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Johnson County to foot bill for expanded LaSalle Southwest immigration detention center?

Here's a story we've been following for a while, but haven't yet posted on.  Johnson County appears to be near to floating an additional $20 million to expand a jail operated by private prison operator LaSalle Southwest.  The reason is not, apparently, that the county needs the jail, but that the company is able to turn a profit off the facility's expanded use for immigration detention.   Grits for Breakfast, as usual, has a good breakdown:

"The Sheriff in Johnson County is insisting that the commissioners court must pay to expand the county jail, according to this report out of Cleburne, though "County Judge Roger Harmon appeared to offer every possible scenario Monday that might prevent a big-ticket expense – building, or at least major renovation and expansion, of a county jail."

Sheriff Bob Alford, though, insisted building additional capacity is the only option. Commissioner Don Beeson opined, "Its not popular, but we have a responsibility. We just simply have outgrown this facility."

But have they? According to the latest report by the Commission on Jail Standards (1/1/14),  the Johnson County Jail has a capacity of 870 but only 454 local prisoners, meaning local demand presently only takes up 52% of available jail beds. When one takes into account more than 250 contract prisoners, though, the jail is 81% full. So the push to expand the jail isn't due to rising local needs but stems from past decisions by the commissioners court to speculatively build excess capacity to house inmates from elsewhere.

The ill-fated decision to overbuild the jail has haunted the county for years. In 2010, their previous contractor dumped the county because they couldn't find inmates to fill the empty beds. The new contractor, LaSalle Corrections out of Lousiana, has been more successful at filling the beds and now wants the county to build them extra capacity." 

So, the facility would not be expanded to facilitate an expansion of federal detainees, presumably on contract from Immigration and Customs and Enforcement or the US Marshals.  The facility is already an ICE-contract facility, and presumably is benefiting from that agency's controversial bed quota that mandates that ICE fill 34,000 detention beds every single day, at a more than $2 billion price tag to U.S. taxpayers.  

Johnson County residents may want to look down the I-35 at the Jack Harwell Detention Center for a cautionary tale about how federal contracts don't always bring the economic miracles they are expected to.  As we reported back in 2011, Jack Harwell's then-operator Community Education Centers had immigration detainees removed from its facility after complaints from legal service advisors and immigration rights advocates that conditions in the facility were inappropriate for immigrants in civil detention.  The facility also was deemed non-compliant by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.  That is apparently a threat in Johnson County as well, according to a recent article in the Joshua Star ("Report: LaSalle reinvesting in jail," February 14): 

"... the Texas Commission on Jail Standards also told Johnson County it may not pass another review, Commissioner Don Beeson has repeatedly said, leading to the initial discussion concerning the construction of a new jail or major renovation to this facility."

McLennan County has also struggled to pay the debt the county's Public Facility Corporation floated to pay for the construction of the facility.  The facility has sat half-empty for years after the county's financing agency spent $49 million to build it.

Johnson County should take note that federal contracts can go as quickly as they come.