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Texas Counties Still Stuck With Empty Public-Private Prisons

By Matt Clarke

It was a bad deal for Texas cities and counties when, prison-construction entrepreneurs talked them into building publicly-financed prisons, for private corporations to operate; housing a surplus of prisoners at a profit. The counties went deep into debt, issuing bonds to pay for prison construction. Now, the surplus has vanished, but the debt remains. Not only do the cities and counties have to service the debt, they have to pay for utilities and maintenance for empty prisons. As previously reported, this has driven some Texas counties into near or actual default [PLN, Mar. 2011, P. 34].

This dire situation has led Littlefield, Texas, not-so-proud owner of an empty 372-bed prison, to try a number of ways to make the $10 million boondoggle turn a profit, or at least break even. This included seeking prisoners from other states and federal immigration authorities, and even auctioning off the facility. All of those attempts failed.

Curry County may be the latest prospective white knight riding to Littlefield's rescue. The 260-bed Curry County jail in Clovis, about an hour's drive from Littlefield, is poorly designed and too small for the county's 300 prisoners. This has the county spending about $700,000 a year to house its overflow prisoners in other county jails. The problem is especially acute for maximum security prisoners, who should be housed in single cells. The jail has eight isolation cells for 45 maximum-security prisoners and the other counties refuse to accept any prisoner with a history of violence or classified as maximum security.

"I hate to use the crisis word, but it really is where we are at right now," said Curry County Commissioner Tim Ashley. "We have to figure out how to stop the bleeding."

The first solution the Curry County commissioners came up with was to build a new, $9.8 million jail. The voters defeated that plan in August 2013. Now Ashley and other county officials are discussing contracting with Littlefield to use the empty space in its          unused prison.

Littlefield, which has been struggling to make the minimum $65,000-a-month payment on its prison bond debt, would be happy to help out Curry County and itself. The proposal being discussed is for Curry County to contract with Littlefield to house the county's excess prisoners—including those in maximum security—for a set per-day payment for each prisoner housed there. Maybe this is-a case, of two crises complementing each other.

But Littlefield is not alone in the continuing public-private prison problem; over 30,000 of the jail beds in Texas counties are unoccupied. The Texas prison system is shrinking and not renewing its contracts with private prisons. With 60 privately-run or -financed jails and prisons in Texas, more than any other state, and a shrinking state and federal immigration prisoner population, someone had to lose. And the counties that financed the construction of privately-run prisons are becoming the biggest losers.

Jones County built a 1,100-bed, $35 million prison in the 2,300-resident West Texas town of Anson in 2010. The county also borrowed $2.8 million to expand its wastewater-treatment facility to service the prison. The prison construction entrepreneurs promised 195 prison jobs and a $5 million annual boost to the local economy. They delivered nothing but debt and a mothballed prison. The county had to raise property taxes by about $90 a year for the average homeowner, much more for the area's farmers, to pay for the prison.

"It's been a huge disappointment," said Jones County Judge Dale Sprugin in 2013. "We've been holding our breath for 22 months... It looks like we're going to have to keep on holding it."

There are over 1,400 empty jail beds in Angelina, Newton and Dickens Counties. A jail in Jefferson County is operating at a small percentage of capacity. A 833-bed, $49 million prison near Waco is not even half full. The private prison company running a prison in Falls County is leaving.

"The problem is, there just aren't enough prisoners to go around anymore," according to Texas House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden, R-Richardson. "Idaho, Montana, many other states are facing the same issue. They have empty jail beds they can't fill because there aren't enough inmates out there.

"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 to live with it at some point."


Sources:, Austin American-Statesman

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