Here's a story we've been following for a while, but haven't yet posted on. Johnson County appears to be near to floating an additional $20 million to expand a jail operated by private prison operator LaSalle Southwest. The reason is not, apparently, that the county needs the jail, but that the company is able to turn a profit off the facility's expanded use for immigration detention. Grits for Breakfast, as usual, has a good breakdown:
"The Sheriff in Johnson County is insisting that the commissioners court must pay to expand the county jail, according to this report out of Cleburne, though "County Judge Roger Harmon appeared to offer every possible scenario Monday that might prevent a big-ticket expense – building, or at least major renovation and expansion, of a county jail."
Sheriff Bob Alford, though, insisted building additional capacity is the only option. Commissioner Don Beeson opined, "Its not popular, but we have a responsibility. We just simply have outgrown this facility."
But have they? According to the latest report by the Commission on Jail Standards (1/1/14), the Johnson County Jail has a capacity of 870 but only 454 local prisoners, meaning local demand presently only takes up 52% of available jail beds. When one takes into account more than 250 contract prisoners, though, the jail is 81% full. So the push to expand the jail isn't due to rising local needs but stems from past decisions by the commissioners court to speculatively build excess capacity to house inmates from elsewhere.
The ill-fated decision to overbuild the jail has haunted the county for years. In 2010, their previous contractor dumped the county because they couldn't find inmates to fill the empty beds. The new contractor, LaSalle Corrections out of Lousiana, has been more successful at filling the beds and now wants the county to build them extra capacity."
So, the facility would not be expanded to facilitate an expansion of federal detainees, presumably on contract from Immigration and Customs and Enforcement or the US Marshals. The facility is already an ICE-contract facility, and presumably is benefiting from that agency's controversial bed quota that mandates that ICE fill 34,000 detention beds every single day, at a more than $2 billion price tag to U.S. taxpayers.
Johnson County residents may want to look down the I-35 at the Jack Harwell Detention Center for a cautionary tale about how federal contracts don't always bring the economic miracles they are expected to. As we reported back in 2011, Jack Harwell's then-operator Community Education Centers had immigration detainees removed from its facility after complaints from legal service advisors and immigration rights advocates that conditions in the facility were inappropriate for immigrants in civil detention. The facility also was deemed non-compliant by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. That is apparently a threat in Johnson County as well, according to a recent article in the Joshua Star ("Report: LaSalle reinvesting in jail," February 14):
"... the Texas Commission on Jail Standards also told Johnson County it may not pass another review, Commissioner Don Beeson has repeatedly said, leading to the initial discussion concerning the construction of a new jail or major renovation to this facility."
McLennan County has also struggled to pay the debt the county's Public Facility Corporation floated to pay for the construction of the facility. The facility has sat half-empty for years after the county's financing agency spent $49 million to build it.
Johnson County should take note that federal contracts can go as quickly as they come.
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.
From a story I wrote at Private Prison Watch, the city of Sherman, TX in Grayson County has been entrenched in an ongoing battle against a proposed for-profit prison and an irresponsible construction scheme for years. Just recently, the city commissioners met again last Monday to discuss a land deal for the new prison -- before even signing a contract with a prison operating company! However, the county remains at a stalemate, as commissioners take the public opposition into consideration. All-in-all, it will cost the county $33 million to contract the construction and maintenance to LaSalle Corrections, when it would only cost $31 million to rennovate and expand the existing Sherman jail. Perhaps cost is not the only issue.