Private Prison Promises Leave Texas Towns In Trouble

Source: John Burnett, NPR, Morning Edition, March 28, 2011

Second in a two-part series on private prisons

The country with the highest incarceration rate in the world — the United States — is supporting a $3 billion private prison industry. In Texas, where free enterprise meets law and order, there are more for-profit prisons than any other state. But because of a growing inmate shortage, some private jails cannot fill empty cells, leaving some towns wishing they’d never gotten in the prison business.

It seemed like a good idea at the time when the west Texas farming town of Littlefield borrowed $10 million and built the Bill Clayton Detention Center in a cotton field south of town in 2000. …For eight years, the prison was a good employer. Idaho and Wyoming paid for prisoners to serve time there. But two years ago, Idaho pulled out all of its contract inmates because of a budget crunch at home. There was also a scandal surrounding the suicide of an inmate. Shortly afterward, the for-profit operator, GEO Group, gave notice that it was leaving, too. One hundred prison jobs disappeared. The facility has been empty ever since….

…For the past two years, Littlefield has had to come up with $65,000 a month to pay the note on the prison. That’s $10 per resident of this little city….To avoid defaulting on the loan, Littlefield has raised property taxes, increased water and sewer fees, laid off city employees and held off buying a new police car. Still, the city’s bond rating has tanked….Hardin, Mont., defaulted on its bond payments after trying, so far unsuccessfully, to fill its 464-bed minimum security prison. And a prison in Huerfano County, Colo., closed after Arizona pulled out its 700 inmates.

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