Excellent local coverage, particularly for a small-market paper. I don't recall reporters from the Tyler Morning Telegraph, for example, using open records so aggressively during Smith County's three recent failed jail-bond elections.
A few clues as to why the sheriff continues to question the wisdom of contracting with Southwestern to build and operate the jail came to light this week when he responded to a Herald Democrat request for records under the Texas Public Information Act.
In an interview Thursday, [Sheriff Keith] Gary said he will continue to meet with Southwestern, its construction contractor Hale Mills and its architect HOK until the Commissioners Court officially abandons that option. He added that he will not sign anything until he has an approved contract with all its attachments in hand and those documents address all of his safety and operational concerns.
Among the records the Herald Democrat received are notes that show that the sheriff, Chief Deputy Ron Brown and others have deep concerns about Southwestern Correctional's jail design. The company has operated in Louisiana under the name LaSalle Corrections and works mainly with prisons there.
In a letter to Pete Newsham, project architect with HOK, Gary wrote Aug. 24 that he and his staff were pleased with the cooperation of HOK, Hale Mills and Southwestern during a meeting on Aug. 11. However, "The outcome of the meeting on 8-19-09 has totally changed our feelings in regard to the progress made during our first meeting. The Sheriff's Office does not want a prison. ... I do not approve of a building, the design of which is primarily for prison operations and programs.
"The purpose of a County jail is, 'Care, Custody and Control of Inmates.' A large number of county inmates have not been to trial and found guilty. We understand that your mind set is totally different, and based on a convicted criminal concept. The fact that we are the customer has been lost in the discussion! Therefore we will find it difficult to approve the purchase of a product that we do not agree with."
Gary told HOK that he intends to continue working with them to address specific issues, and would ask Bynum to sit in on the next round of discussions.
In brief form, Gary outlined to Newsham the areas of disagreement, "the concept of what we believe to be the excessive inmate movement within the facility with or without supervision ... the concept of feeding inmates in a common dining hall ... the large outside prison yards ... inmate movement to the commissary ... the concept of contact visits.
"You have often stated to us that this facility will be under my control and will ultimately become our county jail. Therefore the facility must be planned, constructed and operated as a county jail. At this time, I cannot in good faith approve the plans."
Adding to Gary's apprehension, he said, is that Southwestern's newest enterprise, the Burnet County Jail, experienced a jail break a few weeks ago. The incident led to TCJS ruling Southwestern was non-compliant with jail operations requirements.
Monday, September 14, 2009
Open records reveal Grayson Sheriff's disdain for private jail plans
Kathy Williams at the Sherman Herald-Democrat is doing an excellent job covering the roller coaster ride over building a new Grayson County Jail after police unions scuttled a November election with threatened open meetings litigation. Williams has been especially adept using the open records act to dig deeper into the local controversy. A portion of her latest piece explains why the Sheriff opposes building a private jail operated by Southwestern Correctional/La Salle Corrections: