“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 New Jail

In addition to the Sheriff's Officers Association, the Waco Tribune's editorial board may be becoming one of the biggest thorns in the side of those advocating a new private jail in McLennan County. The paper already wrote against the proposed privatization effort in July. On Friday, the editorial board penned a piece titled "Why three jails?" questioning the prosed construction of an additional Waco jail. According to the article,

When the county decided to build a new jail off of Highway 6 in 2000, Community Education Centers (CEC), formerly CiviGenics, signed a contract to operate its predecessor, the 329-bed jail on Columbus Avenue. The contract for that relationship expires Oct. 1.

For much of the time the agreement has paid off. Some would have called the private jail a cash cow — netting more than $800,000 a year. But as the county has had to use space at the downtown jail, the bonanza has dwindled. Now the county is netting only a fourth of that.

If nothing else, taking back the downtown jail buys time to consider the county’s options. It also offers a graceful exit from a contretemps stirred with jail staff over proposals to have CEC build and operate a new jail.

In addition, the editorial board saved a few choice words for CEC/CiviGenics, the private prison company that operates the downtown jail and is the sole bidder for the new jail facility, and prison privatization generally (emphasis mine).

The county is investigating claims by former downtown inmates that guards at the CEC-run jail sold drugs and had sex with female inmates.

Whether or not those concerns hold water, the firm running the jail has a spotty record. Indeed, one of the county’s most notorious murders, in which inmate Sherman Lamont Fields escaped and murdered his former girlfriend, occurred under CiviGenics’ watch. He bribed a jail employee.

It’s one thing to entrust such a thing as food service or lawn maintenance to a private firm. It’s another to entrust lives, constitutional rights and the whole of what law enforcement requires.

Entrusting the county jail to a private firm is barely any different than contracting out the police force. The county should put that proposal aside. In the meantime, it should reclaim the downtown jail and consider its penal options for the future — without privatization.

We'll keep you posted on all the developments from McLennan County. For background, see our previous coverage of the McLennan County privatization debate:

Recommendations for Jail Standards Sunset Review

Every 12 years, the Texas Legislature reviews state agencies to determine whether their missions merit continuation and what changes or improvements need to be made. The process is overseen by the Texas Sunset Advisory Committee and gives advocates a chance to highlight successes and failures in the agencies. While the review of the troubled-but-improving Texas Youth Commission this year will probably dominate much of the press and advocacy interest this year, the Texas Commission of Jail Standards, the agency charged with overseeing Texas' massive county jail system, is also up for review and deserves a close look.

The Commission (commonly known as TCJS in the prison reform world) also has jurisdiction over lock-ups, both public and private, that house any out-of-state inmates. In 2003, the agency was stripped of its oversight of detention centers, overwhelmingly operated by private prison corporations, that house only federal detainees, creating a large number of facilities in Texas completely unregulated by a state agency.

I generally think the leadership of TCJS, headed by Adan Muñoz, is doing a good job, though are tremendously under-resources. See a related Grits post from last year for more analysis on this. Muñoz, a former West Texas sheriff, has noted in several contexts that mental illness is the number one issue pushing jail expansion in the state.

The Sunset Committee distributes a survey in the lead-up to the review, which I sent in for Grassroots Leadership last week. Amongst my recommendations,

1. Substantially enhance the ability of the Commission to successfully oversee jail facilities by adding at least two inspectors to Commission staff, and ehancing oversight of medical and mental health issues in jail facilities – possibly by dedicating one inspector to exclusively oversee mental health and health-related issues in jail facilities.

2. Expand membership of the Commission to include one member of the mental health community, as well as a member of a human rights organization or family organization to represent incarcerated people on the Commission.

3. Expand jurisdiction of TCJS to include:

  • Oversight of jails and detention centers housing only federal detainees. As mentioned above, this duty was stripped from the agency earlier this decade in a legislative decision.
  • Oversight of all private correctional facilities in the state not under the jurisdiction of the TDCJ or TYC monitoring
  • Oversight of municipal jails. I'm not overly familiar with municipal jails, but some towns in Texas have city-operated jails in addition to their county facilities. These facilities are not under the current purview of TCJS.
  • Out-of-state jails housing Texas prisoners such as the Louisiana private jails housing Harris County prisoners, or develop a legislative remedy to ban the exportation of Texas county detainees to other states.

If conditions in Texas jails matter to you or you simply want more information, visit and consider making a donation to the Texas Jail Project, which is one of my favorite grassroots groups and one of the only focusing on Texas jails.

Austin Events Against Prison Industrial Complex

Starting tonight, Austin's MonkeyWrench Books will be home to a series of events every this month dealing with the Prison Industrial Complex, the term referring to the institutional interests involved in the prison construction and operation.

The series is a prelude to Critical Resistance 10, happening on September 26-28 in Oakland, California, which will celebrate a decade of struggle against the Prison Industrial Complex, and of carving out a path toward "genuinely safe, healthy communities that respond to harm without relying on prisons and punishment."

The series schedule is:

Campaign to End the Death Penalty
Monday, August 4, 8pm
Family members of death row inmates tell their stories about the criminal injustice system. Featuring Sandra Reed, mother of Rodney Reed, innocent on death row; Lawrence Foster, grandfather of Kenneth Foster Jr., who came within hours of an execution before winning a commutation of his sentence; Jeannine Scott, wife of wrongly convicted Yogurt Shop defendant, Michael Scott; and Delia Perez Meyer, sister of falsely accused death row inmate, Louis Castro Perez.

Immigration, Detention, and Deportation
Monday, August 11, 8pm
Film screening of Hutto: America's Family Prison with film-maker Matthew Gossage; organizers from Grassroots Leadership will speak about organizing against private immigrant detention centers. Also, members of the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition will speak on the issue of ICE in the Travis County Jail.

Youth Incarceration and Juvenile Justice
Monday, August 18, 8pm
PODER, the east Austin environmental and economic justice organization, will address the issue of juvenile justice and current efforts to reform the Texas Youth Commission's youth prisons.

Abolitionism, Post-Racial Racism and Moving Beyond the Prison-Industrial Complex
Monday, August 25, 8pm
A discussion with Joy James, visiting Professor at UT's Center for African and African American Studies. James is the editor of several anthologies by incarcerated activists and authors, including The New Abolitionists and Warfare in the American Homeland.


See www.monkeywrenchbooks.org for more information on the series or to get directions.

More Problems for CEC/CiviGenics in McLennan County

We've reported about the controversy over the proposed privatization of the jail system up in McLennan County. Seems the lone bidder to build the private jail, CEC/CiviGenics, is having some major problems of it's own.

The company already operates a jail facility in McLennan County which is now under investigation by the McLennan County Sheriff's Office for allegations that private prison guards have been delivering drugs into the facility and having sex with female inmates. According to an article in yesterday's Waco Tribune ("Sources: McLennan County Investigating Complaints About Guards...," July 30) by reporter Tommy Witherspoon,

The investigation was launched earlier this month after a 29-year-old inmate at the downtown jail facility reportedly was caught with a marijuana cigarette in her bra. While investigators were trying to find out how she got the drugs into the jail, the woman, who has at least two felony convictions for drug possession, reported that guards are having sex with female inmates and selling drugs to inmates, four sources familiar with the investigation told the Tribune-Herald.

The 329-inmate facility is operated by Community Education Centers, formerly CiviGenics, in a contract with the county that expires Oct. 1. The investigation is being conducted as the county negotiates solely with CEC to build and operate a new, 1,000-bed facility next to the county jail on State Highway 6, retain operation of the MCDC on Columbus Avenue or several other options being considered by the county to help ease its burgeoning jail population.

The article goes on to list some of the other CEC/CiviGenics problems has had operating facilities in the past here in Texas.

Three guards at a CEC-operated facility in Liberty County recently were arrested on charges of having sex with inmates, and two others were arrested on allegations that they sold drugs to inmates, according to published reports.

In November 2001, Sherman Lamont Fields escaped from the MCDC, then operated by CiviGenics, and killed Suncerey Coleman, a young mother of three children, after bribing a guard to help him escape. Fields, a federal prisoner at the time of his escape, was captured and given a federal death sentence.

Fields escaped from the downtown jail when Benny Garrett, a jail guard, slipped him a key to the fifth-floor fire escape door after Fields promised to give Garrett $5,000 after his escape.

At the same time, yesterday McLennan County Commissioner Joe Mashek called on the county to take over control of the CEC/CiviGenics jail in order to give the county more time to discus options for dealing with it's jail overcrowding problem. According to the Waco Trib blog,

The downtown jail is currently operated privately by Community Education Centers. While this contract is set to expire on Oct. 1, a clause in the contract allows McLennan County to resume control of this facility by giving 10 days notice.
Mashek said doing this would give the county an additional four- to five-year window to “explore other options and make a sound decision.” This would put plans to construct a new 1,000 bed jail on hold.

And this from a commenter at the Waco Trib blog:

I personally attended this meeting and I cannot believe how misinformed our county officials are in regards to prisoner population and it’s projected growth,along with the actual dollar amounts it costs to run our county’s jails. Judge Lewis took his numbers from CEC, who claims Mclennan County will see about a 2000 inmate increase over the next 5 years. Commissioner Mashek said that the Texas Jail Commission projected more like 150 inmates and that they are the people who regulate our jails in the state of Texas.

That's pretty damning stuff. If the County is taking jail capacity projections from the private prison corporation with a clear interest in expanding the jail and not from the state agency responsible for overseeing its jail, then we're very unlikely to have a reasonable debate about the need for a new jail in McLennan County.

Thankfully, the Sheriff's officers and Commissioner Mashek seem to be a little more clear-headed on the subject. As we've reported here at Texas Prison Bid'ness, and Grits for Breakfast has covered extensively here and here, common sense solutions to jail overcrowding exist, and they don't include privatization and expansion. We'll keep you posted on developments from McLennan County.

Update: Grits also has a good post this morning on the subject worth checking out.  

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