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Privately-operated Texas Prison Rebounds

Despite years of controversy that included sitting vacant for months after it was built and staff members being arrested for smuggling contraband and having sexual relationships with prisoners, the Jack Harwell Detention Center in Waco, Texas has rebounded. It now houses more prisoners, obtained a lower interest rate on the bonds floated to build the jail, and has a recently-extended contract with private prison operator LaSalle Corrections, Inc.

McLennan County commissioners voted on June 2, 2015 to extend LaSalle’s contract for three years. The company’s prior agreement had been scheduled to expire at the end of June 2015.

“We’re glad to extend it with LaSalle because we trust them and they’re good business people,” said County Judge Scott Felton, a member of the McLennan County Public Facility Corporation’s board of directors. “They pay the note payment on the bonds to pay for the jail and they’ve never missed a payment, even without making money.”

Felton said the jail has been losing money steadily since it was built because the prisoner population has not met expectations. The facility has capacity for 816 prisoners, but has housed fewer than 700 at any one time. During November and December of 2014, the average daily population fell to 445.

The contract extension approved by the county commissioners includes a provision that takes effect on June 13, 2016, stating the contract can be declared void after a 90-day notice period if the jail population falls below 575 prisoners for two consecutive months.

“[LaSalle is] a for-profit business, and they have to have some assurance that they can be able to hang on here without being financially punished until things change,” Felton said in reference to the 90-day termination provision. “It’s been a great relationship on both sides, and that was said right upfront.”

Compounding the problem has been the federal government’s change in policy of not incarcerating illegal immigrants at such a high rate, according to County Commissioner Ben Perry. Shortly after LaSalle began operating the jail in 2013, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reached an agreement with the company to house an average of 200 ICE detainees at the facility. But shortly afterwards, ICE withdrew its prisoners.

“When the federal government took the stance they did toward immigration, the jails emptied out,” said Perry.

Fortunately for McLennan County taxpayers, the original 2009 bond issue of $49 million to build the jail was refinanced at a much lower interest rate, resulting in savings to the county of nearly $13 million in long-term financing costs.

“What this allows us to do is to end up paying at a much cheaper amount than originally thought,” Felton stated. “All in all we’ve had a lot of bumps in the road over the past couple years but this is a very positive thing.”

The refinance, which was finalized on November 2, 2014, lowered the interest rate on the bonds from 6.624% to 3.48%. It also removed the bonds’ tax-exempt status, which will enable the jail to house larger numbers of federal prisoners without restrictions imposed by the IRS. [See: PLN, Sept. 2015, p.18].

“This allows us a lot of flexibility to go out and get outside contracts because we’re not limited by that tax-exempt status anymore,” said County Commissioner Will Jones. He added the savings will come over the next 20 years – the life of the bonds.

These developments cap the tumultuous history of the jail, which sat empty for months after it first opened in 2010. According to the Waco Tribune, the private prison company that operated the facility at the time – Community Education Centers of New Jersey – could not fill the beds because it was unsuccessful attracting government contracts. It was for that reason the county contracted with LaSalle Corrections beginning in May 2013.

The jail has been enmeshed in controversy on several occasions, most involving staff misconduct. For example, on January 27, 2015, a former guard at the Jack Harwell Detention Center pleaded guilty to having sex with a prisoner. Melissa Suzanne Corona, 25, of Waco, was sentenced to three years’ deferred probation under a plea agreement. She was also fined $750.

According to court documents, Corona initiated the relationship in 2013 by kissing the prisoner more than 10 times, after which they engaged in improper contact through the bars of the prisoner’s cell. Eventually, the indictment states, Corona entered the cell and performed sex acts on the prisoner. [See: PLN, Aug. 2015, p.63; Aug. 2014, p.56].

The charges against Corona were not the first involving sexual improprieties. On September 18, 2013, McLennan County Sheriff’s deputies arrested three LaSalle Corrections guards. Regina Antoinette Edwards, 48, and Dorothy Pennington, 23, were arrested for improper sexual acts with a person in custody. Pennington pleaded guilty and received five years’ deferred probation. The complaint against Edwards stated that investigators traced phone calls between her and a prisoner in which they discussed sexual acts which allegedly occurred between 2011 and 2013. She was sentenced in June 2015 to two years of deferred probation and a $500 fine. [See: PLN, May 2014, p.56].

The third guard, Sherry Lynn Haynes, 41, was charged with possession of a prohibited substance in a correctional facility, a third-degree felony, after she allegedly confessed that she “snuck in her bra one pack of cigarettes containing tobacco” and gave it to a prisoner.

Then on November 13, 2015, three LaSalle Corrections guards were arrested on charges that they falsified records related to the death of prisoner Michael Antonio Martinez, 25, who was found hanging in his cell on November 1. The three were accused of reporting that they checked on Martinez when in fact they had not.

Guards Michael Crittenden, 24, Christopher Simpson, 24, and Milton Walker, 33, were arrested by sheriff’s deputies after officials discovered the falsified records. According to McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara, the records indicated that the three guards had checked on Martinez within a half-hour time span required for certain at-risk prisoners, but an investigation indicated that when Martinez was found he had been hanging for almost three hours. His death was ruled a suicide. [See: PLN, March 2016, p.63].

Four days after Martinez’s death, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards issued a letter to LaSalle stating the Jack Harwell facility was out of compliance with the rule that at-risk prisoners must be checked every half-hour while in custody.

Jail Standards Commission Executive Director Brandon Wood said the notice triggered a second inspection by the commission to recertify the jail.


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