In 2008, Montgomery County, Texas built the 1,293-bed Joe Corley Detention Center (JCDC) for $45 million. The voters who approved the bond issue believed the JCDC would be used to expand the capacity of the 1,251-bed Montgomery County Jail, which was built in 1987. In approving the tax-exempt status of the bonds, the IRS required that local prisoners be used to fill at least 30% of the JCDC's beds within 5 years.
But no local prisoner ever set foot in the JCDC. Instead, Montgomery County officials rented JCDC bed space to the federal government to house immigration detainees. With a loss of the JCDC bonds' tax-exempt status looming, Montgomery County sold the JCDC to GEO Group, a Florida-based private prison company, for about $65 million in May 2013. The JCDC continues to generate revenue for Montgomery County as GEO pays it $500,000 per year to manage its federal prisoner contracts and $250,000 annually in taxes for the JCDC.
After the sale of the JCDC, the county jail quickly became crowded. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards recently listed the Montgomery County Jail as one of only five Texas jails "at risk" for overcrowding. Jail officials converted indoor recreation space and multipurpose rooms into additional prisoner housing which provided some relief, but is a bad idea born of desperation and not a long-term solution to the crowding problem.
"That’s not something you want to do. We know inmate idleness can create security problems," said Laura Mailello, speaking for a team planning solutions to the jail-crowding problem, who noted that some parts of the jail are so dilapidated they should be demolished.
The Montgomery County commissioners hired Austin-based Broaddus Planning and Miami-based CGL Company to submit proposals to either expand the jail or build a new facility. In August 2014, they were told that building a new jail with 707,000 square feet would cost $202 million excluding the cost of the 30-acre site while expanding the jail by 610,000 square feet—four times larger than the JCDC—would cost $197.4 million. Commissioners had previously estimated the cost of expanding the jail at between $7 million and $17 million.
"That is completely, totally off the charts, not correct pertaining to what we are going to do," said Montgomery County Judge Alan B. Sadler. "There is no $200 million project in the foreseeable future."
Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon investigated improprieties which allegedly occurred during the construction of the JCDC. He closed his investigation because the statute of limitations had run on the offenses, but Montgomery County Attorney J.D. Lambright is still seeking repayment of $13 million for what he calls "overcharges" and improper dealings. He sent letters of demand to a former commissioner, a developer and a retired county auditor.
"We're still talking back and forth with them and all their attorneys before deciding whether a civil lawsuit will be filed," said Lambright.
Montgomery County should carefully scrutinize new jail expansion project too. Given its history with JCDC, county officials would be wise to ask who thought the county needed a new jail or jail expansion four times the size of its current jail when it recently sold a much smaller facility due to lack of local prisoners. Most likely, someone is interested in renting out more Montgomery County jail space to the federal government to make a profit off of others' misery.
Sources: www.yourhoustonnews.com, www.houstonchronicle.com
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