As part of a series of changes to the civil commitment program in Texas, Littlefield will serve as the new home for nearly 200 individuals convicted of a sexual offense who have served their time, but who have been indefinitely civilly committed. Although federally required to be a treatment program, not a punitive one, a company with roots in the private prison industry will operate the facility. Correct Care Recovery Solutions (CCRS), formerly known as GEO Care, is a spin-off corporation of GEO Group, the same corporation that operated the facility until 2009. This contract seems a consolation prize for CCRS, who lost the bid to take over Terrell State Hospital earlier this year.
The remote Bill Clayton Detention Center has lain empty for six years. Owing 13% of their budget in bond payments each year, this is not the first time the city of Littlefield has tried to repurpose the facility. In 2014, the city hoped that locking up children fleeing Central America could fix their financial troubles.
The opening of the new facility comes alongside numerous changes for the program. Attempting to get ahead of the feds after a federal court decision in June which ruled Minnesota’s civil commitment program unconstitutional because it held participants indefinitely, Senator Whitmire introduced Senate Bill 746 during the 84th legislative session. Signed by Gov. Abbott on June 16 and effective immediately, the legislation accomplished a number of reforms. Unfortunately, the bill also removed the outpatient requirement from statute, allowing the state to confine all program participants in a more restrictive lockdown facility, rather than in halfway houses in various parts of the state.
According to Sen. Whitmire, the new program is designed to allow participants to move through the five-tiered system, with prison-like confinement only at the front end. In theory, if someone follows the rules and makes strides in their treatment, they will move through the tiers and eventually leave the program. Unfortunately, treatment components and policies governing length of time spent in each tier remain undefined and “graduates” will continue to remain under state supervision through ankle monitoring.
Although some program participants are hopeful about the changes, others are skeptical. The state asked program participants to sign a waiver to voluntarily enter the new program - 97 refused. The distrust of the new program may stem from the program’s constitutionally dubious history. In the 16 years it operated as an outpatient program, no one was ever released from the program. Although there is now a process for individuals to move through the program and potentially be released, the state’s contract with CCRS incentivizes keeping the Littlefield facility full. The state will pay $128.70 per person per day initially, but once the population increases to over 250 individuals, the state gets a break and will pay only $100 per person per day. Similarly to private prison and immigrant detention contracts, the state now is incentivized to keep the number of individuals confined in Littlefield high, rather than encouraging rehabilitation and release. This perverse incentive is especially troublesome because oversight for the program will come only from the agency itself. With such a poor track record on the part of the agency and the private corporation running the facility, skepticism seems completely warranted.
Look for more to come on Correct Care Recovery Solutions and civil commitment in Texas.
Two stories about the economics of for-profit prisons in Texas have caught our attention this month. Both talk about a recent spate of communities in Texas defaulting on bonds that were issued to pay for private, for-profit prisons intended to detain or incarcerate immigrants.
The basics of the stories - one by Bloomberg's Lauren Etter ("Border jails facing bond default as immigration boon goes bust," August 2) and the other by the San Antonio Express-News John MacCormack ("Prison bust spreads across rural Texas," August 22) - cover the boom in private prisons financed by local Texas communities on the promise that federal contracts would come rolling in.
Bloomberg's Etter summarizes the issue:
"In Texas, the heart of a jail-building boom over the past decade, nine of 21 counties that created agencies to issue about $1.3 billion in municipal bonds to build privately run correctional facilities largely for migrants have defaulted on their debt. A dozen other facilities from Florida to Louisiana to Arizona, many that housed immigrants, have also defaulted, according to figures from Municipal Market Analytics, a bond-research firm based in Concord, Massachusetts."
Several other Texas facilities are in danger of defaulting as well. The story covers the incredible boom in facilities being built between 2000 and 2010 on county-issued debt (largely through quasi-governmental entitites often called Public Facilities Corporations or PFCs) through the lense of La Salle County, just north of Laredo. In La Salle, county officials issued more than $20 million in debt to build a detention center that won a U.S. Marshals contract for private prison corporation Emerald to detain pre-trial federal prisoners, mostly immigrants being charged with entering or re-entering the country without authorization.
But other prison companies were pitching similar deals in other parts of the state and soon the "demand" for immigrant prisoners couldn't keep up with supply of prison beds. Counties were left on the hook - with more than $700 million in outstanding debt around the state, according to Bloomberg, mostly for jail contruction. In La Salle, the company simply pulled out of the deal last winter and left the county's PFC with more than $20 million in debt and a jail with a leaking roof.
The side of the story that isn't, in my opinion, detailed sufficiently in either piece is that the private prison companies have emerged largely unscathed because of these lost contracts. Companies like Emerald in La Salle or GEO Group in Eagle Pass made money on these deals while the getting was good and then walked away from the contracts when the bottom fell out of the market. This is a classic case of privatized profit for the prison companies and socialized risk for the taxpayers of small, often struggling, counties. And, to make it even more scandalous, in many of these deals, the bond issuers, prison developers, and prison pitchmen got paid up front. In La Salle, former Webb County Commissioner Richard Reyes reportedly got paid $700,000 to put the deal together. I bet that's $700,000 La Salle County wishes it had now.
What's even more remarkable is that Emerald, the same private prison corporation that walked away from the facility in La Salle because it couldn't find enough prisoners to make it profitable, is still out pitching similar schemes in other parts of the state - recently in Alvarado and Cleveland.
Note to Texas counties - If a jail financing deal seems too good to be true, it most likely is.
On August 18, Cleveland, TX Mayor Niki Coats announced at a city council meeting that a private prison operator had withdrawn plans to build a new immigrant detention facility.
The news drew cheers from more than two dozen residents who showed up to protest.
One week earlier, private prison contractor, Emerald Companies, had asked the city for a letter of intent. Coats refused to sign, saying, "It's not the kind of growth in the community we need."
Coats later explained that Emerald withdrew the plan claiming they had another location in mind.
When the Cleveland Advocate asked other Texas county judges about the impact on counties of building immigrant detention facilities, Polk County Judge Sidney Murphy had this to say:
"According to Murphy, 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.
“'Why build a 1,000-bed facility when there is one less than 30 miles down the road that has only 300 beds being used?' Murphy asked."
Burnet County Judge James Oakley said after his county entered a 20-year revenue bond deal with a private prison company, the deal eventually went belly up, leaving the county with lost revenue and a facility that was much bigger than necessary.
It seems the Cleveland mayor and residents may have helped save Liberty County from similar fates.
On August 5th, in the midst of the legal battle concerning the fate of immigrant families currently locked up awaiting their asylum hearings, News 4 Tucson investigators shined a spotlight on how a small Arizona town is cashing in on the detention of immigrant women and children in Dilley, TX.
The report broke down the agreement between the City of Eloy, AZ, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).
After the surge of Central American immigrants arrived at the Texas border last year, CCA rushed to build the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, TX. According to ICE spokesperson, Adelina Pruneda,
"The contracting process for the Dilley facility was necessarily accelerated in response to the 2014 humanitarian crisis of families entering through the Texas Rio Grande Valley from Central America. To accelerate the lengthy contracting process, ICE modified an existing contract with the City of Eloy, Arizona, to operate the Dilley facility. Corrections Corporations of America (CCA) has been contracted by the City of Eloy to provide day-to-day operation of the residential facility."
There was no bidding process and the city of Eloy gets fifty cents per bed per day to be the “fiscal agent”, amounting to around $438,000.
Meanwhile, at ICE’s Phoenix office, activists held a protest calling for justice for immigrant detainees who have died in ICE custody at the Eloy Detention Center.