State Rep. Allen Fletcher wants to be the next Harris County Sheriff, but his personal finance statements have already raised some questions about what kind of sheriff the GOP candidate will be if he is elected.
Fletcher announced his candidacy last week. This bid for sheriff isn't his first rodeo. Fletcher entered the political arena when he ran against the incumbent Republican in the 2008 GOP primary, unseating the three-term state representative Corbin Van Arsdale, a lawyer from Tomball. He's been in the state legislature ever since. But last week Fletcher announced he's saying goodbye to the legislature and making a bid to become the next Harris County Sheriff, now that current Sheriff Adrian Garcia has formally announced he's running for mayor. Fletcher has been doing this political thing for a while now – in the Lege he's had a record of being fiscally conservative to the point of austerity, has shown strong support for having all the guns everywhere and no support for abortion rights – but it's hard to know at this point how all of that would translate to the sheriff's office.
However, there's one indicator on his resume that will likely have anti-private folks concerned. Namely, since 2009, Fletcher has been working as a consultant for private prison companies, starting with his gig with Community Education Centers, a private for-profit prison company based in New Jersey, according to his personal financial statement, covering his work outside the Lege in 2009. If the name rings a bell that might be because CEC, a firm that operates 14 jails, mostly in Texas, first made the news back in 2008 when Andrew Zehr, a CEC guard at the Ector County Correctional Center in Odessa, was federally charged with accepting bribes to smuggle contraband into the facility, according to the Odessa American. Then in June 2013 eight CEC guards working in Odessa were convicted and sentenced to federal prison time for bribery at the Ector facility, according to the OA.
Fletcher didn't consult for CEC for long. By 2010 he was working for another for-profit prison company, La Salle Management Company, according to his personal financial disclosure forms filed with the Texas Ethics Commission. On the form he listed himself as a consultant for both La Salle Management Company, (based in Louisiana) and Southwest Correctional, even though these are reportedly simply two different branches of the same Louisiana-based company. And the thing is, La Salle is the company that came up with an ingenious workaround to simultaneously privatize Louisiana's prisons and build more prisons to help with overcrowding, according to Prison Legal News. Namely the company would build the facility and the local sheriff would accept a $100,000 sponsor fee to let the company use the sheriff's authority to run the facility. On top of that, the local sheriff would have the ability to hire and fire the employees of the place, according to Prison Legal News.
And that's just how things work in Louisiana. La Salle's Burnet County Jail had a breakout within four months of opening in 2009. Nuana Antonio Fuentes-Sanchez, 25, who was being held on home invasion charges, absconded from the jail in August 2009, stole a gun from a nearby home and remained at large for two years. There was another escape in 2011 and after the jail was found to be "non-compliant" of Texas jail standards. Texas officials decided not to renew their contract with the facility in 2012. All the while Fletcher has been consulting with this company.
The possibility of privatizing the Harris County jail has been a source of controversy for years. Back in 2010 Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack pitched the idea when the county was having to lay off employees because of a slim budget, and the pitch was initially opened to bids. But ultimately officials found that privatizing would be risky and there were no guarantees it would save money, the Chron reported at the time.
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We've called and emailed Fletcher's office asking how his work with private prison contractors might influence his decisions as sheriff. We'll update when and if we hear back.
Ana Yáñez-Correa, executive director Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, says she and other opponents are keeping an eye on how candidates approach the private prison industry as it relates to Harris County.“It's a big task, running the fourth largest jail in the nation, and anybody who's a sheriff of that would have a daunting task ahead of them," she says. "I want them to do it right."
When rumors started circulating that the Harris County Commissioners Court was considering privatizing the Harris County Jail, Yáñez-Correa says they organized against the possibility, telling the commissioners that privatizing the jail would be bad for everyone involved, from those in jail to the employees to tax payers. “The county tax payer ends up paying when you privatize because these companies make money by lowering the cost of running these places in different ways, by paying their staff less, by offering fewer programs and all kinds of shortcuts people take when they want to save money and run a profitable business,” she says.
On Fletcher's consulting, Yáñez-Correa says she's staying open minded. Yáñez-Correa notes that Fletcher's consulting work with a private prison company doesn't clearly indicate one way or the other where he is on the issue. “You don't know what their policy is really going to be based on something like that at this point,” she says. “To have a sheriff that could potentially be persuaded by other interests like private prisons, I don't know that such a sheriff would be so inclined to invest in these smart-on-crime programs or not." She says either way her organization will be working with whoever becomes the next sheriff of Harris County. “That record doesn't necessarily mean he would make the jails private, but a sheriff with ties to companies like that still [would make] me a little nervous.”