Back to mobile

Are Private Jails Cheaper? A Liberty County Tale

by Published on

Private prisons are supposed to save taxpayers money, but that’s not how it worked out in Liberty County.

When state District Judge Mark Morefield took the bench in Liberty County in January 2011, he was overwhelmed by the backlog of cases confronting him. “The docket was out of control,” he told the Cleveland Rotary Club at a luncheon this January, as reported by the Cleveland Advocate. Last April, Morefield joined three others—District Judge Chap B. Cain, County Judge Craig McNair, and County Court-at-Law Judge Tommy Chambers—to hatch a plan to deal with the docket and its expense to taxpayers. “We put pressure on both sides, Texas and the defense, to get their cases ready and get them disposed of,” Morefield told the Observer. “It’s worked. We’ve moved a lot of cases.”

In addition to addressing the docket backlog, Morefield and the other judges sought to reduce the number of people in the county jail. They instituted a personal recognizance (PR) bond program.

First-time offenders who cannot afford bond, and whose arrests did not involve assault, domestic violence, intoxication or a sex crime, are eligible for consideration. A PR bond is essentially a promise to appear in court, but Morefield says he and the other judges had been previously hesitant to assign PR bonds because there was no oversight of defendants once they were released.

Under the new program, each defendant is considered individually and the conditions of his or her release are tailored. If they don’t report, “we immediately issue a warrant for their arrest and put them back in jail,” Morefield said.

When the program started in June, the county jail housed 231 inmates, which cost the county $46.50 each per day to the private company that runs the jail. Since then, the number of inmates has dropped significantly, to 132 in December, though it has crept up slightly since.

But the for-profit company that manages the jail—Community Education Centers—has responded by increasing its rates. The price per inmate has gone up to almost $60 per day. Even with the increased rate, Morefield estimates the reduction in the jail population has saved the county at least $700,000, though it could have been more.

Meanwhile, the county has extended its contract with Community Education Centers. The county is trying to get other companies interested, but Morefield said, “with our PR bond program and success at reducing the inmate population, we kind of shot ourselves in the foot … In other words, if you reduce the population below a particular figure, the cost per inmate goes up.”

“It’s designed to ensure a certain level of profitability, and I understand that,” he continued. “But perhaps it’s time that Liberty County, through the Commissioners Court, takes a hard look at whether or not it would be feasible for the county to resume operating the jail itself.

“Maybe private enterprise can do it at a rate that government cannot compete with. But I just reject the concept that every time government undertakes a task, it’s got to cost 1.5 times what it costs private enterprise to do the same task.

I’m not making a blanket condemnation of privatization. Some counties, that’s the only way they can go. But there are counties out there that still run their own jail program. After 15 years [of privatization], let’s look and see, is this something we can do ourselves?”

Emily DePrang joined The Texas Observer in 2011 as a staff writer covering criminal justice and public health. Before that, she was nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. Before that, she was a waitress. She's also appeared in The Atlantic, Salon.com, and VICE. She holds an MFA in Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and has won some things, including the Public Service Award from the Society of Professional Journalists (2012), the National Health Journalism Fellowship from USC Annenberg (2013), and a nomination for a National Magazine Award in Reporting (2014). She still sometimes thinks about waitressing.