jail harwell dl

Fencing and barbed wire around the Jack Harwell Detention Center.

Staff photo— Duane A Laverty, file

McLennan County has received a notice of noncompliance from the state jail commission because inmates known to be mentally ill or suicidal weren’t visited every 30 minutes, according to a report.

The letter arrived after an inmate who should have been subject to the frequent visits died in custody and shortly before another inmate died of a heart attack.

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards’ report states observations should be performed at least every 30 minutes in areas where inmates are known to be assaultive, potentially suicidal, mentally ill or who have demonstrated bizarre behavior.

Jail Capt. Ricky Armstrong said they received the letter of noncompliance about the Jack Harwell Detention Center on Nov. 5 for not meeting the state’s minimum standards. LaSalle Corrections, a private company, operates the facility.

County Judge Scott Felton said it’s his understanding that any time there is an incident at a jail, the commission conducts a review.

Brandon Wood, Texas Commission on Jail Standards executive director, said any time there is a death in a jail, the commission reviews standards and operations at the facility.

A review was conducted after Michael Angelo Martinez, 25, of Waco, was found Nov. 1 unresponsive in his cell. Officials are investigating the death as a suicide by asphyxia. Martinez had been in jail since Aug. 18 on unlawful possession of a firearm and possession of cocaine charges and also a federal detainer, according to county records.

Sheriff Parnell McNamara said Martinez was in the section of the jail where inmates are to be visited every 30 minutes.

Wood did not confirm that the commission’s visit that resulted in a noncompliance notice was a direct response to Martinez’s death.

Jails are required to submit a report to the commission any time someone dies in custody. The number of deaths reported in the past five years at the two McLennan County facilities was not available Thursday, Wood said. The Tribune-Herald filed a request for the number of deaths and the number of violations during the last five years at the two facilities.

Wood said the commission did not need to respond for a second visit after another inmate died, because the death was attributed to natural causes. Gerald Reneau, 54, of Bellmead, died of a heart attack at the McLennan County Jail. He had been booked in about 2 a.m. Nov. 6 on an assault family violence charge.

McLennan County Commissioners in June extended their contract with LaSalle Corrections through June 2018 to allow the company to continue operations of the Jack Harwell Detention Center.

The operator of the facility, in this case LaSalle, is ultimately held responsible, Wood said.

Felton said it’s LaSalle’s responsibility to make any corrections ordered by the state commission. The county hired LaSalle in 2013.

“We have a good working relationship with LaSalle and we’re confident that they’ve corrected the issues that the Texas Commission on Jail Standards has written them up on,” Felton said. “We think they’re excellent operators, and unfortunately sometimes things like this happen.”

In June, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards performed an unannounced inspection of the McLennan County Jail and adjacent Jack Harwell Detention Center after 37 online complaints were received from suspects jailed after the May 17 shootout at the Twin Peaks restaurant. The complaints alleged inadequate health care, inedible food, degrading treatment and sanitation issues. But the inspection, performed May 28, found both facilities in compliance with state standards.

February inspection

In February, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards conducted a surprise visit and made the county put a stop to inmates being held on the first floor of the downtown McLennan County Detention Center on Columbus Avenue. The jail is not certified to hold inmates.

Commissioner Will Jones said he wasn’t aware of the most recent letter and remains confident in both jails’ operations.

“Am I concerned about two in a year? No, I’m not overly concerned, because it’s something we’re dealing with all the time. There’s so many people in and out. It’s really a tough business,” Jones said. “I feel like our jail staff does a great job.”

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