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Kidnapping and Extortion, Texas Style

In the dead of the night, they come to your cell. You wake up with a flashlight shining in your face. You hear the rattle of chains. "Roll 'em up, boy... you're goin' for a ride.' The next day you get a bed roll and make your new bunk... in a county jail in some God-forsaken town in... Texas! "Why me?" you ask. In a word, the answer is: "Money.''

In 1989 Texas state prisons were severely overcrowded and 9,500 state prisoners were backed up in county jails. The District of Columbia was under court orders to ease overcrowding, and was actually polling jailers by telephone prospecting for beds. Houston developer, N-Group Securities, Inc., smelled a profit.

Job-starved small Texas towns were approached by developers with the sales pitch: prisons as an economic development project. It seemed like a no-lose situation. The promoters offered the prospect of a stable, growth industry with no pollution problems. Wall Street Investment firms, such as Drexel Burnham Lambert, offered to underwrite the development schemes by selling high-yield "junk munis" to finance construction.

The "market" looked solid. In a 1989 press release, N-Group Securities expressed the optimism of the day, "Counties and state and federal agencies with crisis overcrowding conditions will be lining up to pay for their prisoners to stay in these new facilities."

The junk bonds were sold. The jails were built. And then the trouble began. The state of Texas went on an unprecedented $1 billion prison construction binge. The bulk of the new state facilities opened in 1994 and 1995. In 1995 alone the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) announced they would hire 12,000 guards to staff the new prisons. [That's not a typo: 12,000 new guards hired in one year!] The TDCJ now has a large surplus of prison beds. The opening of some of the new state prisons was delayed because of the glut. Other states expanded their prison capacity, and the job-starved Texas towns who built privately financed jails were faced with disaster as payments on their bonds were coming due.

Since the local market (TX state prisoners) was nil, the enterprising counties had to man the phones. This time it was they who were polling the states, looking for takers to fill their empty rent-a-cells. So far they have lured business from Colorado, Utah, Missouri, Oregon, North Carolina, Virginia, Hawaii, and Massachusetts.

The Colorado prisoners sought and obtained assistance from the Colorado ACLU to file suit on their behalf. In June, 1995, 500 Colorado prisoners were shipped on 'the midnight express" to the Bowie County Correctional Facility in Texarkana, TX. Bowie County collects $40 a day per prisoner ($20,000 a day total), which is far above the average per diem cost for county jails. But the CO prisoners are housed in sub-standard dormitory-style cells, are allowed very little personal property, and have almost no recreational, educational or vocational programs (not to mention the constraint on visiting!)

Paul Katsamples, a Metropolitan State College criminal justice professor who toured the Bowie County facility in August, documents numerous "critical areas." Among them: food prepared and served in extremely unsanitary conditions, poor quality drinking water, defective plumbing, an insect infestation and the excessive use of force by jail guards. Prisoners who are sick are placed in the hole and receive no medical treatment.

As of the latest reports available to PLN (Nov/Dec, '95) the ACLU plans to ask a federal judge in Denver to immediately remove the 500 Colorado prisoners. Bowie County filed a motion to have the litigation transferred to a federal district court in Texarkana (so they might have "home court advantage?")

So, state prisoners, be advised. If the midnight chain comes rattling up to your cage one night soon, your captors probably sold your ass to a po-dunk town in Texas that has a payment due on their junk bonds. Nothing personal, mind you. Just business.

Sources: Seattle Times, Denver Post, Wall Street Journal , et al.

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