Wednesday, May 28, 2008

'A couple Jills with their eyes on a couple bills': McLennan County seeks profit over public safety with privatization schemes

Because there ain't no man
Who got the money in his hand
Who got any of that bread
Bein' slow in the head
The easier it looks
The hotter it hooks
There ain't no such thing as easy money
- Rickie Lee Jones, Easy Money

Nearly every jail in the state of any size is overcrowded and struggling to find enough guards, but there are still some local officials that think they can solve the problem for free or cheap.

In McLennan County (Waco is the county seat), a story in today's Waco Tribune Herald ("Solutions aplenty sought for jail overcrowding dilemma," May 28) informs us that the county commissioners court is "seeking proposals from private vendors to alleviate overcrowding at the county jail, a situation that earlier this month prompted them to authorize the hiring of 12 new jailers." The commissioners court laid out four different versions of a privatization option - indeed, the only possibility that seems not to be on the table is to let the Sheriff's department run the jail. Reported the Tribune Herald:

County commissioners have settled on four options for solving jail overcrowding.

With the county’s lease with private detention company Community Education Centers to operate a 329-bed downtown jail expiring Oct. 1, one option seeks proposals to operate and manage the McLennan County Detention Center on Columbus Avenue.

In recent years, the county has earned about $800,000 a year from its contract with CEC, formerly CiviGenics, which contracts with several agencies, primarily the federal government, to detain prisoners.

However, in the past year, the county’s revenue stream has dipped to about $200,000 because the county is paying CEC to house overflow prisoners from the county jail on State Highway 6.

Lewis has described the county’s current contract with CEC as a “sweetheart deal” but warned Tuesday that the good times are almost up and that a new contract might approach $61 a day to house each prisoner.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Ray Meadows bristled at the suggestion.

“For $61, we could just put them all on a cruise ship and let them float around and let the cruise people take care of them,” Meadows said.

A second option calls for a private company to finance, design, construct, operate and manage a new 1,000-bed jail to be built on 8.9 acres west of the current 931-bed facility on Highway 6.

A third option combines the first two, with a company operating the downtown jail and building and operating the new 1,000-bed jail on Highway 6.

The fourth option calls for a private company to take over all county detention duties except for booking, releasing and records. That would include operating the downtown and Highway 6 jails and building a new one.

Commissioners hope to look far enough into the future and build a large-enough jail that can help pay for itself or make money for McLennan County by leasing prisoner space to other counties with overcrowded jails, Lewis said.

The jail standards commission’s remedial order has also focused on the prisoner-to-staff ratio, which the state says is out of compliance. The sheriff is in the process of hiring 12 new jailers at a cost of $203,000 to help regain compliance.

Several thoughts come to mind reading this account. First of all, if the contract with CEC earns $200,000 per year and the county just spent more than that on extra jailers, they're really not saving any money at this point through the privatization route.

That makes me wonder why they think that would change going forward? When a private contractor can hold federal immigration inmates for $88 per day per head, what incentive do they have to house McLennan County's prisoners on the cheap?

The line about putting inmates on a cruise ship for $61 per day is funny, but it displays a pretty grave misunderstanding of the private prison market in Texas. A few years back private companies were willing to give "sweetheart deals" like the one McLennan County has to get their foot in the door; with fat federal contracts available, those days are likely behind us.

What's more, even if they can find someone to operate the jail on the cheap, the county is still liable for conditions, abuse, etc.. It may be less hassle for the Sheriff to let someone else manage the operation, but the county must still pay to operate the jail, plus the company's profit, and if anything goes wrong county taxpayers are still on the hook.

The McLennan County private jail scheme is a speculative proposal wherein the commissioners court hopes to become carceral entrepreneurs, selling bed space to others. It may sound good to suggest building "
a large-enough jail that can help pay for itself or make money for McLennan County by leasing prisoner space." But what that really means is that - if present, untenable increases in incarceration rates in the face of declining crime are not sustained - the county will wind up with a huge, empty jail and local taxpayers must still pay off the bonds.

For example, if John McCain becomes President in 2009 and enacts comprehensive immigration reform, which he favors, the federal demand for immigration beds could evaporate nearly overnight, freeing up existing private prisons to soak up excess demand by the counties.

Alternatively, many counties are implementing alternatives to incarceration that could reduce carceral demand over time.

Either of those eventualities - not to mention a litany of other conceivable vicissitudes of fate - could turn McLennan County's entrepreneurial jail scheme from a moneymaker into a long-term financial disaster.

MORE: What options besides jail building for Waco?


Michael said...

Someone wanna check my math? I'm figuring that 200k for 12 jailers averages out to 16,666 apiece, or about $8.33 an hour if they're all full-time. Of course, it's probably spread out over different salaries and number of hours, but aren't there better paying jobs in Waco than that? I'd think any skills job at one of the restaurants around the "circle" would pay better, plus you get reduced price meals and -- oh yeah -- you're not in danger of getting shanked by a prisoner!

Earlier this year, Senator Kirk Watson gave some lawyers in Austin a legislative update on the off-session and talked about two bedrock Texas principles -- "No new taxes" and "Tough on crime" -- on a collision course. Ayep.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Your math is good, Michael, sans FICA, etc. Perhaps they're aiming for a category of employees just a cut below the fast food mavens around the circle! Considering that pay rate, equally surprising is that they want to use a private vendor to save money. Think how much the private guards be paid?!

I'm glad to hear Sen. Watson recognizes those budgetary trends: It's actually quite a relief to me that he'd say that in public. When he was Mayor, he almost singlehandedly set the Austin city budget on a collision course with "tuff on crime" rhetoric, and was quite unapologetic about it. If he's now leaning toward fiscal hawkery, I'll be quite relieved. Watson's a really smart guy so when he's on the wrong side he can do a lot of damage.

W W Woodward said...

I'm wondering if McLennan County commissioners know or care that Texas county jailors (including private jails) are held to higher standards than are TDCJ-ID guards. American citizenship, high school diploma, or a GED with 12 semester hours of college, no convictions higher than than a class C misdemeanor. Even a class C misdemeanor can keep one out of the ranks of Texas County Jailors if the misdemeanor is job related.

I don't know what the starting pay for TDCJ-ID is these days but it has to beat $8.33/hr.