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Burnet County Private Jail Fight

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Last Monday, I drove out to Burnet, about an hour outside of Austin in the Texas hill country, to witness a community forum on a proposed 587-bed private jail and detention center. The meeting was called by Burnet County Commissioners and the recently-created Public Facilities Corporation - a quasi-governmental agency which has the ability to float revenue bonds to pay for prison construction - after an apparent groundswell of local opposition to a private jail initiative.

Private jail opposition huge!

After fighting Austin traffic and paying for a toll road, I arrived for the 7:00 p.m. meeting around 6:30 to find the old courthouse nearly full. Opponents of the jail, who seem to be very well-organized, told me they'd mailed out 7,000 fliers and placed by an ad on the local radio station announcing the meeting. I was pleased to see that audience members were being handed Considering a Private Jail, Prison or Detention Center, a pamphlet developed by Grassroots Leadership and South Texans Opposing Private Prisons, as well as a chart explaining the jail's proposed financing.

By 7:00, the courtroom was spilling well into the halls with at least 500 people, nearly all seemingly opposed to the private jail scheme. The plan, similar to those increasingly common in many Texas counties, is to finance the construction of a new county jail by floating revenue bonds (through the Public Facilities Corporation) and paying back the bonds by profiting from the importation of federal U.S. Marshals or Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees.

Opponents of the jail were allowed to speak first. Five Burnet citizens laid out the case against the jail, including the pitfalls of private jail companies, potential dangers in floating debt for private jail expansion (perhaps county officials should look into Willacy County where every resident is currently a staggering $8,700 in debt due to prison expansion), and a general sense that shipping inmates into Burnet County wasn't necessary or good for the county.

Who stands to benefit?

Moderating the meeting were Russell Rau and Ira Cotler, representatives from C3 Corrections, a private jail financing and developing company who has apparently been hired by the county to put the financing deal together. Private prison watchers will recognize Cotler's name as the former CFO and Executive Vice President of Correctional Services Corporation, a company bought by the GEO Group in 2005. According to C3's website, the company:

offers its clients the most unique and innovative consulting solutions offered in the corrections field today. For the first time in the corrections industry, one organization has compiled some of the industry's leading experts to offer specialized consulting services across the full spectrum of solutions to include: Project Development, Finance, Operational Support, Accounting/Budgeting and Support Services.

Also supposedly involved in the Burnet County deal are Municipal Capital Market Groups, a bond underwriter who has underwritten many private prison bonds in Texas, and construction company Hale Mills. Hale Mills was one of three companies potentially involved in the Willacy County bribery scandal back in 2005. Three south Texas county commissioners plead guilty to receiving bribes, but no company officials were ever charged with a crime.

The prison would be operated by Southwestern Correctional, a Louisiana company represented at the meeting by Clay McConnel and associated with LaSalle Management Company. McConnel spoke at the Monday meeting and claimed that his companies operate 6 Louisiana prisons and one here in Texas. I'm still trying to track down which facilities those are.

What's next for Burnet County?

KXAN reported that the County Commission is moving ahead with plans to study the proposed jail site. Clearly, Burnet County residents have sent a message the jail plan is controversial, if not downright unpopular. Grits for Breakfast, per usual, has good advice on the topic as well:

Building a jail so much bigger than the county needs makes the county reliant on the current jail and prison boom continuing ad infinitum, or at least over the next 15-20 years while they're making bond payments. Maybe it will. So far other counties making that assumption have been lucky. But personally I don't believe the current growth in Texas' incarceration rate is sustainable, either pragmatically, socially or economically, so Burnet County: If 10 years down the line you find yourself making large debt payments on a half-empty jail, don't say nobody warned you. It's a bad idea, and not just for NIMBY reasons.

We'll keep you updated on the jail and opposition from Burnet County.

Update: I just saw reporter Catherine Hosman's story on the meeting in the Burnet Bulletin. Check it out for more details from the meeting...