It's been a bad couple of weeks for LaSalle Southwest Corrections' Burnet County Jail. The facility was the subject to headlines across the state after a Shawshank-like escape where a prisoner broke through bricks under his sink and crawled to freedom through a skylight while guards assumed pillows tucked under his bedding were the prisoner (he has since been apprehended). It appears that both shoddy construction and human error led to the escape.
According to a story on KVUE ("Sheriff: Jail staff to blame for inmate's escape," March 1) LaSalle Southwest Corrections has admitted fault in the incident:
"It's on us," warden Bruce Zeller said. "Like the sheriff said, the responsibility is on Lasalle Corrections, our facility, and our employees."
Burnet County Sheriff W.T. Smith is in a battle of words and wills with members of the Burnet Commissioners Court. Commissioners have blamed Smith's oversight of the jail for the problems, but Smith - rightfully, I believe - complains in the Burnet Bulletin ("War of wards over jail heats up," March 5) that he has limited purview over the facility:
"I would like to have it, yes. But I don’t believe it’s financially feasible,” Smith said. But that’s not my call.” Smith acknowledged that, "Constitutionally, the sheriff is over the jail,” but said he has little authority.
It now appears that structural issues with the jail, constructed by prison construction firm Hale Mills, may be at fault. The facility has flunked its Texas Commission on Jail Standards review, according to the River Tribune ("State officials find Burnet County Jail flunks security review, March 5):
"The Burnet County Jail has flunked a state inspection that found design flaws in the wake of an escape March 1 by an inmate who chiseled a hole in the wall.
The state report says the private-public jail, which opened with 587 beds in April 2009 at a cost of $23 million, is "non-compliant" with security standards. "It means something is wrong," County Judge Donna Klaeger said March 5.
The Burnet County Sheriff's Office supervises the jail, which is operated by the private firm LaSalle Southwest Corrections.
Texas Commission on Jail Standards inspectors recently found "deficiencies" in the network of concrete blocks and reinforcement bars that support walls near cells for handicapped inmates, Executive Director Adan Munoz said."
This is certainly not the first problem for the Burnet County Jail. The prison had another high-profile escape in September of 2009. In the fall-out from that escape, the jail received a sharp rebuke from the Jail Standards Commission for not providing medical care to a pregnant inmate, amongst other problem. At the time, TCJS director Muñoz described the situation this way: “The best way to describe it is a lack of diligence, a lack of professionalism." It doesn't appear that much has changed for LaSalle Southwestern Corrections.
The Texas Tribune's Brandi Grissom sat down Texas Commission on Jails Standards chief Adan Muñoz for an interview covering jail overcrowding, privatization, and other aspects of Texas' enormous county jail system (Brandi Grissom, "Adan Muñoz: The TT Interview," August 3). It's no wonder that Muñoz is one of our favorite Texas officials. Here's his reponse to a question about privately operated jails:
"They’ll build the facility above and beyond what is projected for the county's needs... so that they can house either federal inmates or out-of-state inmates in order to generate a profit. What we have been seeing lately, over probably the last year and a half to two years, is a diminishing of those select inmates that are out there for profit. So you've got these facilities that are built and financed by local governments... to bring in extra money for their communities at a time where those inmates were out there and available for these facilities. That's not the case anymore. A certain facility just went up for auction last week in this state, where that facility just basically got abandoned by the private vendor who says, "We’re not making any money, we’re moving." They can notify them and give them 60, 90 days, 30 days notification — whatever it is — and they’re gone. So the facility basically has to fall out of compliance or shut down. It’s a risky situation."
Munoz was also skeptical about proposals floated to privatize Harris County's massive jail system:
"If you run a small jail — when I say small jail, that's anywhere from 7 to 25 prisoners — your daily incarceration may be 7 or 8. So, are you better off shipping them off to the county next door rather than carrying the liability? Certainly. But when you have 11,000 prisoners like Harris County, it's real tough to get out of the jail business. For example, I know that Harris County has spoken of privatization. You really don’t have, in my opinion, you don’t have very many privates trying to do business with Harris, because where is their profit margin going to come from? I mean, if you have a $30 million debt of overtime you encumber or you accept as part of the privatization, where is your profit margin going to come from?"
Read the entire interview and watch the video here.
Southwestern Correctional's Burnet County jail drew a fairly sharp rebuke from Texas Commission on Jail Standards' head Adan Muñoz for apparently not providing medical care to a pregnant inmate, amongst other problems. According to a KXAN story ("Surprise jail visit uncovers new issues," October 20),
On a surprise visit last Thursday, jail inspectors found concerns inside after questioning two female inmates. One was pregnant and said she was not given proper medication. Another mental health patient said she was not given her medicaiton either, so inspectors checked her medical chart.
"There were certain medications that needed to be prescribed for her that had not been given to her, and that's obviously not in compliance with jail standards," said Adan Munoz, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards .
"They get excellent care here," said Tammy Manning, the Burnet County Jail medical supervisor. Manning was out of town during the inspection but normally sees the inmate who she said had been refusing to show up to appointments after they were scheduled. The situation had not been documented on her medical chart that state inspectors reviewed. "We do have room for improvement in our documentation," said Manning. "And our actional plan we put into place Friday was to improve our documentation so this will not happen again."
One of the female inmates also said they were not getting recreation time everyday. "We went on to check the recreation log to see if their concerns were valid," said Munoz. "We couldn't even find a recreation log."
Burnet County Jail Warden Bruce Armstrong admits there was a breakdown there, too.
"We run rec everyday," said Armstrong. "And the officer calls in the count to the central control officer whose suppose to be logging the count down on how many offenders went to rec, and they were neglecting to document the count."
Armstrong said it has been taken care of, but the state said there is one more requirement the county has yet to comply with.
The state does not have the jail's operational plan, which covers everything from what to do in case of a fire to how to administer health care. "The fact that it's been open since April and still not within our agency certainly gives us great concern," said Munoz. The county told the state they were working on it. Munoz sent written notification of the deficiencies to the county and Southwest Corrections, the company who manages the jail. They have 30 days to comply.
Southwestern's Burnet lock-up was deemed non-compliant by TCJS in September after an escape lead to an inspection. At that point, Muñoz said “The best way to describe it is a lack of diligence, a lack of professionalism." The facility drew broad opposition in Burnet County even before it was built with residents siting the now proven downfalls of private jail companies and potential dangers in floating debt for private jail expansion. We'll keep you posted on Burnet's continuing problems with Southwestern Correctional.