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.
According to GEO Group's most recent earnings call, the private prison corporation intends to expand the Rio Grande Detention Center in Laredo, Texas. According to a transcript of the call:
"With respect to recent contract awards, we recently announced a 400-bed contract capacity expansion at our company-owned Rio Grande Detention Center in Laredo, Texas to 1,900 beds under our existing contract with the U.S. Marshals Service. Under the expanded contract, the U.S. Marshals Service will house up to 1,228 offenders at the center with 672 beds reserved for use by ICE. The 1,900-bed center is expected to generate approximately $38 million in annual revenues."
In Florida, GEO also took control of the 985-bed Moore Haven Correctional Facility and the 1,884-bed Graceville Correctional Facility. Both of those facilities are said to bring a combined $56 million in annual revenue.
The Rio Grande Detention Center has a long and controversial history in Laredo, going back to before its construction when local activists criticized the company's record and nearly derailed the facility's construction. What's more, immigration rights groups, including Grassroots Leadership, have long argued that the US Marshals only needs to incarcerate more immigrants because they are criminally prosecuted under Operation Streamline. Since opening, the facility has also been the subject of a reported riot and a scandal in which facility employees pled guilty to gun smuggling.
This week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that a Canadian national had died suddenly while in its custody at the Corrections Corporation of America-run Houston Processing Center. The cause of death is apparently a heart attack or stroke.
According to the report, Peter George Rockwell, 46, who had been in ICE custody since January 30, 2014, fainted at the facility on February 15. Rockwell was taken to the hospital and placed on life support. On February 22, medical staff at the hospital removed Mr. Rockwell from life support as per his family's authorization.
Rockwell, who has been in the United States as a legal permanent resident since 1993, was convicted in July 2013 on two counts of felony evading arrest and was subsequently sentenced to three years of community service. He was ordered to appear in immigration court on January 30 due to his convictions, which served as a potential reason for his removal from the United States. ICE was then contacted by the Canadian authorities, who claimed that Rockwell was wanted for charges in both Ontario and Ottawa.
In 2012, the Houston Processing Center was highlighted by the Detention Watch Network in its Expose and Close report series as amongst 10 of the worst immigration detention centers in the country. The Houston Processing Center was the first CCA facility in the country, opening just over 30 years ago and pioneering the modern private prison industry.
This is the second death this year of an immigrant in ICE custody.
Leon Wilson, a lifelong resident of Dayton, announced his candidacy yesterday for Liberty County Commissioner (The Vindicator,"Wilson Announces Candidacy for Liberty County Commissioner, Precinct 4"). Wilson is running as a Republican for Precinct 4.
If elected, Wilson wishes to bring the Liberty County Jail back under county control and stop the "waste of millions of dollars" associated with privatization.
Liberty County has a troubled financial history with regards to the county jail. The county's efforts to decrease the jail population has been thwarted due to their contract with Community Education Centers (CEC), the company that previously operated the jail, As the jail population decreases, the cost per prisoner increases. 75th District Court Judge Mark Morefield had this to say about the contract:
One (private prison) bid said that if the inmate population goes below 200, the cost per inmate goes from $63 to $68 per day. If we work really hard to decrease the inmate population, the cost will go up to $70 per day...[t]hey are taking all the incentive out of it.
Wilson has served with the Liberty County Police Department, the Liberty County Sheriff's Department, the Department of Public Safety, and the Harris County Attorney's Office and the Harris County District Attorney's Office.