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McLennan County: Shipping Human Beings for Profit

Apr 7th, 2013 | Category: Legal Issues & Jails, McLennan County

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By LOWELL BROWN, Waco Tribune Herald, Sunday, March 31, 2013 

 A deal to send McLennan County inmates to Polk County to make room for more federal     detainees in a Waco jail is drawing criticism from a top Polk County official who says his jail has plenty of room for the federal detainees.

Some Waco attorneys also are questioning the deal, saying having their clients housed 175  miles away in Livingston would create logistical problems.

McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said officials are working out kinks in the plan. It would take effect only if the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s San Antonio district decides to send more detainees to Waco, which he said would benefit the county financially.

“There’s a lot of challenges; a lot of challenges,” Felton said. “I’m not putting high hopes on that (influx of detainees) happening, but it could.”

McLennan County commissioners voted March 19 to approve an agreement with Polk County, northeast of Houston, to house McLennan County inmates on an as-needed basis. Polk County unanimously approved the deal last week, which could result in some Waco-area inmates being sent to the 1,054-bed IAH Secure Adult Detention Facility in Livingston.

McLennan County usually sends extra inmates from the McLennan County Jail to the neighboring Jack Harwell Detention Center, run by New Jersey-based Community Education Centers Inc. under a county contract.

But CEC asked the county to have a backup plan because it is working with the federal agency to possibly house more immigration detainees in Waco, officials have said.

If that happened, McLennan County would pay $40 a day to feed and house each county inmate it sent to Polk County, down from the $45.50 daily rate it pays at the Harwell center — a cost that has overwhelmed the county budget since the jail population started rising in late 2011.

Polk County would pay to transport inmates to and from Waco, according to the approved agreement.

Polk County Judge John Thompson said he voted for the agreement to be a “good neighbor” to McLennan County. But he would rather see the potential federal detainees housed at the CEC-managed IAH facility in Livingston, which primarily serves the federal immigration agency and has hundreds of empty beds, he said.

“We’ve got everything that ICE needs; it makes no sense,” Thompson said. “It’s going to be difficult for McLennan County to shift its prisoners because of the turnaround time. They’ll spend most of their time riding the bus.”

Waco is part of ICE’s San Antonio district, while Livingston falls within the Houston district.

Nina Pruneda, an ICE spokeswoman in San Antonio, said she would not respond to questions about Polk County because it is outside her district.

Felton said he thought ICE was not considering the Polk County facility because of the district boundaries. ICE officials also are thought to like the Harwell center, built in 2010, because it is relatively new, he said.

ICE temporarily pulled its detainees from the Harwell center in 2011 because of concerns about housing conditions and medical care but later resumed use of the facility.

The Harwell center, which has a history of failed inspections, passed its latest state inspection in February.

Thompson said he heard the same explanation about ICE not wanting to send detainees across district lines, but he thought the agency was doing so in some cases.

The Detention Watch Network, a Washington-based coalition that supports reforming the immigration detention system, lists the Livingston facility among the country’s worst, citing inadequate medical care, poor nutrition, lack of access to legal services and other alleged problems.

But Thompson said the facility is in good standing with all state and federal governing agencies.

ICE did not respond to written questions about the federal agency’s plans and housing needs.

The number of immigrants detained in and deported from the U.S. continued to rise in recent years, even as illegal immigration slowed, according to federal data.

ICE detained more than 429,000 foreign nationals in fiscal year 2011, an all-time high and an increase of 
18 percent from 2010, according to an annual report released in September by the Department of Homeland Security.

About two-thirds of detainees were from Mexico, followed by Guatemala, 
9 percent; Honduras, 
6.2 percent; and El Salvador, 5.5 percent.

More questions

Some McLennan County judges and defense attorneys also have questioned the deal with Polk County, saying housing inmates so far away could create logistical problems.

During a recent private meeting with Felton, judges wanted to know how quickly inmates could be returned to Waco if they needed to be released on bond, Felton said.

Defense attorneys say communicating with clients would be tougher under the arrangement.

“If I’ve got somebody I need to get a signature from, get a fingerprint on, review a video with, or anything of that nature, it’s going to be next to impossible and at best a significant delay in getting my paperwork done and communicating with my client,” said Waco defense attorney Josh Tetens, who recently criticized the deal on his Twitter account. “With the docket already being full, the faster I can communicate with my client, the faster I can try to get it off the docket.”

The Livingston facility, like McLennan County jails, uses videoconferencing technology to communicate with inmates, but Felton said there is some concern the counties’ systems are not compatible.

McLennan County would work out those kinks with CEC if and when the need arises, Felton said.

“If there’s not videoconferencing capability then this isn’t going to happen,” he said. “The attorneys, the judges and the families all have to be able to communicate. So that’s a big hurdle.”

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