Harris County, Texas Sends 600 Jail Prisoners to Private Pen in Louisiana
In December 2007, Harris County, Texas officials announced they were sending an additional 200 jail prisoners – 180 of them women – to a privately-run prison in northeast Louisiana. This brings the total number of Harris County prisoners incarcerated at the West Carroll Detention Center (WCDC) in Epps, Louisiana to 600. WCDC is owned and operated by Emerald Correctional Management.
Harris County, which includes the City of Houston, has a history of failing inspections by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) due to overcrowding and staffing issues. The Harris County Jail has failed every inspection since 2004, but finally passed an inspection in May 2007, shortly before shipping 400 prisoners to WCDC.
The county is also concerned about intervention from the U.S. Dept. of Justice (DOJ). It was reported in March 2008 that the DOJ had notified county officials that the jail was under investigation, with a focus on “protection of inmates from harm, environmental conditions, and inmate medical and mental health care.”
The Harris County jail system houses around 11,000 prisoners – 1,600 over capacity – and has received permission from the TCJS to use 2,000 “variance beds” (metal frame cots) to accommodate overcrowding.
So why did county officials opt to export prisoners to Louisiana? It would cost more to house them at the local jail and pay deputies overtime, according to Harris County Judge Ed Emmett. The Sheriff’s Department paid about $28 million in overtime in fiscal year 2007, stated Chief Deputy Mike Smith. The county is paying Emerald $38 per prisoner per day, or around $9 million annually. Smith said it would cost an additional $5 per prisoner per day to incarcerate them locally.
“And certainly, if we brought all those people back from Louisiana, we’d be out of compliance [due to overcrowding],” said Smith. He extolled the virtues of WCDC, noting that surprise inspections were being conducted monthly. “We interview inmates. We sample the food. We look at disciplinary records,” Smith said. “It’s a well-run operation. If we didn’t like it, we’d find someplace else.”
However, not taken into account is the cost to the exported prisoners, who are removed from their families, faced with expensive long distance phone calls to maintain ties with their loved ones. The transferred prisoners are serving state jail sentences of two years or less.
In November 2007, Harris County voters defeated a $195 million bond proposal for construction of a 2,500-bed jail, booking center and prisoner mental health facility. As a result, local residents are now paying millions of dollars to a private prison firm to house excess prisoners out-of-state. And that cost is expected to rise: In May 2008, the Houston Chronicle reported that the Harris County Sheriff’s Department had received permission to transfer an additional 1,130 prisoners to WCDC, at an annual cost of $15.5 million.
To quote County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia, that is a “lot of money for short-term solutions.” A new 1,100-bed jail is scheduled to open in Harris County in 2009, which may eliminate the need to export prisoners. Of course, reforms that would reduce the jail population such as allowing prisoners release on bond pending trial, prompt removal of sentenced prisoners to the state prison system and reducing misdemeanor sentences are not even worth considering.
Sources: Houston Chronicle, Associated Press, www.johntfloyd.com
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