“What happens if you privatize prisons is that you have a large industry with a vested interest in building ever-more prisons.” -- Molly Ivins, 2003

Waco Tribune Editorializes Against Jail Privatization

Via an excellent post at Grits for Breakfast, the Waco Tribune Herald has an editorial ("Costs of Privatization," July 13) in its Sunday edition about the recent controversy over a privatization plan to address jail overcrowding. I'll leave it to the editorial board to explain their position:

Time after time the state has had to step back from sweeping privatization edicts. Either too few bidders stepped forward to provide services or those who got contracts dropped the ball.

So while it’s troubling that McLennan County commissioners are considering doing the same with their jail, it’s good that they are going to take their time and not take a leap based on misleading advertising.

Yes, privatizing the jail likely will save money. A bidder will do whatever it needs, cut every necessary corner, to meet any dollar figure that will win its way into a government contract.

The fine print is that private enterprise won’t necessarily do the job better, or with sufficient accountability that taxpayers know that it is so.

We acknowledge here that some government services are reasonably contracted out. Food service is one.

But when actual lives are placed in state custody, contracting out the function is fraught with concerns.

The biggest concern about privatizing, aside from the business’s desire to put profit first, is the problem of proprietary information.

A private contractor doesn’t have to reveal information about the possible criminal backgrounds of employees, how it spends public dollars and who else is contributing to it. That’s private.

If a private contractor hired a felon to watch the felons, it’s no one else’s business.

Jailers for McLennan County have vigorously opposed privatization of the jail, and not just out of concern for their own jobs.

They are concerned about the quality of service that might be offered by a for-profit entity. They are concerned about transparency in its operations.

See our previous coverage on the privatization debate in McLennan County:

McLennan County Opposition to Jail Privatization Plan

Sheriff's Deputies Protest Privatization in McLennan County

McLennan County Seeking New Private Jail

Sheriff Receives $12K from CiviGenics

Jail Alternatives Can Save Money

Nueces County Negotiating Higher Rates for LCS Prisons

The Corpus Christi Caller-Times ("Nueces County Seeks More Money for Federal Prisoners," July 9) is reporting that Nueces County is attempting to renegotiate a federal contract to house pre-trial federal detainees for the U.S. Marshals Service in two south Texas private jails operated by LCS Corrections - one in Hidalgo County and one in rural Nueces County.   According to the article,

After spending millions to fix the problems with the Nueces County Jail that led to the removal of federal prisoners in June 2006, the county filed an initial request in January seeking the return of the prisoners with a pay increase.

The county wants to recoup as much as $61.49 per inmate per day to house prisoners at the county jail, up from the $45.15 rate negotiated in 1991. Neal also is negotiating additional compensation for two private detention facilities owned by Louisiana based LCS Corrections Services.

Because the federal government does not deal directly with private detention businesses, LCS has a contract with Nueces County that gives Sheriff Jim Kaelin ultimate responsibility for any prisoner transferred to LCS’ Hidalgo County facility. In exchange, the county gets $2 per prisoner, per day from LCS.

Nueces County's pass-through agreement is one of the more bizarre in that the county actually receives federal money to house prisoners in a private jail in a another county. The newer of the two LCS prisoners that Nueces delivers federal prisoners to is the Robstown facility in Nueces County which has raised environmental concerns that Nicole has reported on over the past few months. 

The feds might have reason to balk at providing more money to LCS when, as the Texas Observer reported in March, the Hidalgo County facility was deemed “at risk," the worst rating in a federal review last year.   According to the Observer,

At East Hidalgo, the inspectors found dozens of violations of federal standards. Medical, dental, and mental health care is virtually nonexistent. Initial medical screenings are performed by unqualified nurses and do not include a physical examination, or an appraisal for chemical dependency, mental retardation, and suicide risk, according to the report. Moreover, the jail has no dentist or mental health professional on-site. A hallway is used as an examination room. Staff are not trained to deal with suicidal detainees despite eight suicide attempts in the year prior to the report.

Security is poor. At the time of the inspection, visitors didn’t even pass through a metal detector when entering the building. The jail has no “specific instructions” on when firearms may be used; no procedures for maintaining weapons or for controlling keys, kitchen tools, and medical equipment; no effective plan for a mass evacuation; and no training program on the use of force.

Sanitation is lacking. Employees are not tested for blood-borne pathogens, increasing the risk of disease to both guards and inmates. Detainees are issued “sporks,” but the utensils are not sanitized, nor are barbering tools.
Two juveniles were discovered by the inspectors at the adult-only detention center and immediately removed. In addition, the report reveals that 19 inmate-on-inmate assaults had occurred in the previous year. After six inmates escaped in 2006, the state jail commission cited the facility for employing too few guards, for the third time.

We'll keep you posted on developments from Nueces County's contract negotiations and from LCS prisons in Texas.

McLennan County Opposition to Jail Privatization Plan

On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to attend and provide testimony to the McLennan County Commissioners Court along with members of the McLennan County Sheriff Officer's Association and the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas about a proposed jail privatization plan.

The meeting, for the third week in a row, was packed with Sheriff's Officers opposing the proposal. The front page of Tuesday's Waco Tribune blared "Jailers to Sheriff: No Privatization," a sentiment that pretty accurately described the mood of the meeting.

The agenda started with public comment which included members of the Waco Police Department, other law enforcement agencies, and members of the public denouncing the privatization plan on the grounds of public safety, job security for those that work at the jail facilities, and the rights of those incarcerated at the jail.

At the beginning on the meeting's formal agenda, a county clerk reported that despite sending a request for proposal nearly a dozen private prison corporations, the county only recieved one proposal - from CEC/CiviGenics which already has a jail contract with the county. I found it odd that the big private prison corporations like CCA and GEO wouldn't submit a bid for this contract, but the single bid might have something to do with CEC/CiviGenics close relationship with the McLennan County Sheriff.

At the end of the meeting I testified along with Ken Witt and Rick White from the Sheriff Officers Association and members of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas. The testimony largely focused on public safety and human rights violations of inmates that tend to occur in private jail facilities.

For more media coverage on the McLennan County jail fight, see these press sources:

Waco Trib: Sheriff Association Calls on Sheriff to Oppose Privatization Plan

Waco Trib: McLennan County Recieves Single Bid for County Jail Proposal

KWTX: McLennan Receives 1 Bid for County Jail

The issue is scheduled to be on this coming Tuesday's county agenda. We'll keep you posted on developments from McLennan County as they come.

New LCS Prison will Increase Environmental Hazard

Louisiana-based LCS Corrections Services will open up a prison in Nueces County later this year. We recently wrote that the new facility is expected to contribute as much as 150,000 gallons of treated waste water into the Petronila Creek on a daily basis. According to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, locals see problems with the new prison's environmental impact:

... residents living near the creek raised concerns that the additional water from the prison would flood the creek on a more frequent basis...

In an article written by Jaime Powell in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times ("Prison Firm to Clean Up Creek Area," July 4), officials from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality state that the treated wastewater flowing from the prison into the creek must meet strict state quality standards and will be regularly monitored.

We sure hope that is the case. Strict accountability must be undertaken as this prison goes online and contributes to the environmental decline of Petronila Creek.

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