Thursday, August 14, 2008

McLennan Commissioners back on private jail track after raucous debate

In Waco, McLennan County's on-again, off-again private jail plan is back on after a contentious, 3-2 commissioners court vote yesterday, reports the Waco Tribune Herald ("McLennan County Commissioners approve hiring company to build additional jail," Aug. 14).

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?”

Good question.

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. ...

[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.”

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:

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.

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.

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.

4 comments:

TxBluesMan said...

Grits,

Say it ain't so.

I don't know if I can handle you agreeing on something with Charlie...

;)

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I hesitated to mention it, Bluesy, for fear it might cause Charley to reconsider his views. ;)

TxBluesMan said...

LOL,

Do you really think that Charley would change? Charley is like a pit bull on CLEAT issues, and strongly in support of officers - I don't think that he's capable of changing, either his position or, for that matter, what he does.

He'll either be glad-handing a legislator (or haranguing, dependent on their position); at his office on Guadalupe; or at the Doubletree restaurant at 13th & Lavaca thinking about their cookies that he can't have anymore...

I'm sure that he's glad that you're on the correct side on this issue, and if he works at it, maybe he can save you from the Dark Side of the Force... (jk)

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