Emerald Corrections

Sen. John Whitmire warns small TX town against building new private lockup

Senator John Whitmire, D-Houston, sent a warning to city officials in Shepherd, TX after they voted in favor of contracting with private corrections company, Emerald Correctional Management LLC, to build a new lockup for immigrants awaiting deportation.  Senator John WhitmireSenator John Whitmire

Whitmire, Chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, sent a two-page letter to the Shepherd Mayor Pro Tem Sherry Roberts to tell her history has shown that partnering with private prison companies to build local lockups is a bad idea. In the letter, Whitmire cited Littlefield and Jones County, both small communities in Texas where partnerships with private companies have gone belly up and left local taxpayers with the burden of paying off the bonds. 

According to reports from the Houston Chronicle, Whitmire's letter stated:

"I hope you are aware that many cities and counties in Texas have gone down the failed path of partnering with private correctional entities to build both prisons and immigration detention facilities."

"Many of these thousands of beds now sit empty, leaving the public partner (city or county) responsible for paying off the debt issued to build the facility."

"Texas has closed three, privately run state jails or prison facilities, while our state inmate population continues to decline," Whitmire said.

"If the expected immigration population dwindles or disappears altogether, the state will have no part in filling the empty beds with state inmates. Again, thousands of beds built through speculation projects now sit empty, with public entities on the hook.

"I understand and appreciate the desire to provide economic development within your community, but gone are the times of using prisons and correctional facilities for that purpose," the senator stated. 

"I am hopeful that you will take under consideration the failed speculative projects elsewhere in Texas and the potentially significant financial liabilities your community would assume if a similar scenario were to play out in Shepherd."

Well said, Senator! Officials in Shepherd did not immediately respond to the Houston Chronicle on this issue. 


Emerald targets Mineral Wells for "ICE detention center" for third time

Emerald Corrections has come back to the city of Mineral Wells for a third time in an attempt to construct a 500-1000 bed speculative detention center.  This time, on a divided vote, the city council approved negotiations with the prison company.  According to the Mineral Wells Index ("Emerald receptive to negotiations," December 3),

The project to bring an immigration detention facility to Mineral Wells began moving ahead again Wednesday after the city council gave the go ahead Tuesday night.

Less than two months after the same agenda item failed for lack of support, the city council approved a resolution Tuesday night authorizing the Mineral Wells Local Government Corporation to continue negotiations with Emerald Correctional Management to build a detention facility in Mineral Wells.

Steve Butcher of the Industrial Foundation told the Index Wednesday afternoon the project seems to be moving ahead again.

As we've reported, Emerald has been rebuffed in Mineral Wells twice.  Locals were concerned about the placement of the first proposed facility near a business district, and then balked at Emerald asking the city to finance a prison the second time.  At that time, not two months ago, Emerald had this to say:

“That’s a pretty clear message that the city council has no interest in doing this project,” Steve Afeman, chief operating officer of Emerald, said Wednesday morning. “We’re not about to go back.”

I guess that sentiment didn't last long.  Contacts in Mineral Wells tell me that this fight is far from over.  Well keep you posted on the private prison debate in Mineral Wells. 

See our previous coverage:

"A Death in Texas": More excellent coverage of immigrant detention complex from Tom Barry

Tom Barry continues his excellent coverage of the growing system of private prisons detaining immigrants for ICE, the U.S. Marshals, and the federal prison system in a new article in the Boston Review ("A Death in Texas: Profits, Poverty, and Immigration Converge," November/December 2009) online this week. 

Barry, whose excellent blogging over at the Border Lines Blog, has covered the growing immigrant detention industrial complex in the context of the mess that is the Reeves County Detention Center out in Pecos.  In this new article, Barry takes a comprehensive look at the policies and poverty that have driven poor rural Texas towns into the prison industry, and what some of the disasterous results have been.  Here's a brief sample:

Debbie Thomas, curator of the West of the Pecos Museum (commonly known as the cowboy museum), sighs when asked about the town’s only steady business over the past two decades. “Well, we don’t want to be known as a prison town, but it’s better than being a ghost town,” she says. Pecos was once a busy crossroads and hub of industry. Today, the downtown is dead.  In 1985 Reeves County became the first of a few dozen Texas counties to get into the speculative prison business, when Judge Jimmy Galindo (no relation to Jesus Manuel Galindo) persuaded the County Commissioners Court to take a bold step for Pecos’s economic future. At the time, Judge Galindo and other county leaders argued that Pecos could cash in on the surge in incarceration rates that accompanied the war on drugs. Years later, for the prison’s two expansions, the county and the private operators would rely on the federal government to send them immigrant inmates.

Indeed, immigrant detention has been central to the growth of the “privates” for more than two decades. The Immigration and Naturalization Service’s (INS) 1983 decision to outsource immigrant detention to the newly established Corrections Corporation of America gave birth to the private-prison industry; GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut) got its start imprisoning immigrants in the late 1980s.

While the nation’s nonimmigrant prison population has recently leveled off, the number of immigrants in ICE (formerly INS) detention has increased fivefold since the mid-1990s, and continues year after year to reach record highs. Assuming current trends hold, ICE will detain more than 400,000 immigrants in 2009.
The federal government’s escalating demand for immigrant prison beds saved CCA and other privates that had overbuilt speculative prisons. Over the past eight years, the prison giants CCA ($1.6 billion in annual revenue) and GEO Group ($1.1 billion) have racked up record profits, with jumps in revenue and profits roughly paralleling the rising numbers of detained immigrants.

The full article is certainly worth the time to read.  See it here, and check out Barry's other excellent work at Border Lines Blog.

Emerald's bid for Mineral Wells detention center dead for a second time

Private prison corporation Emerald's second attempt to build a speculative immigrant detention center in Mineral Wells is officially dead, according to a story from the Mineral Wells Index ("ICE project deal dead," October 8):

A two and-a-half year effort to bring an illegal immigrant detention center to Mineral Wells ended Tuesday night with several long seconds of silence from city council members.

A resolution to continue negotiations with Emerald Correctional Management to build a detention facility funded by non-recourse revenue bonds issued by the Mineral Wells Local Government Corporation failed when council members failed to second a motion in support.

“That’s a pretty clear message that the city council has no interest in doing this project,” Steve Afeman, chief operating officer of Emerald, said Wednesday morning. “We’re not about to go back.”

The story itself has some interesting tidbits.  After private financing for the facility fell through, the company tried to convince the city to float revenue bonds to pay for the facility's construction.  The City Councilmembers were having none of it. 

“I don’t think it’s the right thing at the right time,” [Councilmember] Terry said. “I want to see the Baker Hotel situation [succeed] and I don’t want anything to get in the way … I just think there are better deals out there and eventually they’ll come. I feel that Emerald is not being up front with us.”

Terry was the lone dissenting vote when the council agreed to accept a lower impact fee than Emerald announced they would pay the city before the site was moved, asking whether it would be a sign of things to come.

“I don’t like the idea of the city having to issue bonds,” councilman Tommy Blissitte told the Index Wednesday. “It would look bad on the city if they defaulted.”

Clearly, this is a major victory for opponents of the private detention industry in Mineral Wells and around the state.  As we've reported, this is the second time that Emerald has been rebuffed in Mineral Wells this year.  Emerald also had two similar speculative prison proposals defeated in Caldwell County last year.  In spite of the rejections, the private prison company vows to continue pitching private detention centers, even in face of an immigration detention reform that may reduce demand for ICE detention beds. 

“It’s a business decision that the city made and we respect that,” [Emerald's] Afeman said. “There are two other sites that we’ve been in contact with this week.” 

We'll keep you posted on where Emerald moves next with their speculative prison plans.  See our previous posts on Emerald's proposed detention centers in Mineral Wells:

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