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July 12th, 2007:

Outsourcing inmates

What happens when our jails get too full? We ship inmates to Louisiana.

Harris County on Friday will begin shipping the first of as many as 400 of its prisoners to a private jail in northeast Louisiana, costing taxpayers up to $4 million over the next six months.

An official with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday described the transfer to West Carroll Detention Center in Epps, La., as an “emergency concept” aimed at dealing with a recent seasonal “surge” in the inmate population.

As we know, and as the story mentions, this is a longstanding problem, “surges” notwithstanding.

On July 5, the sheriff’s office notified the Texas Commission on Jail Standards that it would need to transfer up to several hundred prisoners in order to maintain compliance.

In a July 9 letter to the sheriff’s office, commission executive director Adan Munoz approved of the plan.

[…]

As of Wednesday, the Harris County Jail prisoner population was 9,974, according to [Harris County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Mike] Smith.

While the county system’s inmate capacity is 9,042, the commission has granted the department, which operates the jail, temporary permission to house up to 1,050 inmates in so-called “variance beds” — nonstandard metal frame bunks on the floor.

“We didn’t want to send 20 here, five here, 10 there, and 13 over there,” Smith. “That (becomes) problematic to get them there, and to get them back, and (to know) where they are, and what the rules are there.”

“That’s what made it an emergency, and that’s why (Emerald) was selected,” he added.

Emerald was also the lowest-priced facility, according to Smith, who said the county will be charged $38 per day, per inmate for the first 300 prisoners. Smith also anticipates that the entire $4 million approved by the commissioners will be spent.

Smith said the price parallels what it would have cost the county to pay jailers in overtime that would have been necessary for the prisoners to remain in the Harris County Jail.

[…]

Smith said all the inmates who will be transferred to Louisiana have been convicted of state jail felonies. He also placed part of the blame for the jail overcrowding on a law that allows judges to sentence state jail felons to a county lockup rather that state-run facilities. Currently more than 1,200 inmates convicted of state jail felonies are housed in the county jail, according to Smith.

Smith also said the jail population could have decreased had Texas Gov. Rick Perry not vetoed a bill that would have allowed bail for technical parole violators. Nearly 500 technical violators — people who have not committed other crimes — are housed in the county lockup, Smith said.

The notion that Harris County is housing extra inmates does not please Harris County Pct. 3 Commissioner Steve Radack.

“The state dumps on Harris County like we’re running a little Alcatraz down here,” Radack said. “They pass these laws. Then take people that should be in state facilities and expect the county to take care of it.”

While it’s true that these are contributing factors, it’s also true that the local judiciary deserves a good deal of blame. We really could have a smaller inmate population without any significant risk to the general public, with the bonus of not having to throw away $4 million on stuff like this. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s going to change until we have some new blood on the bench around here. At least we’ll have a chance to make that happen next year.

Trees cut down at River Oaks shopping center

Well, so much for being designated as landmarks.

Contractors removed a line of trees, including several large oaks, from the edge of the River Oaks Shopping Center Wednesday as Weingarten Realty Investors continued its preparations to demolish part of the 70-year-old center.

The action came less than three weeks after the city Planning Commission recommended that the shopping center be designated as a landmark, making it eligible for tax breaks intended to discourage demolition. The City Council has yet to act on the designation, which would not prevent Weingarten from demolishing the center.

[…]

The Greater Houston Preservation Alliance sent a petition with more than 25,000 signatures to the chairman and CEO of Barnes & Noble, urging the chain to reconsider leasing space in the Weingarten project.

Weingarten said in a statement Wednesday that it intends to proceed with its plans.

“Weingarten has invested a great deal of time and financial resources consulting with top architects to ensure that certain design elements, such as the curved facade and other modern and Art Deco treatments, are included in the new structure,” the statement said.

I’m sure the new center will be pretty. It just won’t mean anything. It’ll be like Disney’s Main Street USA – all historical-like and authentic-looking without any actual history or authenticity. On the plus side, when the time comes for Shopping Center 2.0 to make way for the next big thing, there will be that much less to be lost. Such is life.

Cornyn attacks Watts

Well, somebody thinks we’re gonna have ourselves a real Senate race next year.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn‘s political money-raising operation has wasted no time in playing the trial lawyer card against potential Democratic opponent Mikal Watts, an attorney from San Antonio.

Cornyn has scheduled a series of fundraisers for the weekend of July 20, featuring presidential adviser Karl Rove as the main attraction. But an invitation letter for the Harlingen event also plays off Republican reactions to trial lawyers.

“We will also have the opportunity to help the senator begin preparing for what appears to be a wealthy, self-financed personal injury lawyer opponent,” said a Cornyn campaign committee letter signed by James G. Springfield, CEO of Valley Baptist Health System in Harlingen.

A Cornyn fundraising letter sent out last month by John Nau of Houston noted: “Unfortunately, John appears to have drawn a very wealthy personal injury lawyer Mikal Watts as a potential opponent.” Cornyn’s aides declined to discuss the specifics of his letters.

I’m not sure if this means Cornyn fears Mikal Watts more than he fears Rick Noriega, if it means he thinks he’s more likely to face Watts than Noriega next year, or if he just thinks Watts is an easier target. Certainly, “trial lawyer” is a nice, comforting piece of shorthand that a Republican in need of a boogeyman can use to whip up the faithful. It does make one wonder what he’ll do if he doesn’t get Watts as his ballotmate, though. Maybe he needs a little more time to think about it.

Here’s a question to ponder: Who do you think would poll worse nowadays, trial lawyers or Karl Rove? Let’s just say that I hope Cornyn and Rove remain BFFs throughout the campaign.

Cornyn’s trip with Rove might seem surprising because the senator recently began distancing himself from the president on the issue of immigration. But from his 2002 election until recently, Cornyn has been a staunch Bush supporter.

Rove helped Cornyn win election to the Texas Supreme Court in 1996, recruited Cornyn to run for state attorney general in 1998 and again to run for the U.S. Senate in 2002.

That in a nutshell is why I believe the 2008 Senate race will be different from the recent ones that preceded it. Cornyn and Bush are two peas in a pod, no matter how pathetically our junior Senator tries to “distance” himself these days. And Bush hasn’t been popular in Texas in a long time. He’s less popular than Cornyn himself, which won’t help. All Cornyn had to do in 2002 was be Bush’s buddy, which was something he could easily do better than Ron Kirk. Now he’s got to run as his own man, but with all that Bush baggage attached to him. It won’t be easy for him. BOR, Eye on Williamson, and Stace have more.

A tour of the freight trains

Christof has an interesting announcement.

We’ve all seen freight trains. Many of us have them in our neighborhoods. But where are they coming from? Where are they going? And why do they spend so much time sitting still? These are important questions, since the state and local governments are getting ready to spend a lot of money on freight rail. And the best way to understand the answers is to see them in person.

So we’re doing a field trip. On Saturday morning, July 21, we’re chartering a bus and taking it to places like Tower 26 (one of the busiest rail junctions in Houston, above) and Settegast Yard and the East End. We’re bringing along Joe Adams of Union Pacific Railroad, Tom Kornegay of the Port of Houston, and Houston City Council Member Adrian Garcia to tell us about what we see from the perspective of the railroads, the shippers, and the neighborhoods around them.

Interested? The tour is open to CTC members only, but you’re welcome to join if you aren’t a member yet. Tour tickets are $10; memberships are $20. Email [email protected] to RSVP. But be quick — we announced this tour by email (if you’re not on our mailing list but want to be, email [email protected]) on Thursday and the bus is already nearly full. If we do fill up, we’ll start a waiting list, and we may schedule a second tour, likely in the fall.

I don’t think I can make this, but if you have any interest in trains (or if you’d like to ask someone why they derail), I hope you’ll check it out. And I hope someone blogs about it.

Astro-Whirled

As someone who’s spent a few hours in the past couple of years photographing the demolition of various local landmarks, I can totally relate to this guy.

Every March for almost 30 years, David Purdie waited in the same line at the same supermarket on West Gray to buy an AstroWorld season pass.

In 1978, the laminated tickets promising limitless fun from March through October cost just $20. Purdie, then 13, and his best friend mowed lawns in the Houston heat, sold Kool-Aid and comic books, and spent their profits on the passes. Prices rose steadily, but the two friends continued to go back year after year, finally paying $52 in 2005.

Then Purdie heard the unimaginable – AstroWorld would close forever.

With the stomach-churning suddenness of a Texas Cyclone plunge, Purdie decided he had to preserve the memory of his favorite getaway. He purchased a home-video camera and started shooting. Two years later, he’s ready to share the results with likely thousands of Houstonians who fondly recall the old South Loop amusement park

“I knew that if it was true, that in the end AstroWorld was gone, I was going to want to have footage for myself to keep and cherish forever,” said Purdie.

He returned to the park every weekend in October 2005, filming everything — the drive down Kirby, the footbridge hike over the Loop and the entire walk around the park.

[…]

A week after the park closed for good, Purdie persuaded a friend to go back with him.

“I get there and I can see clearly that they started disassembling the Dungeon Drop. You could tell from the freeway, so I got out and started filming, and I got all excited and sad at the same time,” he said. “I went back later that day. I went back the next day and the next day and the next day.”

Purdie, a waiter at Tony Mandola’s Gulf Coast Kitchen, went back almost every day for seven months. He filmed mostly from the sidewalk and in a given day would stand outside the gates for 30 minutes or eight hours.

[…]

Purdie has now pared some of his favorite AstroWorld footage into a three-minute short, AstroWhirled. He offered it to a Houston short-film festival.

“It was a good opportunity for me to play with my footage, and it might be a good way to get my feet wet,” he said.

But Purdie’s film didn’t make the festival’s cut, so he’s trying to get the River Oaks Theatre to run it Saturday, before the midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. (At press time, theater officials were not sure they would use it.)

In the short film, Purdie falls asleep dreaming of going to AstroWorld. But when he gets there, it’s being torn up.

“And I wake up and it’s jut a dream, but of course it wasn’t,” he said.

The film shows a blur of children running through the park. It features the unmistakable clank of a roller-coaster car making its way up the wooden track. Then it cuts dramatically to a shot of the coaster being smashed by a giant backhoe.

The story link has the video as well. The described scene, cutting from the roller coaster to its demolition, was easily the strongest bit. The rest of it was okay but unfocused. I figure given all the footage he shot, a good editor could probably tease a nice short documentary out of it. I hope someone steps up to help him with it, because I think it would make for a worthwhile preservation project. Take a look at the clip and see what you think.

Harris County Tejano Democrats meeting tonight

A major event in the 2007 campaign season occurs tonight as the Harris County Tejano Democrats get together to make their endorsements for November. One race in particular stands out, that for the open District I seat being vacated by Council Member Carol Alvarado.

“The fact is, we’ve got two very strong candidates this year,” said Armando Walle, the group’s chairman, referring to James Rodriguez, Alvarado’s former chief of staff, and John Marron, a union activist and legislative aide to state Rep. Alma Allen, D-District 131.

Walle said the vote could be a squeaker, since both candidates enjoy strong backing within the Tejano Democrats’ membership.

“It’s just going to come down to who can rally their supporters to the meeting,” he said.

The Tejano Democrats’ endorsement meeting for the November general election will be at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Harris County Democratic Party office, 1415 North Loop West.

Both candidates participated in the group’s screening process last month, answering a range of questions of interest to the Hispanic community, Walle said.

“I would say they agree on a lot of the policy issues,” he said. “I didn’t see any difference in their (answers) as far as police protection, after-school programs and preventative health care. From my understanding, they both support a lot of those issues that we have an interest in.”

The Tejano Democrats’ executive committee decided on its recommendation June 30 and will announce it at Thursday’s meeting prior to members casting their ballots.

However, which candidate gets the nod is up to the rank-and-file membership, which has been known to buck the committee’s recommendations in the past, Walle said.

“The endorsement process is not a rubber stamp,” he said.

“If (members) don’t approve of our recommendation, they’ll make it known.”

Whichever candidate wins a simple majority of members’ votes will get the full support of Tejano Democrats’ infrastructural support, including mass mailings, phone banking and block walking, Walle said.

A full statement from the Harris County Tejano Democrats is beneath the fold. The race in District I has been set for months now, and was characterized as a proxy battle between County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia and Council Member Alvarado in a story that drew some strong reactions. I’ll be very interested to see who emerges as the endorsed candidate. Both Rodriguez and Marron are well qualified, and it could go either way. Stay tuned.

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