Friday, August 15, 2008

Prison privatization ginning up local controversies

It's surprising how many acrimonious local debates are going on right now in Texas over jail and prison privatization. Yesterday I mentioned that McLennan County is lurching toward building a private local jail in Waco in the face of strident opposition, and now I find news of a group in Nacogdoches gearing up to oppose a private prison there that's also backed by local leadership. To judge by a report from the Longview News Journal ("Nacogdoches group plans to step up prison protests," Aug. 13), some folks there are pretty unhappy with the project:

Burton Byrum, a retired business manager for a computer company, drew applause from the crowd when he urged the group to supplement their "passive" protests — such as bumper stickers and signs — with more active demonstrations.

"We've got to affect NEDCO, and the only thing they understand is dollars and cents," he said.

Byrum proposed that COPS members remove their savings from Nacogdoches banks and transfer all their money to banks in Lufkin, such as Angelina Savings, Capital One, Huntington State Bank and Texas State Bank.

The group is also targeting the city and county commissioners, and COPS is going to request a discussion item on the agendas of city and county commissions. Some group members also proposed a boycott of all businesses owned by commissioners.

That's quite a grassroots protest! Their group name, I thought, was pretty clever. It's COPS, which stands for Citizens Opposed to the Prison Site. While the purely NIMBY aspects of the opposition I think are unfortunate, a great deal of the debate in Nacogdoches has centered around whether private prisons benefit or retard the economy and what it may do to the local culture.

Meanwhile in Corpus Christi, the commissioners court is struggling to disengage from their own past experiment as incarceration entrepreneurs. Nueces County two years ago lost a longstanding federal contract to house prisoners locally because the federal marshals said jail conditions had deteriorated beyond their minimum standards.

The loss of their sole customer created a revenue hole in the county budget, and shows how making local government dependent on private prison revenue can easily backfire. One day the money's there, the next day it's not. (Expect the same thing to happen with immigration detention if comprehensive reform is ever passed.)

Now the Nueces jail has passed inspection, but a majority of commissioners don't want make the same mistake of paying to build extra jail space just to re-enter the contract, reports the Corpus Christi Caller Times ("County may not seek to house federal prisoners," Aug. 14):

"Would it make more sense to make room by coordinating with our district judges and whoever puts people in jail, for them to quit putting people there, to make space," [Commissioner] Ortiz said. "If there is room for them, whoever puts them in jail will put them in jail just because there is room for them."

Sheriff Jim Kaelin said late Wednesday that there is no quick way to move state and local inmates out of the jail so that he can move federal prisoners in.

"I don't believe I can house additional inmates without that pod," Kaelin said. "We have done the math. I am at capacity now. I am already working with the courts now, to get as many people as possible out."

Many of the misdemeanor cases already have been moved out of the jail, Neal said. The current population is mostly felony-related, with roughly 750 felons in the county jail Wednesday.

"They are the ones you can't just move out," Neal said.

While Ortiz said the police and judges putting people in jail should slow down, Cazalas said he does not support bringing federal prisoners back because he is unwilling to redo the pod or "kick 50 people back out on the street" who are currently in jail, to accommodate the federal prisoners.

"Long term with the growth in the population here as well, some future court is going to have to contend with the size of our current capacity," he said. "Do we want to put ourselves in the position of focusing on the revenue piece?"

For the record, the Caller Times story overstated the number of felons in the Nueces County Jail. The actual number was 576 felons as of July 1 (pdf), and of those 101 were state jail felons, which are low-level drug and property crimes, not really "the ones you can't just move out." The majority of felony defendants in the jail (332) as of July 1 were awaiting trial, as were 107 misdemeanor defendants.

So if judges in Nueces County or local police agencies wanted to do so (it's not really in the commissioners court's hands), they could take Mr. Ortiz up on his offer to reduce the number of jail inmates to free up room for the federal contract. But the majority on the court is right that such an arrangement should be viewed as an extra, only worth entering into when capacity exists - it would be unwise to make entrepreneurial investments just to get such a small-time contract.

The Caller Times story is full of grave talk about cutting "meat" in the county budget if this revenue stream goes away, but we're talking about a small tax hike at most to make up the difference, plus simply touting the contract total ignores how much Nueces would have to spend to house and guard the prisoners. After all, earlier this year the same reporter was congratulating the Sheriff for reducing staffing costs at the jail, but those costs go back up if they expand to house federal prisoners.

Too often Texas counties have viewed jail privatization as a source of "free money," as in Corpus, without paying attention to related monetary and opportunity costs as well as unintended consequences. In that regard, it's good to see such projects receiving more local scrutiny.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Private prisons are the biggest waste of money and lives that has ever invaded the world.

Anytime someone can use government to profit off of peoples' misfortunes people only suffer more.

The trend of criminalizing bad behavior originates with the private prison community, because it insures them business. All state, local and community government leaders should oppose this not only on the grounds of how silly our country is becoming but als on the grounds of decency.