Privatizing the Harris County jail would be risky and may not result in savings, according to an internal county memo recommending that Commissioners Court keep the state’s largest lockup in Sheriff Adrian Garcia’s hands.
The confidential Feb. 11 memo, obtained by the Houston Chronicle, comes after more than a year of study by staff from the county budget office, purchasing office and County Attorney’s Office. Commissioner Steve Radack had suggested the county consider privatizing the jail in 2010, and the court voted to accept proposals in April 2011, when the county had begun laying off scores of staff in a lean budget year.
Four private prison firms submitted bids in fall 2011, but only the proposal from Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest private prison operator, was deemed viable.
“CCA provided a very compelling proposal,” the memo states. “However, there is uncertainty about what the county’s actual realized savings would be, and there is also a level of risk and uncertainty that goes along with outsourcing such a vital function to a third party. The evaluation committee concluded that the potential benefit is not sufficient reason to make a change at this time.”
A key factor in recommending against privatization, the memo stated, was the decrease in the sheriff’s budget in recent years, from $424.2 million in fiscal 2010 to what is projected to be less than this year’s $392.6 million budget. The savings are, in part, tied to a steep drop in the jail population, which has fallen by roughly a third since 2008.
“We have improved operations while saving money, we’ve passed jail inspections, we haven’t laid off any employees and we’ve reduced in-custody deaths,” Garcia said. “I think we’ve demonstrated that as a sheriff’s office we’re running this place like a business as much as we’re running it like a county jail.”
I suspect this will be the end of this story. When I inquired about the status of the report back in November, all of the responses I got made it sound like not much if anything would ultimately come out of this. The statements made by County Judge Ed Emmett and County Commissioner Steve Radack in this story sound a lot like what they told me back then. The case for some kind of action would be stronger if the jail was still overcrowded, with inmates being outsourced all over the place, and inspectors at both the federal and state level giving it failing grades – in other words, if we were where we were back when Tommy Thomas was still running things – but it’s extremely hard to argue now that the jail is being mismanaged. Add in the fact that CCA has – how do I put this delicately? – a rather non-stellar reputation for how they do business, and the case for not taking action is crystal clear. I’m glad to see that the county’s budget people see it the same way.
One more thing:
The privatization discussions helped the sheriff better allocate manpower in the jail to reduce overtime costs, said County Budget Officer Bill Jackson, and also allowed the sheriff’s budget to be separated into three parts in the budget the court will consider Tuesday – $166 million for law enforcement, $178 million for the jail and $47 million for jail medical – which will help to better identify and control costs in each category.
Breaking the budget out like this makes sense. You know what else would make sense? Quantifying how much Medicaid expansion would save the county on health care costs, especially mental health care costs.
For all that Harris County is trying to think big about health care, they’re almost bizarrely reluctant to be curious about this. I know I’m being tediously monotonous about this. Maybe I’m wrong about the potential for savings here. I doubt it, given what so many other counties are reporting, but I could be. Why not study the question and settle it once and for all? It’s becoming very hard for me to avoid the conclusion that the four Republicans on Commissioners Court don’t want to know the answer because it might be politically awkward for them.
UPDATE: Since writing this post, I have come across this Chron editorial that indicates Judge Emmett is in favor of Medicaid expansion. Obviously, I’m very glad to hear this. I don’t know why there hasn’t been more coverage of this in the Chronicle.