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Arizona Private Prison Profits Disappear As Immigration Arrests Decline

The San Luis Regional Detention and Support Center opened with a capacity of 548 beds in 2007. Initially, it housed male and female immigration detainees. In 2009, Emerald Correctional Management took over operation of the center, located in San Luis, Arizona. Emerald initiated a 368-bed expansion of the center which was completed in November 2011 and resulted in a total capacity of 916 beds. But the Yuma region never needed that many immigration detainee beds and the facility is now only about half full and losing money.

"Prosecutions (in Yuma) have never supported large scale numbers," said Fidencio Rivera, Chief Deputy Marshall for the District of Arizona. "Emerald has come in and expanded hoping they could" increase their revenue by attracting additional prisoners. They had a "build it and they will come" philosophy "and [the prisoners] didn't materialize. It didn't work out for them. So now they are in a position where they are trying to stay above water--trying to make money. We are in tune and we are doing the best we can."

What does Rivera mean by being "in tune" with Emerald? In the past, it meant busing prisoners from other facilities to San Luis just to keep the center "financially viable." "But now the problem we have--the [immigration detainee] population in Arizona is way down. We try to" bus in detainees "when we can, but you have to understand--we are not the Bureau of Prisons, we are not the Department of Corrections. We only hold prisoners while they are going through the court" and detainees being held only on immigration charges "historically get sentenced in one day," according to Rivera.

In mid-August of 2014, there were only around 395 prisoners at the center. That was down from a peak of around 600 prisoners in early 2012. Of those, only six to ten percent were incarcerated for drug smuggling charges while "Roughly 75 to 80 percent [were incarcerated] for immigration cases. So when immigration drops, it impacts thing dramatically," said Rivera.

Rivera said that, "because the border in Yuma is so secure," immigration arrests have dropped from about 200 a day eight to ten years ago to 17 a day during the early summer of 2014.

"The bottom line if there are less prisoners to go into the facility. For the community, it is a good thing. But the consequence is that [Emerald] is losing money every month."

That may be true, but is it the government's place to be bailing out a private prison company and the local government that facilitated it using "pass-through" agreements with the federal government when they make poor business decisions such as building unneeded jail capacity? Rivera thinks it is.

"I am still paying more than I have to, and keeping prisoners [at the center] longer than I have to, because I don't want the facility to go out of business, because I have to weigh the facility's viability. I need a place for prisoners," said Rivera. "I really don't want to lose that facility, because it is a partnership between us and them. We are doing what we can."

Meanwhile, Emerald has rehired 20 of the center's employees it laid off due to a lack of prisoners after it signed a contract to take detainees from the ICE Service Processing Center in El Centro, California. The ICE facility was closed September 30, 2014, eliminating 430 full-time and 50 part-time jobs. Those jobs are apparently being privatized on the cool so Emerald can continue to turn a profit.

Source: Yuma Sun.

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