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Harris County ends use of private prisons

Harris County has brought all of its outsourced prisoners back to Harris County, reports Houston Public Media.

 

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who was elected in January, brought prisoners back from private prisons to Harris County within three months of his election. Though private prisons are notorious for the mistreatment of their prisoners, Sheriff Gonzalez said he moved them back for budgetary reasons.

 

According to the Harris County Sheriff’s department, the department spent around $4.5 million sending prisoners to private prisons outside of Harris County. This fiscal year the county is expected to spend under $300,000.

 

When discussing the budget, Sheriff Gonzalez said, "I simply think we incarcerate way too many folks; and there is a cost associated with that. Whether it be the cost of daily housing or sometimes outsourcing inmates. So I think that we need to change those practices… And that’s why I’m a big advocate for reform, and really addressing our mass incarceration complex that we have in this country."

 

He also said that there were other benefits to bringing the prisoners back to Harris County. The facility can have more control over things such as medical records. It is also beneficial because loved ones can visit without having to travel to other cities or counties.

Harris County ships prisoners to out-of-county private jails only days after receiving $2 million jail diversion grant

Last week, Harris County, the state's largest jailer, announed that it was moving prisoners out of the county to private jails in Jefferson and Bowie counties to reduce overcrowding, according to a story in the Houston Chronicle, by St. John Barned-Smith.  According to the story,

"The transfers — which are expected to cost the county about $180,000 a month in boarding fees — mark the fourth time in the past year that the sheriff's office has had to ship inmates to jails in other parts of the state.

The transfers come just days after Harris County was named as a winner of a $2 million grant to help officials here lower high rates of pretrial detention that could lead to release of hundreds of jail inmates.

The jail had reached 96 percent capacity by Friday morning, with 9,061 of its 9,434 beds filled, said Ryan Sullivan, a department spokesman."

That $2 million grant was part of a John C. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation grant of more than $25 million to eleven communities across the country to implement justice reform measures.  

One might be imagine that two justice reforms that Harris County may consider would be reducing the jail population and not shipping prisoners out-of-county and further away from their loved ones, a practice that has been condemned by my organization and others.  

Internal review recommends against privatizing the Harris County Jail

In 2010, a County Commissioner in Harris County suggested looking into privatizing the jail as a way to cut costs; a request for proposals yielded four bids, of which only CCA's was found viable.  TPB reported on the potential privatization as our biggest story of 2011.  Now, the Houston Chronicle has uncovered a confidential memo from February 11 in which "[the] evaluation committee concluded that the potential benefit is not sufficient reason to make a change at this time."

From The Houston Chronicle (Mike Morris, "Internal review rejects idea of privatizing county jail," February 21, 2013):

Privatizing the Harris County jail would be risky and may not result in savings, according to an internal county memo recommending that Commissioners Court keep the state's largest lockup in Sheriff Adrian Garcia's hands.

The memo delivered the recommendations of an internal review, which found that the potential cost savings from turning the facility over to Corrections Corporation of America would not be guarateed and that privatization could have "uncertain effects" on the wellbeing of guards and people incarcerated there.  County Judge Ed Emmitt expressed concern that privately-run facilities lack the kind of official oversight needed and that the "public wants to have somebody who's responsible for that jail and not have some private entity run it."  

In addition to running the largest county jail in Texas, Harris County has the largest sherriff's department in the state with over 4,000 employees.  Sherriff Garcia is confident in his department's capabilities, saying that they "have improved operations while saving money, we've passed jail inspections, we haven't laid off any employees and we've reduced in-custody deaths."

At the time the article was published, CCA said that it had not received any official reports.

Big Stories of 2011 - #1 - CCA Take-over Could Make Harris County Jail Largest Private Prison

To round out 2011, Texas Prison Bid'ness is highlighting the top five private prison stories of the year. Looking forward to the new year, our #1 story of 2011 is the current proposal to privatize the entire Harris County Jail system.

Over the summer, Nicole reported that Harris County issued a request for pr

oposals in June seeking proposals for the management of the entire jail system of approximately 10,000 beds. At the time, the Houston Chronicle ("Harris County leaders consider privatizing the jail," April 18) speculated that the proposal was merely political sparring between County Commissioner Steve Radack, a privatization proponent, and Sheriff Adrian Garcia, who opposes privatization.  

However, recent reports indicate that the proposal may be much more serious.  As our friend Scott Henson over at Grits for Breakfast reported last week, Corrections Corporation of America has already submitted a bid to manage the entire Harris County Jail system.  (Scott also kindly posted the RFP that he obtained from and Open Records Request). Scott asks some tough questions about the process thus far:

"Why is the process "confidential" (read: secret) in the first place? Why are privatization schemes being hatched in private instead of in public discussions? Why do CCA investors know more about privatization plans for the Harris County Jail than local media and the taxpayers? The Harris County Jail is bigger than the prison systems in half the states; should something this big really be done in a back-room deal before the public even knows it's happening?"

If privatized, the Harris County Jail - a massive system of more than 10,000 beds - could be the largest for-profit private prison in the country, and obviously a huge boon for Corrections Corporation of America.  The proposal will undoubtedly draw opposition from community groups and the Sheriff's officers union.  The fight over privatizing the Harris County Jail could very likely be our big story of 2012 as well.

Positive alternatives to privatization and jail overcrowding in Harris County

Last week, we wrote about Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack's proposal to study privatization of Harris County's massive jail system.  Harris County already has more than 1,000 prisoners in private jails in Louisiana and east Texas. (According to statistics provided by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, the county currently ships 1027 prisoners out-of-county, including 575 males 27 females to CEC's Newton County Correctional Center, 33 females to a jail Epps, Louisiana and 392 males to a jail in LaSalle, Louisiana).

Harris County officials have repeatedly sited overcrowding to justify these transfers and proposals for further privatization.  However, a terrific op-ed in the Houston Chronicle (Marcia Johnson, Janis Bane, and Nicole DeBorde, "Let’s reduce jail crowding," April 30) on Saturday debunks some of these arguments and shows how the county could safely reduce its jailed population:

"Harris County has made strides to safely reduce the jail population. Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos has changed the way her office prosecutes drug possession cases by no longer jailing anyone caught with trace amounts of drugs. This policy change has had a significant positive effect on reducing the jail population without an increase in crime. Sheriff Adrian Garcia has adopted pilot projects for low-risk offenders sentenced to jail. Harris County also created a public defender office, which hopefully can curtail the mass guilty pleas that principally occur because the defendant just wants to get out of jail.

We strongly urge implementation of the strategies recommended in 2009 and expounded on in a Houston Ministers Against Crime report earlier this year, such as:

 Revising the bail schedule and allowing for flexibility in determining who gets a bond;

 Utilizing the pretrial services risk assessment; and

 Increasing the use of personal bonds.

Use of the county jail during the pretrial stage should be limited to those who pose a threat to public safety. Harris County no longer has the resources to continue present pretrial practices."

The cost of the current out-of-county transfers is $17 million annually, according to the article. These recommendations would not only save taxpayers far more money than privatization and could reduce the strain on prisoner's families by making it more reasonable for them to visit loved ones. Grits for Breakfast, per usual, has more insight.

Harris County Commissioner proposes privatizing jail system

Harris County Jail
Harris County Jail
Mike Morris at the Houston Chronicle reports ("Privatizing County Jail on commissioners' agenda: Radack says it could be a way to cut back on costs," April 18) that at least one Harris County Commissioner is proposing privatizing Harris County's massive jail system.  According ot the story,

"Harris County Commissioners Court will consider a proposal to study privatizing the Harris County Jail, the state's largest lockup, with nearly 10,000 inmates.

The suggestion comes from Commissioner Steve Radack, who said the item is a way for the county to examine all ways of cutting costs as budget cuts take hold and scores of county workers are laid off."

While there isn't a firm proposal on the table as of yet, this is clearly a troubling development. As this blog has chronicled, private jails have been plagued with mismanagement and operational problems.  Furthermore, turning over the Harris County jail system to a private corporation will further empower an industry that relies on ever increasing incarceration rates for growth. 

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett raises further concerns in the story,

"I wouldn't be in favor of moving forward at all until somebody comes forward and says, 'This is why privatization would be good,' and gives me some concrete examples," Emmett said. "Clearly, it would be a massive change that would be undertaken neither lightly nor quickly. … It's one thing to say we're going to privatize a jail in a very small rural setting, but to talk about a jail like ours, where not only is it a jail but it's currently the largest mental health facility in the state of Texas — this is a large undertaking."

A large undertaking indeed.  According to the latest TCJS numbers, Harris County has nearly 8763 prisoners, making it one of the largest jails in the country.  Harris County also currently ships more than 1,000 prisoners to two private jails in Lousiana and the Community Education Centers' Newton County Correctional Facility

Here is some of our previous coverage of Harris County's overcrowding and privatization issues.

Harris County to Study Privatizating Entire Jail System

Harris County
Harris County
The Harris County Commission has voted to open study on privatizing the entirity of that county's massive jail system (Kevin Reece, "Harris County to study privatizing Harris County Jail", KHOU, September 28,)

In a budget debate that included discussion of possibly raising Harris County taxes by 2012, ending take-home car privileges for county employees and closing county parks one day each week, Harris County Commissioners agreed to study the idea of handing over the Harris County Detention System to a private company.
 
Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack proposed the jail privatization idea as one of several ways for the county to trim its budget. The county’s budget officer told commissioners that, at the present mid-year review, the county has $34 million less to work with than expected and could have as much as $51 million less by the end of the fiscal year.

Harris County's jail system, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, had 9,074 pre-trial detainees as of September 1st and a capacity of 11,006.  Privatization of that system would make it the largest private jail or prison in the nation.  Harris already sends 1,500 inmates to private jails. 

According to the Houston Chronicle (Chris Moran, "Garcia endures rough day at court; County leaders strike back at call to fill vacancies," Sept. 28), Sheriff Adrian Garcia, appears to be lukewarm on the idea of privatization,

Garcia said he is not opposed to privatization, but pointed out that state law puts the sheriff in charge of the county jail. Even if the county contracted jailers, he said, "The law holds me accountable for the inmates. It holds me accountable for the treatment of those inmates."

Then there are the employees who work in the jail. "I don't know if that (privatization) is code for firing employees," Garcia said.

Clearly, privatization is a huge decision, and one that Harris County Commissioners must make carefully.  We will be covering this issue in earnest. 

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