Why does one company get all of Travis County’s electronic monitoring business?
In recent years, Travis County has seen an increase in the number of people released from jail on bail on condition that they wear some type of monitoring device, whether it tracks their location or detects the presence of alcohol.
This trend represents a big business opportunity for the multiple companies in Central Texas that provide the devices. However, in contrast to most other surrounding jurisdictions, defendants in Travis County don’t get to choose where they get their device. The county has a designated local provider that provides all of the devices.
In recent years, Victim Safety First has been the exclusive provider of GPS monitoring devices and radio frequency devices (the latter are for people under house arrest), while Dallas-based Recovery Healthcare has provided alcohol monitoring devices, often referred to by their brand name, SCRAM.
Last week, county staff recommended that the county contract with Recovery Healthcare for all three services. Recovery scored higher than the other two bidders –Victim Safety First and Pflugerville-based Safe Monitoring Solutions.
The two losing bidders are crying foul, saying no company should have a monopoly on the electronic monitoring business in the county. Their concerns may explain why the Commissioners Court opted to delay action on the proposed contracts for two weeks.
In the past, at least two defense attorneys have voiced concerns about the situation as well. Defendants are often unable to leave jail until they get their device installed, leaving them dependent on the company to send a representative to the jail.
In a letter to the Travis County Commissioners Court in February 2018, attorney Jana Ortega described issues she has had getting SCRAM devices for clients from Recovery.
“Over the last few years, there have been several instances where my client had had to remain incarcerated because of the scheduling of the current vendor,” said Ortega. “This inflexibility costs taxpayers money by unnecessarily occupying a bed in our jail.”
Attorney Betty Blackwell voiced the same frustration and concerns, urging the Commissioners Court at the time to allow Safe Monitoring Solutions to compete with Recovery: “When there is more than one provider, the cost comes down for my clients and the service improves. I have heard many complaints of clients staying in jail one or two days longer because they are waiting on the current provider in the county to come and install the SCRAM monitor in jail.”
Defendants must pay for the GPS and alcohol-monitoring devices unless they are deemed indigent. The county pays for the RF devices.
Rachele Smith, owner of Victim Safety First, which has provided GPS and RF monitors to the county for a decade, told the Commissioners Court at its June 4 meeting that she was shocked to hear that her contract was not recommended for renewal. She claims that the solicitation was unfair and that the county stacked the deck for Recovery Healthcare by reducing the minimum experience required for providing GPS devices from five years to one year. Furthermore, she said, staff did not contact two of the references she listed on her bid.
Bill Aleshire, a former Travis County judge who is representing Safe Monitoring Solutions, claimed the exclusion of the company, whose owners are black, is “proof that Travis County does not actually have a (historically underutilized business) program.”
The county’s HUB program is aimed at increasing contracting opportunities for minority and women-owned businesses.
“A chance to compete for a piece of the action is all they asked,” said Aleshire. “With your expected decision today, this Travis County HUB will be stiff-armed by their county for another five years. Sad is too mild a word.”
In an interview with the Austin Monitor, Smith, the owner of Victim Safety First, mentioned another detail about Recovery Healthcare that might make its bid less attractive to Travis County’s elected officials: The company was recently acquired by CoreCivic, a major private prison company that until recently was named Correction Corporation of America. The company has been the subject of ongoing controversy over conditions at its prisons and immigrant detention centers, notably the nearby T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, where immigrant women seeking asylum are detained.
Reached by phone, Terry Fain, chief operating officer of Recovery Healthcare, lauded the county’s solicitation process for being fair. Having an exclusive provider, he added, could help the county hold the vendor accountable for its services.
The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here.
Do you like this story?
There are so many important stories we don't get to write. As a nonprofit journalism source, every contributed dollar helps us provide you more coverage. Do your part by joining our subscribers in supporting our reporters' work.
Key Players & Topics In This Article
Travis County Commissioners Court: The legislative body for Travis County. It includes representatives from the four Travis County Precincts, as well as the County Judge. The County Judge serves as the chair of the Court.