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Tarrant County to exit contract with private prison that failed state inspection

A woman stands at a podium and speaks before a crowded government meeting room.
Miranda Suarez
United Fort Worth Executive Director Pamela Young, at the podium, urges Tarrant County commissioners to reduce the local jail population at a Feb. 21, 2024 meeting.

Tarrant County’s contract with a private prison that violated state standards will end in September, three months early, after commissioners voted unanimously to end the agreement.

A state inspection in December found problems like medical neglect, a lack of safety training and missing documentation at the Giles W. Dalby Correctional Facility, four hours west of Fort Worth. The county has signed $40 million worth of contracts since 2022 to send local prisoners there.

On Wednesday, Tarrant County commissioners voted unanimously to speed up a safety renovation project at the local county jail, opening more beds and allowing the Dalby contract to end on September 30, instead of the original end-of-December expiration date.

“Economically, it makes the most sense,” County Commissioner Manny Ramirez told KERA. “It's the best business decision to get out of a county a couple hundred miles away, and make sure that we can effectively guard prisoners that [are] supposed to be in Tarrant County.”

Nobody from Management & Training Corporation (MTC), the company that runs Dalby, told Tarrant County about the failed inspection, according to Ramirez and other local officials. Harris County, which also pays to send prisoners to Dalby, was not notified either, Houston Public Media reported.

Dalby has since passed its reinspection and was declared compliant, according to a Feb. 12 letter from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Earlier this month, Tarrant County commissioners directed Merritt to explore options to get out of Dalby. Besides the option they chose, commissioners could have ended the contract as soon as possible and delay the local jail’s safety renovation.

Another option involved keeping the contract and try to renegotiate it with more penalties, which Merritt noted MTC did not have an incentive to do. Other jails across the state are struggling with big populations and understaffing, just like Tarrant County, he wrote.

“Likely, MTC will be able to replace the Tarrant County contract with another contract,” he said.

There are some risks to the plan commissioners chose.

Construction delays and supply chain problems could slow down the accelerated safety renovation project, and the seven months before the contract ends may not be smooth sailing, Merritt said.

“Since the facility has been found in non-compliance, there is greater likelihood of reinspection and the opportunity to identify additional non-compliance issues,” he wrote.

Ramirez said that’s “absolutely” a worry for him.

“I know county staff and the sheriff's office are exploring every other option for available bed space anywhere else, just in case that were to happen,” he said.

County staff have given multiple arguments for why the Dalby contract, which pays for 500 beds, is necessary. The jail population has been near capacity since the pandemic, and despite a push to hire more jailers, there are still 200 open detention officer positions, according to Merritt’s memo.

Members of the public who spoke at the meeting urged commissioners not just to end the Dalby contract, but to reduce the jail population.

Pamela Young is the executive director of the activist group United Fort Worth and a longtime critic of the Dalby contract.

“Stop using jail space, public dollars, and overworked jail staff to incarcerate people who do not need to be incarcerated,” Young said Wednesday.

Jail activists have urged county commissioners in recent months to stop incarcerating people who are in jail for minor offenses and can’t pay low bond amounts.

By failing to reduce the jail population, the county is risking more harm, Young said. She pointed to allegations of neglect in the jail in recent years, which have opened the county to criticism and more than a million dollars in lawsuit settlements.

“What you’re saying is that you want another Chasity Congious, Kelly Masten or Javonte Myers,” Young said.

The county does have a plan to open up more jail space locally. A planned renovation to another jail facility, Cold Springs, will open up 384 more beds, according to Merritt’s memo. The design process is underway.

Miranda Suarez is KERA’s Tarrant County accountability reporter. Before coming to North Texas, she was the Lee Ester News Fellow at Wisconsin Public Radio, where she covered statewide news from the capital city of Madison. Miranda is originally from Massachusetts and started her public radio career at WBUR in Boston.