Getting an accurate projection of the county's future needs has become a politicized issue because some members of the commissioners court would prefer to overbuild the facility and let a private contractor lease out the extra beds. At one point proponents wanted to build a 1,500 bed jail; the latest proposal was for 750.
But some locals doubt the projections for massive growth in the jail population, charging that a private contractor convinced state regulators to inflate the number of beds the county needs. The verity of those projections has become a pivotal factor, reported the Herald-Democrat, citing documents obtained under the public information act:
Asked how the commissioners court set the size for the jail they have discussed at 700-plus, Grayson County Judge Drue Bynum cites the Texas Commission on Jail Standards recommendation. There are two Texas Commission on Jail Standards reports. The two reports, published Nov. 24, 2008 and May 28, 2009, are identical except for page 5, "recommendations." Otherwise, they contain the same statement of "current jail conditions," "incarceration trends," "population predictions" and "additional considerations." The only changes in wording concern peak population factor and how it is calculated.
"Peak populations represent those days in each month when the jail has the highest number of inmates. The peak population factor represents an additional percentage of beds that are needed in a jail to accommodate those days when the jail population is higher than average," both reports state on page 4.
The November 2008 report states, "The average peak population during the last 12 months was 398 while the average daily population was 375; this represents a difference of 23. To calculate the peak population factor, 23 is divided by ADP of 375. This represents a factor of 6 percent which will be utilized in calculating the projected capacity needs in the next section."
This method of determining peak population factor led TCJS to recommend that a 528-bed jail would satisfy Grayson County's needs through 2028.
The May 2009 report states "The peak population during the last 12 months was 453 which occurred in August of 2008 ... While the average daily population (ADP) was 375, this represents a difference of 78. To calculate the peak population factor, 78 is divided by the ADP of 375. This represents a factor of 20 percent which will be utilized in calculating the capacity needs in the next section."
This method of using a one-day high, plus adding 10-percent because of Grayson County's proximity to the Metroplex, led Texas Commission on Jail Standards to recommend a 720 bed Grayson County jail as adequate until 2028.
Between these two reports, March 2, 2009, Grayson County Commissioners Court selected Southwestern Correctional LLC as the private company it wants to build and operate a new jail. The company does not yet have a contract with the county.
April 29, 2009, Tim Kirpiewski of Southwestern Correctional, sent a letter to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, stating in part, "We request, on behalf of Grayson County that the Commission on Jail Standards revisit the conclusions reached in its latest Facility Needs Analysis Report last year and consider updating that report based on additional studies and actual statistics provided in this letter."
Sherman Mayor Bill Magers, who made the two Texas Commission on Jail Standards reports, the Southwestern letter to TCJS and other documents public Aug. 17, explained his objection to the second method of calculating recommended jail size.
"The slight wording change (between the two Texas Commission on Jail Standards reports) results in a significantly skewed methodology for calculating future jail capacity needs." Magers said. "It is tantamount to family of six constructing and paying M & O (maintenance and operation) on an eight-bedroom house because the in-laws come once a year and spend Christmas night in their home. The 2009 report treats a one-night event as an every day occurrence."
Accompanying this reportage was an editorial posing many of the questions raised by this debate for the Grayson Commissioners Court. To those one could add several more probing questions over the alleged influence of a private contractor on TCJS' jail population needs estimates.
I called TCJS Executive Director Adan Muñoz and his Assistant Director Brandon Wood to ask about these allegations. They emphasized that it wasn't just the private contractor but also the Sheriff's Office, the County Judge and other local officials who had encouraged them to revisit their estimates. But I was disappointed to learn that they had indeed altered their methodology in response to those arguments - IMO such estimates shouldn't be politicized by changing them in reaction to proponents or opponents in local jail building squabbles.
Muñoz said that when credible evidence was presented arguing for a different methodology, it was his agency's responsibility to consider it. In this case, data was provided purporting to show that the jail had already exceeded on at least one day the capacity TCJS estimates said wouldn't be needed until 2015.
However, those peak inmate numbers, said Assistant Director Wood, turned out to be ephemeral information to collect. The Sheriff's Office told state regulators that the average daily population of the Grayson Jail for September '08 was 475. By contrast, in its letter in April, Southwestern Correctional told TCJS the peak number of inmates in September '08 was 467, which of course is impossible if, as the Sheriff said, the average was higher. (!)
Wood said after independently recalculating the numbers from daily population reports, TCJS finally settled on 478 beds as the "peak" for September '08, but that figure included inmates housed from other counties as well as 96 beds leased to the US Marshall's Service. In any event, both he and Muñoz emphasized that estimates of future need are merely "scenarios" based on different sets of assumptions. And Muñoz emphasized he'd successfully resisted pressure from local Grayson County interests to justify estimates as high as 1,100, which he said weren't warranted using even the most liberal assumptions.
Muñoz said TCJS also changed its estimates in Austin County using the new Grayson methodology, in part because of their similar settings on the outskirts of a larger metropolitan area.
However it seems like such calculations - which are inevitably used in highly politicized ways in local jail debates - should be more standardized and less subject to lobbying efforts by local jail building interests. Maybe TCJS changed their methodology for legitimate reasons, but the timing - coming in response to Southwestern Correctional's letter - leaves an impression that the company was able to influence state agency projections. I can understand why the reporter in Grayson County looked askance at the revised, higher estimates. There's something about the whole chain of events that doesn't quite pass the smell test.
MORE: From Texas Prison Bidness.