New Mexico, Take Heed: More Prison Beds are not the Answer

Last week we learned that Curry County, New Mexico commissioners may be looking to strike up a deal with city officials in Littlefield, TX to alleviate an overcrowding crisis at their county jail.


The deal would allow Curry County officials to send overflow prisoners slightly over an hour away to the currently empty Bill Clayton Detention Center in Littlefield, TX.  The facility has been empty since 2009 after the Idaho Department of Corrections cancelled their contract with private prison operator GEO Group to house Idaho prisoners there.  Consequently, GEO Group pulled out as well, leaving the residents of Littlefield with increased taxes and fees necessary to pay back the $10 million the city borrowed to construct the facility in 2000.  


The Idaho Department of Corrections’ decision to sever the contract with GEO Group came in the wake of the death of Idaho prisoner Randall McCullough at the Littlefield facility, who allegedly committed suicide while in GEO Group’s custody.  McCullough’s death led to a massive lawsuit alleging “grossly inhumane treatment, abuse, neglect, illegal and malicious conditions of confinement, and subsequent cover up of wrongdoing” by the private prison company.


Since Littlefield’s disaster with GEO Group, the city has been stuck with an empty 372-bed jail and a $65,000 monthly bill to pay for it.  Knowing this, it comes as no surprise that Littlefield officials are eager to reach an agreement that would fill those beds and minimize that debt.  

However, a deal that would allow Curry County, New Mexico prisoners to be housed in Littlefield, TX - though it may appear to some as a “win-win” situation - is troubling.


The transfer of prisoners across state lines, particularly to private prisons, as a means of alleviating overcrowding, is certainly not new.  It is, afterall, how Randall McCullough ended up in the Littlefield facility in the first place.  We also know that there are currently more than 10,000 prisoners housed in private prisons outside of their home states, originating from Vermont, Idaho, California, and Hawaii.  In some cases, incarcerated men and women are transferred to facilities thousands of miles from home and community.  


We believe the practice of shipping prisoners from state to state to shirk the problem of overcrowded prisons is indicative of our nation’s dangerous reliance on incarceration and failure to prioritize strategies to reduce the number of people that enter the system at every level of government.  Problems associated with interstate transfers include stripping prisoners of access to invaluable supportive ties, thus impeding their human right to rehabilitation, compromised access to legal counsel and resources, and oversight and liability issues.  We’ve seen these transfers result in dire consequences for prisoners, their families, and sending agencies, with those problems only exacerbated when private prisons are involved.  


When correctional systems become overcrowded, it is critical that we look to sensible, sustainable solutions that will result in fewer incarcerated people, not to actions that open the door to perpetuating mass incarceration.  We should all look to the current overcrowded prison  debacle in California as both an example and a warning of the disastrous consequences of ignoring the need for decarceration.  To comply with a federal court mandate to reduce the state prison population by 9,600 by the end of the year, California Governor Jerry Brown plans to spend hundreds of millions of state dollars to lease more prison beds, both public and private, and send prisoners to out-of-state for-profit prisons.  If Brown’s plan goes forward, money that should be spent on education and anti-poverty programs will be spent on keeping people caged.  Advocates in California are outraged, and are working relentlessly to stop this from happening.  


Curry County is no California, but the message remains the same.  Our reliance on incarceration and addiction to prisons must end.  We hope that Curry County commissioners think twice about shipping prisoners to Littlefield.  We’ll keep you posted with new developments.