Emerald Correctional Management is coming up against more community opposition to its proposed immigrant detention center north of Houston. This time, their proposed new immigrant lock-up has found opposition from the San Jacinto County Commissioners Court.
San Jacinto County Commissioners passed a resolution on December 8 in opposition to the proposed new immigrant detention center, according to The Cleveland Advocate (SJC commissioners approve resolution to oppose immigration detention facility in Shepherd area, Dec. 9, 2015).
The vote comes just weeks after the prison company’s representatives persuaded the city of Shepherd, which sits inside San Jacinto County, to let the company pursue a bid with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for a new detention center in the city.
County Judge John Lovett said at the December 8 meeting that the proposed location for the project lies mostly within an unincorporated area of the county and outside of the city limits of Shepherd. County Judge Lovett also pointed out at the hearing that the special meeting called by Shepherd had little public attendance.
The Advocate also reported that residents of both Shepherd and San Jacinto County have protested the project for various reasons. One person who spoke against the proposal to the Shepherd City Council in November was Cleveland Mayor Niki Coats. Cleveland City Council voted against the proposal when Emerald was shopping it around to them in October.
Mayor Coats told Shepherd officials in November that “What they told us was sweet.” He also said that his own research into Emerald Correctional Management and the immigrant detention system at large led him to vote against letting the company pursue a bid in his city.
For-profit prison company Emerald Correctional Management LLC is based in Shreveport, Louisiana and has been at the center of a lot of back and forth in trying to find a home for their new immigration lock-up. During a October 6 at Cleveland City Council Emerald Companies’ Executive Vice President Hull Youngblood explained why a bid in Cleveland was offered, then revoked and then offered again. Youngblood told council members that an offer to nearby Plum Grove was rejected by the landowner, causing them to return to Cleveland. When Cleveland City Council voted against the bid, Emerald took their pitch to Shepherd, which gave Emerald the thumbs up just six days later.
Less than a week after Cleveland City rejected a proposal from Emerald Correctional Management, neighboring Shepherd voted 4-1 in favor of letting Emerald pursue a bid on a new 1000-bed immigrant detention center in the small city, according to the Houston Chronicle (One community welcomes bid for detention center, another rejects it, Oct. 29, 2015).
Emerald CEO Steve Afeman told the Houston Chronicle that his company was bidding on a 10-year federal contract, with a guaranteed 750-bed occupancy rate, avoiding problems that have plagued other private prison or detention facility contracts in years past as inmate populations have dwindled.
Mayor Niki Coats, who cast the vote that doomed the proposal in Cleveland City, told the Chronicle, "After doing all the research about the industry and the company and the individuals with the company, I was strongly against it,” Coats said. "They approached us with all these numbers, but it doesn't add up.”
Debra Hagler, Shepherd City Secretary told the Chronicle that if Emerald did walk away from the facility or their obligation, as the company did in Encinal, the small city "would try to lease it, sell it, to some other company that can use it."
Hagler and other Shepherd officials would have done well to learn what happened to another Texas town that had to face this contingency. Littlefield, Texas struggled for years after private prison company the GEO Group pulled out of the troubled Bill Clayton facility.
Cleveland City Council in October rejected a bid from Emerald Correctional Management LLC of Shreveport, Louisiana, to build a new for-profit immigrant detention center in this community 50 miles northeast of Houston, according to a report from YourHousonNews.com (Cleveland City Council rejects immigration detention center proposal, Oct. 21, 2015)
Those who came to speak against the proposal talked about what the detention center would do to the community’s image and the company’s dubious track record (which includes leaving Encinal, Texas and $20 million in debt). Even the usual private prison promise of “bringing jobs” drew sharp rebuke. Cleveland attorney Mollie Lambert said that only meant 300 home foreclosures would follow in the future.
Emerald’s General Council Hull Youngblood spoke before the council and promised that the detention center will have a 75 percent occupancy guarantee and no families housed inside the building, possibly referring to the family detention centers in South Texas that a federal judge earlier this year ordered to release children detained there.
“It comes with a guarantee of 10 years of occupancy,” Youngblood, the Emerald representative, promised council members.
Such guarantees are all too common in immigrant detention centers. A report from Detention Watch Network and the Center for Constitutional Rights explains how insidious such guarantees (sometimes called local quotas) are:
[Immigration and Customs Enforcement] ICE’s contracts with private detention companies have exacerbated the effects of the federal detention bed quota by imposing local “lockup” quotas, contractual provisions that obligate ICE to pay for a minimum number of immigration detention beds at specific facilities, referred to in contracts as “guaranteed minimums.” Because guaranteed minimums require payment to private contractors whether beds are filled or not, ICE faces considerable pressure to fill them. Local lockup quotas that serve to protect the bottom line of private companies thus incentivize the imprisonment of immigrants.
Youngblood previously testified to Cleveland City Council in October that the proposed Cleveland unit, once operational, would have around 295 employees for Emerald and another 100 for ICE. All would be paid at the federal wage scale. For Emerald employees, this would mean an average annual salary of $43,000. As for why ICE wants to build in the area? Youngblood said ICE wants detention facilities to be within 50 miles of an international airport, in this case Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport.
In August, The Cleveland Advocate contacted County Judges in other Texas communities where similar facilities were built, Polk County Judge Sidney Murphy: why build a new immigrant detention center so close to Livingston where one sits less than half-full? The Advocate reports that Judge Murphy told them:
...in Polk County, the IAH Detention Facility operated by MTC of Utah and built a little more than 10 years ago is required to pay the county a per diem fee per inmate. However, the population of the 1,000-bed facility is so low, with only 300 beds being used, it is no longer generating any income for the county.
The final vote against the detention center in Cleveland was 2-2 with Mayor Niki Coats casting a swing vote against the proposal.
Last month, Dallas County Commissioners had a tough decision on their hands. After CCA was expelled in 2013 with the closure of Dawson State Jail in downtown Dallas, the private prison company swooped in to take over a contract that could keep them in town for the next 40 years.
Last year, Dallas County entered into a contract with Lifestyles Management of Avalon Correctional Services to lease ten acres of land and build a 300-bed halfway house. CCA is now taking that contract over in spite of serious concerns raised by Dallas leaders. According to the Dallas Morning News, Commissioner John Wiley Price was “concerned about CCA’s record of prison abuse, riots and poor employee pay.” Unfortunately, Price also felt the county had no way to block it.
The decision was on the agenda at the Dallas County Commissioners meeting on Oct. 20th, but commissioners postponed the vote until Nov. 3rd to further research the deal. In testimony to the commissioners, local advocate, Josh Gravens, expressed concern about the well-being of halfway house residents. Knowing CCA’s history, he questioned whether the company is more interested in helping former inmates or turning a profit. Unfortunately, Dallas County commissioners felt they had no choice, and approved the lease take-over.
In a letter responding to advocates concerns, Commissioner Price revealed how CCA’s tactics backed them into a corner. According to Price, the Dallas County Commissioners, “have no legal means to stop [the contract]” and he encouraged the community to, “let us join in acknowledging the need being filled and lend our voices to the chorus calling on CCA to do better.” His response left many questions unanswered.
Although county commissioners approved the lease, local advocates worked with members of the commission to insert important safeguards into the contract. CCA will be required to provide transportation for residents of the halfway house, CCA cannot expand the facility to more than the originally proposed 300 beds, and CCA is prohibited from using the leased property as anything but a halfway house. Although these provisions are considered a win, close monitoring of CCA’s lease will be required.