Untrained jailers, inmate deaths seen as risk to Texas counties

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Preventable inmate deaths reveal a critical shortage of qualified corrections officers and a growing risk to Texas counties, including those that hire for-profit operators, experts say.

“There’s a train wreck coming after taxpayers and we’re not looking at it,” Lance Lowry, head of the Texas Association of Taxpayers and a 25-year law enforcement veteran, told the Texas Legislature’s County Affairs Committee in March. “Deliberate indifference, 8th Amendment issues — the counties are not addressing it. It’s not just a lack of funding, there’s also a lack of innovation.”

The issue of inmate deaths is relevant to the municipal bond industry because the private lockups are often built with revenue bonds from conduit issuers under lease arrangements with the counties. The counties, which create the conduits, also bear financial risk in lawsuits that could impair their credit ratings, experts say. Some counties in Texas and elsewhere have been left with jails that failed to meet state standards. In such cases, bondholders bear the risk. Bonds used to build the jails are usually low investment-grade or junk.

Public pension funds that own stocks in private detention corporations have seen the value of their shares soar under the presidency of Donald Trump, a strong advocate of private prisons and aggressive law enforcement. But investors face risks if public policy should change, analysts say.

“Ongoing government budget deficits and potential shifts in public policy are also risks that could reduce the number of people imprisoned in the U.S. and lead to slowly declining federal and state prison populations across at least some states,” a report from S&P Global Ratings noted after Trump’s election.

The ratings agencies evaluate the private lock-ups from two sides. On the public finance side, analysts rate the muni bonds, which are usually taxable under recent Internal Revenue Service rulings. On the corporate side, analysts rate detention center operators such as Geo Group and Management and Training Corp. Both the corporate and muni bonds are usually below investment grade.

The private county jails also hold contracts with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Marshals Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house federal inmates. The federal contracts allow the counties to build larger facilities than needed for local law enforcement, producing revenue and creating jobs.

“As reflected by the ratings, the sector is highly volatile and susceptible to changes in corrections policies, immigration (ICE) policies, operator risks, and event risks,” said S&P’s Jeff Sexton. “These risks are more pronounced given the nature of the contracts and vary depending on which agency the facility contracts with.”

Michele Deitch, an attorney and criminal justice consultant who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, said that lawsuits over wrongful deaths can have a big impact on a county’s finances. Juries and judges often make the awards large enough to send a message to the county that the negligence is unacceptable, she said.

“Counties are bearing tremendous financial risk by having poor conditions in the facilities,” she said. “The county cannot waive its own liability by hiring a private operator.”

Texas has long been one of the pioneers of for-profit incarceration, but in the past two years has sought to reduce such expenditures.

“Generally speaking, the move in the legislature is to reduce the size of jail and prison population,” Deitch said. “Most of the bills in this session are moving in that direction. A secondary level of concern is about safety in jails.”

Over the last 30 years, Texas spent more on prisons and jails than any other state, according to a 2016 U.S. Department of Education study. Corrections spending grew about five times faster than the state's rate of spending growth on elementary and secondary education.

More than 1,000 prisoners die annually in U.S. jails, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, and one of every 10 occurs in Texas. Over the nine-month period between October 1, 2017 and July 1, 2018, about 80 prisoners died in Texas jails — a rate 22% above the national average over the previous 13 years.

Nationally, more than a third (425 of 1,053 deaths) of jail inmate deaths occurred within the first seven days of admission, according to the bureau. Suicide was the leading cause of death in local jails and accounted for more than a third of all jail inmate deaths. From 2013 to 2014, the number of suicides increased 13%, from 328 to 372 deaths.

At the committee hearing in Austin, Lowry was among several witnesses testifying in favor of House Bill 2467 that would require 90 days of training before a new hire could work as a jail guard. Currently, counties and private jail operators are allowed to issue temporary licenses that defer training for a year.

A fiscal note on HB 2467 says the cost of the legislation is difficult to determine.

According to Harris County, the state’s largest, the bill would require a minimum of two full-time trainers at about $50,000 in salary each. The county would be required to offer classes more often than the current twice-a-year rate. Other expenses would include office supplies, copier, paper, toner, travel time, and cost of exams.

According to the Texas Association of Counties, the bill would likely result in greater turnover among jailers in small counties.

“Consequently, those counties that send their jailers to other counties for training would see an increase in costs for travel and lodging even when training is provided at no cost,” the note said.

Inmate death — some arrested on minor infractions — have intensified debate over the need for training as private operators try to keep costs low.

“I’ve spent my entire seven years here fighting for less spending on some things, but It’s always frustrating to me that constitutionally required things like criminal justice system that works and is right is often overlooked because it’s not politically attractive — it doesn’t look good on a mailer,” said Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, who serves on the committee.

Stickland’s comment came after two women described the deaths of their adult children in private lockups after failure to render aid.

Diane Wallace, a registered nurse, said her 38-year-old son, Jesse Andrew DeBusk, father of a 9-year-old son, died on Christmas Eve 2016 in the Parker County Jail operated by the for-profit LaSalle Corp. After being violently restrained by guards, DeBusk was found dead in his cell. Wallace said an autopsy reported that every rib in his body was broken.

“As an ER nurse, I’ve never seen that, not in a car accident,” Wallace said. “Ninety percent of the jailers who were there that night were all under the age of 24 years and had not been trained. Of the 10% who had been trained and had signed the handbook, 90% of the rules they broke were in their own handbook. If they had done what they were supposed to do, my son, who has been dead for two years, three months and seven days would still be alive. He was hogtied. He was thrown in a prone position. He was begging for his life.”

Jennifer Houser, whose Type 1 diabetic daughter Morgan was jailed for giving police a false identity just shy of her 21st birthday, said jailers in the Bowie County Jail failed to respond to her screams for help.

“More than half the jailers at Bowie County held only temporary licenses at the time,” Houser told the committee. “Morgan needlessly died. What I ask is that you prevent this from happening to another mother, another family.”

Privately held LaSalle Corrections, which manages 18 facilities with a total inmate capacity of over 13,000, touts its “experienced management and distinguished security team.” Efforts to contact the company for further comment were unsuccessful.

“Our operations integrate qualified personnel and the critical resources necessary to provide the services our partners and the public expect,” the company says. “From facilities management, office administration, food service, commissary, laundry, transportation and logistical support, to inmate security and healthcare, we ensure professional and proper stewardship of our responsibilities.”

Testifying before the House County Affairs Committee, LaSalle executive director Rodney Cooper denied that any staffers are completely untrained.

"I know there’s been a lot of testimony that we just throw them on the floor. We don’t do that," Cooper said. "We do train them when we get them, even though the law doesn’t require it."

Robert "Jay" Eason, director of operations for LaSalle, said the company provides orientation for new hires and online training. New hires also work with more experienced staff to learn the ropes, he said.

One of the most notorious Texas jail deaths occurred in a publicly operated facility. The suicide of Sandra Bland in Waller County in 2015 came after a stop for failing to use a turn indicator, led to a $1.9 million settlement and passage of the “Sandra Bland Act” in the 2017 Texas Legislature. The new Texas law requires quicker assessment of a detainee’s mental health, diversion to a medical facility and possible release on personal bond.

A job board for detention center employees includes dozens of postings for mental health workers. Local jails have become the de facto mental health centers in most counties.

Proposed legislation in the current Texas session would also reduce incarceration of low-income citizens for unpaid fines, a practice that critics call “debtor’s prison.”

A report this month from Texas Appleseed, a liberal Austin advocacy nonprofit, found that counties are spending millions of dollars to jail people charged with misdemeanors.

“Despite the fact that people charged only with misdemeanors often stay for only short time periods in jail, housing misdemeanor defendants accounted for a huge number of jail bed days due to the sheer number bookings,” the report found. “A conservative estimate of the daily cost to hold a person in jail for 24 hours is about $60 per day. So, misdemeanor jail stays are conservatively costing just these 10 counties $51 million dollars annually.” Texas has 254 counties.

Deitch said that the most immediate step Texas could take to reduce inmate deaths and a shortage of qualified jailers is “reducing the number of people who are locked up. People are in for very low offenses because they can’t make bail.”

Terry McCraw, a captain in the Collin County Sheriff’s Office, said that 15% of his jail staff are working with a temporary license and that filling vacancies is a constant challenge.

“Psychologically, a jail environment is a very difficult place to work,” he told the House committee on March 28. “You spend more time with the inmate population than you do with your peers. Just this week, I had a temporary jailer start, and within a few days of employment he decided it was not for him.”

A recent job posting for a jailer in Liberty County sought a high school graduate or equivalent with the “ability to handle physical and mental stress associated with working extended hours . . . ability to be physically alert on any shift that is assigned . . . ability to work up to 16 hours within a rolling 24-hour period” and ability to seek help for inmate injuries or illness. The pay was $10 per hour.

Private detention operators have an incentive to cut costs to maximize their profits, and “many achieve this by lowering wages for workers, under staffing, skimping on training and providing as little services as possible to inmates — at times breaking the law and at the expense of inmates’ health, safety and lives,” according to a recent investment report for the American Federation of Teachers. “The litigation, regulatory and headline risks that result from the abuses of the private prison and corrections services industries, therefore, are significant."

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