“The average population is 450 to 500,” [Warden] Duke said last year. “There are empty beds. That’s attractive to us. We take those empty beds and help the county get contracts with other entities such as Immigration Customs Enforcement. Corrections 2 [block] has 176 beds. We put ICE detainees in those beds. ICE pays Johnson County, and the county reimburses us.
“The county makes $5 off every detainee. The county makes money, and we make money.”
That wasn’t the way it worked out, [County Judge] Harmon said.
“Part of the problem came with the contract CEC had with immigration services,” Harmon said. “CEC thought it would be housing the detainees for a period of time. But [ICE] was calling on CEC to take on the expense of transporting detainees. CEC was being paid mileage to do that, but sometimes they didn’t have time to get the detainees back here and in the jail before [ICE] said, ‘Take the detainees to the border and release them.’ ”
So CEC had fewer bodies to fill the empty beds, and then the empty beds began multiplying.
“When CEC contracted with us, we were running about 600 inmates per day,” Harmon said. “Nobody knows why, but the numbers recently have been running around 400 per day. Incarceration numbers are down statewide and nationwide, from what I understand. You wouldn’t think it would be that way with high unemployment, but it is.”
As Scott Henson at Grits for Breakfast noted,
As of March 1, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, Johnson County had just 338 inmates in the jail, so the supposed profitmaker has now become a money suck. By contrast, Cameron County entered into a similar scheme and encountered the opposite problem: Their jail has so many federal prisoners they now must send pretrial detainees three hours away to be housed by other counties at higher costs. So Texas counties have been burned by these deals coming and going. It's never as simple or cheap as it sounds up front when it's pitched. Never.
This scenario illustrates a number of risks which Texas counties should remain aware of. The first is that prison companies are not out to help counties. Rather, profit is their primary motivation. When their profit is gone, so are they. Secondly, the promise that money will get produced in the future through either a soon-to-be contract with a federal agency is always a risky move for the county and any promises by prison companies should be compared with their history of not living up to these promises.
We will continue to monitor the situation in Johnson County to see if they choose another private company to take over or if the county will do the job.