Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Webb County Sheriff's speculative jail scheme ignores risks

The Laredo Sun, in an article that reads mysteriously like a badly written press release, reports that the Webb County Sheriff is pushing county commissioners to build a speculative new jail in hopes of turning a profit by housing federal immigration prisoners:
If the county government built a new prison, the project would practically get paid on its own because the current jail could generate several million dollars if federal prisoners are housed in it.

"This building is just right for federal prisoners because the federal court is very close and U.S. Marshals would like to spend less on the transportation of prisoners and have more security," Sheriff Martin Cuellar informed.

He also mentioned that the federal government currently pays almost $50 per day for each federal prisoner, but there is no room in the county jail for these prisoners.

"'These are prisoners that generate revenue but we can not have many of them because we need the space for local and state prisoners, the jail easily reaches its capacity of 572 beds," he indicated.

Cuellar stressed that this new prison project should have been worked on, therefore he has requested the support from the Commissioners Court to find a suitable site.

Cuellar also plans to make improvements in the prison control center in order to offer greater security for employees and prisoners.

The next day, County Commissioners approved the Sheriff's request to seek donated property for the project and established a committee to study a new jail.

It would be a mistake, though, for Webb County to overbuild beyond its own needs or seek to turn a profit competing with private prison vendors. That can too easily backfire, just like it did in Cameron County, which overbuilt its jail, took on large federal detention contracts, and now gets paid $36.35 per day to house federal inmates and must pay $48 per day to house their own, local pretrial detainees three hours away in another county.

As it turns out, Webb County has problems staffing its jail at current inmate levels because the commissioners court hasn't hired enough guards. But a bigger jail with more jailers will cost less?

The Sheriff is selling Webb County commissioners a pig in a poke: There's no such thing as a free lunch or a free jail.


DG said...

fyi, the Laredo Sun is the English version of the Spanish language newspaper El Manana.

el_longhorn said...

In Webb County's defense, the current jail was built in the early 1980's when the county population was about 100,000. Today the population is closer to 250,000. In other words, there may be legitimate local needs for a new, larger, more modern facility. I don't know that there is or that the overcrowded jail isn't caused by not bonding people out.

However, there are private facilities in the area - one in
Encinal and one in Rio Bravo, two small towns close to Laredo.

el_longhorn said...

PS El Manana often has better coverage of Laredo than the Laredo Morning Times. Since they can't cover the drug war going on in their own city of N. Laredo, they seemed to have turned to covering Laredo, Texas. What the hell - that's where all their readers moved anyway!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@ el longhorn, fwiw, according to the Commission on Jail Standards, as of March 1, 268 of Webb County's 404 local inmates were awaiting trial - essentially 2/3 of county inmates. So there's definitely some room there to look at diversion options, even before turning to private facilities.

Even if the jail needs improving, and it may, taxpayers are better off just paying to improve it. Don't issue bonds to build a new, separate facility with three times as many beds as you need with hopes of competing with the Geo Group for federal contracts.

el_longhorn said...

Wonder what the Webb County bail bond climate is like? Need to ask my attorney buddies next time I go down there. Do you think the pre-trial detention policies are driven by the judges/DA or by the bail bondsman?

Unknown said...

There are actually four private facilities in the Laredo area - the US Marshals contract with the Encinal facility and GEO Group's 1,500 bed "superjail" out near Rio Bravo. ICE has contracts with the two CCA facilities in town.

The article goes back to the controversy about the construction of the GEO facility. Some folks in the Webb County gov't thought the county should be getting in on that profit, rather than letting a company like GEO have it.

Of course, it doesn't always work out that way, and the county can be left holding a big bill for an empty jail.