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Emerald Corrections to open new ICE detention center in Alvarado

Emerald Companies sold the city on the idea of floating debt to build the detention center.
In November, the 700-bed Prairieland Detention Center is scheduled to open in Alvarado, Texas, a remote town in Johnson County 40 mines southeast of Dallas. The facility will be operated by Emerald Correctional Management, a Louisiana-based private prison corporation that manages six other facilities and has faced allegations of mistreatment of detained immigrants and shady contracting practices at other facilities.

 

The detention center will include a 36-person unit specifically designated to detain transgender immigrants, a practice that LGBTQI advocates decry as inhumane because transgender individuals are particularly vulnerable to physical and sexual assaults while in custody. Olga Tomchin, a staff attorney at the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, told Fusion, “ICE has shown over and over again that they’re incapable of detaining trans people with even minimal levels of dignity or safety.”

In June 2015, as county officials were breaking ground for the new detention center in Alvarado, 35 U.S. Representatives sent a letter to to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson urging him to end the detention of LGBTQI individuals. An excerpt from the letter reads, “These individuals are extremely vulnerable to abuse, including sexual assault, while in custody, in particular, transgender women housed in men’s detention facilities.”

Prairieland will be the second facility with an ICE contract in Johnson County, where the Johnson County Law Enforcement Center also currently detains immigrants for the federal agency. According to the Cleburne Times Review, Commissioner Rick Bailey was concerned that the county should not rely on two ICE facilities given the volatility of immigration laws. “I am concerned about ICE going away,” Bailey said in a Johnson County Commissioners meeting in early 2015.

These concerns are not unfounded, as Emerald suddenly pulled out of a contract with LaSalle County for a detention center in Encinal, Texas in late 2014 after the facility’s population decreased. This left the county with $20 million in debt, and county officials scrambling to run the facility without the resources or corrections knowledge for the job.

Despite the risks and opposition from some local officials, as well as national LGBTQI and immigrant advocates, the county approved the contract and the facility is slated to open in November 2016.

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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.  

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