When we’re writing about prisoner transfer to privately operated facilities, we’re usually talking about state prisons. However, Harris County, TX made headlines this week with Sheriff Ron Hickman’s decision to move prisoners out of the county jail to the Jefferson County jail, run by for-profit private prison company LaSalle Corrections. Hickman cites overcrowding as rationale for outsourcing roughly 100 post-trial inmates from Houston to Beaumont.
The maneuver may have gone unnoticed had it not been for the public critique of Houston-area state senator John Whitmire who also chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. In his letter to the Sheriff, Senator Whitmire takes issue with the decision both on the grounds that there are empty beds in Harris County jail facilities, and that local stakeholders were not given an opportunity to weigh in on the matter. Sound familiar?
We’ve noticed similar characteristics in the cases of states that opt to transfer prisoners across state lines to private prisons. There appear to be other options to address overcrowding, there’s very little opportunity for community buy-in, and “sending” entities (state departments of corrections or in this case, the county jail) conveniently overlook the blemishes on the records of these for-profit companies which swoop in with sweet deals to help the overcrowded jail or prison avoid an impending catastrophe.
Our own campaigns to return prisoners to the locality where they have family and community often center and problematize this question of capacity and whether there are other options. It is well-known that Harris County jail is enormous and numerous advocates, researchers, and direct services providers have provided insight into why it can’t seem to buoy itself at or below bed capacity. As this Houston Press article concludes, Harris County Jail is clogged with legally innocent people, a direct result of this county’s practices around pre-trial detention which, researchers have found, has significantly disparate and negative impacts for those who cannot afford bail. Harris County Jail is also notorious for being the largest institutional provider of mental health treatment in the state of Texas, with roughly one-third of its population on psychiatric medication. It is commonplace for people with mental illness to cycle in and out of incarceration when they are not receiving appropriate treatment outside of jail and prison.
As we see it, the above provides two front-end examples of how rates of incarceration at the Harris County Jail could be addressed, before advancing to the supposed “option of last resort” of sending portions of the population to another county.
Overcrowded conditions seem to be the most compelling reason to transfer prisoners, and private, for-profit companies often make claims that they can house people for less than the county or the state can. But, it is the taxpayers of Harris County that pay to incarcerate people at the county jail and it is taxpayer dollars that will be used to pay for LaSalle to house members of their community in Beaumont. What’s more, families of the incarcerated who will now have to make the 90 mile trek to visit their loved ones, all while a private corporation reaps profit.