A private prison firm that abandoned a detention center in South Texas, leaving leaders there to grapple with how to keep it afloat, won support from a community near Houston to host a new facility in a vote that came less than a week after a neighboring city rebuffed a similar proposal.
Emerald Correctional Management approached city officials in Shepherd on Monday, asking for permission to pursue a bid to build the facility in the small municipality of about 2,000 people an hour northeast of Houston. The Louisiana-based company is among three expected to submit bids to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency for a 1,000-bed detention center the federal organization wants to build in the Houston area.
Before Shepherd signed off on the proposal, Emerald approached nearby Cleveland, where leaders narrowly rejected the deal.
Private detention facilities have proliferated across Texas over the last two decades, in response to a wave of illegal immigration. The facilities were seen by many municipalities as a low-risk way to bring jobs and federal funds to small Texas communities.
But as apprehensions have dropped and beds across the state have increased, facilities have struggled. At some sites, detainees have held hunger strikes and riots because of poor conditions. In other instances, local counties that financed the facilities are dealing with unforeseen debt when the companies canceled contracts after the inmate population dropped.
At another, in the small south Texas town of Encinal, in LaSalle County, Emerald's operations came under additional scrutiny after it abruptly pulled out of the center after the inmate population dropped, saddling county officials with a facility with a leaky roof, about $20 million in debt, and scrambling to find a new operator to save the jobs of the 100 guards and staff.
Critics who have long opposed private companies operating prisons continue to be skeptical.
"Recent evidence does not add up that there's going to be such an increase in numbers of immigrants detained [by the government] that ICE is going to need thousands of additional beds," said Bob Libal, Executive Director of Grassroots Leadership, an organization that has long opposed the private-prison industry. "Often when these contracts dry up, [private detention operators] walk from the facilities. And in many cases, they have left communities high and dry."