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Texas Rent-A-Cells Burn

The February issue of PLN featured "Kidnapping and Extortion Texas Style." Several county jails in Texas are scrambling to pay off the "junk munis" (municipal bonds) they used in the late 1980's to build rent-a-jails. Their clientele of Texas state prisoners dried up after the state spent $2 billion to build new prisons. The counties stuck with the empty jails and facing payments on their bonds looked to Dominion Management, Inc. of Oklahoma, a private brokerage firm dealing in state-to-state prisoner transfers, to help them fill their empty cells. So far nearly 8,000 prisoners from 11 states have been exiled to shoddily built county jails in Texas.

One of those jails, the Crystal City Detention Center in Zavala County, discovered the hard way that kidnapping- for-hire can be a risky business. At 3:00 AM on Tuesday, February 21, about 200 frustrated and disgruntled out of state prisoners erupted, seizing control of the jail and setting fires. The uprising was not quelled until dawn. As of this writing no injuries were reported, and damages were being assessed.

The prisoners, mostly from Missouri and Utah, claimed they were angry because of a lack of black guards, the fact that many of the jail's guards verbally harassed them in Spanish, and they were upset about the television being turned off early on Monday night. [All of this is from press reports, PLN does not yet have first-hand reports from any of the prisoners involved.]

The Crystal City Detention Center was built in 1989. The county was lured by the promise of easy profits offered by Diversified Municipal Services, Inc., of Lebanon, Indiana, which packaged the $4.4 million bond deal to build the jail. The county bought a "turnkey contract" (no pun intended) which included the financing, design, construction, and operation of the facility. It was a pretty cozy deal. Philip Packer, for example, was a vice-president of Hale-Mills Construction Company, a shopping center builder from Houston who built the facility. Packer was also a registered agent for the local arm of Diversified Municipal Services, which financed the deal; he was also a vice president of Detention Services, Inc., which had the contract to operate the facility. The alarm and electrical subcontractor was former Navarro County, Texas, sheriff Bobby Ross.

The facility originally housed prisoners from the District of Columbia. When Jonathan Smith, an attorney for the D.C. Prisoners' Legal Services Project, Inc. visited the jail in June of 1990, he observed baseball bats in the dorms and "shoots" of pruno fermenting openly in the shower stalls. In late 1990 the District of Columbia declined to renew its contract. Zavala County took over management of the jail in late 1990. The financial consultants, brokers, architects, and contractors had collected their fees and left town, leaving Zavala County with an empty sub-standard jail that nobody seemed to need or want anymore and a $4.4 million bond issue to pay off.

They have since worked with Dominion [the very idea of a prisoner-broker boggles the imagination!!] to put warm Utah and Missouri bodies in the jail, and have found another private contractor, Dove Development Corp., to operate the facility.

Now if they could only figure out a way to keep those ungrateful out-of-state exiles from burning down the joint, maybe they could get those pesky bonds paid off.

Sources: Houston Chronicle, Wall Street Journal

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