Private Prison Companies Punish Progress in Two Texas Counties

 

A story out of McLennan County in Central Texas this week reminds us how private prison companies’ incessant pursuit of profit can end up hurting local governments.  

After finishing out the current fiscal year with the jail $2 million over budget, McLennan County officials, including law enforcement, judges, and prosecutors, are looking to streamline the local justice system and cut jail costs.  McLennan County Judge Scott Felton told KWTX News 10 that the county could save $2 million a year by reducing the prison population by 10 percent.  

But, there’s a catch.

Any savings would be offset by a deal the county struck with private prison corporation LaSalle Corrections in May, which requires the county to pay LaSalle for 325 prison beds at the Jack Harwell Detention Center, regardless of whether or not there are prisoners to fill them.  In other words, even if the county reduces the number of people behind bars, which would save money and strengthen communities, the county remains obligated to fill LaSalle’s pockets with taxpayer dollars.

Bed guarantee clauses such as this are a commonly used tactic for private prison companies, who are always seeking to maximize profits, regardless of the dire consequences for prisoners, communities, and state and local governments alike.   

Felton argues, "Having LaSalle as operator and us having to guarantee a threshold is better than not having anyone at all” because the private company pays the hefty monthly bond payment on the facility.

But, why is the county relying on LaSalle to foot the bill in the first place?

The Jack Harwell Detention Center was speculatively built in 2009 with $49 million in bonds floated by the County’s Public Facility Corporation.  Revenue from housing prisoners from various state and federal agencies, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), would go toward repaying the bonds. 

However, Texas Prison Bid’ness reported back in 2011, then-operator Community Education Centers had immigration detainees removed from the facility after complaints from legal service advisors and immigration rights advocates that conditions in the facility were inappropriate for immigrants in civil detention (Grassroots Leadership has heard that a small number of ICE detainees are again being held at the facility).  The facility also was deemed non-compliant by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

The county has had trouble filling the facility ever since, and in May voted to end the contract with Community Education Centers and sign a new deal with LaSalle to take over operations.  In August, county officials hoped to get 200 immigrant detainees from ICE to fill the beds, but none showed.  Today, the county is on the right track seeking to reduce their incarcerated population, but their obligation to pay LaSalle for empty prison beds is a tough pill to swallow.

McLennan County isn’t the only place to fall prey to prison profiteers like LaSalle Corrections.  Last year in Liberty County, 75th District Court Judge Mark Morefield realized that private prison companies disincentivize jail population reduction by hiking up per diem costs per prisoner.  Despite implementing a bond supervision program that successfully reduced the jail population, the county was still stuck paying Community Education Centers $333,972, a cost of $72 per prisoner per day (PPPD) -- nearly $30 PPPD more than what a study by Texas A&M researcher Lynn Greenwood deemed appropriate for Liberty County.

For private prison companies, prisoners are dollar signs, and smart solutions that reduce the number of people behind bars are bad for business.  We must put an end to an industry that continues to punish progress while reaping billions from caging human beings.