Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Will expanded immigration detention exacerbate Texas' prison guard shortages?

Regular readers know that Texas prisons and county jails face a severe understaffing crisis caused by low pay and the rural location of facilities, and that in federal facilities the problem may be even more pronounced.

Meanwhile, my prediction that immigration detention would drive prison expansion in the near term has come true, adding another category of detention facilities that require more guards when no one can find any. It's hard to see how these long-term trends can co-exist viably. Where does it all end?

At the Fort Worth Star Telegram, Jay Root had this story Sunday ("Border patrol employs zero tolerance approach in Del Rio," May 25 ) detailing outcomes from ending the so-called "catch and release" policy that allowed undocumented immigrants out of detention while awaiting a detention hearing. The result has been:
an almost insatiable demand for jail space.

Eight years ago, the Val Verde County Jail had 180 beds. This year, after a second 600-bed expansion, the maximum-security jail has room for 1,425 prisoners, an increase of almost 700 percent. While the state prisoner population in Val Verde has remained about 70 to 80 a day on average, the number serving time for federal immigration and drug offenses has skyrocketed, officials say.

"If it wasn't for federal prisoners, we wouldn't need any of this. It just wouldn't be necessary," Jernigan said while giving a tour of the huge facility he oversees in Del Rio. "This is a federal court city, and there's a need to house federal prisoners here."

Two prisons specializing in federal detainees are going up along the Texas-Mexico border southeast of here -- a 654-bed unit in Eagle Pass and a 1,500-bed jail nearing completion in Laredo. Like the Val Verde lockup, these facilities are run by the Geo Group, formerly known as Wackenhut, which last year posted its best financial results ever, the company said.

Even the largest jail for illegal immigrants, the Willacy County Jail, is too small to accommodate federal demands. Located in Raymondville -- nicknamed "Prisonville" -- it is expanding capacity from 2,000 to 3,000 beds this year, officials say.

The detention boom hasn't been done on the cheap.

According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, it costs $88 a day to house a prisoner in privately run jails.

By comparison, the state of Texas spends about $40 per day to house state prisoners, and in many county jails the cost is less than that. So the expansion of immigration detention facilities puts tremendous financial pressure on counties and the state to increase guard pay to keep enough warm bodies in C.O. slots. For the most part, they're not in a position to do that.

Meanwhile, I swear I see a different set of arguments and logic used every time somebody tries to claim that border enforcement is "working." Here's Root's effort:
In 2007, 22,920 people were caught in the Del Rio sector, many of whom passed through the Val Verde jail. In 1974, the earliest year-end figures available, almost twice that many -- 44,806 --were caught. Authorities believe that fewer captures mean fewer illegal crossings.
Of course, those data don't tell us there were "fewer illegal crossings." They only mean that for all the extra spending, there were fewer detentions. It could be true that the number of crossings overall went down - in fact that's almost certainly the case since the housing market in Texas and elsewhere crashed overnight last year and many jobs drawing immigrants were in construction. (Root also reports that overall arrests last year were down all along the border, though not as much as in the Del Rio sector.)

However, simply using the metric of how many ICE caught to tell if they're succeeding amounts to a self fulfilling prophecy. There's little hard evidence I can see that expanded enforcement is responsible for the decline. Indeed, if the number of detentions had increased, I'm pretty sure that would have also been spun as a success.

In any event, my question for the moment isn't whether the policy works, but is it sustainable?

Will overcrowded county jails be forced to send local inmates out of county to make room for increased immigration holds? Harris County already must send hundreds of inmates to a private prison in Louisiana, yet their Sheriff is plowing forward to expand detention of immigrant in the jail.

Further, will high per-inmate rates for immigration prisoners indirectly raise costs for locals by putting pressure on guard pay or causing guards to leave public employ to work for rapidly expanding private facilities?

Some counties are even proposing speculative jail building hoping to lease bed space to ICE, apparently banking on the idea that immigrant detention will remain high for the next 20 years or so while they pay off public bonds. With all remaining presidential candidates favoring comprehensive immigration reform, that's probably a bad assumption. Talk about sowing the seeds of your own destruction!

Texas prisons and largest jails already can't hire enough guards to function safely at full capacity. If immigration detention continues to expand at double digit rates, we may soon reach a tipping point regarding cost and safety, if we haven't already, that forces prison builders to put on the brakes.

RELATED: From the Austin Statesman, "More illegal immigrants are being charged criminally in Austin," May 28.

SEE ALSO: If you didn't see Stephen Colbert's suggestions for prison expansion options, check it out here via Texas Prison Bidness:


Anonymous said...

Here's another interesting tidbit about Texas prisons and immigration. Every month, dozens of prisoners appear before an immigration judge and are ordered deported. That means the judge has found that they are either here illegally, or they have green cards but, due to their crimes, are no longer eligible to live here legally. The odd part is, after they are ordered deported, they will continue to live in Texas prisons until their sentences are finished. Texas will not release them to be deported until they have served every day of their sentence. Now, I know some fear that people deported to Mexico will just cross back over. But we're talking people being deported to places like Sierra Leone, Libya, El Salvador, whom Texas insists on keeping to finish their sentences.

Also, there is a prisoner exchange program that allows the US to "trade" prisoners who are citizens of other countries back to their home countries in exchange for getting a US citizen from that foreign country's prison system. However, to do this the Gov. of the state where the foreign citizen is imprisoned must agree. To my knowledge, Gov. Perry has never agreed to this.

My question is – does any of this make sense? Why keep a foreign citizen who has been ordered deported another 10, 15, 20 years in prison when we could deport him/her and not have Texas citizens foot the bill? And why not send those citizens to serve their time in a prison in their own country and bring a US citizen here to finish his/her sentence? Is this a “victim’s rights” issue – do people want to see the one who wronged them in a Texas prison, so they know where they are? Is it worth the cost?

Anonymous said...

Everyone knows the problem Grits, and your solution is?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I've written pretty extensively on the topic, 8:25 - see here and here, for example, and other related Grits posts.

don said...

It costs twice as much to keep federal ICE prisoners in private prisons because that's what the feds pay. GEO, for instance, would keep them for $50 per day if that's what they paid. Their costs are actually lower for the federal prisoners because they don't have to provide the educational and treatment services that they might with state prisoners. Now, if the feds run the prison themselves, it is more expensive because they pay their help more and offer them federal benefits, whereas (most) private prisons pay the same low wages regardless of whose prisoners they are keeping. The GEO prison in Dickens County that got so much attention because of "squalid" conditions actually got that way housing ICE prisoners. (It is now run by CiviGenics). That said, CO's won't necessarily flock to private prisons housing ICE detainees. The private companies just pocket the windfall, which is mostly the reason GEO had such a record year in earnings.
If Texas is truly holding ICE prisoners after they have been ordered deported, as anon 1 says, that needs to be addressed. But, I would like to know where this information comes from. I'm a little incredulous.

Anonymous said...

When you boil it down to its essence, the prison system is a government funded public works project for the redistribution of wealth. The tax payers pay the salaries of a legion of prison guards. It is a dangerous low-skill job but it is a living wage with health insurance. These prisons also need to be built and maintained, so there are some nice construction contracts, contracts for food, toilet paper, soap, etc... These contracts all create more jobs. The same concept applies to the US military which is certainly our largest and most expensive public works project.

When the government wants to pump more money into the economy it can't just keep building roads, dams, levees, and bridges. We have enough of those already. Maybe the ones we have could use some repair, but overall these are durable constructions that will serve citizens for years to come. So if you want to pump some more money you need something a little more transient. Education is good. Once upon a time it was rare to have a high school diploma. By pumping loads of money into education we now have a situation where most people now graduate high school. This created a new problem when we watered down the curriculum but I digress...

Anyway, our socialist military and prison programs don't suffer from the durability problem. Money spent in these areas is as good as burned with no accumulated benefit to society so the government can spend and indefinite amount. Politicians who support the military and prison are "tough and self-reliant" whereas those who support infrastructure projects, welfare, and universal healthcare are "communist pussies."

Who would you vote for to be the leader, the strong guy or the wimp? Easy.

If liberals want to really make progress in this area then you've got to start thinking like Karl Rove. Turn their strong point into their weakness with regard to prison spending. Create a world where support of growing the prison system is equated with support of growing the socialist "Nanny State." If the voters, especially conservatives, view the prison system as just another method of redistributing wealth then you will win. Make it happen.

Anonymous said...

What happens in this situation is that ICE places a federal detainer on the offender they wish to deport. Like any other detainer, the offender will have to serve his state time before TDC will release the offender to the federal detention center.

Furthermore, I think (but don't quote me on this) that another state's detainer will take precedence over the federal time, so if the other state really wants the offender, he will have to serve ALL his time before ICE gets their hands on him.