by Brian Sonenstein, Shadowproof
The United States Department of Agriculture provided over $277 million in funding for county jail construction since 1996, according to documents obtained by Shadowproof.
The funding came in the form of grants and long-term low-interest loans through the Community Facilities Direct Loan and Grant Program run by the USDA’s Rural Development agency.
Small rural communities are supposed to benefit from the CF program, which is designed to assist residents with the purchase, construction or renovation of essential buildings, such as hospitals, town halls, libraries and food pantries. It also funds “public safety” facilities for fire, law enforcement and corrections departments.
CF program loans typically have a thirty- to forty-year term with fixed interest rates set by the agency (usually around three-to-four percent). Grants are awarded primarily to small and impoverished counties and can only account for a maximum of 75 percent of the proposed project costs. Some counties received a mix of grants and loans.
North Carolina received the most money from the program over the last 20 years, with counties taking $66.7 million in loans since 2005. Their most recent loan was for nearly $20 million to renovate and expand the Bladen County Jail in August 2015.
Local jails detain a sizable portion of America’s incarcerated population, which is the largest in the world. As jail populations tripled in the decades following the 1980s, counties across the country embarked on a construction boom that drastically increased the country’s carceral infrastructure.
As the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) notes, new police strategies that increased the likelihood that an interaction would result in arrest and a growing reliance on money bail as a “wealth-based test on freedom” helped drive the rising jail population.
Ballooning jail populations were behind most of the growth in the U.S. incarcerated population over the last few decades. Today, 731,000 – or one in every three incarcerated people – in America are held within jails, roughly 63 percent of whom have not been convicted of a crime.
The USDA played a role in expanding the infrastructure of mass incarceration. They enabled “tough on crime” policies by funding projects in communities that otherwise could not afford them. Many of those projects involved updating or replacing dilapidated buildings that were overcrowded because of reliance on jailing.
While the terms of these government loans were generally the best available option, repaying that debt still represented a significant challenge in counties with small budgets already saddled with other debts and struggling with unemployment.
For decades, jail and prison construction was touted as an important investment in public safety and economic security for struggling communities. Much doubt has been cast on this assertion, with studies indicating such projects are economic black holes.
Jails and prisons are expensive to run – from staffing and overtime to medical care and litigation – especially as their capacity increases and mental illness and addiction become increasingly represented within the population. Facilities do not always hire from the local population either. And even if they do, these are not good jobs, as evinced by high rates of alcoholism, depression, suicide, and meager wages and employee benefits.
In many cases, USDA-backed jail projects called for building extra bed space specifically to generate revenue. Local jails could incarcerate people on behalf of other counties, the state or federal marshals and immigration officials for a fee.
Rural jail expansion is largely a local affair, but in this way it increased the collective carceral capacity of other governments as well. The practice gave local sheriffs “a powerful incentive to endorse policies that contribute to unnecessary jail expansion,” PPI researchers noted.
USDA funding was often viewed as political pork, celebrated by government officials as evidence they were fighting for – and winning – valuable investments in their communities. Property taxes were often raised to both offset the debt and finance the jail’s operation, which was often more expensive because of a need to hire more staff for larger facilities.
There is little readily available information about these projects, but Shadowproof attempted to track down as many details as possible.
Altogether, the USDA provided $277,635,551 in funds. Here is a small sample of the rural jail construction projects financed since the 1990s.
Arkansas: $5.9 million ($5.6 million in loans, $300,000 in grants)
Fulton County received a $300,000 grant and a $1.7 million loan to build a new jail, which led to a budget shortfall and ran into problems with hiring a contractor. It opened in 2013.
Randolph County received a $3.9 million loan in 2017 to expand its jail, raising property taxes to help pay off the debt. Bed space nearly tripled to around 90 beds, and the previously all-male facility opened up 20 new beds for female prisoners – a growing segment of the population.
Illinois: $7.4 million ($7.3 million in loans, $49,900 in grants)
Pulaski County took out a $7.37 million loan in 2009 and received two grants totaling $30,000 in 2016. The county operates a jail that used to be called the Tri-County Detention Center and was shared with other counties. Now, it is only shared with one county, and holds upwards of 150 immigrant detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Louisiana: $10.5 million ($10.2 million in loans, $371,250 in grants)
Winn Parish Law Enforcement District took a $10 million loan in 2015 to upgrade their old 47-cell facility to a 150-cell facility. It opened at the end of 2017.
Michigan: $43.2 million in loans
Alger County received $1.1 million to renovate their jail, a project meant to relieve overcrowding that also created bed space to be rented out to other counties.
Lake County received a $5.27 million loan in 2004 to renovate and nearly triple the bed space of the Lake County Residential Reentry Program facility.
Sanilac County received an $8 million loan in 2012 to renovate and expand their jail. The county is still struggling to figure out how to pay off the construction debt, despite building extra bed space to house federal prisoners for a fee.
Wexford County broke ground for a new jail financed with $11.5 million from the USDA in 2016. The old building only had 32 beds but was holding 90 prisoners. The new building was “sized based on the projected prisoner populations over the next 20 years,” with 158 beds. It opened in 2017.
Delta County broke ground for a new sheriff’s office and jail financed with a $17.9 million USDA loan in September 2017. It will increase capacity to 201 beds and have “built-in expansion capabilities to accommodate additional housing and mental health treatment needs.” Property taxes were raised to help pay off the debt. Democratic Senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters attended the groundbreaking ceremony. Representative Jack Bergman was credited by county commissioners for helping them secure the loan from USDA.
Missouri: $7 million in loans
Andrew County received a $5.9 million loan in 2010 to build a new jail, which is now under contract to house prisoners from other counties and is eyeing yet another expansion. The county accepted a second loan for $553,500 from USDA in 2017.
Nevada: $24.1 million in loans
Churchill County received a $15 million loan to build a new jail that nearly tripled their bed space capacity to 120, with the ability to add another 24 beds in the future. The county paid an additional $2.3 million on top of the debt to fund the construction.
White Pine County was approved for a $9.1 million loan to build a new jail and courthouse. According to the USDA release celebrating the loan, the total cost of the 72-bed expansion project was estimated at $17.7 million, of which White Pine County would contribute $7.55 million and begin directing sales tax revenues.
New York: $51.4 million loan
Greene County secured a $51.4 million loan in March 2018 to build a new jail. The existing building, which is over 100 years old, was called one of the worst lock-ups in New York by the New York State Commission of Correction. The sheriff, who said the building was “falling down around us,” moved prisoners into rented bed space in other county jails in April.
One local legislator argued building the new facility would quadruple the county’s debt while others noted a tax hike would be required to pay it off. The legislature endorsed building a facility with a 130 bed capacity (currently it holds around 60) and the ability to increase capacity another 20 percent on top of that through a dangerous practice known as double-celling.
North Carolina: $66.7 million in loans
Greene County built a new sheriff’s office and detention center that opened in 2010 with $10.5 million in loans. It was an upgrade from their previous jail which was opened in 1935.
According to their website, the increased capacity of the new jail “allows for extra bed spaces to be rented out through the State Misdemeanor Confinement Program, in which the state pays the county for housing prisoners sentenced for misdemeanor crimes.” It also rents out bed space to neighboring counties.
Pamlico County received $6.5 million in funding in 2005 (a $6 million loan and $500,000 grant) to build a new jail. The old facility, built in the 1960s, was overcrowded and deemed unsafe by inspectors.
A grand jury report from 2003 mandated the county build a new facility. Commissioners “went into full belt-tightening mode” when the loans were approved, increasing property taxes and cutting projects in a new budget.
Local news reported in 2016 that “Sheriff Chris Davis’ aggressive drug enforcement efforts at all levels of the trade” had made the jail almost completely full again, and so the county was exploring a private contract for electronic monitoring for low-level offenders at a cost of $1,000 per month for just five monitoring devices.
Pasquotank County got a $12 million loan in 2005 to build a new, larger 200-bed facility because of overcrowding. This was more than twice the size of the existing facility, which had bed space for 88 but housed 115 per day.
The Virginia Pilot reported, “Republican U.S. Senator Richard Burr presented local officials with a $12 million check” to mark the beginning of the loan for the $16 million jail.
The extra beds were to be used to offset the debt and operating costs. Officials signed a contract to house at least 40 federal prisoners for $50 per bed each day. Construction was delayed early on when structural deficiencies were identified.
Oklahoma: $2.1 million loan
Adair County received $2.1 million in loans in 2000 to build the Adair County Law Enforcement Center to replace a 72-year-old jail at the county courthouse. According to local news outlet NewsOK, the jail is “designed to operate at the highest security level with the least staff allowed by state jail standards.”
Tennessee: $43.9 million in loans
Coffee County took $13 million from the USDA for a new jail, which opened in 2015. In 2018, the county was struggling to cover operating expenses, including a ballooning medical budget. It is generally at, and has at times exceeded, capacity.
Monroe County took out a $30 million loan to build a new, larger jail due to overcrowding, including a rise in female prisoners. The new facility will hold up to 344 prisoners.
Texas: $7.43 million ($3.5 million loan, $3.94 million grant)
Duval County, Texas received a total of $2.16 million in loans from the USDA in 1997 to expand its local jail and courthouse. According to local historian and former Duval Mayor Alfredo Cardenas, the county discussed expanding the jail as early as the mid-1970s. The project went over-budget and missed deadlines for construction multiple times.
Jim Hogg County received $5.26 million (a $3.94 million grant and a $1.37 million loan) in 2009 to build a new 48-bed jail. The old building was described as overcrowded and outdated so as to pose a risk to security.
Utah: $3 million loan
Sanpete County got a $3 million loan to build a new 128-bed jail in 2007. According to the County Sheriff’s website, that construction project was only “Phase I,” with a 384-bed “high tech” sheriff’s complex planned for the future. The jail built in 2007 was intended to house 50 state prisoners as a source of revenue.
Brian Sonenstein is the Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and a columnist at Prison Protest.
This article was originally published by Shadowproof.com on June 6, 2018; it is reprinted with permission, with minor edits. Copyright FDL Media Group, 2018.
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