jail harwell dl

Fencing and barbed wire around the Jack Harwell Detention Center.

Staff photo— Duane A Laverty, file

A former jail inmate alleges she repeatedly was sexually assaulted at the private Jack Harwell Detention Center, where she claims a long-standing lack of institutional control has led to an environment of smuggling, extortion, drug abuse and sexual misconduct.

The 30-year-old woman is seeking unspecified damages in a lawsuit filed this week in Waco’s 170th State District Court against LaSalle Corrections, a private corrections company that has operated McLennan County’s private jail since 2013.

The Tribune-Herald is not identifying the woman because she alleges she was the victim of sexual assault.

Ryan Horvath, an attorney for LaSalle in Ruston, Louisiana, did not return phone messages left Thursday seeking comment for this story.

LaSalle Corrections operates 18 facilities in Texas, Louisiana and Georgia, according to its website.

The lawsuit, filed by Waco attorney Bill Johnston, provides a historical perspective of private jail operations in McLennan County dating to 1999, when CiviGenics began operating the now-vacant downtown jail and later merged with Community Education Centers in 2007.

The suit says CiviGenics did not live up to its promise to the county to house only low-risk offenders and soon “smuggling and contraband into the CiviGenics-run jail was commonplace.”

‘Reached a crescendo’

The smuggling and contraband problems “reached a crescendo,” the suit alleges, in November 2001, when guards smuggled a cellphone and jail key to inmate Sherman Fields.

Fields escaped from the jail and kidnapped and murdered his former girlfriend, Suncerey Coleman. Fields is now on federal death row.

Because of that incident, officials at the private jail were aware of the “dangerous consequences of the loss of institutional control” over the facility, the suit claims.

“Negligent acts in jails often lead to intentional acts and to peril,” the suit says. ”To the defendant, this was foreseeable, if not predictable, by the fall of 2013.”

When CEC took over, “although the name changed, many of the faces were the same,” according to the suit.

“Employees who had been working at the infamous downtown Waco facility from which Sherman Fields had escaped began to work at the new facility located on State Highway 6 south of Waco,” the suit alleges.

When LaSalle took over, many of the same employees and training practices remained in place.

“The history of negligence included all manner of misdeeds, from the smuggling of contraband, poor training and supervision of employees and sexual misconduct by employees,” according to the lawsuit.

Items allowed to be smuggled included food, cellphones, cigarettes, marijuana, cocaine and other drugs, including painkillers, the suit claims.

Those practices led to the repeated sexual assault of the plaintiff, the suit alleges.

“For a fee, to be paid to the guard or his outside contact, an inmate could receive smuggled goods and contraband, or could arrange to have sex with another inmate,” the suit claims.

“Significant sums of money were extorted from the plaintiff and her family by employees of the defendant. The plaintiff’s mother was actually instructed to meet and pay extortion payments to employees of the defendant so that they would smuggle items into the facility or otherwise treat the plaintiff favorably — or not punish her.”

John Spears, a LaSalle correctional officer, was arrested for having improper sexual relations with the plaintiff in this case in December 2013, according to the lawsuit. His felony case remains pending in 19th State District Court.

“Female inmates were subjected to an environment of frequent sexual harassment, sexual exploitation and even sexual assault,” the lawsuit alleges. “The misconduct of the employees of the defendant led to a sexually exploitative environment at the Jack Harwell Detention Center.”

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