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Willacy County Goes $50 Million More in Debt to Expand MTC’s Tent City

Last week, Willacy County Commissioners approved an additional $50.1 million in revenue bonds to expand the notorious MTC Tent City detention center. According to the Valley Morning News, the detention center, a series of tent-like structures made of windowless Kevlar pods that already has capacity to hold 2,000 ICE detainees, will expand by 1,000 beds.

The added debt will now mean that Willacy County must pay back $54.8 million to bond holders by September 2010 and another $56.6 million by 2028. The money brought in to the prison through the federal contract to hold the immigrant detainees is supposed to raise the capital to pay back the debt, while the private prison company (in this case MTC) takes a cut of the income as it goes.

As Forrest Wilder at the Texas Observer blog writes, that is a staggering $8,700 debt per resident of Willacy County, a county with a population of 20,082 and a prison capacity of 4,600.

The new bond deal led Commissioner Aurelio Guerra this week to question a “fixed annual fee” of $27.4 million that will be paid to MTC if the average monthly inmate count falls below 2,500 inmates.

Under the current contract, MTC is being paid a $27.75 per diem per prisoner held in the prison, according to the company. That rate would increase to $30.13 with the fixed fee. $30 a day per prisoner to pay for food (albeit possibly maggot-infested food), staff, clothes, services, AND a profit for MTC seems like a seriously low amount.

But that’s what is apparently happening because nearly 3/5 of the amount the government is paying for the facility is being spent to pay back Willacy County’s enormous debt.

If a problem occurs at Tent City (say maggots in the food – can we mention that too much?) and ICE decides to pull some of its prisoners,that can cause big financial problems for the county. According to the article, the county must maintain a minimum 1,700 detainees consistently to pay back its 20-year bond, so a serious drop in prisoner numbers could affect bond payments and lead to a decline in the county’s bond rating, a scenario that could hinder the county’s ability to issue future bonds for things like schools or parks.

According to Willacy County Commissioner Eddie Chapa, “We would love to have 2,500 (illegal immigrants) but we know that’s not going to be — we have to have the room available in case there’s an influx. If we get 2,200 to 2,300, we’d be very happy.” Maybe it’s just me, but there seems to be something twisted about betting your county’s financial future on the hope that you’ll have a large and growing number of incarcerated immigrants.

As we’ve reported, Willacy County is no stranger to private prison scandals. Its history includes public officials convicted of accepting bribes from prison developers and a $47.5 million settlement in a lawsuit against the Wackenhut Corporation by the family of a prisoner who was beaten to death in 2001.

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