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Declining Prison Populations Leave Towns with Empty Jails, Debt

by David M. Reutter

Several Texas towns are bemoaning their bad business decision to enter into the for-profit incarceration industry as the bottom began dropping out of that market 5 or 6 years ago. Over a two-decade boom in prison building, rural communities in Texas and other states were able to rely on the “if you build it, they’ll come” approach of constructing jails as a form of economic development.

However, research by the Austin American-Statesman indicates that declining crime rates, budget cuts and increased use of treatment programs in lieu of incarceration have left some towns saddled with debt due to empty prison and jail beds. For example, the Two Rivers Authority in Hardin, Montana recently agreed to surrender its empty prison to bondholders due to an inability to find prisoners to fill the facility since it first opened in 2007. [See: PLN, August 2013 p.42].

Texas, which boasts the nation’s largest state prison system, has been in constant need of bed space for the past several decades, though a fairly recent change in criminal justice policy has reversed that trend. However, that change has left local jurisdictions which rely on expanding prisoner populations in a precarious position. After building prisons and jails, often in collaboration with private companies to operate them, the prisoners needed to fill the beds failed to materialize and the companies eventually left the counties – and taxpayers – with vacant facilities and large debts.

According to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, more than 30,000 of the state’s 93,000 local prison and jail beds were empty as of early 2012. The $10 million, 372-bed Bill Clayton Detention Center in Littlefield has sat vacant for around three years, costing the town $65,000 a month in loan payments after GEO Group, the private company that managed it, pulled out. The town tried to auction off the facility in 2011 without success.

Angelina, Dickens and Newton counties have more than 1,400 empty jail beds combined, while Falls County was left scrambling in 2011 after it constructed a jail operated by a private company, Community Education Centers (CEC), that decided not to renew its contract. [See: PLN, Feb. 2012, p.32; March 2011, p.34].

According to Municipal Market Advisors, a research firm, at least 11 detention facilities built by cities and counties, mostly through revenue bonds, are in financial trouble. Five are in Texas. “We’ve seen a small wave of these over the past 18 months, and it seems to have gotten faster in the last year,” Municipal Markets Advisors analyst Matt Fabian said in 2012. “The rule should be: ‘If it has the word jail in it anywhere, leave it for somebody else.’”

One of those financially troubled detention centers is in the West Texas town of Anson – whose no-dancing law was made famous in the 1984 movie Footloose.

Officials in Anson are trying to figure out what to do with what locals call the “Jail to Nowhere.” The $35 million, 1,100-bed Jones County Secure Detention Facility was supposed to create 195 jobs and $5 million in economic benefits for the community. Instead it has remained empty since it was finished in 2010, despite a contract with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to fill the facility with state prisoners.

“It’s been a huge disappointment,” remarked Jones County Judge Dale Spurgin, who spent two years unsuccessfully lobbying state officials to avoid defaulting on the bonds issued to build the prison. “We’ve been holding our breath for 22 months.... It looks like we’re going to have to keep holding it.”

Anson spends around $4,000 a month on utilities and upkeep at the prison. In addition to that expense and the cost of the bond payments, the town is also repaying a $2.8 million loan it took out to expand its wastewater treatment plant to service the facility. Jones County hired a lobbyist to pressure the state legislature for help; a provision was initially included in the most recent biennial state budget to purchase the vacant prison, but the legislature ultimately decided not to do so.

Efforts to fill the empty beds with federal prisoners or immigrant detainees also have been fruitless. “The feds have been pulling back right now, as well, and that, plus fewer inmates here in Texas, is the reason a lot more beds are empty now,” said Adan Munoz, Jr., then-executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Jones County is now considering pushing for legislation that would give them the ability to sue the State of Texas for failing to honor its original agreement to house state prisoners at the county’s now-vacant detention facility.

“Idaho, Montana, many other states are facing this same issue. They have empty jail beds they can’t fill because there just aren’t enough inmates out there,” noted House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden, who also chairs a national committee on criminal justice issues. “The state is not in a position to bail them out. Sad to say, but they made a business choice, and they’re going to have live with it at some point.”

At least some members of the public are learning from the jail-building mistakes made by other jurisdictions. In August 2013, voters in Curry County, New Mexico nixed plans by the county commission to construct a new $9.8 million jail. The county is now considering contracting with Littlefield, Texas to rent beds at the empty Bill Clayton Detention Center, which they see as a win-win solution.

“As far as I understood they [Littlefield] are going to start right away working with us to come up with an agreement,” said Curry County Commissioner Ben McDaniel.

To critics of the prison industry, however, it’s a lose-lose proposition. “We believe the practice of shipping prisoners from state to state to shirk the problem of overcrowded prisons is indicative of our nation’s dangerous reliance on incarceration and failure to prioritize strategies to reduce the number of people that enter the system at every level of government,” stated Grassroots Leadership, a non-profit organization that opposes prison privatization and works for social and economic justice.

Sources: Austin American-Statesman,,,,,,

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