“The Limestone County jail population continues to soar. The population this year is exceeding all expectation,” County Judge Daniel Burkeen said this week.So how did Limesone County wind up here? By making the same mistake years ago that Judge Burkeen wants to pursue now - building an entrepreneurial jail.
Part of this is due to growing jail populations per capita everywhere. And part is likely due to the fact that Limestone County is growing. The result is increasingly expensive for the Limestone County taxpayer. Limestone County’s jail is less than half the size needed to hold the current jail population, much less any additional growth, the Judge explains.
“Last year we optimistically increased the budget for housing inmates outside our jail from $300,000 to $400,000,” pointed out Judge Burkeen. “We are already well over that number, and the fiscal year isn’t over until the end of September. We are looking at having to budget between $800,000 and $1,000,000 for the next year. Our jail population now stays well above 100 inmates.”
The extra inmates are a double whammy for Limestone County. Many of the male inmates are housed at Limestone County Detention Center, a source of revenue for the county. So each inmate housed there takes up a revenue bed, costing the county around ten dollars per inmate per day in revenue. “As Bell County Judge Jon Burrows and others around the state have noted, paying to house inmates elsewhere will ‘bleed a county to death’,” Burkeen emphasizes.
In Waco, McLennan County commissioners face a similar dilemma over whether to build more jail space when the county already owns a second jail being leased to a private contractor. McLennan commissioners recently rejected the idea of a new private jail, but still must decide whether to build a new one or take over currently leased beds. The same can be said of Limestone County as McLennan, to quote the Waco Tribune editorial board:
This is not because we don’t have the space. It’s because commissioners saw a better use for the downtown jail eight years ago. That purpose has been eclipsed.Both counties built jails in the past on the speculative assumption that incarceration rates would continue to increase at the same rates as in recent years, a betting position that was bolstered substantially by the current boom in private immigration detention beds. Admittedly, for the last thirty years that's been a pretty sure wager. But immigration policies can change and high incarceration rates in the United States are an anomaly compared with the rest of the world, not a long-term inevitability.
For tiny Limestone County to ship prisoners elsewhere or build a third jail when they could just use the two they've got defies common sense. And if long-term trends don't go just the way they expect, the economics of the deal may not turn out as sweet as described, either.
Counties should focus on the jail cells they need and stop trying to become mini-private prison entrepreneurs. It not only creates bad incentives for government actors but it's a riskier financial proposition today than it was 10-15 years ago.