Over the next few days, we'll be posting 2009's top six stories related to private prisons. This is the fourth biggest story of the year.
#4 - Small Companies, Big Scandals
Some of the smaller private prison corporations had the biggest controversies in 2009. From debates over CEC's payments to the McLennan County Sheriff to LCS's flagship failure and big problems at Southwestern Correctional, it's been a tough year for the small private prison companies.
1. LCS Corrections' "Flagship" Facility Failures. The Coastal Bend Detention Center, LCS Corrections' so-called "flagship facility" had an assortment of problems in 2009. In January, LCS had to lay off 35 employees, who they re-hired in March. In September, the facility failed a Texas Commission on Jail Standards inspection, leading the normally diplomatic commission chief Adan Muñoz to say of the facility, "I have to bring any remedial order before the [jail] commission, but this borders really close to complete incompetence." In November, Coastal Bend accidentally released an inmate, a mistake that wasn't noticed for three weeks. The facility remains on "At Risk" status, meaning the TCJS has full authority to conduct unannounced inspections.
2. Southwestern Correctional Problems in Burnet County. Southwestern Correctional's Burnet County jail rivaled LCS's Coastal Bend facility as the most rebuked private jail for 2009. In November, the company drew a fairly sharp rebuke from Texas Commission on Jail Standards head Adan Muñoz for not providing medical care to a pregnant inmate or providing medication to inmates with mental health problems. In September, the Burnet facility was deemed non-compliant by TCJS 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 pitfalls of jail privatization and the potential dangers in floating debt for private jail expansion.
3. Community Education Centers, the private prison corporation formerly known as CiviGenics, had another dramatic year. For years CEC has been paying McLennan County Sheriff Larry Lynch (and his precedessors) a "stipend" for the nominal oversight of additional prisoners in the company's downtown facility. According to state law, Sheriffs must authorize a private detention company's presence in the county under its jurisdiction. In 2008, Waco Sheriff Larry Lynch continued to receive the kickback despite a contentious debate over whether to build a new CEC facility in McLennan County. Former State Representative Kevin Bailey, then Chair of the Committee on Urban Affairs, requested an opinion of the Attorney General, and a bill was filed in 2009 (though ultimately wasn't successful) to outlaw the practice. Debate flared once again this September, when Tommy Witherspoon at the Waco Tribune reported that long-standing payment practice of the Sheriff by CEC would not expand despite a new CEC lock-up opening in McLennan. Witherspoon's investigative reporting also uncovered that Limestone County Sheriff Dennis Wilson, whose county annual salary is $49,457, is paid a $24,000 stipend yearly by the county in its contract with CEC.
CEC also had problems in Kinney County, where a bribery lead to an escape and the facility's closure. On October 23rd, an inmate escaped from Community Education Centers' (CEC) Kinney County Detention Center in Brackettville, TX. Shortly after the escape, the warden of the facility, Mickey Hubert, resigned from his position on November 2nd. CEC closed down the facility temporarily with no word on if or when they plan to re-open, leaving all employees without work. The U.S. Marshals moved the remaining inmates who were left behind to other nearby facilities.
Stay tuned for the top three private prison stories of the year...
The Coastal Bend Detention Center, LCS Corrections' so-called "flagship facility," will be under extreme scrutiny over the next 90 days following a failed inspection and the unauthorized release of an inmate because of mistaken identity, which went unknown for three weeks. LCS hired Alberto Bravo as a new warden shortly before the failed inspection in hopes of changing the facility for the better and improving their standards. Bravo's work temporarily paid off as they passed their second round of inspections. However, shortly after passing the second inspection, they mistakenly released an inmate and did not realize what had happened for three weeks prior to the "escape."
Because of this, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards has defined the facility as being "at-risk," meaning over the next 90 days the TCJS will have full authority to conduct unannounced inspections at any day or time. If no citations are filed from the inspections over this time, then the facility will be taken off the list. If there are citations or failures found, then more actions will be taken, depending on the offenses. Warden Bravo in investigating the release, and has narrowed his focus to specific employees. He told the Caller-Times, “We are trying to narrow it down to where it happened,” Bravo said. “It was human error. The procedures we had in place, they failed to follow the procedures" ("Robstown prison faces unannounced inspections after inadvertant inmate release," The Corpus Christi Caller-Times, 18 December, 2009).
We will remain aware about the status of this facility and relay any information we find through these unannounced inspections.
The LCS Corrections-operated Coastal Bend Detention Center in Robstown, TX has been in the public eye recently. After initially failing their first jail standards inspection, the facility, equipped with a brand new Warden, passed their second inspection with the commendation of Adan Muñoz, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards director. However, the CBDC is not out of the woods yet.
Jamie Powell at the Corpus Christi Caller Times first reported on the problem of an inmate who "escaped" from the facility ("Robstown prison discovers three weeks later that prisoner is missing," The Caller Times, December 11, 2009). The inmate escaped on November 19th, unknown to the facility until December 10th. To make matters worse, the inmate didn't dig a hole and crawl to freedom like in the movies, rather, the facility willingly released him because they confused his identity. The facility failed to return Ms. Powell's telephone calls, as well as my own personal attempts via telephone and email.
The escape of this prisoner is interesting because one of the reasons that CBDC failed their initial inspection was because they failed to perform the required face to face check-ins with each inmate. Additionally, the facility also failed to correctly classify the inmates. These two reasons combined are a recipe for incidents like this where an inmate walked out the door because of poor organization and classification, and why it took so long for the facility to realize what had happened.
Where once Muñoz was impressed with the facility's turnaround after failing the inspection, he now appears disappointed withthe facility:
It doesn’t appear that Estrada Martinez escaped on purpose, said Adan Muñoz, the jail commission’s executive director, after reviewing LCS’s preliminary escape report. He was released.
“What transpired between the wrongly released inmate and the releasing officer is something that LCS will have to investigate,” Muñoz said. “There is no overt action shown by the mistakenly released inmate to indicate he made any statements to the releasing officer that he was attempting to disguise who he was while being released.
“And why the receiving transport service did not verify the inmate’s identity is also something that needs to be ascertained and investigated,” Muñoz said.
LCS contacted the jail commission within 24 hours of the discovery, which is required by law. The company must submit a written report detailing why and how the escape happened, Muñoz said.
The release counts as an escape and could pose problems for the prison, Muñoz said. ("Robstown prison discovers three weeks later that prisoner is missing," The Caller Times, December 11, 2009)
Questions still remain: why would a facility, shortly after passing an inspection with Texas jail standards, let this seriously negligent event happen? Are the guards falling back into their old routines prior to their inspection? What is happening within LCS Corrections to prevent this sort of release/breakout from happening again?
LCS Corrections calls the Coastal Bend Detention Center their "flagship" facility. If CBDC is their flagship, and inmates are walking out without disguising their identity or breaking through a wall, I am surprised the rest of their "fleet" is even able to stay afloat.
In a prime example of how entrepreneurial corrections can skew decisions about jail policy, Cameron County has decided to move 100 of its local inmates over 3 hours away to a private jail outside Corpus Christi. The reason? County officials want to ensure they have enough space to house federal detainees - a population that brings in money for the south Texas county. Here's the story from the Brownsville Herald ("Nearly 100 Cameron County inmates going to Robstown," November 20)
The Cameron County Commissioners’ Court on Friday approved a contract with LCS Correctional Services Inc. that will allow the county to transfer nearly 100 inmates to the company’s privately run detention center in Nueces County. The inmates will be transferred to LCS’ Coastal Bend Detention Center in Robstown, said Gus Reyna Jr., chief deputy for the Cameron County Sheriff’s Department. ...
The inmate transfer is necessary for Cameron County to meet its commitment to the U.S. Marshals Service to provide space for 300 federal inmates in the county’s jail system, County Judge Carlos H. Cascos said.
While it may seem backwards to ship local jail inmates (some of whom are potentially folks not yet convicted of a crime) hours away from family, friends, and their attorneys in order to make room for federal detainees, it's a practice that we're likely to see more of with counties running their jails as profit-making entities much like private prisons. (In a related story, Cameron County's jails were recently skewered by Texas Jail Project's Diana Claitor in the pages of the Texas Observer ("Heaven and Hell in Cameron County," November 13).)
As we've previously reported, LCS's Coastal Bend lock-up has had difficulty both passing basic inspections and finding prisoners to fill its 1,056 beds. According to the November Texas Commission on Jail Standards numbers, the facility is currently only 56% full with federal detainees. We'll keep you posted on the situation at Coastal Bend.