Commissioners OK jail contract without talk of ICE
By Regina Dennis
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Wednesday December 28, 2011
The McLennan County Commissioners Court renewed an agreement Tuesday with the private company managing the Jack Harwell Detention Center without discussing recent concerns by a federal agency about care of inmates at the facility.
Commissioners unanimously approved another six-month agreement to continue housing inmates from the downtown jail at the Harwell center. Both facilities are managed by New Jersey-based detention company Community Education Centers.
The move also allowed housing revenue from those county inmates to be applied to the $49 million in bonds used to build the jail. Those bonds were secured using the county’s bond rating.
Commissioners Tuesday did not discuss concerns by U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement about housing conditions and medical care for inmates at the facility. ICE recently removed 80 female inmates from the Harwell center after investigating detainees’ complaints about jail conditions, specifically medical care.
ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok was unable to provide details about the complaints.
Waco attorney Susan Nelson, who handles immigration cases, said she had been contacted by relatives of ICE detainees at Harwell who complained that the inmates did not have adequate access to free phones to call immigration legal aide services.
Last week, ICE spokeswoman Nina Pruneda said the agency had stopped using the Harwell facility indefinitely. But one male ICE inmate has been at the Harwell facility since Friday, according to the facility’s daily population count.
Michael Caltabiano, CEC senior vice president, said he had not been aware of any complaints by ICE detainees or from the federal agency itself about the housing conditions and medical treatment.
He said ICE cited concerns about medical care as the reason for moving detainees out of the jail, but the agency did not offer any specifics.
Caltabiano said he was aware of one ICE detainee who was diagnosed with late-term cancer by an area hospital. He said she was at Harwell for about two months before ICE released her on bond, and she died after leaving custody.
Caltabiano said the situation with ICE has triggered a thorough, in-house review of medical protocols at Harwell, and some new positions have been added to the medical department.
“With any critical case that comes in, you would always go back and look at your processes and protocols and make sure you did it well,” Caltabiano said. “We want to make sure we’re doing the right things.”
Caltabiano said ICE sent a team of employees to the Harwell jail about a month ago to review inmate’s medical records and tour the facility, just before pulling out its detainees. He said he requested a copy of that inspection but has not received it yet.
“We’re disappointed in their decision, and we’re going to work hard to earn their trust back and win their business again,” Caltabiano said.
County leaders have had limited information about ICE’s complaints and its decision to move its detainees, most to a facility in Taylor.
County Judge Jim Lewis did not answer any questions after the commissioners court meeting Tuesday about the situation with ICE.
He said there already are discussions with CEC about contracts related to the Harwell facility, but said he was “not at liberty to (say) what’s going on.”
When asked to clarify whether the discussions were related to new contracts or existing agreements, Lewis abruptly ended the interview.
“I’m not talking to you about anything on the jail,” Lewis said two minutes into an interview with the Tribune-Herald in his office. “Do you mind leaving or do you want me to escort you out?”
Commissioner Kelly Snell said while he would have liked to look into the ICE situation more before renewing the agreement with CEC, the court had no choice but to extend the housing contract because it expires Dec. 31.
“You can’t delay it. We don’t have a backup plan or anything,” Snell said. “If they did go under or what have you, we’re just not prepared.
“Two months ago is when we should have started looking at all of this . . . It’s bad that we don’t know this ahead of time.”
Commissioner Lester Gibson, the court’s liaison for the jails, said the issues are between ICE and CEC, and that the county has no part in the dispute.
Gibson said any serious problems at Harwell likely would come to light at some point. But he said he is not aware of any concerns about conditions at the jail.
“Eventually, that’s going to have to come out (if it were true), but at the same time, it’s (CEC’s) responsibility,” Gibson said. “But eventually, if it keeps snowballing and developing the way it is, something is going to come out.”
The Harwell center has a separate medical department and physician from the neighboring county-run jail on State Highway 6, where Dr. John Wells is the medical director.
Gibson said Wells already works closely with CEC to monitor any county inmates who are moved to Harwell. On Monday, the McLennan County Jail had 163 inmates housed at Harwell. There were a total of 415 inmates in the 816-bed facility.
“Rest assured that the protocol we have in place with CEC and the proximity of Dr. Wells and his staff, they are being watched,” Gibson said. “With ICE, and all the others that are in there, that’s (dealing with) CEC and the relationship that they have with the other government agencies.”
Commissioner Ben Perry also cited the time crunch as a reason to extend the operating agreement. But he said he wants a thorough review of ICE’s claims.
“We just need to make sure the citizens of the county, and especially those that have loved ones that may be incarcerated out there, know that we are doing our due diligence and making sure that they are receiving the care and attention they should be,” Perry said.
Perry said the Harwell center was not cited for any housing problems during its jail inspections this year, which indicates that the jail has “at the bare minimum” met state standards.
The Harwell facility failed its initial annual jail inspection Feb. 11 for not documenting regular observation of inmates in certain housing areas, according to reports from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.
The facility came into compliance April 6.
The jail also failed a special inspection June 30 for not complying with the 1-to-48 ratio of officers to inmates mandated by the state.
That requirement was met by Sept. 2, again putting the jail back into compliance.
Adon Munoz, executive director of the Commission on Jail Standards, said the special inspection in June likely was triggered by a complaint.
While the agency has received a few complaints about the Harwell facility, he said, all of them were unsubstantiated except for one case in which an inmate’s items were lost and had to be replaced by the facility.
He said the commission had not been notified by ICE of any issues at Harwell.
“When the feds sign a contract with a facility, they have special provisions for, say, exercise or education and so forth that go above and beyond our standards,” Munoz said. “Something might have triggered something in that agreement . . . but we don’t get notified.”
Tribune-Herald Staff Writer