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Advocates criticize $18 million plan to move Tarrant County Jail inmates hundreds of miles away

This Wednesday, June 21, 2017 photo shows barbed wire surrounding the prison in Gatesville, Texas.
Jaime Dunaway
Associated Press
This Wednesday, June 21, 2017 photo shows barbed wire surrounding the prison in Gatesville, Texas.

Criminal justice advocates say a plan to move inmates from the Tarrant County jail to a private prison doesn’t address the root cause of overcrowding.

Tarrant County commissioners approved an $18 million contract to move 432 inmates to a private prison because of staffing shortages on Tuesday — a plan that critics say fails to address underlying issues at the jail.

The prison — the Giles W. Dalby Correctional Facility in Post, Texas — is 270 miles from Fort Worth. It's owned by the Utah-based private prison company Management & Training Corp.

Criminal justice advocates like Pamela Young with United Fort Worth say the plan won't solve overcrowding, which she says stem from systemic issues of mass incarceration.

“For us to spend (money) to incarcerate people in a private jail over 200 miles away — we're not solving any problems here," Young said. "We're putting a Band-Aid on something — a really, really old and raggedy Band-Aid at that.”

Young said the contract, which would use some federal funds the county received from the American Rescue Plan Act, also raises health and safety concerns for inmates sent to the facility in Post — namely, that inmates may not have proper access to health resources.

"It is over 40 miles away from the nearest hospital," Young said. "Who knows how long it's going to take for an ambulance... to get to this jail if someone should have some kind of a medical emergency."

The Tarrant County Jail can house around 5,000 people, according to county Sheriff Bill Waybourn. Right now, he said, about 400 of those beds are occupied by Texas Department of Criminal Justice prisoners because the department is itself dealing with personnel shortages.

The result, Waybourn said, is that jail staff have been working up to 60 hours per week, racking up thousands of hours in overtime.

The majority of people jailed in Tarrant County are there pretrial, meaning they have not been convicted of any crime. All of the 432 people transferred have already been convicted, Waybourn said.

"They're not going to be coming back and forth to court," he said. "It's basically a one-way trip."

The vote on the contract passed 3-2 with commissioners Devan Allen and Roy Charles Brooks voting no.

"Private jails just philosophically give me a great deal of heartburn, because their motive is profit," Brooks said Tuesday. "Not safety, not health, not rehabilitation — none of those things is part of their business model."

Tarrant County's issues with jail overcrowding mirror similar struggles across the state. Harris County, which includes Houston, will also send hundreds of prisoners to the Post facility. That county previously sent 600 inmates to a Louisiana jail earlier this year, and came under fire after one of the men transferred — 35-year-old Billie Davis — was found dead in March.

Fort Worth activist Thomas Torlincasi was among those speaking out against Tuesday's agenda item, criticizing the sheriff's handling of the jail population. He also argued that prosecutors play a role in the overcrowding by choosing when to push for high bail amounts against defendants, which makes it more likely someone will spend time in jail.

"The entire pipeline and how we get to these numbers and challenges starts with what happens in the field with law enforcement, and how these populations are handled by the current district attorney's office," Torlincasi said.

Another speaker, Jacqueline Cox, echoed that sentiment, arguing that the only surefire way to lower the jail population is to release people accused of nonviolent crimes.

“The cheapest way to get people out of your jail is to identify the low-level offenders, bond them out quickly, keep them working," said one of the speakers, Jacqueline Cox. "Because if they can go to work they don’t become dependent on the state for a long period of time.”

Young, who also spoke at Tuesday's meeting, said Thursday that another issue with the move is the impact on inmate's families, who would have to travel four hours each way for visitations, cutting people off from support systems and contributing to recidivism.

"What it does is it creates more problems and it costs taxpayers more money," Young said.

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