Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Breakout! Burnet jail escape ill-timed for Grayson jail builders

In love and in politics, timing is often everything, and for jail builders in Grayson County, the timing of last week's jail break in Burnet County couldn't be worse.

The Burnet County Jail is the only one in Texas currently operated by Southwestern Correctional LLC, which is based in Louisiana and operates eight facilities there (mostly for the state prison system) under the name La Salle Corrections. (Hundreds of inmates from the Harris County Jail diaspora ended up in a La Salle facility in Urania, La). They also manage a federal facility for immigration and US Marshall's service prisoners in Crystal City, TX.

Grayson County Judge Drue Bynum and three other members of the commissioners court would like to hire Southwestern Correctional to run an oversized jail in Grayson County with an eye toward contracting out extra space to other jurisdictions. The Commission on Jail Standards boosted their estimate of Grayson's jail capacity needs after the private company and county officials lobbied them to change their methodology.

Now, the ill-timed escape and the apparent culpability of Southwestern Correctional employees may give voters a new reason to reject jail bonds scheduled to go to the voters in November. Here's an excerpt from a blandly titled piece on the topic in the Sherman Herald-Democrat:

Charles Ryan Boisseau, editor of the Burnet Bulletin and writer for the related Highland Lakes Newspapers, said he had spoken with Adan Munoz, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, about the incident. Boisseau said Friday that Munoz confirmed that his office had officially deemed the [Burnet] jail non-compliant.

"The best way to describe it is a lack of diligence, a lack of professionalism," Munoz said.

Boisseau said the account he got of how the escape happened was that guards were rushing to process inmates back into the jail after a recreation break outside in a secure area. He said each inmate was supposed to be searched before and after going outside.

"One of the guards walked ahead of the inmates, and just basically let them close the door behind themselves," Boisseau said. That's when the man escaped by going back into the recreation yard, climbing onto a roof and sliding down a drain pipe.

Boisseau, in a copyrighted story Friday, said that Billy McConnell of Southwestern Correctional LLC confirmed that the jailer responsible for supervising the inmates coming in and out of the jail had resigned and two others face disciplinary action. Boisseau added in a telephone conversation that Burnet County Sheriff W.T. Smith's staff said he was worn out by the events since Sunday and could only be reached by e-mail.

Southwestern has 30 days to show Texas Commission on Jail Standards how it plans to correct the noncompliance issues. The inmate, Nuana Antonio Fuentes-Sanchez, was in jail awaiting trial on accusations he violently attacked a couple in their home during a robbery.

Boisseau said that privatization of building and operating the jail in Burnet County was a controversial issue. Burnet County Judge Donna Klaeger also serves as chairwoman of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Reacting to these revelations, the blog Texas Prison Bidness asks, "Southwestern Correctional has major problems in Burnet; Are Grayson Commissioners watching?"

One wonders what might be discovered by searching further into La Salle Corrections in Louisiana? A quick Google search revealed an anecdote from 2003 about a La Salle-run facility where

For $3, inmates and visitors to the Claiborne Parish Detention Center in Homer [could] buy pirated copies of recordings by a wide array of performers, according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of the music industry. The jail's computers were used to illegally copy recordings by performers ranging from rapper Eminen to country music's George Strait to New Age instrumentalist John Tesh, Baton Rouge-based Utopia Entertainment Inc. charged in the copyright-infringement case ... in U.S. District Court in Shreveport.
That also sounds like a situation exhibiting a lack of "diligence" and "professionalism." One suspects this incident and the recent escape won't be the only lapses reporters or jail critics in Sherman might find if they dig into La Salle Corrections too hard.

According to TCJS chief Adan Munoz, in Burnet County Southwestern Correctional/La Salle convinced local officials to go with an outsized facility, just as they've been pushing in Grayson. "Our recommendation was 432" beds, he told me last week, but "They went with a private company’s own needs analysis and built 587, after initialing wanting 700 beds."

Some locals in Grayson County are already pushing back hard against plans that rely on TCJS' most recent, higher needs assessment, which relies on a methodology provided by Southwestern Correctional. That overreach by jail builders, combined with likely blowback from this recent escape episode, bode ill, one would think, for a jail vote that's now less than two months away.

I've seen no polling, but one suspects that if there's any organized local opposition at all it could easily vanquish the bonds at the ballot box, spoiling for now Judge Bynum's long-cherished dream of a jail so big it pays for itself.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Why do counties like Grayson rely so heavily on jail bed estimates from the folks who would benefit most from high estimates (i.e., jail operators, builders and architects)? And it's not the Jail Standards Commission's job to do estimates for counties. The taxpayers DESERVE a truly independent needs assessment.