The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is considering whether to grant or loan $5 million to Webb County, Texas to build a new county jail. The USDA has already given Jim Hogg County, Texas $5 million to expand its jail – 25% as a loan and 75% as a grant.
Webb County Sheriff Martin Cuellar said the county needs a new jail because they are losing out on the opportunity to earn about $500,000 a year by housing federal prisoners.
The federal government often contracts with local jails to house prisoners, particularly immigration detainees, and some counties use contracts with the U.S. Marshals Service as a reliable source of income.
One complication in Sheriff Cuellar’s plan is the Rio Grande Detention Center, a 1,500-bed private prison in Laredo owned and operated by the GEO Group, a Florida-based company formerly known as Wackenhut Corrections. The Rio Grande facility opened in October 2008 following controversy over GEO’s record of alleged human rights abuses at some of the company’s other Texas prisons. Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) operates the 480-bed Webb County Detention Center near Lardeo, too, which houses U.S. Marshals detainees and is another source of competition.
Funding for the new Webb County jail would come through the USDA’s Rural Communities Facilities Program, which also provides money for community centers, clinics, schools, nursing homes, telemedicine programs and water infrastructure projects.
According to Sheriff Cuellar, it is helpful to know federal officials who can provide assistance when applying for USDA grants and loans. He should know – his older brother is U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar. Rep. Cuellar also worked with Jim Hogg County Sheriff Erasmo Alarcon to secure the $5 million from the USDA that will increase that county’s jail capacity from 18 to 48.
In November 2008, Jim Hogg County voters approved another $5.2 million in bonds to help build the new jail. Alarcon said the facility will save the county money; currently they are paying other counties to house their excess prisoners. Further, although it has been years since Jim Hogg County held a federal detainee, Alarcon thinks the new jail might allow him to get into the cash-for-federal-prisoners game.
Sheriff Cuellar said he often has to send Webb County prisoners to jails in neighboring Dimmit or Zapata Counties, paying them $40 to $45 per diem. He hopes the USDA funding will let him expand his jail, fix existing roof and elevator problems, and perhaps even air condition the facility. He noted the county could be fined $5,000 a day by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards if improvements aren’t made soon.
Still, some question whether the USDA should be in the business of helping to build jails or if such funding could be better spent on community projects that do not involve incarceration – even though, as Sheriff Cuellar put it, a new jail that houses federal prisoners “could be something very profitable to the county.”
Source: Texas Tribune
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