Last month, McLennan County received a notice of non-compliance from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards after the death of 25-year-old Michael Martinez in the Jack Harwell Detention Center.
Three employees of the privately run jail have been arrested and charged with forging government documents after they allegedly covered up the fact that they were not performing visual checks on at-risk people — a violation of federal law. Records indicated that jailers had checked on Martinez within the required half-hour time span, but an investigation revealed that Martinez had been hanging for almost three hours when found.
LaSalle Corrections is the for-profit company that runs the Jack Harwell Center for McLennan County. “We think they’re excellent operators and, unfortunately, sometimes things like this happen,” said McLennan County Commissioner Scott Felton.
But that’s not what families with loved ones in that jail say. At the Texas Jail Project, we have received pleas for help from families concerned about loved ones being refused mental-health treatment, essential medications and medical care.
Several days before Christmas, another story came to light when the Tribune-Herald revealed that a formerly jailed 30-year-old woman filed a lawsuit in Waco’s 170th State District Court against LaSalle Corrections. The lawsuit alleges she was repeatedly sexually assaulted at the facility and goes on to describe an out-of-control institution rife with smuggling, extortion and drug abuse.
Felton’s description of LaSalle as “excellent operators” is strange considering these incidents as well as the history of this facility. Last year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) removed all immigrant detainees from the Jack Harwell Center after ongoing claims of civil rights violations by attorneys and advocates. Prior to May of 2013, another private contractor of this facility, CEC, was cited for sexual abuse and other violations.
Despite ongoing controversy, McLennan County renewed its contract with LaSalle last year with the addition of a 90 percent occupancy clause: If the jail is filled with fewer people than 90 percent of its available beds, LaSalle can end its contract with a 90-day notice. We believe that a jail should not have a contracted mandate to stay full because that results in a deliberate effort to increase the number of arrests.
This does not make Waco a safer community and intensifies mistrust of law enforcement.