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Michael Harling

Texas private prison developers pushing detention center on Tohono O'odham Nation

A group of Texas private prison developers are behind a controversial proposal to build a detention center on Tohono O'odham Nation land near Sahuarita, Arizona.  The group includes well-known prison developers, including underwriter Municipal Capitol Markets Group, design firm Corplan, and prison "consultant" Richard Reyes from Innovative Government Strategies.

While it appears the plan may be faltering under pressure from local opponents, the private prison developers still hope they will be able to build a detention center on the tribal land. A recent article in the Sahuarita Sun ("Public pressure crushed detention center," May 22nd) indicates that the initial location proposed for the facility has been withdrawn, but that "the northwestern part of the District has been mentioned as a possible site" alternative.  According to an earlier article in the Arizona Daily Star ("Prison plan opposition grows," May 18), the proposed detention facility succeeded in uniting a diverse group of opponents,

"Community activists, immigrant-rights advocates, tribal critics and local elected officials don't want to see a federal detention center built near Pima Mine Road on the San Xavier District of the Tohono O'odham Nation.

Opponents, including residents of Rancho Sahuarita and the Rev. Robin Hoover of Humane Borders, asked the Pima County Board of Supervisors last week for the county's help in stopping the prison's construction. The county's power lies only in raising questions and asking the federal government to require more study of the impact before signing off on the project. The county has no direct jurisdiction over projects built on sovereign Indian territory." 

The private prison pushers are being called "the folks from Texas" by opponents of the prison, and they include people involved in Texas' most controversial prison deals. They include James Parkey of prison design firm Corplan and Chris Cuny of prison engineering firm Cuny Corp.  According to reports, Parkey sold the complicated and controversial bond deal that led to the Willacy County Detention Center. The Willacy facility was featured in an excellent expose by Forrest Wilder in the Texas Observer ("Jailbait: Prison companies profit as Raymondville's public debt grows," October 20, 2006).

Underwriting the proposed Arizona detention center is Municipal Capital Market Groups, led by Michael Harling.  Harling recently pitched an immigrant family detention center in Willacy County and advocated for a controversial jail privatization scheme in McLennan County, Texas. MCMG was a major player in the earlier Willacy deal that led to bribery convictions for two County Commissioners from Willacy and one from Webb County, according to the Associated Press ("Webb official sentenced to prison," Nov. 24, 2006). No company involved in the Willacy deal, including Corplan, MCMG, construction firm Hale Mills, or private prison operator MTC were ever indicted in the case.    

Also in the mix is Richard A. Reyes, a former Webb County Commissioner and a "consultant" with Innovative Government Strategies out of Boerne, TX.  Reyes reportedly received over $700,000 for his "consulting" role ("Doing Borrowed Time: The High Cost of Back-Door Prison Finance," Prison Legal News, November 11, 2008) in putting together the troubled prison financing deal in LaSalle County, Texas.  County officials from LaSalle are still wrangling in court with private prison company Emerald Corrections over the Reyes' LaSalle arrangement.  

Reyes was the subject of a San Antonio Current article called "The Buzz in Boerne" (the article is no longer on line, but we have a copy). It argued Reyes' La Salle deal was not as sweet as first sold,

"Kendall County Judge Eddie J. Vogt said before the county joins the federal prison industry, it would closely scrutinize La Salle County, where Sean Chadwell, Encinal city councilman, has opposed the project from the beginning. He criticizes the private prison firms, the financial underwriters, and Reyes, who represented La Salle County in the Encinal project, for picking a "provincial" location as an easy target to dupe the taxpaying public into funding a for-profit detention center. "Prison companies come to town and say to the county, 'You borrow the money through a public finance corporation, which is an arm of county government. You can do that without a vote and you're not obliging tax money.' The logic is pretty sensible, and it enables poor municipalities to borrow money. The problem is in building something as big as a prison, where counties encounter all sorts of other costs."

Chadwell charges that La Salle County spent $50,000 in legal fees during negotiations and construction of the La Salle County Regional Detention Center. He says the county is hemorrhaging money to service debt and finance charges. "Any population that is less than a constant 420 prisoners is losing money," Chadwell said "It also puts a damper on future development, residential or commercial. The early promise is to spur economic development in town."

Encinal's water supply company has committed so much water to the federal detention facility that it only has 40 hookups for other residential or commercial developments in town. Chadwell says that rural economies all over Texas are making themselves dependent on incarceration. "It's happening all over the country, but Texas is especially bad. Once little places are solely dependent on prisons, you can't change that very easily."

This is certainly a troubled cast of characters Texas' private prison development industry has exported to Arizona.  We'll keep you posted on developments. Best of luck to our Arizona friends working to expose the industry!  

Proposed Raymondville Family Detention Center Being Pushed by Prison Developer

While we've reported that one of the three new family detention centers proposed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement may end up in Raymondville, I hadn't seen this Valley Morning Story until recently. The story provides more details on the proposed Raymondville lock-up,

City officials are considering a proposal to build a 200-bed, $30 million detention center to hold illegal immigrant families.

Raymondville city commissioners sent a letter to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to support a plan to build the detention center, City Manager Eleazar Garcia said Wednesday. "We haven't committed ourselves to anything yet, except we're interested and would like to know more about it," Garcia said.

Since the mid-1990s, Willacy County has built prisons and a detention center in the Raymondville industrial park. Already there are a 1,000-bed state prison, a 500-bed county prison, a 96-bed county jail and a 3,000-bed illegal immigrant detention center, the largest in the United States.

We've reported in the past on Raymondville's growing dependence on immigrant detention beds to survive economically. We've also reported that prisons do not create long-term economic growth, and that prison towns tend to scare away more beneficial industries. Of course, there are those that stand to benefit from a new detention center in Raymondville - prison developers and private prison operaters.

According to the article, one of those is Michael Harling of Municipal Capital Markets Group.

Michael Harling of Municipal Capital Markets Group in Dallas, which would work to finance the project, said it would create 200 jobs. Harling called the city to ask if officials would consider the project, Garcia said.

"They asked if the city would be supportive of putting it in the industrial park," Garcia said. The city would sell bonds to fund construction of the project, Harling said.

Federal revenue derived from holding illegal immigrants would pay off the bonds, Harling said. Garcia said the detention center would allow illegal immigrant parents to be housed with their children.

"It's not a detention center," Harling said. "It's a facility for holding families, for holding people who have not committed crimes."

I certainly find it interesting and more than a little disturbing that a prison financier - someone who makes their money off the floating of bonds to build prisons - is the one who is acting as the spokesperson for the policy of detaining children and their families.

We'll keep you updated on developments on ICE's three new proposed family detention centers.

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