Monday, July 12, 2010

Speculative Lubbock jail opens with no prisoners to fill it

On Wednesday, Lubbock County will celebrate the opening of a new 1,500 bed jail with a ribbon cutting, but county taxpayers might want to show up and turn the event into a good old fashioned tarring and feathering of all the elected officials responsible for this white elephant. (It may be the last time they can all be found in one place!) The jail has already been responsible for a significant tax hike, and if plans to fill extra beds with federal inmates don't come through - as seems likely given the recent experience in other counties - their taxes will soon rise even more because of this boondoggle.

Stories in the Lubbock paper ("A decade in the works, Lubbock County Jail is ready for business," July 11) are filled with propitious appraisals, like the comment from rookie Sheriff Kelly Rowe who told the Avalanche Journal, “Ultimately, this building is finished out just like we need it.” Such rosy assessments will continue right up until it's time to start paying off bondholders, but the unstated truth is that Lubbock doesn't need and can't afford 1,500 extra beds - staffing costs alone will eat them alive. Lubbock is presently paying for 300 jail beds in neighboring counties, but in reality they're also wasting a lot of money on unnecessary incarceration. They could have solved their relatively minimalist real-world jail problems either by expanding diversion programming or with a modest, less expensive expansion of existing facilities.

Instead, like several other Texas counties, Lubbock took a sucker bet that if they used county bonding authority to construct twice as much jail as they needed, the incarceration boom at state prisons and federal immigration detention would inevitably fill up as many extra beds as they could build. The pitch is always that contracted beds will turn a profit, making the jail "free." Lubbock taxpayers are being told that after county prisoners move in, the Sheriff can fill the "remaining beds with federal prisoners, at a profit to the county." In Waco/McLennan County, a similar financing structure has been referred to as a "doomsday deal" for the taxpayers.

Naturally, Lubbock's jail faced years-long construction delays, came in far above budget and has already once had to go back to the county for extra money. Since that time, contract detention trends have changed significantly. State and county jail populations declined for the first time in years in 2009, and the economic slump radically reduced the amount of day-to-day illegal immigration. As a result, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice ended its contracts with Texas counties, and federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement has plenty of empty beds available through contractors they already work with.

In other words, Lubbock taxpayers bought a pig in a poke. Just as in Waco, there aren't hundreds of federal prisoners waiting to fill those empty beds, and there's lots of competition for the contracts that are out there. So taxpayers, not "profits," will inevitably pay off the bonds when the roseate predictions and the politicians who made them are all gone and there's nothing left but paying the tab for a jail Lubbock didn't need.

See related Grits posts:

20 comments:

Michael said...

Scott, this is the same thing counties did in 1991-1992; they tried to profit from crime by creating jobs and bringing in revenue to their communities. Remember the Tulia, Lamesa, Cotulla, and Fort Stockton Units? TDCJ ended up "leasing" these facilities because there were 20,000 county-jail inmates awaiting transfer to the prison system. I helped open up the Tulia facility.

A worse example is the expansion of the prison system, itself, beginning around the same time. Again, there were 20,000+ prisoners in county jails awaiting transfer and the larger counties had all filed suit against the state for costs associated with the over-crowding. They needed about 40,000 beds to cover the overflow and account for future growth. The state was in a recession due to the defense and oil industries collapsing. TDCJ would end up building close to 120,000 beds, at least 3 times what they actually needed. Just as questions began to be raised as construction completed and buildings remained vacant and un-staffed, the legislature and the Board of Criminal Justice changed laws/policies requiring offenders to serve more time than judges, juries,. or prosecutors ever intended them to. Two or three years turned into seven or eight.

Lubbock county can get state/federal grants to operate the jail based on the number of prisoners housed in it. That being said, beware of "crackdowns" on all sorts of "criminal enterprises" in the area. Cops can always find people to throw in jail, and they will.

Jeff Gamso said...

Lubbock has a less-than-stellar track record with new jails.

Last time Lubbock opened one, back when I was living there in the 80s, the thing was so ill-designed that a number of inmates promptly escaped.

Anonymous said...

Simple solution:
Make more arrests. Fill jail.
Charles tulia

Don said...

Grits and everybody else who has posted here are right on! I don't live in Lubbock, but I live in Levelland, 30 miles west. To add insult to injury, the county officials are touting this thing as coming in UNDER budget!!! That's because they "adjusted" the budget to account for overruns. It's also a few years behind schedule on completion. It's criminal they way they mislead the public, but the "public" is apparently so gullible that it encourages them. Here's another bit of irony. 38 miles to the northwest, in the little town of Littlefield, sets an excellent facility, empty. With almost no chance of utilization. The taxpayers of Littlefield are on the hook for 10 million. The city will be raising all fees and taxes to pay the bond service on this thing. It will hold between 300 and 400, if I remember correctly. My point being, if all these lockup beds were needed by the feds, or anybody else for that matter, come private prison company, or the county, or the city, or somebody, would be utilizing this excellent facility. Charles, it's a sad truism, but I'm afraid you are right. They'll do what it takes. IMO, they need to reserve some cells in this monstrosity for those who promoted it, lied, deceived, obfuscated, etc. etc. and are still doing it. This AJ story Scott cites being a prime example.

R. Shackleford said...

Arrests motivated by profit. If the vast majority of people weren't too busy watching american idol to notice the sorry ass state of the 'justice' system, I reckon there'd be some lynchings. There certainly SHOULD be.

Anonymous said...

Harris County is right behind them. Why does an intake facility need 1200 beds?

Anonymous said...

Some ex-TYC people must be in management for this tragedy to happen in Lubbock.

Anonymous said...

What an enjoyable trip down the fiction aisle.

Anonymous said...

grits and his fellow travellers: never let the facts get in the way of a good story. btw, the bond election for the jail passed by about 80=20.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

What facts are those, 8:51/5:15? Enlighten us.

Are there contracts in place to fill those empty beds? If not, what about this post is "fiction"?

Anonymous said...

Another good read. Thanks. This is a good example of everyone being experts in national and world affairs and not knowing what is happening in their own towns.

Alan Bean said...

Thanks, Michael, for bringing up the 1990s boondoggle that victimized little towns like Tulia. I stumbled across this stimulus misadventure while researching my book, Taking out the Trash in Tulia, Texas. A rapidly shrinking agricultural economy made little farming communities like Tulia highly vulnerable to snake oil salesmen. Failed farmers were morphing into cops and prison guards--law-n-order was the only growth industry at the time.

Fortunately for Tulia, an exploding Texas inmate population eventually filled the unit. I doubt (I hope) Lubbock won't be so lucky.

Anonymous said...

Beware. the same thing is happening with building roads (including Lubbock), as investment (generating revenue). The question to answer is "Who benefits?" Not the taxpayers.

R. Shackleford said...

8:51
Just 'cause you don't like it, doesn't mean it ain't so. I'm all aflutter waiting to see these 'facts' of yours. Pull 'em out and amaze us all.

5:15
Fiction isle? You must be reading your county's mission statement. You know, the one that goes "Honesty, Integrity, Loyalty". Now THAT is some fiction.

Anonymous said...

The fact that the bond issue passed 80/20 has bearing on the legality of the deal, but absolutely none on its feasibility or final desirability, anymore than the fact of LBJ (or any pres.) winning the election made him a good president.

Rev. Charles in Tulia

Gritsforbreakfast said...

It passed 80/20 because voters were told it would be free! If you'd told them it would be a source of repeated tax hikes - which is the truth of the matter - maybe it turns out like jail votes in Tyler and Houston.

Anonymous said...

There's a rather large contingent of the criminal class in the Hub City that I'm not sure 1500 beds is enough! From what I understand, they're bringing back a couple or three hundred they're farming out to other counties now plus a US Marshal contract for about 200 or so.

Scott - you are just too predictable on these new jail threads. You are always opposed, period. You are philosop hically opposed to increased incarceration anywhere, period. There was absolutely nothing "speculative" about the jail at all.

And, taxpayers here who voted the $100 million bond are aware of the tax increases to pay off the bonds and provide operations funding. We've been paying these tax increases the past several years.

You may be correct about one thing though. One of these days, we may reach the point where half the residents are locked up and the other half is guarding them. Who'll pay the taxes then?

Your pal (39-33 in 2008)......and planning another beatdown on September 18

Plato of the Plains

Anonymous said...

Oh - and Scott - the current jail will be closed - this is not a spec jail. It replaces the current one built in the 30's and added onto several times since.

POTP

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Plato my friend, I realize that Texas Tech fans are used to cheering for losers (15-43 all-time vs. the 'Horns, e.g.), but the news reports don't corroborate your claim that the tax increases were expected or that officials told voters they were coming when they proposed the bonds. As one of your candidates for commissioners court said earlier this year, "We were told that it would not cost a penny more ... We were told that it would pay for itself." Instead, according to the same article, "Construction of the more than 1,500-bed, high-tech jail facility east of the airport had driven the bulk of six tax increases over the past 10 years."

Also, the "speculative" reference is to overbuilding beyond the county's needs on the speculative notion that the extra beds can turn a profit. That's what Lubbock officials were claiming would happen, not me. That said, I agree that if they're planning to close the old jail, this scam conning voters into believing the jail will "pay for itself" or turn a "profit" will turn out to have been a flat-out lie. That could only happen if they have significant number of extra beds to rent out. So I do agree they probably WILL close the downtown jail because they won't find contracts to fill the extra beds. But this new jail and the process that got it built amounted to a grotesquery of financial mismanagement, even if it's difficult to see through the haze of Hub City jingoism.

Anonymous said...

OK Grits, here's the final fact check for our "speculative" and "overbuilt" 1500 bed new jail.

The old jail has a capacity of 795 inmates imposed by the Jail Commission. Today, the jail is 20 below the 795. Also today, we have a few over 300 inmates being housed in the region. The county is currently negotiating with the US Marshal who has expressed a desire for 250 beds. Add all that up and it's between 12 and 13 hundred. Is that "speculative" and "overbuilt?"

The Commissioner candidate you cite, Mr. Leonard, was a political candidate when he made his charges. I'm sure you'll agree that political candidates sometimes embellish their remarks. BTW, Mr. Leonard took a good ol'country ass whoopin' in the election against the incumbent who had voted for the jail.

Six tax increases caused by the jail? Not a chance. About ten years ago, a somewhat progressive commissioners court was elected and tried to move the county into the 1970's or 80's by raising taxes. The money went for increasing salaries of employees, major rennovations of county facilities, etc. Prior to those increases, Lubbock County politicians bragged on having the 5th lowest tax rate in the state. We've modernized and upgraded over the past ten years.

And lastly, you don't give the electorate of the county much credit. How can voters vote 80-20 for the bond proposal and not think they'd have to pay for the bonds and the operational costs by damn near doubling the size of the current facility?

IMO, we have too many peeps in jail here and other programs should be implemented, but, there was nothing "speculative" or "overbuilt" relating to this issue.

Before you go off on another tangent relating to the Hub City, don't read the AJ or the remarks of tea bagger candidates, check with THE SOURCE, me.

Peace and love (until 9/18)

Plato