Harris County Sheriff May Hand Over 17-Year-Olds to Private Prison Contractor

After failing to comply with Prison Rape Elimination Act standards requiring that 17-year-olds be separated from adults in the Harris County Jail, the Harris County Sheriff's Office is reportedly drafting plans to send the teens off to Limestone County—roughly three hours away from their families.

Limestone County officials told the Houston Press that they expect the Harris County Sheriff's Office to begin transporting up to 180 17-year-old pretrial inmates as early as next month, if the contract is finalized and if it is approved by Harris County Commissioners Court.

Sheriff's office spokesman Ryan Sullivan declined to comment on specifics of the plans, saying they were unfinished. Commissioners Court spokesman Joe Stinebaker said commissioners have not seen any drafts of the contract yet and are unfamiliar with the plans.

According to Limestone County Judge Daniel Burkeen, county officials recently decided to reopen the Limestone County Detention Center after striking a deal with a for-profit private prison contractor, LaSalle Southwest Corrections, which will operate the facility and potentially work with Harris County to transport the teens. Burkeen said Harris County would likely be paying Limestone County $38 to $44 per inmate per day for the favor, and Limestone County would in turn compensate LaSalle.

The for-profit prison contractor has in the past received criticism for failing Texas Commission on Jail Standards inspections, for various prisoner escapes, and for concerns over safety of inmates, particularly at some immigration detention facilities. In August, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it planned to stop renewing contracts with private prison contractors—including LaSalle—because of their failure to adequately care for inmates and keep them safe, in comparison to federally run prisons.

“I'm really disturbed by the notion of 17-year-olds as a source of economic development,” Michele Deitch, a juvenile justice advocate and senior public policy lecturer at the University of Texas, said of the potential collaboration between Harris County, LaSalle Corrections and Limestone County.

It appears that Harris County sheriff's officials have been considering transporting their 17-year-old inmates out of the county at least since late 2015. In December, PREA auditors visited the jail and found that Sheriff Ron Hickman and administrators had failed to separate the 17-year-olds by “sight and sound” from adults as the federal law requires, since the feds consider 17-year-olds to be among the jail's most vulnerable inmates. The auditor's report notes that, in order to comply with the law, sheriff's officials said they may transfer the young inmates to another agency (unspecified), which the auditor appears to take no issue with.

Juvenile justice advocates such as Deitch, however, say it's an unfair punishment.

“Being incarcerated at age 17 is traumatic under the best of circumstances,” Deitch said. “To be sent to a faraway county where families can't visit and you're far away from your attorney, in a private facility operated by a vendor without a good track record—that's certainly cause for concern.”

Because all of the inmates shipped to Limestone would, according to Sheriff Dennis Wilson, be pretrial inmates, they would need to be bused back and forth to Harris County in order to make court dates—transportation which Harris County would likely have to pay for. Their attorneys and families would also need to make the three-hour drive if they would like to visit.

As for the past problems that may have led to the sheriff considering shipping out inmates to Limestone,  Sullivan has previously explained to the Press that the jail has faced challenges related to overcrowding, only compounded by the fact that some housing areas in the jail have been strictly designated for inmates charged with misdemeanors, for example, leaving some badly needed beds unoccupied. In the PREA audit, sheriff's officials cited these same problems as reasons they had failed to create special housing for the 17-year-old inmates.

Deitch said the most logical solution would be raising the age of legal adulthood in Texas to 18, a decision which rests in the hands of the Texas Legislature and which may be debated in this coming session. Given many other jails across the state are facing the same problem as Hickman, the Sheriffs' Association of Texas has already come out to support raising the age to 18.

If the sheriff's office goes through with its supposed plans and county commissioners approve a contract, this will be at least the fifth time during Hickman's tenure that the sheriff has transported inmates out of the jail to other counties in order to deal with overcrowding and housing issues.

Each time that's happened, Hickman has faced a wave of criticism from criminal justice reform advocates. As it is, the jail is largely crowded with people who have not yet been convicted of crimes—roughly 75 percent of them—and advocates say the wiser move would be to stop incarcerating so many poor people who can't afford bail. For his part, Hickman has voiced staunch support for both bail reform and more personal bonds being issued to inmates who are not a public safety threat, especially those who cannot afford their release. As he recently told a state legislative committee on bail reform: 

“The Sheriff’s Office is ultimately required to house defendants who are denied or are unable to make payment on bonds set by the Harris County Criminal Courts. … A defendant with a low level non-violent charge who cannot afford bond can be remanded to our custody, while a violent offender with the means to pay their bond can be released into the community. An inaccessible bonding system drives up jail population, and costs local taxpayers millions of dollars.”

Until those much-needed reforms go through, looks like there's no room for the legal housing of 17-year-olds at the Harris County Jail.
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn