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2009 Top Private Prison Stories, #3 Private prison proposals defeated in Texas communities

Another year has passed here at Texas Prison Bid'ness, and what an exciting year it has been. As we have done in the past, the bloggers here at TPB would like to recap our favorite or perhaps the most memorable stories/topics over the past year.  Over the next few days, we'll be posting 2009's top five stories related to private prisons.

While the private prison industry continues to grow, several Texas communities said no to private prison sitings in Texas this year. This is the third biggest TPB story of 2009. 

 #3 Private prison proposals defeated in Texas communities

1. Emerald pushes Mineral Wells detention center three times in 2009... 

In Mineral Wells, private prison corporation Emerald Corrections first approached the city about building a speculative immigrant detention center in early 2009.  The company met tough opposition by local businesses and community members, who argued that the economic expense was too great for any benefits the community might receive.  The proposal was withdrawn, but not for long.  Emerald's second proposal for a private detention center was rejected when a motion to continue negotiations with the company died for lack of a second after city leaders balked at being asked to finance the prison through revenue bonds.  The company was not to be deterred however, and is moving into 2010 with yet a third private detention center proposal under negotiations. Emerald also had two similar speculative prison proposals defeated in Caldwell County last year.

2) CLEAT and community opposition defeat Southwestern jail in Grayson County...

In September, we reported that Grayson County's jail bond election had been canceled, and efforts to build a new Southwestern Correctional jail may have been squelched.  The move was a major victory for the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas (CLEAT) and other opponents of jail privatization.  CLEAT had indicated that it would file a lawsuit challenging the legality of the Grayson County Commissioners Court meeting that occurred on August 31.  In that meeting, Grayson County had approved a November public jail bond election at that meeting, but Commisioners were hedging their bets on the bond proposal. They also approved several items that would have moved privatization of the 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 Southwestern Correctional to build and operate the Grayson County Jail.  While Grayson is still debating its jail's future, privatization does not seem the most likely option today. 

3) Feds Reject Proposed MTC Prison in Nacogdoches

Opponents of a controversial MTC-proposed federal prison in Nacogdoches celebrated in May after the Federal Bureau of Prisons pulled the plug on the proposed facility.  While public offials were generally in favor of the proposed facility for immigrants to be deported following their sentences, community opposition to the facility was fierce and included an effort to bring the issue to a referendum vote by amending the city's charter and gathered over 2,700 signatures on their website, and impressive feat in a town of less than 30,000 total population. .

Stay tuned for the second biggest TPB story of 2009...

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...

Southwestern Correctional draws Jail Standards rebuke on medical care, recreation in Burnet jail

Southwestern Correctional's Burnet County jail drew a fairly sharp rebuke from Texas Commission on Jail Standards' head Adan Muñoz for apparently not providing medical care to a pregnant inmate, amongst other problems.  According to a KXAN story ("Surprise jail visit uncovers new issues," October 20),

On a surprise visit last Thursday, jail inspectors found concerns inside after questioning two female inmates. One was pregnant and said she was not given proper medication. Another mental health patient said she was not given her medicaiton either, so inspectors checked her medical chart.

"There were certain medications that needed to be prescribed for her that had not been given to her, and that's obviously not in compliance with jail standards," said Adan Munoz, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards .

"They get excellent care here," said Tammy Manning, the Burnet County Jail medical supervisor. Manning was out of town during the inspection but normally sees the inmate who she said had been refusing to show up to appointments after they were scheduled. The situation had not been documented on her medical chart that state inspectors reviewed. "We do have room for improvement in our documentation," said Manning. "And our actional plan we put into place Friday was to improve our documentation so this will not happen again."

One of the female inmates also said they were not getting recreation time everyday. "We went on to check the recreation log to see if their concerns were valid," said Munoz. "We couldn't even find a recreation log."
 Burnet County Jail Warden Bruce Armstrong admits there was a breakdown there, too.

"We run rec everyday," said Armstrong. "And the officer calls in the count to the central control officer whose suppose to be logging the count down on how many offenders went to rec, and they were neglecting to document the count."

Armstrong said it has been taken care of, but the state said there is one more requirement the county has yet to comply with.

The state does not have the jail's operational plan, which covers everything from what to do in case of a fire to how to administer health care. "The fact that it's been open since April and still not within our agency certainly gives us great concern," said Munoz.  The county told the state they were working on it. Munoz sent written notification of the deficiencies to the county and Southwest Corrections, the company who manages the jail. They have 30 days to comply.

Southwestern's Burnet lock-up was deemed non-compliant by TCJS in September 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 now proven downfalls of private jail companies and potential dangers in floating debt for private jail expansion.  We'll keep you posted on Burnet's continuing problems with Southwestern Correctional. 

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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:

Southwestern Correctional has major problems in Burnet; Are Grayson Commissioners watching?

At the same time as Grayson County has opened privatization talks with prison company Southwestern Correctional, the company is being hammered after a recent escape ("Officer resigns from Burnet jail after inmate escape," Austin American-Statesman, September 4) at its new Burnet County jail. The Burnet Bulletin ("County jail cited for not meeting state standards," September 3) is reporting that the facility has been deemed non-compliant by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards

Only four months after opening its doors to the public with tours, speeches and a ribbon cutting, the Burnet County Jail has been cited by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards for a different kind of open house: Improper supervision of inmates after a prisoner escaped Sunday night and fled past nearby residential neighborhoods and to freedom.

The controversial privately run jail – a facility that many nearby residents unsuccessfully fought during its development – now is officially deemed noncompliant with Texas jail standards, confirmed Adan Munoz, a former sheriff who serves as executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.  ...

The Burnet County Jail’s issues fall under the heading of “supervision of inmates,” a key section of the 600 standards regulated by the commission. Munoz said.  “The best way to describe it is a lack of diligence, a lack of professionalism,” Munoz said

Burnet County officials ignored broad opposition when negotiating their deal with Southwestern Correctional. Here's hoping Grayson officials will take some time to re-evaluate their decision to move ahead with a decision to contract with Southwestern Correctional.

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Grayson Commissioners sidestep voters with privatization scheme

The Herald Democrat reported ("Grayson County Jail to be run by private company," July 13) last week that Grayson County commissioners will negotiate a deal with Southwestern Correctional LLC to build and operate a new 747-bed private jail. This decision by the commissioners means Grayson voters will be denied the opportunity to put the issue of jail expansion to a vote.  By deciding to negotiate a deal with Southwestern Correctional, commissioners ignored calls for a bond election by Grayson Sheriff J. Keith Gary, Sherman Mayor Bill Magers, Former Grayson County Commissioner Carol Shea, Former Grayson County Democratic Party Chair Tony Beaverson, the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas, and dozens of Grayson residents.

Grits for Breakfast did an excellent job covering the proposed Grayson Privatization scheme offered up by County Judge Drue Bynum (see links at the bottom of this post), and he argues compellingly that the over-reliance by Grayson Judges on pretrial detention continues to unnecessarily fill the county jail and fuel the perception that a larger facility is needed. (The numbers as of June 1, 2009 show 51% of inmates in Grayson County Jail are pretrial detainees).

Judge Bynum was trying to sell Grayson residents a larger facility than the county needed for its inmates, arguing that a private company would need the extra space to profit from incarceration and offset the county's per diem rate. In spite of the cost-saving rationale offered by Bynum, it doesn't seem that Grayson County was made a very good first offer by Southwestern Correctional.

From the Herald Democrat article (July 13th):

The deal presented Monday by the Southwestern staff said the county will pay between $32.50 and $46.50 per inmate housed per day, depending upon variables including the percentage of beds filled, income from the jail phone system and other fees and income. It could also depend on the final negotiations between the county and Southwestern.

So Southwest Correctional's current proposal doesn't even guarantee 6% cost savings from the county's current per diem of $49.35. And as Grits contributed:

Whether the county or a private contractor operates the facility, it still must meet minimum standards set by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, so it won't be any cheaper to operate (except to the extent that a private company pays its employees less than deputies make - a marginal benefit at best in the scheme of things that's wiped out if the company takes a profit).

And what happens if Grayson isn't able to contract with outside jurisdictions, or if prisoners don't make expensive phone calls to their families? County tax payers would end up paying for construction and operation costs in addition to Southwest Correctional's profit through increased per diem rates

Sheriff Gary presented commissioners with a less expensive, less risky alternative to privatization before they made a decision.  The Herald Democrat (July 13th):

"The best, safest, most economical option is an expansion of the existing jail in downtown Sherman, near the courtrooms it serves. I have reviewed the 2002 plan, and with some updating and modernization it can service our needs. Ironically, it can actually be downsized slightly if you decide that you prefer to limit the number of federal prisoners in our jails as I have been required to do during the last several years," he told commissioners.

Sheriff Gary was called on to oppose privatization by the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas (CLEAT), which called on him to, "stop the takeover of the county jail by a company out of Louisiana." CLEAT continued in a press release, "Private county jails are a bad idea for the citizen-taxpayer, a bad idea for the deputies and even a bad idea for the prisoners detained there. These fast and loose privatization deals never work out well for the local citizens who are left holding the bag."

Amen.

As Grits mentioned, it seems increasingly likely that counties could have trouble filling extra beds with state inmates, because TDCJ's population is declining and forecasted budget deficits will force Texas lawmakers to put corrections costs under a microscope. That may leave federal contracts as the only revenue target for private contractors, and those contracts are likely to be a bit more competitive with planned state prison population reductions across the United States. If Southwestern Correctional eventually decided to cancel its contract with Grayson, the county would be held responsible for the cost and operation of the facility, as its public facility corporation would be the bond holder.

For a quick dissection of public facility corporations, see Bob's post.

Counties have been sucker-punched by the effects of large private prison contract cancellations before. In 2003, the north-Texas town of Littlefield had its tax and revenue obligations downgraded (October 24, 2006, Yahoo.comas a result of the city's weakened financial position after a pullout of the Texas Youth Commission's prisoners. Fitch ratings agency wrote:

"If the city had to levy an interest and sinking fund tax to meet detention center related debt obligations, officials estimate that the overall tax rate would have to double over the current operations and maintenance tax rate, which Fitch believes would be extremely difficult to impose.”

In my judgment, Judge Bynum seems aware of the risk of financing the facility with a Public Facilities Corporation. He skirted a question about the riskiness of using public facility corporations to finance private jails when asked by a former Grayson County commissioner who would be responsible for the bond if the enterprise failed. Bynum said, "the bondholder" would be responsible. Bynum's answer strikes me as less than straightforward, as Grayson County and its tax payers would essentially be saddled with the debt if the new county jail beds aren't filled.

Check out these other sources for background:

Herald Democrat

Grits: 

 

Burnet County Opening New Private Jail

Via our friend Scott at Grits for Breakfast, Burnet County has moved forward with the construction of a new private jail that is an outrageous five times the size of it's current jail, according to an article in the Central Texas Business Journal ("Private jail to relieve Burnet County," January 23rd),

Relief is coming to the overcrowded Burnet County Jail in the form of a new $27 million privately operated correctional facility.

Work should wrap up in April on the new 90,000-square-foot jail on Ellen Halbert Drive, which will hold 587 beds — more than five times as many as the county’s current jail.

Due to overcrowding, the county has had to transport overflow inmates to a jail in the nearby community of Crystal City and pay to keep them there. With the opening of the new jail, inmate movement will be reversed and Burnet County will begin taking in overflow from other corrections facilities. The county will start by leasing out about 100 beds in the jail.

Southwestern Correctional LLC, based in Rayville, La., is managing the private jail. But the Burnet County sheriff remains responsible for the inmates and will have a liaison on site daily to monitor operations. Southwestern Correctional operates one other Texas correctional facility and eight in Louisiana.

I reported in November 2007 that local opposition to the jail project was large and informed, but it looks like the public officals ignored that opposition and went with the prison developers plan. Burnet County will be on the financial hook for the facility - they've issued revenue bonds, which taxpayers were not allowed to vote on, for the facility meaning the prison must remain full for the county to meet its debt obligations. How will they do that? According to the story, by bringing in federal inmates.

Revenue bonds from the Public Facilities Commission paid for the new jail and those bonds will be paid off through the fees the county collects by housing inmates from other counties and correctional departments that may contract for space, such as the U.S. Marshals or the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

It's not clear whether a contract with ICE or the Marshals has been secured. We'll keep you posted.

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