctional facilities for that purpose," the senator stated.
"I am hopeful that you will take under consideration the failed speculative projects elsewhere in Texas and the potentially significant financial liabilities your community would assume if a similar scenario were to play out in Shepherd."
Well said, Senator! Officials in Shepherd did not immediately respond to the Houston Chronicle on this issue.