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Are the Hurricane Dolly Evacuations Putting Tent City in Financial Trouble?

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A very interesting story in the Brownsville Herald ("Tent city still recoverying (sic) from Dolly," September 4) about the damage incurred to MTC's "tent city" detention center in Raymondville, Texas. Nine of the ten windowless, Kevlar pods that make up the 2,000 bed tent wing of the structure were damaged in the Hurricane, and detainees have not returned to the facility. According to the article,

Hurricane Dolly damaged the domed tents at the Willacy County detention center, preventing officials from returning undocumented immigrants who were evacuated before the July 23 storm, officials said Thursday.

Rain from the Category 2 hurricane drenched the domes while the storm's 100-mph winds shot debris into some walls, said Bill Bryan, a consultant who oversaw development of the $111 million project that includes 10 domes and a 1,000-bed building.

The damage has prevented officials from returning detainees to the camp, so the inmate count has plunged from about 1,943 before the hurricane to a low of 685, county records show.

Two major things jump out at me about this story. First, maybe it's not such a good idea to build major detention centers out of Kevlar tents, especially when they are in an area prone to hurricanes. Unfortunately, private prison corporation Emerald Companies is not following this advice and is building a tent-like expansion to its west Texas detention center.

Secondly, this is a perfect example of how counties that float bonds to for prison construction can end up with less-than-perfect financial situations. As Forrest Wilder at the Texas Observer has reported, every resident of Willacy County is $8,700 in debt that was issued to pay for prisons expected to bring in revenue from federal detainees.

The agreement also stipulated that the county would earn money on top of paying back its debt, but if the damage keeps the detainees away (or, there is an eventual scaling-back of the detention system), it could become much harder to pay back the debt.