Friday, September 08, 2006

The Prison Bubble

Here's just one among many such stories routinely reported in small Texas papers like this one. The scenario is always the same: some impoverished county (let's call it "County A") is spending too much of its meager income jailing folks (because we're "tough on crime") and is, moreover, running out of space to house its mostly non-violent offenders. A group of guys in suits--a construction guy (let's call him "Bob"), a bond attorney (think: he looks up to bottom-feeders; let's call him "Bob"), and a private prison operator ("Bob")--shows up at County A's fine limestone courthouse and says this:

"We can pre-qualify you for a loan to build a brand new jail. Bob here will get your finances in order, for just a small percentage of what you borrow. Bob will build it for you--he's built prisons all over South Texas and knows his way around a reinforced concrete wall. Bob'll bring in his company to run it. Hell, he'll even tap into his contacts to get you some Federal detainees in there so you can make money on the deal. Yep. The Feds need beds for all these new detainees in the War on Terror. They'll pay you a good enough per diem to offset the cost of housing your own guys and leave a little to skim off the top!"

This is really happening all over the South, especially in Texas. And these Counties, once they're in for $25, $30, $40 million, they're damned committed to making sure we: 1) do not reform sentencing laws (except to make these even "tougher on crime") and, 2) keep detaining as many immigrants as possible (we're already spending billions each year), you know, so that we can win the War on Terror. It's not just the income to repay the loan they want. It's all the free federal money they've come to expect.

Yep, Los Bob have shown us a way to make money from keeping people in prison. Everybody wins. The money just materializes from the Feds. Bob, Bob, and Bob take their cut, spend a few days golfing, make some contributions to anti-immigrant, tough-on-crime, more-jail-time kinds of legislators and then throw a dart at a map of South Texas.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Bill Neve said one of the factors that interests him is the possibility that the county's $1.2 million jail budget could be totally eliminated and the county would actually receive income from the private company operating the jail. He marveled at the efficiency of the GEO operation, noting their cost per meal for prisoners was $.53 per meal, compared to $1.42 per meal in Burnet County.
So why not spend nothing at all?

UPDATE: Fifteen minutes later, from the Weatherford Democrat


Jonathan Versen said...

Maybe you've noticed how Rick Perry and Kinky Friedman have been trying to outdo each other lately in their tough-on-immigration rhetoric. It's very discouraging.

barba de chiva said...

Stopkinky has a piece on that:

The Bobs love that kind of posturing. Money in their pockets.

helmut said...

Wow, Barba. Fascinating. What a country!

Anonymous said...

Interesting information. The nation definately needs to hear more about this kind of thing.

Anonymous said...

I used to be fascinated by the chain gangs but this private for the profit human warehousing, in it's genuine brilliance, is breath taking. There is a lot of $$ in them cons. Look, the economic signs of a looming down turn are clear, but building and filling the big houses will kill two flies with one slap; get rid of the unemployment and feed the growth industry. Brilliant!

barba de chiva said...

It's a surprisingly tough issue to get people to consider seriously, dan; the terms of the debate are typically simplistic ("jails or jobs?" "jails or crime?"). I've been talking with people about it for years, you know, pointing out how incredibly high is our ratio of people in jail to people not, in the U.S., and I'm told to "watch the news," so that I can understand how serious a problem crime is here. I'm not kidding.

Throw in the war-on-terror pitch--and I've heard prison promoters make this argument more than once in small Texas County Commissioners Court Meetings--and you've got a real problem. The bubble will have to burst before anyone pays attention. But we're busy allocating even more money to pay for inmates here in Texas (and less, obviously, on the less important stuff like education) to keep up with the crime wave that has surprisingly corresponded with incarceration-based legislative solutions to all kinds of problems in the last thirty years.

Yeah, pekka: that's it. That's basically the pitch down here, sans the irony.