Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The “New” Jail - Anatomy Of A $49 Million Stampede

Waco – The county's taxpayers are obligated to satisfy the terms of a $49 million revenue bond issue the Commissioners' Court authorized without voter approval to build a new jail to be operated by a private corporation.

The reason: “overcrowding.”

It's understood.

From there, matters become very confusing, according to records obtained by The Legendary under an Open Records information request.

It all starts with this conundrum.

When you look for the record that documents overcrowding of McLennan County's two jails, you won't find it.

In fact, conditions are so overcrowded that the new jail sat empty for several months. Why? No prisoners available to fill its capacity.

What is available is an Annual Jail Report completed by four inspectors of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards in January, 2008, that proclaims an inadequate inmate to staff ratio at the McLennan County Jail at 3201 E. Highway 6, among other deficiencies such as a lack of smoke detection equipment, some leaking toilets and inadequate water pressure in various showers.

Following a 36-hour inspection, Inspectors Fred St. Amant and Jackie Semmler wrote these laconic words.

“Staff inmates shall be supervised by an adequade number of corrections officers to comply with state law and these standards. One corrections officer shall be provided on each floor of this facility where 10 or more inmates are housed, with no less than 1 corrections officer per 48 inmates or increment thereof on each floor for inmate supervision...The facility does not meet the 1:48 staffing ratio at all times.”

That touched off a controversial plan to build the Jack Harwell Detention Center, a scheme that split the Court 3-2 and resulted in $4 million in bond debt service to be satisfied by the terms of a complicated contract with Community Education Centers of New Jersey to house inmates on a sliding scale fee schedule.

County Judge Jim Lewis says the arrangement costs taxpayers nothing to maintain.

His rival for re-election, challenger Dr. Ralph Cooper, an attorney and social psychologist, has a different opinion. He says it is costing taxpayers some $30,000 per month now, a figure that will go up with the expiration of a contract period that will end in October, right before election day.

Dr. Cooper maintains the county never needed a new jail, that predictions of a need for new capacity were erroneous all along.

Judge Lewis said he never knew otherwise, that all he could do was to trust the judgment of the experts.

One thing is for sure.

The records clearly indicate the state's inspectors could have been satisfied by the addition of corrections officers to the staff and the demands of an increasing population would have been satisfied at least until the year 2015, when the state would require space for 1,200 prisoners. Capacity on August 14, 2008, the day the Court voted to build the new jail, was 1,261. The experts said at the time that 1,488 beds would be needed by the year 2030.

After that bitterly contested vote, Adan Muñoz, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, lifted the remedial order imposed by the January inspection report. Addition of the staff needed to supervise the increased number of prisoners, 2,077 with the addition of an 816-bed jail, tipped the scales of the 1:48 staff to prisoner ratio.

Mr. Munoz had offered to conduct an independent analysis, but the Court acted first.

There is always more than one way to skin a cat, even when the cat is alive and well and doing just fine with its skin intact.

The most vocal critic, Commissioner Joe Mashek of West, alleged bid rigging on the part of Judge Lewis. He cried foul when a subcontractor construction firm, Hale Mills of Houston, was invited a year previously to study the possibility of expanding the Highway 6 jail's kitchen and laundry services and wound up getting the specifications needed to come up with a bid to build what was then proposed as a 1,000-bed new jail next door to the existing complex on Highway 6.

His complaints seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

Judge Lewis and Commissioners Ray Meadows and Wendell Crunk voted to build the new jail. Mr. Mashek and Lester Gibson voted against the plan.

Mr. Mashek questioned the necessity of any such arrangements. He called on Sheriff Larry Lynch to interview, hire and train the staff needed to handle the number of prisoners projected for the future. He counseled a return to McLennan County's operation of the 329-bed downtown jail next door to the Courthouse.

It led to a verbal flare-up between he and Judge Lewis.

Said the Judge the day before the crucial vote, “The whole comment is ignorant.”

He estimated that hiring staff adequate to meet the demands of the jail standards commission would cost the Sheriff $5 million dollars. When he asked Commissioner Mashek what his plan would be to take back operations of the downtown jail, Mr. Mashek said, “That's not my problem. That's the Sheriff's problem.”

Corrections officers and lawmen opposed the plan to build the jail and turn its operation over to the private corporation all along. The basic objection is that private corporations hire less experienced and less qualified corrections officers because they don't pay them as much.

A honcho for a statewide organization that represents jailers and officers, Charley Wilkison of Combined Law Enforcement Agencies of Texas (CLEAT), called for a state and federal investigation into dealings between McLennan County officials and the private detention corporation.

He said the corporation's arrangement to pay Sheriff Larry Lynch $12,000 per year as an advisor an incentive to recommend the privatization scheme.

In addition to recommending finding ways to clear out non-violent first offenders, he alleged intentional inflation of the numbers of inmates. He said inmates are often kept in jail to create an “artificial safety crisis” so that a new jail can be built for private operations by CEC.

The utter truth of the matter is that all of the expert opinion offered came from persons studying the proposal from the point of view of CEC. Not one expert offered facts and figures who was not in the employ of the corporation.

1 comment:

  1. Jim Lewis says it did not cost taxpayers anything? What about the land taxpayers had to purchase? What about the disposal upgrade done recently at the old jail to allow the sewer system to accommodate the increased capacity? Jim Lewis' solution is very simple. Just lie about it like he did about the need for more beds.