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.

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