Dirty Dealings in Waco, New Jail on the Way

Waco, Texas can expect to see a new CEC prison in their town. The Jack Harwell Detention Center was built by the usual suspect, Hale-Mills Construction, and has a capacity of 816 beds. Pursuant to state law, the McLennan county Sheriff must authorize the construction of a new private prison. County Sheriff, Larry Lynch, was recently under fire by CLEAT (Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas) for taking kickbacks administered by CEC as well as manufacturing an overcrowding crisis at the existing downtown Waco jail (which is also operated by CEC) in order to create a demand for an additional prison, thereby giving CEC a market. Tommy Witherspoon of the Waco Tribune-Herald covered the story:

A spokesman for the state’s largest law enforcement association is calling for state and federal investigations into dealings between McLennan County officials and a private detention corporation as the county continues to negotiate jail contracts.

“First of all, we don’t believe anything that officials in McLennan County say anymore,” said Charley Wilkison, political and legislative director for the 16,500-member Combined Law Enforcement Agencies of Texas. “The credibility gap in this county is incredible.”

…The county received proposals from just one company, CEC, which has had a contract to operate the downtown county jail since 1999. CEC contracts with several agencies, primarily federal, to keep prisoners at the downtown jail.

The company’s McLennan County contract, which pays Lynch $12,000 above his county salary of $88,000 to oversee the downtown jail, expires Oct. 1.

…Wilkison said he will ask Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to investigate whether Lynch violated the Texas Public Information Act by failing to respond to CLEAT’s open-records requests for all correspondence between Lynch and CEC officials.

He said he also is seeking state and federal investigations about whether Lynch lawfully and ethically can accept money from the private vendor or whether it is a conflict of interest when he helps decide the fate of the jail system.

“The sheriff has taken $91,000 of personal money that goes into his bank account, and then he says: ‘I am still able to decide. I am still OK deciding whether it is in our best interest to privatize.’ That old dog won’t hunt. Nobody here believes that.”

…“We think inmates are being kept in jail to create an artificial public safety crisis so the hue and cry for a new jail can come and the new jail can be privatized and built by CEC,” Wilkison said.

Lynch stated that he would “not take additional money from [CEC]” (TPB). However, the sheriff failed to mention if he would take any less. Lynch refused to discuss the stipend that he receives from CEC, saying it is “old news” because both he and his Sheriff predecessors have each been on the CEC payroll for years (WT):

“What we have done is legalize something that is ethically and morally wrong,” CLEAT spokesman Charley Wilkison said of the stipend. “It constitutes a clear financial interest between the sheriff and the for-profit companies. Can he take money from the people who provide vests to the deputies? Can he take money from the fleet dealer who sells cars to the county? Can he take money from any of the food vendors? If that had happened, a grand jury would be visiting on this issue right now.”

Despite the tempers that have flared over this issue, a piece of legislation, HB 3903, that would have outlawed public officials from being on the payroll of private prison corporations died on the House floor. Throughout all this, Waco has continued construction on the facility, and it appears that on January 5th the jail will be completed. The jail still needs to pass its initial inspection by the State and finish installing the video surveillance equipment.

The story of Waco is a textbook example of the dangers of having a public official in a position of power on the payroll of a prison company. Manufacturing prison overcrowding problems in order to construct a new privately-owned facility for a company which you receive money from is highly unethical, yet apparently legal. This is not an unusual occurrence by prison companies either. Texas State Senator Eddie Lucio recently refused to receive any kickbacks because he was in the interest of multiple prison construction companies. Even former Vice President Dick Cheney for former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales were indicted for prison profiteering last year.

I will keep my eyes and ears open to what happens in Waco once the facility is completed.

Pennsylvania Looks to Move 1,600 Inmates to Minnesota

Pennsylvania currently has 1,600 prison inmates that the state is looking to move elsewhere to reduce overcrowding. Appleton, MN is hoping that the deal goes through in order to fill up the CCA-owned Prairie Correctional Facility. The facility has had problems in the past with keeping the facility full as they just lost a large number of inmates from Washington state. CCA has told 120 of the facility’s employees that they would lose their jobs right before Chrismas on December 1st. Chris Havens and Kevin Giles covered the story for the Star Tribune:

  • “We’re trying to help preserve those jobs any way we can,” said David Crist, deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC).
  • Crist said Monday that DOC is acting as Prairie’s agent as part of an agreement among states to shift prisoners when overcrowding occurs. “States exchange these prisoners without money changing hands,” he said.
  • Minnesota is one of six states — Kansas, Nevada, Oklahoma, Michigan and Virginia being the others — interested in taking the prisoners. Pennsylvania seeks the transfers because of overcrowding in the state’s 27 prisons.
  • Losing the Appleton prison, in west-central Minnesota near the South Dakota border, would devastate an economically depressed area, said Mayor Ron Ronning, who also works at the prison.
  • “If Prairie fails, I can say to you easily that 60 percent of this city’s budget would go away,” he said. “It’s kind of a depressed time for us right now, and I hope something breaks loose for us.”
  • The prison pays about $1.1 million to the city of about 2,000 residents each year for taxes and water usage. Housing 1,600 new inmates, he said, would be a “dream come true.”
  • If Pennsylvania chose Minnesota for the transfer, none of the new male inmates would have mental health problems or serious medical and behavioral conditions.
  • “Pennsylvania isn’t looking to dump a number of difficult-to-manage offenders outside of their system,” Crist said.
  • They also would come at Pennsylvania’s expense — at no cost to Minnesota taxpayers, he said.

Does anyone else see what I see? First of all, the idea of prisoners changing hands “without money changing hands” seems noble enough until you realize that the prisoners are the currency. The article points out that these 1,600 souls are mostly non-violent offenders stuck for petty crimes–prime meat for private prisons as they are easier to maintain and require less specialized supervision. These inmates are just as good as money to Minnesota, and that makes me sick to my stomach. Prisoners should be a cost to society, so that sending someone to jail is a last-choice option for a state government. When prisoners become currency we can not expect to see our staggering figure of 2.3 million imprisoned Americans decrease any time soon.

Secondly, if a single prison brings in 60% of a city’s budget you need to hire a new accounting department. Even if 60% of a budget was brought in by a hug factory there is no good sense in putting more than half your eggs in a single basket. Yes, if the Prairie Correctional Facility goes under, as some privately owned franchises have a history of doing, then the city of Appleton is in trouble. Not only will a large amount of citizens lose their jobs, but a large portion of the income will leave. I can’t blame the city for doing what they need to do in order to keep the finances in order. However, this is the danger of opening a private prison in a city and planning for it to be a job and budget savior. Nothing lasts forever, and when a city banks on a prison as their main source of city income and job creation the city government takes a huge risk. Did Appleton not pick up on this after their Washington prisoners were swept away from them in order to cause this mess? What happens when Pennsylvania wants their inmates back? Housing inmates is not a sustainable business model, and it is not a dependable source of steady income for a city. I hope that cities stop learning this lesson the hard way.