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Escape is Latest Problem at Troubled Privately-run Texas Jail

In October 2015, Phillip Henry Freeman disappeared from the Liberty County Jail near Houston, Texas. He was recaptured living in a wooded area in Arkansas in late January 2016. His escape was the latest in a slew of problems at the 281-bed facility, which is operated by New Jersey-based Community Education Centers (CEC). In recent years the Liberty County Jail has experienced three prisoner deaths, including two suicides; two top jail administrators were fired amid allegations of sexual misconduct; one administrator was found to lack a state jailer’s license and the facility has failed a number of state inspections. [See: PLN, July 2014, p.47].

Freeman, 38, was last seen working in the jail’s kitchen prior to his disappearance. Jailers searched for four hours before declaring him an escapee; they remain uncertain how he absconded.

The escape “seems to encapsulate all of the problems of turning a jail over to a for-profit prison corporation,” stated Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, a civil rights group that is outspoken in its opposition to prison privatization. “Including incentivizing high rates of incarceration, staffing at a very low level to maximize profits, which lead to operational outcomes like you’ve seen – failed inspections and escapes.”

On April 18, 2015, Jeremy Keith Shomo, 32, was found hanging in his cell at the Liberty County Jail; he had wrapped a shoe lace around a broken towel hook bracket to commit suicide. Just three days earlier, Beverly Ann Mooring, 57, who had been arrested for public intoxication, was discovered dead in the jail’s detox cell.

Inspectors from the Texas State Commission on Jail Standards had been planning to visit a nearby facility when reports of the two prisoner deaths in Liberty County came in. They were rerouted, and discovered that Liberty County jailers were often taking up to 75 minutes between prisoner welfare checks instead of the 30 minutes required by state law for prisoners exhibiting suicidal or bizarre behavior. The inspectors also cited the broken towel hook in Shomo’s cell, which had exposed the bracket he used to kill himself, and noted that guards were not completing a mental disability/suicide screening form to document their having distributed prescribed medications.

Prior annual inspections by the Commission had turned up numerous maintenance issues at the jail, including lack of prisoner access to potable water and broken showers, toilets and door-locking mechanisms. Further, there were insufficient opportunities for prisoners to exercise. The Liberty County Jail was found noncompliant with minimum state standards in every annual inspection between 2010 and 2015, except for 2012. Nonetheless, CEC’s contract to operate the facility was renewed and is now scheduled to expire in October 2018. 

Sources: Houston Chronicle, www.prnewswire.com, www.texasprisonbidness.org


 

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