Last month, McLennan County received a notice of non-compliance from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards after the death of 25-year-old Michael Martinez in the Jack Harwell Detention Center.
Three employees of the privately run jail have been arrested and charged with forging government documents after they allegedly covered up the fact that they were not performing visual checks on at-risk people — a violation of federal law. Records indicated that jailers had checked on Martinez within the required half-hour time span, but an investigation revealed that Martinez had been hanging for almost three hours when found.
LaSalle Corrections is the for-profit company that runs the Jack Harwell Center for McLennan County. “We think they’re excellent operators and, unfortunately, sometimes things like this happen,” said McLennan County Judge Scott Felton.
But that’s not what families with loved ones in that jail say. At the Texas Jail Project, we have received pleas for help from families concerned about loved ones being refused mental-health treatment, essential medications and medical care.
Several days before Christmas, another story came to light when the Tribune-Herald revealed that a formerly jailed 30-year-old woman filed a lawsuit in Waco’s 170th State District Court against LaSalle Corrections. The lawsuit alleges she was repeatedly sexually assaulted at the facility and goes on to describe an out-of-control institution rife with smuggling, extortion and drug abuse.
Felton’s description of LaSalle as “excellent operators” is strange considering these incidents as well as the history of this facility. Last year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) removed all immigrant detainees from the Jack Harwell Center after ongoing claims of civil rights violations by attorneys and advocates. Prior to May of 2013, another private contractor of this facility, CEC, was cited for sexual abuse and other violations.
Despite ongoing controversy, McLennan County renewed its contract with LaSalle last year with the addition of a 90 percent occupancy clause: If the jail is filled with fewer people than 90 percent of its available beds, LaSalle can end its contract with a 90-day notice. We believe that a jail should not have a contracted mandate to stay full because that results in a deliberate effort to increase the number of arrests.
This does not make Waco a safer community and intensifies mistrust of law enforcement.
Predictably, jail population increased from 85 percent capacity in January 2014 to 93 percent capacity this past November. In response to those numbers, a LaSalle executive actually said, “We have been blessed to have a relatively good history of increasing the jail population for our clients.”
That statement reveals a callous disregard for the citizens of this area and demonstrates how a for-profit jail company exploits its role. LaSalle seeks to satisfy its clients — its shareholders — no matter the cost to vulnerable families and to “the least of these my brethren.”
McLennan County now has the fifth largest incarceration rate among Texas counties, despite a lower-than-state average violent crime rate. As of Nov. 1, 75 percent of jailed people in McLennan County were pretrial. That means they have not been convicted of anything and, except for a few rare cases where bail is denied, are waiting in jail because they cannot afford to post bail.
The people of McLennan County deserve better. McLennan County should take steps to ensure that a facility this important to thousands of Texans be operated by administrators who are committed to more than a profit margin.
Diana Claitor is executive director of Texas Jail Project, which works with the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, other advocates such as Catholic Conference of Texas, and sheriffs and jail administrators to improve conditions of confinement, especially for those held pretrial. Rebecca Larsen is its communications coordinator.