Wednesday, November 26, 2008

McLennan County private jail deal creates perverse incentives

After high interest rates had earlier caused delays, the McLennan County Commissioners Court this week approved issuing bonds to construct a new jail that will be operated by a private contractor, the Waco Tribune Herald reports ("McLennan County Commissioners Court approves bond sale for new jail," Nov. 26), but there's a hitch:
“This will work out as long as the jail is full or has adequate number of inmates in the jail, which is the case now and in the short term,” [County Treasurer Bill] Helton said. “My concern is 10 years down the line, if the jail population were to decrease and there are not enough inmates in the jail to produce revenue to cover the costs, what happens to the county’s bond rating and credit worthiness if they were to default on the payments?”
That's an excellent question and depending on unpredictable things like the economy, the Legislature, and even national immigration policy, it could become an issue sooner than ten years from now.
The interest rate they're hoping for is nearly as high as the one on my house:

The legal paperwork formalizing the bonds will be submitted to the Texas Attorney General’s Office for approval, which may take up to two weeks, said Herbert Bristow, the county’s attorney. However, the bonds will not be sold on the market until bond interest rates fall to 6.98 percent or lower, the point at which the financial costs for the new jail remain favorable.

“The documents have been formally approved for the bond transactions, so we have everything in place to react timely to any changes of the fickle market,” Bristow said.

Is it ethical to build a jail with such steep financial incentives for the county to fill it up? Shouldn't decisions about who is incarcerated remain free from such venal pressures? Particularly when McLennan County has other options besides jail building?

If, as Mr. Helton fears, there comes a day when the county doesn't need so much jail space, McLennan County will find itself in the same situation as the Texas Youth Commission recently - paying a contractor for empty jail beds. And they're not the only ones making such a gamble.

The county treasurer is right to worry: McLennan taxpayers just bought a pig in a poke.


FleaStiff said...

Sure, a commercially operated prison wants to turn over the cells so any prisoner deaths lead to added profits but in a jail all you are looking at is processing of pre-trial detainees and some rather minor sentences. Given the foreseeable future, there will be no lack of defendants. Police will focus on someone to get their jollies, so if immigration declines maybe homeowners with long grass will have to start worrying but the cells will not be empty. C. Northecote Parkinson said that a task expands to fill the time available for its completion; well criminal law enforcement efforts will expand to fill available jail cells.

FleaStiff said...

Consider how enforcement of drug laws changed after departments started receiving forfeited assets and other funds based on their drug cases. Speeding tickets, parking tickets ... it is all linked to revenue yet no one seems to care much when its a public entity. Suddenly its a concern when the jail is a private enterprise operation?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Fleastiff, it's a problem whether public or private, and I've criticized using tickets for revenue generation, asset forfeiture, and other incentives for incarceration not based on safety considerations. Why would you think I'm only critical of private companies? How long have you been reading this blog?

Also, in your first comment you assume the flow of new prisoners will be indefinite and expanding. Maybe. I believe we've reached the limit where there aren't enough guards to staff more prisons and jails at prevailing wages, plus the public is unwilling to pay for the associated upkeep and healthcare costs for so many people in the face of competing priorities in tight budget times. Maybe the expansion of the last 30 years can go on forever, but I personally doubt it.

FleaStiff said...

The Scandanavian system of prompt and massive fines might help but massive fines are difficult enough for the fairly wealthy to pay. Most prisoners in jails are already at marginal economic levels. Massive fines, if paid at all, would probably just condemn the prison to continued unlawful acts.

I seem to recall one state that had a brand new prison which sat idle because there were no funds to staff the guard towers or the medical clinic. At some point I guess the taxpayers do revolt at the thought of prisoners getting free medical care while the working poor can't get any at all.

Anonymous said...


'Corporate Prisons': the GOP's Formula for More Crime, Declining Education, and Slave Labor
Like many crooked GOP schemes, the fascist corporatization of state prisons makes a slick end run around the Bill of Rights, sets up crony corporations with a guaranteed gravy train at tax payer expense, and ---to sweeten the deal --it provides them with slave labor.

It is no accident that under Gov George W. Bush, Texas beat out Mississippi for 'dead last' in education. As education declines, crime increases. Increasing crime fuels the corporate prison gravy train. Justice has nothing to do with it. It's about warehousing and enslaving people for profit. There is nothing in the middle ages half so slick, so cunning, so evil!

Unless the nation wakes up to what happened in Texas, the nation will enter not just an economic depression but a new dark age, perhaps an end to civilization as we know it. In many ways we already share with the middle ages, a careless disregard for every life. In Texas, the crime rate increased as the prison systems --under Bush Jr --went corporate! As a result, one in 100 Texas residents are in prison, many of them 'corporate' lock ups in which prisoners have no rights. As Texas took the GOP/fascist prison route, education tanked --a recipe for future unemployment, poverty and increased crime.