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Texas Commission on Jail Standards

Lack of institutional control cited in sexual assault lawsuit against LaSalle Correctional's Jack Harwell Detention Center in Waco

A formerly incarcerated person at LaSalle Corrections' Jack Harwell Detention Center in Waco has filed a lawsuit against the facility over a sexual assault incident, according to the Waco Tribune ("Former inmate alleges sexual assault at Waco Jail," December 11):

"A former jail inmate alleges she repeatedly was sexually assaulted at the private Jack Harwell Detention Center, where she claims a long-standing lack of institutional control has led to an environment of smuggling, extortion, drug abuse and sexual misconduct."

Based on our coverage of the facility, there certainly seems to be plenty of evidence that of persistent operational problems leading to major incidents, including sexual assaults and deaths.   Following a suicide on November 1st, three private prison guards were arrested and charged with tampering with records that tracked how often they checked on the prisoner.  The facility was also found non-compliant by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) following a review of the facility.  The TCJS review (attached) found that private jailers violated the standard mandating that potentially suicidal or mentally ill prisoners be checked on every 30 minutes. 

Last year, the facility's troubles — including being found in non-compliance and allegations of sexualt assault, made it one of the top private prison stories of the year.  Unfortunately, it looks like facility's problems have not abated, despite a change in operations from Community Education Centers to LaSalle Southwestern Corrections.  

We'll keep you posted on developments from this lawsuit and other stories related to the Jack Harwell facility.  

 

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Following jail suicide, Waco private prison found non-compliant, guards arrested

protest at Jack Harwell
protest at Jack Harwell
Following a suicide at a for-profit jail in Waco, three private prison guards have been arrested and charged with tampering with records that tracked how often they checked on the prisoner, Michael Martinez, who hung himself in his cell on November 1st.  

The prison — the Jack Harwell Detention Center operated by private prison corporation LaSalle Corrections — was also found non-compliant by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) following a review of the facility.  The TCJS review (attached) found that private jailers violated the standard mandating that potentially suicidal or mentally ill prisoners be checked on every 30 minutes.   

The Jack Harwell facility has long and troubled history dating back to before its construction.  The facility was publicly financed and built on speculation that it would win federal contracts to detain or incarcerate immigrants, but has largely failed to generate the revenue needed to make the facility financially profitable.  (Of course, in this case financial profitability relies on more people behind bars.)  The jail has also been plagued with allegations of abuse and mismanagement, including sexual assault allegations.  Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed detainees from the facility last year following an outcry from attorneys and activists.  

Suicides in county jails have endured more public scrutiny in recent months following the suicide of Sandra Bland and state legislators are currently looking into policy proposals to reduce the risk of suicide.   

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Private prison that detains hundreds of immigrants fails Texas jail inspection

A for-profit prison that houses hundreds of immigration detainees has failed an inspection by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.  

The Rolling Plains Regional Detention Center is operated by Louisiana-based private prison corporation Emerald Corrections and detains 485 federal contract detainees and only 12 local prisoners. Those 12 local prisoners put it under the purview of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, which found the lock-up non-compliant during a September inspection.  TCJS standards are considered base-line standards for operating a jail in Texas.

According to the Commission's audit (attached), the facility failed on a number of accounts including misclassification of prisoners, employees operating without a jailer's license, and that the facility was not operating at the required 1 officer per 48 prisoners ratio.  

The review should be of particular concern to immigration advocates as immigration detention standards generally are suppose to meet or exceed jail standards.  

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Private prison operator CEC will continue to manage scandal-plagued Liberty County Jail

Last month, private prison corporation Community Education Centers won a new contract to operate the troubled Liberty County Jail, according to a press release from the New Jersey-based company earlier this month.  The contract has a three year term and a two year option, according to the company, and followed a report by jail consultants MGT America.  CEC has operated the facility since 2006, though the company's tenure at the facility has anything but smooth.  

This past April, two prisoners were found dead at the 285-bed lock-up in a single week prompting a review by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards that found what the Houston Chronicle described as "a slew of deficiencies at the facility, including infrequent inmate observations, incomplete suicide prevention screening and improper distribution of medication."  

The deaths followed a spate of other problems at the facility including a long string of contraband smuggling and at least two allegations of sexual abuse in the facility. The facility has repeatedly run into problems with the Jail Commission, the agency charged with overseeing basic standards at county jails.  In 2011, a Jail Commission failed the facility for a series of infractions including that the warden of the facility was not properly licensed.  

Beyond operational problems, the facility has made headlines as an example of for-profit incarceration incentivizing high rates of incarceration.  Back in 2012, Liberty County made our "big stories of the year" list after 253rd District Court Judge Chap B. Cain initiated a plan to reduce the number of non-violent individuals housed in the jail.  The plan was successful, but the contract for the jail stipulated at the time that if the jail population dipped below 200, the cost per inmate went up, reducing the financial incentive to keep jail populations low.  It's unclear if the new contract with CEC retains this counter-incentive to sound criminal justice policy or not.  

GEO's Karnes County Correctional Center found out-of-compliance for overcrowding, under-staffing

GEO Group's Karnes County Correctional Center was found out of compliance in an Jail Inspection Report issued today by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS). According to inspection (attached as a PDF): 

"While conducting the walk-through of the facility, it was discovered that there were 46 inmates confined in a holding cell with a capacity of 24. The capacity was visibly marked above the door of the cell."

Other problems found included a shortage of jail staff on sight, a past due inspection of the facility's kitchen, eight months of missing documentation related to emergency power equipment, and a lack of proper procedures to notify magistrate judges in the case of a prisoner with mental illness.  

According to TCJS's population report, the facility had 388 prisoners at the time of inspection out of a total capacity of 550.  All 388 prisoners were contract prisoners, and 355 were federal prisoners.  The fact that the facility has overcrowded cells, but is under capacity, speaks to probable severe understaffing at the facility, a problem also mentioned in the report: 

"While reviewing staffing rosters, it was determined that the 1 jailer per 48 inmates required ratio was not being met at all times as required by minimum jail standards. On samples reviewed, during every month of 2013, several shifts were found to have a shortage of jailers for the number of inmates in the facility. Shortages were normally between one to two jailers, but in some cases, they were three jailers short of meeting the requirement."

Staffing shortages shouldn't come as a surprise at Karnes which is in the heart of the Texas fracking boom and where unemployment is relatively low.  With KCCC experiencing staffing shortages and these operational problems, one has to wonder if the same problem isn't impacting the neighboring Karnes County Civil Detention Center, which is not subject to TCJS inspections because it only holds federal detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

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Commission on Jail Standards holds hearings this week; Webcasts now available

Diana Claitor at the Texas Jail Project forwarded us an email stating that the Texas Commission on Jail Standards will begin broadcasting its workshops and quarterly meetings as live webcasts.  The first such workshop is this afternoon at 2pm.  According to the email from TCJS, the purpose of today's hearing is:

"The Texas Commission on Jail Standards will re-engage its initiative to update some changes to minimum jail standards. We want as much interaction with all stakeholders throughout the process, and so the TCJS Commission will begin meeting in workshop session on November 2, 2011 at 2pm in the John Reagan building, room 120 to discuss proposed changes.  The initial workshop session will be to discuss procedures and process."

Tomorrow morning, the Commission will hold its quarterly meeting to review jail compliance and other issues tomorrow, November 3, 2011 at 9am.  Both hearings will be viewable via webcast at http://www.capitol.state.tx.us/.

Mother Jones explores Perry's Connection to the Private Prison Industry

Texans should not be surprised by this recent article in Mother Jones (Tim Murphy, "Flush With Prison Industry Dollars, Rick Perry Pushed Privatized Prisoner Care," September 1) that explores the governor's relationship to the private prison industry. The article delves into recent developments that happened during the last Texas legislative session, specifically moves by Governor Perry to privatize the prison health care system.

"Perry's rush to privatize prison health care is consistent with the approach he's taken throughout most of his ten years as governor: slashing public services under the guise of austerity, and then contracting those services out to the well-connected businesses that have made his rise possible. As he put it during his re-election campaign in 2010, as the private prisons industry filled his war chest with donations, "Texas is open for business." To his critics, those words have never rang truer."

According to Mother Jones several prison privatization bills failed to move forward and policy changes that would have empowered the governor's office with new authority.  One effort would have transferred the authority for the state’s prison health care board to Perry by giving him the power to appoint the majority of the committee members.

The article also touches upon the limits in authority for the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.  According to our pal at Grits for Breakfast, before 2003 TCJS had statutory oversight over five private prisons that housed only federal or immigration detainees through intergovernmental agreements with counties. The Mother Jones article quotes Texas criminal justice advocate who states:

"One of the things that the commission has always wanted is to have control over the private prisons," says Ana Yanez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, which monitors prison reform in the Lone Star State. "Obviously [the Governor’s office] didn’t like that so this session they tried to dilute the power of the commission by merging it with two other entities."

The article provides quite a read.  Here's hoping that Perry's presidential aspirations will continue to bring the relationship between the governor's office and private prison companies to light. 

TCJS head Adan Muñoz criticizes speculative private jails in Texas Tribune interview

The Texas Tribune's Brandi Grissom sat down Texas Commission on Jails Standards chief Adan Muñoz for an interview covering jail overcrowding, privatization, and other aspects of Texas' enormous county jail system (Brandi Grissom, "Adan Muñoz: The TT Interview," August 3).  It's no wonder that Muñoz is one of our favorite Texas officials.  Here's his reponse to a question about privately operated jails:

"They’ll build the facility above and beyond what is projected for the county's needs... so that they can house either federal inmates or out-of-state inmates in order to generate a profit. What we have been seeing lately, over probably the last year and a half to two years, is a diminishing of those select inmates that are out there for profit. So you've got these facilities that are built and financed by local governments... to bring in extra money for their communities at a time where those inmates were out there and available for these facilities. That's not the case anymore. A certain facility just went up for auction last week in this state, where that facility just basically got abandoned by the private vendor who says, "We’re not making any money, we’re moving." They can notify them and give them 60, 90 days, 30 days notification — whatever it is — and they’re gone. So the facility basically has to fall out of compliance or shut down. It’s a risky situation."

Munoz was also skeptical about proposals floated to privatize Harris County's massive jail system:

"If you run a small jail — when I say small jail, that's anywhere from 7 to 25 prisoners — your daily incarceration may be 7 or 8. So, are you better off shipping them off to the county next door rather than carrying the liability? Certainly. But when you have 11,000 prisoners like Harris County, it's real tough to get out of the jail business. For example, I know that Harris County has spoken of privatization. You really don’t have, in my opinion, you don’t have very many privates trying to do business with Harris, because where is their profit margin going to come from? I mean, if you have a $30 million debt of overtime you encumber or you accept as part of the privatization, where is your profit margin going to come from?"

Read the entire interview and watch the video here.

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Two upcoming hearings on TCJS's future

Two hearings will be held in the next week that could effect the size, effectiveness, and purview of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, the state agency charged with overseeing Texas' massive county jail system, including a number or privately-operated jails and detention centers.

1) Joint Budget Hearing: Tomorrow, Wednesday, September 1st, from 9am-10:30am in the Capitol Extension, Room E2.028 will see a budget hearing in which the agency will most likely be fending off budget cuts.  Check out Ana Yañez-Correa's excellent guest-post over at Grits for Breakfast for why this hearing is important.  Here's the highlight:

In the face of a potential 15% budget cut (including across-the-board 5% agency budget cuts and an extra, requested 10% budget cut), TCJS could potentially lose 2-3 staff members, possibly inspectors (out of a current total of 5 inspectors). Without inspections, TCJS will not be able to fully realize its critical mission to set constitutional jail standards, conduct facility inspections, and enforce compliance with rules and procedures - all of which keep Texas jails safe, well regulated, and run by educated, professional leadership.

2) Interim Charge #4.  The Senate's Criminal Justice Committee, chaired by Senator John Whitmire, will meet on Wednesday, Tuesday, September 7th, at 10am in Capitol Extension E1.016 (Hearing Room) to discuss interim charges, including Interim Charge #4:

Study and make recommendations related to municipal jails and other detention facilities that operate without state agency oversight. Identify the number of such facilities and the population detained, as well as best practices for municipal jails. Make recommendations to improve services and consider options for oversight of facilities by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

The combined effect of these hearings could shape the debate over TCJS in the upcoming legislative session.  On one hand, the agency could be stripped of inspectors and see its ability to oversee jails (both public and private) diminished.  On the other hand, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee could lead a charge to expand the purview of the agency to include municipal jails and county-owned detention centers currently exempted from oversight.  The latter could make a big difference in regulating problem-facilities like the GEO's Reeves County Detention Center, which is currently exempt from state-oversight.

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