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McLennan County

Prisoner dies at McLennan County private jail

The death of a prisoner reported on May 30 at the Jack Harwell Detention Center in McLennan County is under investigation by federal, state, and local officials. The private jail is operated by private, for-profit prison company LaSalle Corrections. 

Litte information is known about the incident, however, a news report stated:

"McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara did not return phone messages Tuesday. Sheriff’s Office Capt. Ricky Armstrong declined comment, saying the inmate was a U.S. Marshals Service prisoner and referring questions to the marshals service.

Deputy U.S. Marshal Joe Bays also declined comment, saying the matter is under investigation. Bays declined to provide details of the inmate’s death, his or her identity or suspected manner and means of death."

This is not the first prisoner death at this private jail. In February, three former LaSalle Corrections employees were indicted after surveillance video showed that they lied about conducting head counts after a prisoner committed suicide last November. 

 

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Problems, failed inspections, canceled contracts mount at McLennan County CEC lock-ups

Problems appear to be mounting for Community Education Centers (CEC) in central Texas and beyond.  

CEC's McLennan County (Waco) facilities have come under increased scrutiny from the McLennan County Commissioners Court and the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.  CEC operates two facilities in Waco, the 326-bed downtown jail and the 816-bed speculative Jack Harwell Detention Center.

Last week, according to KXXV ("County Commissioners concerned with jail budget," March 19), the McLennan County Commissioners started asking hard questions after the Sheriff's office asked for $400,000 in additional funds for overflow detainees at CEC's Jack Harwell Detention Center.  According to KXXV, the Commissioners may be considering taking the downtown jail back under public control:

"This request comes after the McLennan Co. Sheriff's Office already spent this year's $1 million budget and some commissioners believe even the new money will not get them through the rest of the fiscal year.  The sheriff's office will be requesting $385,000 from the commissioners court to help pay for the feeding and care of overflowed inmates.

Some county commissioners see this as a problem however, because the sheriff's office is already paying over $200,000 a month to house between 150-165 inmates at the CEC (Community Education Centers) run Jack Harwell facility.

The request for more money comes as the commissioners wait for those inmates to move back into the downtown facility that they believe the CEC should have already repaired. 

"I'd just like to get some input and that's the one thing I was going to ask from the Sheriff's Department [Tuesday]," said Commissioner Kelly Snell. "Is the sheriff's department in constant contact with CEC? And is our attorney as well with CEC?"

The main problem the commissioners have is that the downtown jail could bring them more money because the county has the option to operate it. As of now the commissioners have no idea when CEC will finish upgrading that jail however."

If McLennan is thinking of taking the facility back under public control, they would be the second county, after Liberty County, thinking of taking jail operations back from CEC.  

CEC's problems don't end there.  The Jack Harwell Detention Center is currently listed as non-compliant by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards for numerous reasons (see attached document if link doesn't work).  

In December, Jack Harwell also lost its Immigration and Customs Enforcement contract to detain immigrant women after, according to the Waco Tribune: 

"the agency investigated complaints from its inmates about housing conditions at the Harwell jail and determined that New Jersey-based Community Education Centers, which manages the jail for the county, was "unable to provide appropriate medical treatment in accordance to our detention standards."

Critiques of CEC's handling of immigration detainees continued this week as New York University and New Jersey immigrant rights groups issued a report claiming the company's Delaney Hall facility does not "fully comply with ICE standards, the report documents problems with everything from access to legal assistance and worship services to adequate health care, food and other basic services for detainees."  (Washington Post, March 23)

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CEC's Jack Harwell Detention Center in Waco Sits Empty

Community Education Centers' speculatively-built Jack Harwell Detention Center in Waco, TX is still empty, two months after construction was finished. According to the Waco Tribune, CEC is still having troubles finding a federal agency to contract with the facility:

Community Education Centers, the New Jersey-based detention company under contract to manage and operate the jail, has been unable to secure agreements with state and federal agencies to house inmates.

Meanwhile, CEC must begin repaying the $49 million in project revenue bonds that financed the construction of the jail. The $313,000 monthly debt service is to be paid using revenue from housing inmates, placing the company under a crunch to fill beds.

While funds already have been set aside for the first payment of $1.9 million due in June, CEC must begin making revenue soon or risk defaulting on the bonds. Doing so would mean the county loses the new jail. (Regina Dennis, Waco Tribune, "A new jail in McLennan County--but no inmates to fill it," 23 April, 2010)

CEC was unable to find a sufficient amount of inmates to fill the facility in order to pay for the bond with revenue from housing inmates, which could put the county's Public Facility Corporation at risk of defaulting on a $49 million (plus interest). 

Attorney for the County, Herbert Bristow, was quoted in the article saying that the County is not liable to make payments in the case of a default. The facility belongs to the County's Public Facility Corporation. CEC is managing and operating the facility while the County's PFC pays for the construction and maintenance of the infrastructure, which puts the PFC on the hook for payments. 

Rick White, a long-standing follower of this McLennan County bond issue, told me Bristow "tried to convince the taxpayers who are on the hook for this $50 million, plus interest that [this facility] is a 'private jail.' Nothing could be farther from the truth." I tried to gather a response from Bristow, but he was unavailable for comment.

When reviewing the bond's text, there are many places that reference the County PFC's obligations to make payments for the "private jail." Even if CEC doesn't do their part and create a revenue stream by housing prisoners, the County's PFC is still be on the hook to make payments. Nowhere in this bond does it state that CEC is responsible for anything. Their only job in this agreement is to produce revenue within the facility, and if they don't, well, they don't make any money -- but they don't lose any money, either.

However, that doesn't mean that there is no risk to the County.  As we've seen in Littlefield, TX and Hardin, MT, localities can have their bond ratings devalued based on the performance of their PFC-owned jails. 

Despite this comfortable situation that CEC is in, the company is still asking for financial help from the County. Peter Argeropulos, CEC senior vice president, said "What we expected and what the studies had indicated have not materialized at this point" to which County Commissioner Kelly Snell responded "Your plan’s not working, and it’s not working because you can’t get the prisoners, so you’re coming to the court wanting concessions that are going to cost the taxpayers money, that’s where I have a problem" (Waco Tribune, "A new jail in McLennan County--but no inmates to fill it"). The concessions the Commissioner talks about was Argeropulos' solution to move inmates from Waco's other jail downtown into the new Jack Harwell Detention Center and essentially do their job of finding inmates for them.

This is a story of a prison company promising the world to a county by ways of a 'private jail at no cost to the county!' If other counties in Texas are considering a private jail, the story of Waco is a cautionary tale that should get taken into account when considering the options. How exactly this bond plays out is something we will have to wait and see. Whatever information we gather on the subject will surely get relayed back here, so check back here in the future to read the next chapter of this failing bond saga.

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.

Breaking News - TX Attorney General: Sheriffs cannot accept salary enhancements from private prison corporations

In a big ruling today, the Texas Attorney General's office has ruled that County Sheriffs cannot accept salary enhancements from private prison corporations. The ruling, in response to a query by Yvonne Davis, chair of the House Committee on Urban Affairs, is summarized:

Neither the Texas Constitution nor Texas statutes authorize the person holding the office of county sheriff to be paid an administrative fee by a private organization.

Read the full ruling here.  The ruling will specifically affect the financial relationships that private prison corporation CEC has with several Texas sheriffs.  As we've reported (in our #4 Private Prison Story of 2009),

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.

The ruling will certainly be seen as a victory by the McLennan County Sheriffs Officers Association and CLEAT, who fought vigorously against private jail expansion in Waco.  We'll keep you updated on the responses of today's decision.

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2009 Year in Review - Top Private Prison Stories, #4 Small Companies, Big Scandals

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 FailuresThe 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...

McLennan CEC/CiviGenics Jail Put on Remedial Order by TCJS

The McLennan County CEC/CiviGenics facility has been put on remedial order by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards at that agency's February 5th meeting, according to an article in the Waco Tribune ("McLennan County Detention Center warden says jail will be back in compliance soon," February 7), 

The warden of a privately operated jail in Waco says his staff had corrected all but one deficiency noted in a December inspection before he met this week with the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Despite the improvements, the commission still placed the downtown McLennan County Detention Center under a remedial order until officials from Community Education Centers, which leases the jail from McLennan County, take further corrective measures and another inspection is conducted.

Of course, McLennan County has been home to a fierce battle over the creation of a new private jail.  CEC/CiviGenics was the lone bidder for an RFP to take over the county jail in McLennan, an effort that was beat back primarily by opposition from the McLennan County Sheriff Officer's Association.  Within months, a new proposal for a new contract jail, to be operated by CEC/CiviGenics was passed by a divided court. 

Opponents may have had good reason to object.  According to the Waco Tribune article, there were several reasons why the existing CEC/CiviGenics jail was placed on remedial order,

The most serious issue cited in the remedial order was that CEC officials failed to properly maintain a 1-to-48 staff-to-inmate ratio. The order limited the number of inmates the facility could house before it hired more guards, thus cutting profits from CEC’s contracts with federal agencies to house prisoners.

Wilson said the order stemmed from several weekends on the night shift in October and November when the jail was short-staffed. Additional officers were hired immediately to fill the void, putting the jail back into compliance, the warden said.

Last month, an 18-year-old former CEC guard was indicted for providing contraband to inmates for reportedly allowing two of his former high school buddies who landed in jail to use his cell phone.

Other citations that have been corrected, Wilson said, was a determination that inmates were placed in cells before they were properly classified to assess their threat levels and that water pressure and water temperature were insufficient in certain areas of the jail. 

See our previous coverage of the CEC/CiviGenics fight in McLennan County:

 

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