With the Ellis County Commissioners Court scheduled to vote on privatizing the county jail at 2 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 8, Ellis County Sheriff Johnny Brown is in the political hot seat.
As sheriff, he has the power to end the discussion by refusing to sign over jail operations to a private company. By law, he is still responsible for everything that goes on in the county jail, whether under his daily oversight or that of a private company. Should the sheriff say “No,” the entire issue becomes a mute point.
From a political standpoint, the sheriff is in a very difficult position.
Proponents of jail privatization claim the county will save several hundred thousand dollars (to several million by housing federal inmates and detainees). In reality, that’s not the case at all. Private jail management is actually two separate issues — overseeing the county’s inmates (which fluctuates daily), and contracting with the federal government to use the vacant jail beds for ICE detainees and U.S. Marshal Service inmates. In reality, the county will save no money by privatizing county jail operations. In fact, over the course of the contract, the county could actually spend more money. However, contracting unused beds with the federal government could be very profitable, for both the private jail management company and county. The only problem is, those contracts do not come with a guarantee and are subject to change (by the federal government) at a moment’s notice. Meaning, the county (and private firm) cannot count on having federal detainees and inmates. In fact, both of the companies that bid on the Ellis County contract were asked if they would consider a contract to ONLY oversee ICE detainees and U.S. Marshal Service inmates in the unused portion of the jail. One company said no, the other said they would take it under consideration, but that would not be their preference, admitting the difficulties in staffing the operation due to the fluctuating nature of federal contracts.
Which brings us back to the sheriff.
Should the sheriff refuse to turn over his jail to a private company, he is at risk of a political firestorm from both commissioners and adversaries who will claim he refused to save money for the taxpayers. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. But as we all know when it comes to politics, reality and truth seldom have anything in common.
Compounding the issue is the way the county judge has structured the proposal — and how little information is being shared with commissioners who will be voting on the matter Thursday afternoon. While the county judge formed a special committee to assist the court in doing due diligence on the two bids for total jail management, each member of the committee was required to sign a letter of confidentiality. Many of the committee members believed the letter meant they weren’t allowed to share proprietary information that would give one firm an unfair advantage over the other. It wasn’t until after the meetings began the committee was informed they were not allowed to share ANY INFORMATION on what they had learned until after the commissioners voted on the matter. Meaning, three out of the four voting commissioners won’t know all of the insights into what they are getting the county into until after they vote.
Two of the committee members, Precinct 3 Commissioner Paul Perry and Daily Light/Midlothian Mirror Editor Neal White, while honoring their pledge of confidentiality, have been steadfast in their opposition to jail privatization.
Though the commissioners are being asked to make a decision without benefit of having all the information, we sincerely hope they don’t make a hasty decision because it appears to be politically appealing at the moment, without regard to the possible buyer’s remorse down the road — much like Obamacare and today’s Congress.
But should the commissioners decide to put politics above the best needs of the county, we strongly urge Sheriff Brown to JUST SAY NO because someone needs to be willing to stand tall — not because it’s politically prudent, but because it is the right thing to do.