Usually voters must approve debt for new jails, but a South Texas political family wants the federal Ag Department to loan money for jail building without voter approval, reports the Tribune ("USDA Approved: Jail Construction," Dec. 14):
Somebody needs to step in and provide some adult supervision here: The US Department of Agriculture has absolutely no business loaning money to add onto county jail capacity. Pork is pork, but that's an absurd misuse of Ag funds; certainly there's little economic stimulus going on there, and it ignores the voters' usual role in approving county debt.
Some Texas sheriffs are looking to an unlikely source to get them out of the hole as private prisons win away federal contracts for inmates and put the financial squeeze on county jails.
Federal prisoners translate to dollars to local detention facilities — mainly county jails — which are reimbursed at a rate that can exceed $50 a day for each federal inmate they house. But competition from private prisons in Texas continues to shrink that potential pool of inmates for smaller, poorer counties, leading some local governments to ask help from an agency better known for its fever tick riders than building jails.
The Department of Agriculture is currently considering whether and how it will grant or loan Webb County about $5 million, said Sheriff Martin Cuellar, which will be used to build a new county-owned jail.
“We build another jail elsewhere and house the regular state prisoners [there],” said Cuellar. “We could also have the current jail filled with federal prisoners and that could be something very profitable to the county.”County governments and the U.S. Marshals Service negotiate federal-prisoner contracts, some of which used to be a steady secondary source of revenue for Webb.
I've railed repeatedly against the short-sighted tactic of counties banking on revenue from federal immigration detainees to generate profit from incarceration. In Cameron County a similar arrangement has forced officials to ship local, pretrial detainees to other counties, while in Gregg County for a while they actually stopped making misdemeanor arrests after Hurricane Rita because their jail was full of contract detainees. It turns out the Webb County scheme makes no more sense just because a Congressman's brother might be able to swing federal Ag pork to finance it:
So naturally, given those options, Congressman Cuellar and his Sheriff-brother want to expand on a bad idea and add more beds to the revenue-losing jail instead of build a new city hall or a community center. What gives with that? Does anyone believe that would be the top priority for funding if the Congressman's brother weren't the Sheriff? This one doesn't pass the smell test.
Local officials nonetheless hailed the facility as a job creator, and a source of revenue through utility contracts with Webb County. But Cuellar says the county is losing $500,000 annually because inmates are going to GEO instead of the county lockup.
Cuellar said it's helpful knowing people at the federal level, in this case, his older brother, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, who the sheriff said has helped guide the department in the right direction.
“Through what they call the Rural Communities Facilities Program there is a way that you can use funding to build community centers, you can build city halls or you can even build jails,” said Rep. Cuellar, a member of the House Agriculture Committee.
Thanks to the Tribune and Aguilar, btw, for alerting me to the possibility of federal Ag loans for rural county jails. Knowing that, perhaps going forward it'll be necessary to monitor the EPA, Medicare, transportation grants, and other seemingly unrelated federal programs to make sure jail builders aren't making an end run around local voters to incur indebtedness and expand jail capacity.