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Grayson County Debate Finds an Answer

After a lawsuit, a review and estimate, a cancelled bond vote, two potential locations, and many other small battles, the Grayson County debate over whether or not to privatize their downtown jail or build another, separate private facility was given an answer by County Judge Drue Bynum on February 24th. In September, Bynum was one of the four who voted affirmatively to hold a bond vote to the public, a bond vote that was very ambiguous and eventually thrown out.

Last week, a press conference held by Bynum yielded this information ("Grayson County Jail bond election cancelled," KXII, 24 February, 2010):

Judge Drue Bynum says enough is enough, and at a press conference today he said a bond issue to build a public jail is now also off the table. The future of the Grayson County jail is a seemingly never ending debate.

"This has become a volatile issue," said Judge Drue Bynum... "...I have heard from the people, they are tired of wrestling this bear, we have been dealing with this issue since 2001," said Judge Bynum.

The jail does need major renovations, but according to Commissioner Gene Short, The County is scheduled to pay off several debts in the coming months, freeing up money that can go toward remodeling the existing facility, without raising taxes...

..."We need to get past this and get a jail that is downtown, close to the courts, and is run by the Sheriff," said Magers. While getting a new jail built was the goal of many county leaders, Judge Bynum says the cost has become too high to continue. "We have got to figure out how to make lemonade out of lemons, and I am not going to go forward with an idea or an agenda at the sake of splitting this county open," said Bynum. 

Because the county has yet to say definitively that they won't build a private prison, the debate is technically still alive.  Still, the Commissioners have made a choice to not build a new jail (public or private) until they renovate their existing jail and pay off some outstanding debt. After that task is accomplished, it is still possible that they could build a new private facility. What is known is that there will not be a new jail at all until the aforementioned goals are reached. However, I imagine that if a new jail is built in the coming years, that it will be a public prison "run by the Sheriff" rather than run by a company.

This was a good choice by the Judge and Commissioners. Paying off their existing debt is the responsible action to take, rather than forcing through a private jail project. It was a rocky road to come to this decision, and I would bet that the privatization topic will arise again within the next few years once tempers have fallen. However, a congratulations is due to the people and officials of Grayson County for finding a responsible plan to jail renovation rather than constructing a new, privately-operated facility with the thinking that it will bring in jobs and money at no cost to the county. 

We will keep our eyes open for any new developments in the months and years to come.

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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Grayson County Jail Bond Election Canceled; Privatization Proposal May be Dead

Kathy Williams reports that Grayson County's jail bond election is canceled, and County Judge Drue Bynum's desire to build a new private jail may be squelched. From the Sherman Herald-Democrat ("Grayson County jail bond election canceled; entire process could begin anew", Sep. 10):

There will be no Grayson County Jail bond election Nov. 3. County Judge Drue Bynum said Thursday he also holds little hope of getting a privately built and operated jail approved. So Grayson County will begin anew the process of deciding what to do with an aging jail and future inmate populations.

The Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas (CLEAT) indicated on Wednesday it would file a lawsuit challenging the legality of the entire Grayson County Commissioners Court meeting that occurred on August 31 in state district court. Andrew wrote last week that Grayson County approved a November public jail bond election at that meeting, but Commisioners were hedging their bets on the bond proposal. On August 31, commissioners also approved several items that would have moved privatization of the County Jail forward, including a new public facilities corporation (PFC) that would have sidestepped voters by financing a private facility with revenue bonds, and the form of a contract with Southwest Correctional to build and operate the Grayson County Jail (for more on Public Facility Corporations, check out Considering a Private Jail, Prison or Detention Center? A Resource Packet for Community Members and Public Officials).

According to CLEAT, the County Commissioners Court violated the Texas Open Meetings Act by posting its August 31 agenda at least one minute short of the 72-hour advance notice required by law. If CLEAT won a declaratory judgment against Grayson, the County Commissioners Court would have to void all actions taken during the August 31 meeting. This would require the county to postpone any jail bond election until May of 2010.

County Judge Drue Bynum, who indicated to the Herald-Democrat on Wednesday that he was ready to confront the legal challenge from CLEAT, conceded Thursday that the Commissioners Court did, in fact, violate the Texas Open Meetings Act.

From the Herald Democrat:

As much as I hate to acknowledge it, we were late and we didn't meet the letter of the law. I think we certainly met the spirit," Bynum said in a telephone interview. "I am willing to void the entire 31 Aug. agenda. ... Obviously we won't need to ratify the entire bond election, because it's too late for that. Bynum said the Court will have to discuss Monday where to go from here on the jail issue.

We'll be following developments from Grayson County closely.

A special note-- Kathy Williams at the Sherman Herald Democrat deserves our high-praise for doing such a stellar job of reporting on the Grayson County Jail saga. Thanks, from all of us at Texas Prison Bid'ness!

Related:

Considering a Private Jail, Prison or Detention Center? Grassroots Leadership Releases Updated Guide for Community Members and Public Officials

On Tuesday, Grassroots Leadership released the 2009 edition of Considering a Private Jail, Prison or Detention Center? A Resource Packet for Community Members and Public Officials.

The report is intended to serve as a resource for public officials, community members, journalists, and policy-makers in Texas who are faced with building, financing, or operating a private prison, jail, or detention center.

The release of the updated guide coincides with a heated debate over jail privatization in Grayson County, which Andrew and I have been writing about (see the links at bottom of this post for more background). We sent a press release to the Herald Democrat, and we hope public officials in Grayson will read the report before moving forward with a proposed private jail.

Grassroots Leadership first published Considering a Private Jail, Prison or Detention Center in 2005. Bob, Andrew and I worked together to compile the latest edition. From our press release (PDF):

Grassroots Leadership’s updated Resource Packet analyzes the economic impact of private prisons on Texas communities, offers alternatives to prison expansion, and compares the safety and conditions at private and government run prisons.

 

The guide includes a review of recent research on the economic impact of prison expansion by attorney and independent criminal justice policy analyst, Michele Deitch. Deitch states that, “The research concludes, quite stunningly, that prisons have no measurable positive impact on economic growth, and may even slow growth in some communities.”

Compared to public facilities, for-profit private prisons and jails have significantly higher rates of staff turnover, higher rates of escape, and higher rates of assault. For-profit prison companies train new hires inadequately and drive experienced jailers out of work by paying them wages as low as fast-food restaurants and grocery store chains. The report says that private prisons are associated with inadequate protection of prisoners’ human rights, degrading prison conditions, and poor employment standards.

We will occasionally refer back to Considering a Private Jail? in future posts, and we'll also be posting sections of the report. We hope you'll take a look!

Previous Posts on Grayson's Proposed Private Jail:

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Grayson County's Decision to Privatize Goes to Public Vote

Last Monday, Grayson County commissioners came to the decision that they will put the hotly debated subject of whether to build a new jail or renovate the existing downtown jail to a vote by the people. The motion calling for a vote by the people passed with a four to one margin. Commissioner Short voted against the motion because he felt the "wording was too loose," and he "had little time to look over related documents" ("$34 Million Bond to Build or Renovate Grayson County Jail Will Go Before Voters;" KTEN).

County Judge, Drue Bynum

Yay
Precinct 1 Commissioner, Johnny Waldrip

Yay
Precinct 2 Commissioner, David Whitlock

Yay
Precinct 3 Commissioner, Jackie Crisp

Yay
Precinct 4 Commissioner, C.E. "Gene" Short

Nay

The vote will happen next November, and voters will see the following proposition on the ballot: "The issuance of $34,000,000 of Grayson County tax bonds for constructing, improving, renovating, equipping and acquiring land for county jail purposes and the levying of a tax payment thereof" ("Jail Bond Stirs More Controversy;" KTEN).


The original intention of the vote was to determine whether or not the county jail should be privately or publically operated. However, the "loose" wording in the proposition says nothing about these options, and merely declares that the county will have $34 million "for county jail purposes." What these purposes are, exactly, have not yet been laid out for the public. Additionally, there is no guarantee that the vote's passing will keep a private company from operating the facility in the future. All that has been guaranteed is that 750 beds will be added -- either to the downtown jail or to a new structure which will assumedly be privately run. 


"Many residents, county and city leaders, including Sherman's Mayor Bill Magers, have questioned if the county needs a jail that large, and believe a smaller facility will do. [County Judge] Bynum has consistently said the 750 bed figure comes from approval by the Texas Jail Commission over the projected needs for the county in the next two decades" ("$34 Million Bond to Build or Renovate Grayson County Jail Will Go Before Voters;" KTEN).


"I think it speaks for itself," said Judge Drue Bynum. "We've bent over backwards. This is a tough, tough proposition and endeavor we're taking. Sometimes when people say one thing and have to put their money where their mouth is, obviously, you get a different reaction and we saw that today..." Grayson County resident Tony Beaverson has been an outspoken critic of the court and it's decision to precede with the private route. He told KTEN he was encouraged when he heard the court was taking the issue to the voters, but not when he learned the details. "The people will vote on a bond issue with no substance, no particulars behind it," said Tony Beaverson. "[The Court is saying] just give us a blank check and with that blank check they can still do what they originally planed to do." From now until November, the court is still going to precede with the private option. Monday morning they signed off a number of proposals with Southwest Correctional. Bynum says they are doing that, so in case the bond fails, they'll be ready to move forward with the private option because something has to be done quickly ("Jail Bond Stirs More Controversy;" KTEN).

The vote appears to be a move by the Commissioners to give the appearance of choice to the citizens of Grayson County, but the wording, as it stands now, does not protect the county jail from privatization either now or in the future. Additionally, there is no precise plan for what the money will be spent on. On the same day as the vote was declared, the County moved ahead in negotiations with Southwest Correctional, because no matter which way the vote goes, there is a potential for privatization. Whether the vote passes and the County spends the money on "county jail purposes," which could include renovations to the downtown jail or a new facility (without a guarantee that either the renovated downtown jail or the new facility will not be privatized), or the vote fails and Southwest Correctional constructs their own facility, the private option has already won before the vote is conducted. Until the Commissioners change the wording in the proposition, or scrap it all and start over with a clearer plan, it seems as though the citizens have no choice but the private choice, with the commissioners selling out the democratic process in a faustian pact for wealth.

 

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Sherman's Fight Against Proposed Private Prison

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.

Grayson County Judge Drue Bynum, the main figure in the debates who has been responsible for encouraging these plans, said in regards to the proposed plans "we [need] to get ourselves off high-center, and now we are off high-center" ("Private Jail Option Approved by Grayson County Leaders" KTEN, July 13th). In other words, he wants to remove the County's involvement with their prisoners and take the out of sight, out of mind approach.

The proposed land siting for the new prison has some Sherman residents upset, and for good reason. The proposed prison site (shown here in red) is directly across Highway 11 from a residential area. With concerns over 24/7 bright lights and noise, one can only speculate as to the upcoming property value decreases. The prison site is only 0.6 miles from the second nearest densely populated residential area, city parks (shown in blue), and within one mile from the Sherman elementary school (shown in pink). 
Because of these concerns, a second proposed prison site has been proposed on laned owned by by cotton mammoth Anderson Clayton as a disposal location for decades before today, where it is owned by a Dow Jones board member Christopher Bancroft. This siting would move the prison away from the Southeast into the Northeast, away from the elementary school and residential areas. This proposed siting, however, has not been approved. With the proposed prison to hold 1,500 additional people, there will without a doubt be a sizeable increase in traffic from prisoner visitors, prison employees, legal counselers, and police personnel coming and going at a regular rate. If this new facility is constructed, it will increase Sherman's prison population five fold. Sherman's Mayor, Bill Magers has said, "I understand the concerns of those who live there about having this [prison] near them. I would have the same concerns if I lived there" (Herald Democrat; February 5, 2008). The mayor appears to be the only city official to speak out against moving the Sherman prison out of downtown, stating that it doesn't make to create 1,500 more prison beds when the population of Sherman is 140,388 and the Texas Commission on Jail Standards estimates that about 3 people for every 1,000 are incarcerated -- meaning Sherman only needs about half the amount of the 1,500 prison beds.

The opponents and the Sherman mayor are in a standoff against the pricinct commissioners who have plans of importing prisoners from Dallas to make a profit. The startup costs, both in finance and safety are extremely high if this plan follows through, and the potential for profit is minimal. "I think it's time to stop the for-profit, private option and return to the basic concept of expanding the jail downtown," said Sheriff Keith Gary. "[The downtown prison is] near the courts and avoid[s] the pitfalls we have learned exist with a private corporation" ("Private Jail Option Approved by Grayson County Leaders," KTEN, July 13th). 

There is a great risk that Sherman's jail project will amount to another failed Public Facilities Corporation situation (read about PFCs in Grassroots Leadership's "Considering a Private Jail...?"). So long as Mayor Magers and the citizens of Sherman keep thinking about their own interests and not the interests of private companies, there is a good chance this stalemate will end in the rational choice to remodel instead of reinvent. 
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