On the Auction Block: A Private Prison in Littlefield

by Published on
Courtesy City of Littlefield
A Slice of Medium Security Heaven

Any small town considering building a private prison to generate more jobs for their community should first consider the economic fiasco that has befallen Littlefield, a small farming community north of Lubbock.

This Thursday, the town of approximately 6,000 is putting its private prison on the auction block. The city will consider $5 million as the lowest bid even though it spent $10 million constructing the 372-bed medium security facility in 2000. Here’s a description of the facility for sale on the town’s Web site which is both creepy and kind of darkly funny:

“The Bill Clayton Detention Center, named for former Speaker of the House Bill Clayton, sits on thirty acres in Littlefield, Texas. The Detention Center is a medium-security facility set up with a maximum capacity of 372 inmates. The Center has two security fences, a complete security camera system, and a state-of-the-art control room. There are four pods, each with separate sitting/dining and outdoor recreation areas. One pod also boasts a sweat lodge available for inmate use. The Center comes fully stocked, complete with furniture, linens, and kitchen supplies. It contains both private and public visitation areas, segregation cells, a gym, and a complete health center on-site. There are also several classrooms with computers as well as a large general and law library.”

A sweat lodge, gym and complete health center! Sounds positively resort-like.

But kidding aside, the little town’s been saddled with paying $65,000 a month on a loan for an empty prison for the past two years. To avoid default, Littlefield has raised property taxes, increased water and sewer fees, laid off employees and even held off buying a new police car. Still, the city’s bond rating took a nosedive, according to a rather chilling story by NPR’s John Burnett on the boondoggle.

In 2009, the private-prison corporation GEO Group pulled out of the facility after it lost its contract with the state of Idaho to house prisoners.  Idaho stopped sending the inmates after the suicide of Idaho prisoner Randall McCullough, who killed himself after the GEO Group held him in solitary confinement for more than a year as a disciplinary measure, according to the private prison watchdog group Texas Prison Bidness.

Texas has long been happy hunting grounds for the private prison industry. As my co-worker Forrest Wilder documented in the past, most often a handful of folks get rich while the ordinary townspeople get the shaft, which is precisely what happened to Littlefield. And it will take a long time for the townspeople to recover from this multi-million dollar boondoggle.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. She has a master’s in public health from Texas A&M University and a master’s in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.