Commissioner Joe Mashek argued McLennan County didn't need three jails, that they should simply take over the facility downtown presently operated by a private prison company. “It was the rush and the big hurry in the way we did it that I don’t like,” Mashek said. “When the jail standards commission tells us that we will only need room for 1,200 prisoners by 2015 and we have jails that hold 1,261 inmates now, why are we building a new jail?”
Another good question was raised this week by our friends at the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT), the state's largest police officers union, which accused the Sheriff of promoting the privatization scheme because of a personal financial motive:
The company’s McLennan County contract, which pays [Sheriff Mike] Lynch $12,000 above his county salary of $88,000 to oversee the downtown jail, expires Oct. 1. ...Wilkinson and I have disagreed over the years more often than we're on the same page, but from my own analysis I tend to agree with the CLEAT stalwart about the current cause of McLennan's jail overcrowding problems:
[CLEAT legislative director Charley] Wilkison said he will ask Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to investigate whether Lynch violated the Texas Public Information Act by failing to respond to CLEAT’s open-records requests for all correspondence between Lynch and CEC officials.
He said he also is seeking state and federal investigations about whether Lynch lawfully and ethically can accept money from the private vendor or whether it is a conflict of interest when he helps decide the fate of the jail system.
“The sheriff has taken $91,000 of personal money that goes into his bank account, and then he says: ‘I am still able to decide. I am still OK deciding whether it is in our best interest to privatize.’ That old dog won’t hunt. Nobody here believes that.”
Certainly it's true McLennan County has not aggressively pursued incarceration alternatives or jail diversion programs, instead fixating solely on prospects for more jail building. They don't necessarily need a new jail, but some commissioners really, really want one.
Wilkison also charges that county officials should come up with more efficient ways to clear out the jail, especially of nonviolent first offenders. ...
“We think inmates are being kept in jail to create an artificial public safety crisis so the hue and cry for a new jail can come and the new jail can be privatized and built by CEC,” Wilkison said.
Finally, I was interested and curious to see that the vendor chosen, private prison operator CEC Corp., promised to house inmates at an astonishingly low rate of about $25 per day, about $15-20 below what it cost most counties and other contractors to operate a jail. Likely they're hoping to make up the difference by housing high-dollar federal immigration detainees, but that's a speculative bet on the future, not a sure thing. I have to wonder if the $25 per day figure is a real, sustainable number or if it will increase once the jail is built and the charges become a fait accompli.