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Harris County Shipping Detainees from Overcrowded Jail to Mississippi CoreCivic Prison

On December 1, 2023, Harris County, Texas, began sending up to 360 detainees from the county’s jails to a prison in Mississippi, under a contract with its private operator, CoreCivic. The County Commissioners Court approved the $11.3 million one-year agreement, which has renewal options, on November 14, 2023, just weeks after regulators from the state Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) ordered the county to reduce population in its overcrowded jail.

Criminal court backlogs are blamed for overflowing the jail with 9,378 detainees—70% of whom are awaiting trial. Harris County Sheriff’s Office Chief of Staff Jason Spencer said the county looked at proximity, price and track record before choosing Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Mississippi, agreeing to pay CoreCivic $85 a day per detainee sent there to await trial from Houston, over 500 miles away.

Critics point to the prison operator’s track record, with numerous accusations of short staffing, excessive force and substandard health care in some 100 lockups nationwide. TCJS has no authority to go after CoreCivic for jail standards violations outside the state and no counterpart in Mississippi to do so, either. The Mississippi DOC provides no oversight for the lockup, which also holds detainees under contract from jails in Vermont and South Carolina, as well as some awaiting federal trials in custody of U.S. Marshals.

Just as pressing is concern for fair administration of justice, since sending detainees so far away complicates their legal defense and may lead to unfair plea deals as cases are unnecessarily prolonged. Defense attorneys must confer with defendants via video calls, in which privacy is more difficult to secure. But Spencer insists only those whose court dates are in the distant future will be sent because “[i]t doesn’t make any sense to send them out there for, you know, a week, and then bring them back.”

Advocates say that the money spent on the new contract might instead go toward alternatives to pretrial detention, including remediating poverty and treating mental illness, both root causes of crime. Bail reform in low-level cases would also lower jail population, they argue. A 2020 Texas Jail Project consultant’s report recommended prosecutors dismiss all non-violent felony cases older than nine months, since more than half end up being dropped or deferred.


Source: Bolts Magazine, Houston Landing

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