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Willacy County Commissioners "took no action" regarding lawsuit

The Valley Morning Star reported last week that Willacy County Commissioners discussed the lawsuit pending against Houston-based Hale Mills Construction and took no action. The lawsuit first came to light and we wrote about it in our May 2 post. 

Commissioner Eliberto Guerra claimed that the county will take Hale Mills to mediation the lawsuit, which accuses Hale Mills of of "poor workmanship." Management and Training Corporation (MTC), the private prison company that operates the $14.5 million Willacy County Jail and is contracted to house US Marhsals prisoners, is being sued alongside Hale Mills. 

 

Failed Inspections & Escapes at LaSalle Southwestern Corrections' Burnet County Jail

It's been a bad couple of weeks for LaSalle Southwest CorrectionsBurnet 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. 

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New McLennan County private jail has structural problems

The controversial new CEC jail in McLennan County isn't getting off to a very smooth start.  According to a Waco Tribune ("McLennan County to take possession of new jail pending final requirements," Feb. 24) article last week, the job done by prison construction crew Hale Mills appears to be cracking, literally:

The Jack Harwell Detention Center on State Highway 6 officially will be turned over to McLennan County this week after the jail’s builder satisfies a few final conditions. The 816-bed jail originally was to be turned over to the county the first week of January. The builder, Hale-Mills Construction Ltd., completed construction on the facility nearly two months ahead of schedule.

But the company encountered some last-minute problems as it put some final details on the facility. Last month, for example, hairline cracks began appearing in the concrete cinder blocks making up the jail’s interior walls.

The Jack Harwell facility in McLennan County has long generated controversy, and these latest problems are probably not endearing the company to local residents. Readers of Texas Prison Bid'ness will recognize the name Hale Mills as well.  The prison construction firm, involved in numerous prison development schemes including a controversial jail in Burnet County, was one of three companies allegedly involved in the Willacy County bribery scandal back in 2005. Three south Texas county commissioners plead guilty to receiving bribes, but no company officials were ever charged with a crime. 

We'll keep you updated on developments from McLennan County.

Grayson County Commissioners Discuss Hale-Mills Estimate

On Monday, the Grayson County Commissioners met for their usual Monday hearing in which they discussed their downtown Sherman jail. Last year the jail was the topic of a heated controversy revolving around whether or not the facility should be privatized.

The county eventually dropped the idea of privatization and doing anything to the facility until now. Hale-Mills, a Houston-based construction company that specializes in building jails, is no stranger to constructing facilities surrounded in controversy. Most notably, MTC's tent-based Willacy County Detention Center that has been surrounded in controversy, and Hardin, Montana's never-used Two Rivers Detention Center that left the city broke after Corplan Corrections advisers encouraged the construction of the facility based on the perceived success in Willacy County.

While Hale-Mills has nothing to do with how or if the facility is privatately managed, I find it interesting because Grayson County is in a similar position as Hardin was. From reading the minutes of yesterday's meeting, however, it seems as though Grayson County is not considering a private operator at this time, but rather remodeling the existing facility instead of constructing an entirely new private facility. Hale-Mills was present at the hearing, and presented three options to the commissioners to consider:

  1. Upgrade the existing facility and electronic control systems to bring the facility into compliance with the state Jail Commission for an estimated cost of $4.5 million dollars. 
  2. To include option one and reconfigure the sallyport, intake and processing areas by adding onto the back of the building at a cost of $9.2- $9.75 million dollars.
  3. To include options one and two and the expansion within the city block to add 337 additional beds to the existing 239 beds for a total of 576 beds at a cost of $18.5 to  $19.25 million dollars.

It appears that option three is the choice most likely to be presented in the form of a bond vote to Grayson County citizens, according to a report by local Sherman news. Let's hope that if this option does go to a vote it will be more comprehensive than their last attempt and that it will not leave room for a private operator. We will keep you informed of any official decisions made by Grayson County commissioners.

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Raymondville Private Prisons and Prison Scandals Have Long History

Yesterday, Kathleen reported that detention center protests have spread from big protests outside T. Don Hutto and civil disobedience at CCA’s Houston Processing Center to a 75-person strong rally in front of the Willacy County Processing Center in Raymondville.

The 2,000-bed ICE detention center, operated by MTC, first drew headlines when it was announced that it would be built in only 90 days and would consist of a series of windowless Kevlar pods. The project then drew fire from Willacy County Attorney Juan Guerra who warned county officials that they couldn’t spend excess project funds on other county projects, as they had planned.

MTC’s Processing Center is by no means the first private prison or prison scandal to engulf Raymondville. Already home to a 1,000-bed private state prison, a 500-bed private federal jail, and a 96-bed county jail, the county is known, even by county leaders, as Prisonville.

As the Texas Observer has reported, Willacy County had already experienced trouble with a previous private prison project. In 2005, two Willacy County Commissioners and one Webb County Commissioner plead guilty to crimes in a bribery case related to prison development in Willacy.  According to the Associated Press ("Webb official sentenced to prison," Nov. 24, 2006) "money was given in exchange for favorable votes on contracts to design, build or manage a 500-bed facility in Raymondville that opened in 2003."  That prison is now operated by MTC and the project involved prison developers Hale-Mills and Corplan.

And, in 2006, a jury rewarded $47.5 million in a lawsuit against the Wackenhut Corporation to the family of a prisoner who was beaten to death in 2001. Wackenhut (now known as the GEO Group) was operating the prison when the prisoner was beaten to death by other prisoners in what the lawsuit contended was a "...pattern and practice of allowing beatings and fights between inmates for money." Since the lawsuit, Corrections Corporation of America has taken over operation of that private prison.

Even though this latest private prison for ICE is made up of temporary structures, its impact on Raymondville's legacy of private prison scandals will be long term.

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