A Small County Bets Big on Locking Up Undocumented Immigrants

Jones County has an empty prison and a load of debt. Their solution? Dust off the old prison and fill it with undocumented migrants.

Trash bags are piled within the northern fence at the Willacy County Correctional Center as clean up begins at the emptied detention facility in Raymondville, Texas, in 2015.
Trash bags are piled within the northern fence at the Willacy County Correctional Center as clean up begins at the emptied detention facility in Raymondville, Texas, in 2015. David Pike/Valley Morning Star via AP

Jones County has an empty prison and a load of debt. Their solution? Dust off the old prison and fill it with undocumented migrants.

Trash bags are piled within the northern fence at the Willacy County Correctional Center as clean up begins at the emptied detention facility in Raymondville, Texas, in 2015.
Trash bags are piled within the northern fence at the Willacy County Correctional Center as clean up begins at the emptied detention facility in Raymondville, Texas, in 2015. David Pike/Valley Morning Star via AP

By late November, residents of Jones County, a swath of Texas plains home to some 20,000 souls, should have new neighbors: about 1,000 undocumented immigrant men held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody.

Local politicians are excited about the project, which should bring more than 200 decent-paying jobs to the cash-strapped county. Plus, it’ll let them finally pay off their debts from the last time they bet on prisons—and got burned.

A decade ago, Jones County thought it had a sweet deal with the state to start locking up drug offenders. The county issued about $35 million in bonds through a public facility corporation, then built a new low-security, 1,100-bed lockup.

The problem? Texas’ 20-year-long incarceration boom was cresting: The prison system had grown bloated and expensive, and with a recession on, states across the country were under pressure to cut budgets. The state bailed, never sending any prisoners, leaving poor Jones County with an empty prison and a load of debt.

And Jones wasn’t alone. In 2011, Scott Henson, director of the Austin-based nonprofit Just Liberty, identified more than a dozen lockups in Texas that had found themselves filled with tumbleweeds. “Quite a few Texas counties got roped into issuing taxpayer-backed debt to participate in this ill-conceived speculative bubble, which now appears to be bursting before our eyes,” Henson wrote.

The solution? For Jones County, it’s to lock up somebody else this time.

In August, county officials voted to dust off their old prison and fill it with undocumented migrants the government is trying to deport. ICE will pay the county to hold between 750 and 1,000 detainees, and the county will pay Management and Training Corporation (MTC), a scandal-ridden prison profiteer out of Utah, to run the facility. It’s a common arrangement that’s expeditious for the feds and lets counties pull in administrative fees.

According to local news reports, the five-year contract stipulates ICE will pay $106 per day per person for a guaranteed minimum of 750 detainees. For the county, that looks like a path out of debt. “For the benefit of the bondholders, and the money they invested, it’s an opportunity to get their money back,” Jones County Judge Dale Spurgin said.

Willacy County Detention Center
The Willacy County Detention Center.  ACLU

But a few things could go wrong. MTC once ran a notorious tent prison in South Texas’ Willacy County, which closed in 2015 after migrants in Bureau of Prisons custody rioted, slashing and burning through the Kevlar tents. That same year, Arizona severed ties with MTC after a riot at a facility holding state prisoners and an investigation that found “a culture of disorganization, disengagement, and disregard for state policies by MTC.” In 2016, an MTC prison in Mississippi that had also been the site of riots closed due to budget cuts.

Plus, immigrant detention is politically volatile. Under Trump, the U.S. has hit a record high of about 55,000 detainees, but a Democratic president could quickly slash that—and at least some Jones County residents would be glad for it. At an August county meeting, Lutheran Pastor Richard Strait spoke against the new contract.

“When we monetize and gain profit from incarcerating the most vulnerable and needy individuals … that’s kind of a classic definition of sin,” Strait said.

Read more from the Observer:

  • Death in Solitary: Russell Johnson’s sister warned officials that nearly three years in solitary confinement had broken him. His suicide in isolation two months later points to compounded crises inside Texas prisons.

  • How Pete Sessions Became ‘Congressman-1’: The powerful former Dallas congressman and GOP leader was trying to swim back to the swamp. Instead, he got sucked into it.

  • Mr. Reynolds’ Opus: How Graham Reynolds became Texas’ top composer.

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Gus Bova reports on immigration, the U.S.-Mexico border and grassroots movements for the Observer. He formerly worked at a shelter for asylum-seekers and refugees. You can contact him at [email protected]


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