McLennan County officials are working to save money in their criminal justice system, but continue to be burdened with a private prision deal that costs the county, according to an article at KWTX.com ("McLennan County: Officials Looking for Jail Savings, Saddled by Private Jail Deal" 9/30/13).
According to the article, the county aims to streamline its justice system to save money. The county commission approved a new budget in August. Included is a five cent increase in the tax rate and $4.5 million in budget cuts.
McLennan County Judge Scott Felton created the McLennan County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee--which includes law enforcement personnel, judges, and prosecutors who all want to lower jail costs--after the jail ended up $2 million over budget in this fiscal year. That money can be saved by reducing the jail's population by ten percent, according to the article.
Unfortunately, any savings from that reduction in population would be countered by a deal that McLennan County made with LaSalle Corrections to operate the county's privately-operated Jack Harwell Detention Center. According to the deal, the county has agreed to pay LaSalle Corrections to house 325 prisoners, whether or not the cells are actually in use. Felton claimed that the deal allowed taxpayers to avoid paying the entire bill, which is the bond payment that LaSalle makes on the facility, according to the article.
"Having LaSalle as operator and us having to guarantee a threshold is better than not having anyone at all," Felton said. Felton is sure that the county-run Highway 6 jail can ensure savings for the county. "There are ways that we can cut back on expenses...to offset some of that," Felton says.
The private prison industry continues to cause trouble for many communities in which they operate. Clearly, McLennan County is no exception.
The ordinary-looking cardboard box containing Boca Raton, Fla.-based GEO Group's proposal to build and operate a 1,000 bed facility in the city of McAllen, Texas remained unopened during the city commission's deliberations ("McAllen returns GEO Group's jail proposal unopened," 9/24/13). According to the article, few people awaiting the city commission's decision at city hall noticed the box at all.
"Technically, it was never received because the governing body instructed the staff to return it unopened," says city attorney Kevin Pagan. Thanks to this technicality, the city of McAllen is not required to divulge any of the contents of GEO Group's proposal. According to the article, the city commission made a conscious decision to not open the box, keeping GEO's proposal private, even though the city had no intention of accepting the offer.
According to the article, had McAllen accepted and kept the proposal, the city would likely have appealed to the Texas Attorney General's office in an effort to keep the proposal's contents private. Several exceptions regarding the documents could have been made under The Texas Public Information Act.
The cardboard box, whether mailed back to Florida by GEO Group or retrieved by the group in person, left city hall, legally erasing any memory of its existence.
Last night, the city commission of McAllen, Texas officially rejected GEO Group's bid to build a private jail. GEO, a Boca Raton, Florida-based company, was the only bidder for the private prision contract. The proposal stated that a private company would build and operate the facility on property owned by the city.
The city of McAllen would have expanded its existing contract with the U.S. Marshals service, and the private company would in turn pay McAllen a portion of the government's daily per-inmate payment. According to city commissioner Scott Crane, the jail could have generated $3 million to $5 million annually for McAllen.
Victor Rodriguez, the city's police chief, advised that the city reject the bid. Rodriguez added that the city could consider other options at a later date. If opened, the proposal, which came in a large FedEx box, would have been made public, which The Monitor's report ("McAllen City Commission Rejects Sole Bid for Private Jail," September 23) suggests influenced the city commission's decision. The Monitor and other entities had previously requested to see the document. The commission voted to reject GEO's proposal without inspecting the proposal.
Opponents of the proposed contract were concerned that the facility would hold immigrants criminally proseucuted for entering the United States without papers, as well as the concept of private jails, which encourages incarceration.
Advocacy groups attended the meeting as well, including La Union del Pueblo Entero, Proyecto Azteca, the South Texas Civil Rights Project and the Americal Civil Liberties Union of Texas. Astrid Dominguez, advocacy coordinator for the Texas ACLU, claimed:
"I think that if they try to explore some other options, as the police chief mentioned, there's a lot of information about the other groups that we will gladly provide them. All these companies have awful track records."
We'll keep you updated on developments from McAllen.
Two guards at the Jack Hartwell Detention Center have been arrested following accusations of inappropriate sexual conduct with prisoners.
According to the article ("Private Jail Guards Arrested for Having Sex with Inmates," 9/18/13) published by KWTX,
"Regina Edwards, 44, posted a $5,000 bond Tuesday and was released after she was charged with participating in an improper sexual act with a person in custody. Dorothy Pennington, 22, turned herself into deputies at the sheriff's office Wednesday morning and was being booked into the county jail."
Investigators have interviewed one prisoner who claims that he and a female guard have had sexual contact four times. The complaint identifying Edwards claims that investigators were able to trace phone conversations during which sexual matters were discussed. On Wednesday morning, no official complaint was available for Pennington. The incidents in question took place between 2011 and 2013.