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Continuing Problems at Texas Jail Roil County’s Relationship with GEO Group

As previously reported in PLN, Florida-based GEO Group has had a litany of problems at the jail it operates for Liberty County, Texas. During a rocky 57-day stretch in mid-2019, there were prisoner escapes and suicides, discovery of contraband, guard theft of prisoners’ trust fund monies and maintenance problems that resulted in two failed inspections by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS). That led fed up county commissioners to seek a capacity reduction in their own jail – which would require GEO group to relocate prisoners and detainees at its own expense – while also requesting county staff to draft a Request for Proposal (RFP) to replace the privately-owned jail operator.

“It is concerning to us,” admitted County Judge Jay Knight. “The county is not responsible for the day-to-day operations of the jail, it’s GEO alone, but by statute, (county Sheriff Bobby Rader) is over the jail.”

The county owns the jail facility and is responsible for its maintenance. But no county employees are onsite because GEO Group is responsible for jail operations – a distinction that apparently left each party believing the other was liable for the jail’s many maintenance issues, which remained unresolved when TCJS arrived for an April 22, 2019, inspection. The problems inspectors found resulted in four violations:

• Keeping prisoners in holding cells over 48 hours in violation of time-limit standards;

• Incomplete intake forms for screening prisoners with mental health issues or those who are potentially suicidal;

• Incomplete medical files for previous state mental health treatment, and

• Preventative maintenance lapses, some resulting in unsafe conditions, including damaged light fixtures, missing vandal-resistant screws, exposed electrical wiring, burned and melted light covers, loose lock panels, exposed lock mechanisms, damaged intercoms and a telephone partition with a dangerous exposed metal edge, as well as missing floor tiles in the bathrooms, showers and kitchen.

TCJS inspectors returned on June 28, 2019, only to find most of the previously discovered issues had not been resolved. They also noted additional problems with a prisoner’s prescription medication, another prisoner’s receipt of physician-prescribed medication, and copious amounts of contraband in plain sight in prisoner housing areas. When that visit ended, TCJS cited the jail for six violations – the original four, plus two more for new problems found.

At a meeting August 1, 2019, county commissioners asked TCJS Executive Director Brandon Woods to threaten the jail with a Remedial Order to reduce capacity from 285 to 144 beds if the jail was still out-of-compliance on September 1, 2019. That effectively forced GEO Group to find new housing for 69 prisoners and detainees out of the jail’s population of 213. At the same time, the commission asked staff to draft an RFP to replace GEO.

Judge Knight then extended the deadline to November 1, 2019, by which time the jail passed another re-inspection and was removed from TCJS’s list of noncompliant jails.

“The GEO folks knew what we were up against and they stepped up to the plate,” Judge Knight said.

County Commissioner Greg Arthur joined him to publicly laud the firm, which with $2.33 billion in 2018 revenues is the nation’s largest private prison operator.

Soon after it passed inspection, however, the jail lost its top two GEO Group employees – the chief, who resigned, and the warden, who left on extended sick leave. The jail’s September 2019 Licensed Jailer Turnover Report disclosed a 10% turnover rate for the 72 guards GEO Group employs there, among the highest rates of the state’s 254 counties.

The jail has had a history of escapes, suicides and staff sexually assaulting prisoners (PLN, March 2017, p. 9; July 2014, p. 47). More problems arose in 2019:

On July 16, 2019, a guard at the jail, 23-year-old Mayra Gallegos-Balderas, was arrested and charged with theft of a total of $1,478 of prisoners’ property, which was upgraded from a misdemeanor to a felony because she was a public servant.

On August 20, 2019, two prisoners, Clay Sterling Harvey, 44, and Chance Marshall Hunt, 28, escaped from the jail. They were recaptured hours later about 50 miles away.

On September 12, 2019, the corpse of Cristian David Sarmiento, 35, was discovered hanging by a bed sheet in his cell, where he was being held for Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials after an August 4, 2019, arrest for aggravated assault while free on bond on a driving-while-intoxicated charge. Sheriff Rader has turned over the investigation into the death to the Texas Rangers.

In executive session September 2019, the Liberty County Commissioners Court questioned the jail’s new interim warden, Jackie Edwards, who said the jail is understaffed by five guards — vacant positions he wants to fill with a new training class.

 “The pay is low, and they have rookies at most positions,” noted Sheriff Rader. “They are down five employees, which is not bad, but with the ratio of guards to inmates, they should be okay.”